When I first heard about the Hôtel de Glace, North America’s only ice hotel and chapel, I pictured something isolated, elegant, and icy-looking — maybe a big, white, Frozen-esque castle in the woods that had enormous ice sculptures inside, or an extremely luxe ice rink out back, but was, underneath, mostly beams and sheetrock. “Ice chapel” had to be more of a fun, evocative name than a factual description, like “bottomless brunch” or “never-ending pasta bowl.”
The Hôtel de Glace, located just outside Québec City, Québec, is indeed quite elegant, but it’s not isolated — it’s smack in the middle of Valcartier, a Canadian vacation complex that’s half regional amusement park, half the kind of upmarket hotel where you might attend a marketing conference. Anchored by a massive brick-and-mortar building that contains 153 traditional hotel rooms, seven restaurants, and an indoor waterpark, the grounds are filled with snowtubing families riding down massive hills in the back of the property, robe-wearing families waiting for their appointment at the on-site spa, and actors dressed as the company’s mascots — a pair of otters named Loulou and Louloutre who seem to exist in a constant state of being casually mobbed by children.
Tucked away amid all of that family-friendly chaos, just a few yards behind the hotel proper, is the Hôtel de Glace — a set of two buildings that, I quickly realized, do not just have a clever name. They are very, very, very much made of ice. The walls, ceiling, pews, stage, even the hotel’s beds and and the bar are all crafted from 30,000 tons of snow and ice, shaped in molds and moved into place with cranes. When I first walked in to the chapel — which does indeed look like something out of a wintry fairytale — the only non-ice items I noticed were some lanterns and a fire extinguisher.
As I stood there on a Saturday evening, watching Sam and Karen Yurick (nee Smith) rehearse for their wedding the next day, I felt a tiny drip on my head— a reminder that the Smith-Yurick wedding will be among the last of almost two dozen at the ice chapel this year. Soon after, the chapel and hotel will close for the season, and the walls, ceiling, and everything else will be left to melt back into the Canadian countryside. During the rehearsal, tourists who are exploring the two buildings periodically wander into the chapel and momentarily squint at the stage and the couple standing on it, as though if they look closely enough, they can figure out how a couple decides to pledge eternal unity in a big room made of ice.
"He hands me this one puck ... it had a circular cutout on the top and I'm like, ‘There's something wrong with this one.’ I tried to hand it back to him, and he takes the cover off and my ring was inside.”
So, how does a couple decide to pledge eternal unity in a big room made of ice? As you might imagine, Sam and Karen like winter. A lot. They met at a holiday party eight years ago, while both were students at Rochester Institute of Technology, and their early courtship was filled with sledding and ice skating instead of standard dinner-and-a-movie dates. “We don't just hibernate in our house,” Karen told Bustle of their seasonal habits. “We're always out ... ice skating or sledding or doing something outside and enjoying all the seasons for what they are.” There’s a pond at the upstate New York home that Sam, a computer network engineer, and Karen, an aircraft hardware engineer, share today; they skate and play winter sports on it, and in 2017, when they decided to get married, Sam proposed to Karen on it using a hollowed-out hockey puck. “I got home from work and Sam was in the backyard picking up hockey pucks that had landed in the yard,” Karen said, “and so I went back there to help him and he hands me this one puck and I didn't understand why at the time. I looked at it, and it had a circular cutout on the top and I'm like, ‘There's something wrong with this one.’ I tried to hand it back to him, and he takes the cover off and my ring was inside.”
Their passion for wintery weather — as well as unique and adventurous travel — brought the couple to the Hôtel de Glace a few years back, where they actually spent the night in a room made of snow and ice. “In the back of my head, I had this thought that if I was ever going to get married, it had to be in some place like this,” Sam told Bustle. So when the pair casually chatted about tying the knot, the Hôtel de Glace was their first and last choice: “We were like, ‘We could do it at the Ice Hotel. That would be amazing,’” Karen recalled. Which led them to realization: “Why don't we get married?"
But while this wedding — which is located an eight-hour drive and one international border crossing from the upstate New York area that many of their loved ones call home — is definitely a destination, I’m reluctant to call it a “destination wedding.” Those two cursed words evoke a dark universe of wedding one-upmanship, of couples determined to have the coolest wedding in the best location, even if all their guests have to spend $2,000 and acquire food poisoning in the process.
Sam and Karen’s wedding bears none of the hallmarks of that competitive scramble for Instagram immortality. The choice of the ice chapel pretty obviously vibes with one of their core values as a couple: they like not fitting in. “We are very different people and we're proud of it,” Karen noted when we spoke a few days before the wedding. “We do a lot of things that are different than I think people of our age, or people in general.” The couple follow their enthusiasms — be they ice hockey or the movie Aladdin — and seem excited to find out what new places those interests will lead them.
“We're doing it our way,” Karen said, explaining their conception of the wedding. “If you want, come celebrate with us ... If you don’t, I don't care.”
