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Friday, December 26, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Alaska's first ice hotel set to open
By Stanton H. Patty
FAIRBANKS Alaska's ice hotel is "on" again.
Construction of the Aurora Ice Hotel at Chena Hot Springs Resort, 60 miles north of Fairbanks and by most accounts the first of its kind in the United States, was frozen Nov. 21 by order of the Alaska State Fire Marshal's Office because of possible building-code violations inadequate fire protection, for one.
But a few days ago, Gary Powell, the fire marshal, gave approval for the project to move forward.
Powell's decision followed a meeting with Chena Hot Springs Resort officials, engineers, architects, ice sculptors and representatives of the University of Alaska.
"The experts convinced the fire marshal" that it is safe for guests to stay inside the Aurora Ice Hotel this winter, says Brenda Hewitt, a spokeswoman for Chena Hot Spring Resort.
"We will work with the University of Alaska's School of Engineering to come up with monitoring methods to assure all concerned about the safety of the building. The engineering students will be invited to study it and learn from it.
"We're thrilled to be able to move ahead as planned."
Projected opening date is New Year's Eve.
Each of the hotel's six guest rooms will include a smoke detector and a fire extinguisher as part of the agreement with the fire marshal.
"Don't laugh," Hewitt says. "Something unforeseeable could catch on fire and rather than have someone throw an ice sculpture to put out a fire, the fire extinguisher would be better way to do that."
The Aurora was announced in October by Bernie Karl, the Chena Hot Springs operator.
Karl's concept calls for a 100-foot-long, 25-foot-high building of ice and snow where travelers can sleep on four-poster ice beds covered with caribou hides and Arctic sleeping bags. Guest rooms will be fitted with chandeliers and furniture fashioned from jewel-like blocks of Alaska ice.
And guests will be served apple martinis (a Chena specialty) from elegant ice glasses while viewing the Northern Lights.
"Cool, very cool," Karl says. "I have a passion for ice."
The 10-person construction crew lost two weeks in early November because of unseasonably warm weather. Now temperatures are in the minus-30 range, ideal for working with snow and ice.
We're talking 14,000 tons of snow and ice, stacked over an igloo-like framework of Gothic arches.
There are seasonal ice hotels in Sweden, Iceland and Quebec. Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry dashed through the Icelandic version most recently in the James Bond movie,"Die Another Day."
Original plans called for Chena's ice hotel to melt in April, and to be rebuilt each winter.
Then Karl had a better idea a year-round ice structure.
He is wrapping the frame with 14,000 feet of plastic tubing that will carry antifreeze cooled to 20 degrees below zero to preserve most of the building.
Inside temperature for visitors will be a "balmy" 28 degrees.
A two-night, three-day stay in the ice hotel is priced at $878. That includes round-trip transportation from Fairbanks; use of cold-weather clothing; and passes to soak in the resort's one-acre, 104-degree outdoor mineral pool. One night will be spent in the Aurora ice hotel, and two nights in Chena's "regular" guest rooms in the Moose Lodge. The Moose Lodge rooms will be available to Aurora occupants at all hours; the ice hotel isn't being designed with indoor plumbing.
Several reservations were in hand when the stop-work order came down just before Thanksgiving.
A Southern California woman who had an Aurora reservation wrote the resort by e-mail the other day to complain about the construction freeze.
"The last unconventional and daring thing I did was 41 years ago when I got pregnant in a 1957 Corvette (yes, it can be done) and sleeping in the ice hotel was going to be the second (and probably last) live-on-the-edge experience I'm going to have," she said.
"I and the product of that incident 41 years ago plan to sleep in the ice hotel no matter what if it collapses on us, so be it. Beats dying a quiet, boring death in a nursing home."
Lead carver for the ice hotel is Fairbanks-born Steve Brice, who has won top honors in ice-carving competitions in Europe and Alaska.
Brice already has carved pieces for the project in 18-degree walk-in freezers at the Ice Museum in downtown Fairbanks. Fairbanks also is the site of an annual Ice Art show that attracts carvers from all over the world.
Already completed and ready for hanging in the ice palace's Great Room lobby are five ice chandeliers each with 70 ice crystals that will be lighted with fiber optics beaming dazzling colors onto the building's ice walls.
Brice also has carved an ice bar with ice bar stools topped with caribou hides for serving those apple martinis.
"It's going to be like being inside a dream," says Bernie Karl, the boss.
Karl, 51, is a sometimes cantankerous dreamer, a former gold miner and auto mechanic who is accustomed to controversy.
Not long ago, he won a case in the Alaska Supreme Court involving his plan to move a long-abandoned gold dredge through a remote area of Alaska's interior.
Now he has plans to bottle and sell 480,000 gallons a month of pure Chena well water across Alaska and in the lower 48 states. He also hopes to develop geothermal-heated acreage here to grow year-round crops of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, herbs and other groceries for Alaskans.
If he can pull off an ice hotel, who knows?
Stanton H. Patty, a Vancouver, Wash., writer, is the retired assistant travel editor of The Seattle Times.
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