After booking our holiday to stay at an ice hotel in Romania, people we told either asked why would want to do that or replied “yes, I stayed in a nice hotel recently”. After pointing out they had misheard me, they would ask “why do you want to do that?”. As we trudged through the deep, crisp and indeed, even snow enjoying a temperature of -17°C I was beginning to ask myself the same thing.
The answer is, my wife and I created a list of 50 things to do before we are 50. Staying in an ice hotel sits just between 'do a jigsaw puzzle together' and 'kidnap somebody and demand a ransom' and feeling like we deserved a break the hotel won out.
To be honest, the reason that we chose Romania was due to monetary reasons; the ice hotels in Scandinavia were expensive and the planned hotel in Russia we had seen on the internet seems to have not been made (or maybe it melted) but as it turned out we loved Romania so our holiday turned out to be fantastic and by far exceed our expectations.
Our trip to Romania was at the beginning of January and we flew from Luton Airport (my favourite place) into Bucharest. Whilst in the UK we tried to buy a Romanian guide book from the various book retailers. Our fairly fruitless search ended in WH Smiths where we made our Hobson's choice purchase. The spotty youth behind the counter picked up the book, scanned it, then turned to an equally spotty colleague and laughed “Ha, they're going to Romania” Puzzled I asked him “What's funny, have you been to Romania?” He looked at me and without missing a beat replied “Nah mate, I've never been abroad before”. As I turned away I wondered if I had just met the next Alan Whicker. Then I checked to see if he had given me the correct change.Worryingly, our new guide book, last updated in 2008 had no mention of an ice hotel in Romania, or indeed its location, Balea Lake. That said it did have some very nice pictures in and details of the food we would find there. Not a total waste of money then!
We were picked up from our hotel and driven to the ice hotel by a very friendly man called Radu who was 27 and had been learning English since he was 7. After a while we began to see signs for Balea Lake which at that point had clearly not been found by our Insight Guide: Romania ironically published by the Discovery Channel.
Between the months of November and June the only way up to Balea Lake is by cable car. Once in the cable car we could just about make out the sweeping curves of the Transfăgărăşan road. Even covered in snow I could see why the road attracts cyclists hikers and car enthusiasts (including the Top Gear team who filmed an episode of the show in which Jeremy and the boys drove down the road in supercars, they went on to describe it as the best road in the world). Have a look at :- www.topgear.com/uk/tv-show/series-10/episode-1The cable car journey was stunning. As we passed over snow covered pine trees it was impossible not to think of Christmas cards and James Bond films. We arrived at the cable car station and as we exited were able to see the back of the ice hotel. Straight away we went and had a look at where we would be spending the night at which point we were informed that we were the only people staying that night and so could have a choice of any of the hotel's 8 rooms. The hotel consisted of a huge room at the end of which was a bar with the words 'Ice Hotel' carved into the back wall. The ice had coloured fairy lights set into the snow and various neon signs to light the rooms. Jutting off of either side of the room were 8 rooms like a church with multiple transepts running off of a nave. Each room was different and has an architect's drawing attached to the wall of the room to show its original design. We chose our room, which had a huge pile of ice balls of varying sizes arranged around the bed. Having chosen our room we walked to the lodge where the owners of the ice hotel had a restaurant and offered ice skating or snow mobile hire.
We had lunch in the warm and cosy lodge, a traditional lunch of soup served with sour cream and a bottle of warm beer - they should have just popped a crate outside as the fridge it was in was obviously not working - and then went back outside to explore. There was a biting wind which made the -10°C of the daytime seem even colder. Even though we were well prepared wearing many layers and having hats and gloves on it was freezing and we soon went back into the lodge to defrost. We spent a lazy afternoon and early evening reading and relaxing by the wood burning stove prior to venturing out to the ice hotel to eat the optional ice hotel meal we had decided to have. This meal was served to us at our ice table which functioned perfectly well except for when our glasses occasionally almost slid off the edge. We sat on ice stools which were thankfully covered with furry cushions and the first course was even served on an ice plate. The food was great and we washed it down with a freezing cold bottle of Romanian Cabernet Sauvignon. After more than an hour as the last of six courses was served I decided I could not take it any more. My feet were freezing (despite having 4 pairs of socks on) and I could feel the cold spreading to the trunk of my body. So we trudged back through the snow clutching our plate of cheese and our wine which had now gone beyond cold to slushy, and finished it off in the lodge. We sat with our gloves on our feet, and our feet pressed against a central heating radiator and once again began to thaw out. The owner of the lodge, a very friendly German lady was very concerned; they had never had a pair of guests that did not like the cold, i.e. that were wimps, she pointed out the staff bedrooms to us and told us to throw snowballs at the windows if we got too cold in the night & they would let us in.