The wedding isn’t just an attempt to have fun while entering the state of lawfully wedded matrimony, though; it’s also an attempt to help their loved ones see the world through their eyes. Take a sojourn through SamandKarensylvania, if you will. “Everything in the ceremony is designed to explain to people who we are,” Karen noted, including their love of Québec, hockey, and the weird glory of the Hôtel de Glace.
The breaks with tradition started early in the planning process — after sending out online surveys to see if anyone outside their immediate family would show up for what is essentially an outdoor wedding, in the winter, in one of the coldest parts of the continent, the Yuricks took a relaxed approach to planning. Over the course of their engagement year, they planned on and off, and split the work equitably. “I know some guys that... they just show up [at their wedding]. They don’t care,” Sam recalled. “Everything is very split and we're very equal in this wedding” added Karen. “Yeah,” Sam said happily, “that’s us.”
They also dispensed with wedding programming that didn’t resonate with them —“having the traditional dances and stuff,” Karen added. There are no planned reception speeches, no bridesmaids or groomsmen, no bouquet toss. They plan to walk down the aisle together, and won’t sit alone at a special table during the reception.
Of course, none of this is quite as untraditional as deciding to get married in a giant ice room. Every winter since 2001, 50 workers have come together for six weeks to build the Hôtel de Glace’s two structures — a chapel and a hotel. The structures aren’t enormous, but they’re enormous for something made out of frozen water — the chapel can fit about 80, and the hotel has a large multi-room lobby and 45 rooms, making it the size of a small boutique hotel. They’re open from January through March, or whenever the weather warms enough to make them a melting hazard (several years back, an early thaw required the chapel to move a number of weddings up by several weeks). The hotel and the chapel are created from all-new designs in keeping with an all-new theme each year, meaning that couples who sign up to have a wedding there are mostly taking it on faith and won’t see the actual buildings until a few months before their weddings, max. Because of this, Elizabeth Boudreau, the wedding planner who has been with the Hôtel de Glace since the beginning, told me any couple intending to marry there must be “very flexible.”
Nearly two decades into her ice wedding planning career, Boudreau — who plans weddings year-round, including ones that occur in non-meltable buildings — has seen everything: a Hawaii-based couple whose family members didn’t think to purchase jackets ahead of time (she rented them all a set); a bride who wanted 500 candles in the chapel and flowers frozen in ice (she had seen it in a movie); a couple who invited 200 guests despite the fact that the chapel can only fit 90— and were shocked when almost every invitee decided to attend (Boudreau set up an overflow room in the ice hotel, streaming video of the service onto a shiny ice wall). Though most brides agree to wear a coat through the ceremony once they step into the chapel and get a faceful of the 23 degree ambient temperature, every year there are a few who decided 20 minutes of torture are nothing compared to a lifetime of cool wedding photos. To these women, Boudreau covertly slips some hand warmers to place inside their bra.
The ice hotel, located a hundred or so paces away from the ice chapel, is less Disney fairytale and more extremely cold nightclub. There are many factors about the experience that photos cannot truly convey, such as:
- Fergie was playing very loudly over speakers outside the ice hotel.
- Fergie was playing even more loudly inside the ice hotel itself.
The outside of the ice hotel looks similar to the chapel, but inside, the lobby — and all of this is made of ice and snow, mind you — opens onto a large bar area where color-changing disco lights bathe the floor, and a fire rages inside a fireplace. Every year, the hotel has a theme, and this year, it is Carnival; this means eight foot tall solid ice sculptures of acrobats hang from the ceiling. Unlike the ice chapel, the hotel has an enormous carved-ice staircase, leading to a carved ice slide that is almost two stories tall. I walked up the staircase, then chickened out, much to the disgust of several fifth graders waiting in line behind me. I tried to rationalize it, but the fifth graders were right: I was a big baby who was afraid of ice.
So I did what all big babies do: I started drinking. You can order a drink from the hotel’s ice bar, and the bartender will serve it to you in a glass made out of a square piece of ice (as he told me later, the bar’s fridges are not to keep the drinks cool, but to keep them warmer than the room around them, so that they don’t freeze). I did a shot, which made me feel like I was truly a guest at the MTV Beach House: Antarctica.
“We’ve been together so long,” Sam said, “why would we be apart today?”
Giant curtains carved into the lobby wall direct you to a hallway, which takes you to the actual ice hotel portion of the building. In each room, an electronic light embedded in the bed’s clear ice frame and a tiny hole drilled into the top of the packed snow ceiling are the only sources of light. Layered on top of the ice frame is an actual mattress, and then a fuzzy blanket; overnight guests also sleep in an arctic camping sleeping bag and warm clothes. The regular rooms are spartan; fancier rooms have whimsical art imprinted into the walls, carved ice chairs, and actual working fireplaces. There is a portable toilet in the courtyard, but overnight guests can use the bathroom in the main hotel building — in fact, there are full hotel rooms reserved for every guest in case they decide, mid-evening, that sleeping in an ice chamber is not actually a very fun idea.