hotel to eat the optional ice hotel meal we had decided to have. This meal was served to us at our ice table which functioned perfectly well except for when our glasses occasionally almost slid off the edge. We sat on ice stools which were thankfully covered with furry cushions and the first course was even served on an ice plate. The food was great and we washed it down with a freezing cold bottle of Romanian Cabernet Sauvignon. After more than an hour as the last of six courses was served I decided I could not take it any more. My feet were freezing (despite having 4 pairs of socks on) and I could feel the cold spreading to the trunk of my body. So we trudged back through the snow clutching our plate of cheese and our wine which had now gone beyond cold to slushy, and finished it off in the lodge. We sat with our gloves on our feet, and our feet pressed against a central heating radiator and once again began to thaw out. The owner of the lodge, a very friendly German lady was very concerned; they had never had a pair of guests that did not like the cold, i.e. that were wimps, she them off until the next day but seemingly they were adamant they wanted to come that night. The owner clearly saw that the only chance of getting them into the hotel (and earning more money) was to agree to letting them come up in the cable car. This meant that a manned car would have to go down to de-ice the cable, then he would have to come back up and allow another manned car to go down and pick up the Russian couple. The cost was never quite explained to us but our driver was clearly disgusted by the attitude of the Russians and their disinterest in the costs they would have to pay. When they finally arrived in the lodge they received a somewhat frosty reception from the lodge owners, me, my wife and (our new best friends) all the lodge employees now eating and relaxing by the wood burner. The Russians sat down and proceeded to eat their own packed supper before going to bed and being able to see the hotel and its wonderful surroundings. Oh well the customer is always right.
Then it was time for bed. Now, I once read an article about men who pay women to whip them and walk on them in high heeled shoes; I should imagine the look on the face of a woman just as she is about to begin whipping her foolish punter was probably the look that the owner of the ice hotel had on her face as we left the warm lodge to go to bed. The bed in the ice hotel is unsurprisingly made out of ice. On the block of ice there is a wooden base covered with blankets, covered with blankets, then the sleeping bags, more blankets and a layer of animal skins. Add into the equation the fact that we were fully clothed (except for our boots) including hats then realistically there is no way you are going to be cold. My wife asked we needed to set the alarm as we had a fairly early start the next day, we decided to set it even though we had heard stories of people not sleeping due to breathing in the cold air. Before I knew it I had nodded off. All was OK until around 5am when I awoke bursting for a wee (it must have been the warm beer and freezing wine) after about 10 minutes I managed to free myself from the layers of blankets and very tight sleeping bag (it must have been the 6 course meal) and then to put on my boots taking extra care not to get my socks wet on the ice. The toilet and shower block was about 100 yards away in the cable car house. Walking to the toilet was quite disconcerting, I have seen too many horror films like the Shining etc the only sound was the howling wind. The toilets were nice and warm and I did consider for a moment curling up on the floor and going asleep there. I did not however and went back to the ice hotel and took another 10 minutes squeezing back into my bed. Once again I dropped off to sleep straight away and was awoken by the robotic voice of my mobile phone alarm I had set some 8 hours earlier.
After breakfast it was back on the cable car again and back to unfrozen hotels in the rest of Romania. The company we used to arrange our trip to the ice hotel described it in their literature as a 'once in a lifetime experience'. I know what they mean, I would totally recommend it to anybody but I'm glad that it's ticked off the list and don't feel the need to do it again. Right, anyone fancy a freezing cold glass of red wine?