I laid down alone in one of the rooms and found that the snow walls muffled the sounds from the lobby. Between the silence and dim light, I started to feel like I was in a mausoleum. I imagined a version of the afterlife like this, where I am eternally freezing, slightly drunk, and kind of have to pee, and the sound of Fergie is coming faintly from all directions. Terrified, I scurried out of the ice hotel and into the regular hotel, where a person can urinate comfortably without trying to remember how long it takes for frostbite to set in.
On Sunday morning, things were quiet in the wedding party’s suite. Rosie Yurick, Sam’s sister, was doing Karen’s hair; Laura Cannon, who is married to Sam’s brother, did her makeup. Last night’s rehearsal dinner was nice, Sam and Karen told me, except for some stray peanut sauce that found its way into the meal; Karen is allergic to peanuts, and an accidental mouthful of the sauce forced her and Sam to make an early exit. But by the morning, they were in high spirits, chatting with each other and family members. Not seeing the bride before the wedding is another tradition the Yuricks have pushed aside; “We’ve been together so long,” Sam said, “why would we be apart today?”
“I've been to a lot of weddings recently,” Rosie told Bustle, “where there's just so many ladies [and] they're all kind of trying to all dote on the bride at the same time. It's stressful and... It seems forced in some ways.” By contrast, in this wedding suite, it was just Sam and Karen, Rosie and Lauren, and some brass band music played off a laptop. “It's nice to just have it be a really intimate experience,” Rosie said, “[with] my brother and his bride and my sister in law.”
As Karen began to don her wedding outfit — which included, in addition to her white wedding gown, long underwear, a sweater, thick socks, and very cute white boots — the guests assembled down at the chapel, where Sam’s brother Neal had been getting things ready. Coffee and hot chocolate were served to the attendees, and bags stuffed with tissues and hand warmers were handed out. The tourists, forbidden from entering the chapel today, wanted to know what was going on; when they heard it was a wedding, a few stuck around to watch because, I mean, how often do you get to see this kind of thing?
Talking to the assembled guests, there were two themes: no one was cold, and absolutely no one was surprised by Sam and Karen’s decision to wed here. There’s a simple explanation for that first one: many of the guests are from upstate New York or the Midwest, so they are experts at camouflaging long underwear under formal garb, and find the day’s 34 degree temperatures balmy. (The wedding website specifically instructed guests to choose warmth over fashion and everyone seems to have listened; I don’t see anyone who looks like they need Elizabeth Boudreau to hand them a set of bra warmers.)
The second seemed to be, well, just because this is who Sam and Karen are, and everyone knows it. Karen’s mother, Sandy Smith, told me that “I knew [her wedding] was gonna be different,” because Karen was always different. “She loved different things, she loved space, and she knew she was gonna be an engineer. She just knew all that ... everything she did was unique.” Joseph Climek, a friend of the couple’s, told me he always knew they’d get married someplace unusual: it would be here, “or on the surface of the moon, something along those lines. They're not gonna just go to a church and exchange vows there.”
The tourists who decided to stick around are almost immediately rewarded with the sight of Sam, in a long, fake fur coat, and Karen, sporting a white winter cloak, in a horse-drawn sled (they had originally planned to just walk in, but the hotel offered one at the last second). When their sled appeared, the tourists started going wild, taking their photos as if they were celebrities.
The ceremony is conducted by the ice chapel’s resident officiant, a Monsieur LaFrance. The snow dulled any noise from the park beyond, so even though families capered within feet of the chapel, inside, it was very, very quiet, like when you’re alone outside right after a blizzard. Rosie and Laura read a mix of quotes and poems, with Rosie reading in English and Laura following in French, beginning with a Robert Fulghum quote about how finding someone who loves your specific weirdness is an essential component of true love. I felt my eyes moisten lightly, which frankly seemed dangerous in a place this cold, but which also meant that Sam and Karen’s wedding worked. By having so many wacky, unusual ideas baked into it, it had gotten me thinking: what is love besides someone who loves your wacky ideas, anyway? Karen and Sam then signed their marriage license, and kissed.
And then, it was time for the hockey sticks.
Small laminated cards at the end of every pew explained why there was a hockey stick placed on the floor behind it: “Upon completion of the ceremony, hold a hockey stick up and out towards the aisle. It will form a bridge for the bride and groom to walk through as they exit.” The sticks rose up, forming a winter sports-themed version of the military Arch of the Swords. As everyone exited, tourists again started taking photos.
People say that a wedding (much like a funeral) “isn’t about you” — it’s about your family, your community, and possibly your college frenemies, who will be super jealous after they see photos of your destination wedding. But why are we so quick to believe that having a wedding that will please you and a wedding that will help connect your friends and family to your new familial unit are at odds? Sam and Karen’s wedding seemed to do more than bring their loved ones to an unusual spot that was meaningful to them. It brought them closer to understanding who these two people they love are, and who they are together: a dedicated and equitable couple. A pair of passionate, unique world travelers. Two people who would probably rather eat a bucket of drill-bits than have a wedding at the local catering hall where everyone does the Electric Slide. And now, a married couple who, moments after being united in legal matrimony, marched across the piazza to the ice hotel and slid down the enormous ice slide in their formal clothes, laughing the whole way down.