Last Updated on November 25, 2021 by Nellie Huang
There is complete silence except for the occasional mountain wind blowing or ravens circling overhead. It’s like Narnia out here! Frozen icicles hang from granite rock cliffs, the light bouncing off the snow is blinding me, and the sounds of ravens flying above are echoing through the ensemble of towering peaks that surround us. Already, I can’t wait to experience the hotel of ice in Romania.
I’m standing in the middle of the frozen Bâlea Lake. A glacier lake, it stands at 2,035m above sea level on the top of the Făgăraș Mountain Range in Romania. This mountain range is home to the highest peaks in Romania and it’s paradise for alpine lovers. The mountains reach an altitude of around 2,500m and form a part of the Carpathian Mountains. These are a 1,500km-long range that run through seven countries in Central and Eastern Europe, stretching west to east in an arc from the Czech Republic to Romania.
As part for my assignment for Lonely Planet and Skyscanner, I’m traveling around Transylvania. The main reason for my journey up to the Făgăraș Mountains is to experience sleeping in an ice hotel. But I quickly find that there’s a lot more to this mountain range.
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Traversing the World’s Best Road
To get here, my guide Marius Ghisoiu from Untravelled Paths drove me up the famous Transfăgărăşan Road, Romania’s highest asphalted road and named the world’s best road by TV show, Top Gear. The two-lane road boldly zigzaggs its way up the steep slope, revealing breathtaking scenery around every one of its hairpin bends. The highway stretches over a distance of 115km but as it winds up the mountain in a cockscrew trajectory, it feels like an endless stairway to heaven.
Just like everything else in Transylvania, even the road has an interesting story behind it. Marius gives me a peek into Romania’s communist past, “Our previous leader, Ceauşescu, had ordered this road to be built during the 1970s as an escape route in case of any foreign invasion. As you know, he was a megalomaniac and demanding — he wanted things big and he wanted them fast. The construction took only 4.5 short years, but it killed 38 overworked soldiers during the process.”
Of course, no invasion ever took place, but the highway has now become a tourist attraction on its own. It draws in motorbike and car enthusiasts, especially in summer. Ever since it was featured on Top Gear, the Transfăgărăşan Road has become very well known throughout Europe. Many travelers are heading this way just to experience the thrill of driving this highway.
Come winter, the upper section of it is actually closed to traffic as it gets swallowed up by snow. But a cable car can bring you up to the top of the Făgăraș Mountains where Bâlea Lake stands.
A Winter Wonder Land
Once at the peak, we find ourselves in a completely different world. Stomping through a-meter deep snow here, far from the rolling brown fields that sprawl across the valley at the base of the mountains. It’s so hauntingly white, it feels like we’ve reached extreme altitudes in the deep end of a mountain chain.
But it’s not that high here – at just 2,035m above sea level – and we’re definitely not far from civilization.
Each November, Bâlea Lake freezes completely and the area transforms into a fun and busy winter park. Families and adventurers alike come to have fun in the snow. All types of snow activities are on offer. From tubing on the slopes to snowmobiling right on the frozen lake and free skiing down the vertiginous peaks. I spend the afternoon racing around the lake on a snowmobile, swishing down the slopes in a tube, and getting pulled along the lake on a raft (think banana boat but on ice). A great way to feel like a kid once again.
I’m not here just to slush around in the snow though. I’m here to visit the Hotel of Ice, the biggest draw of Bâlea Lake these days. Having been to the original Ice Hotel in Sweden, I know what a work of amazing engineering and creativity it can be. This particular one especially caught my interest with its location up in the mountains and in a country that’s relatively less explored than the rest of Europe.
Experiencing the Hotel of Ice
Here at the Hotel of Ice in Romania, everything is made of ice. From the tables to the bar counter, and even the piano at the entrance. The ice chambers have rock solid ice beds and frosty ice chairs and ice chandeliers hang from the ice ceiling. Even the glasses in the bar are made of ice. Thankfully, despite the all-ice philosophy, guests are snug under reindeer skins and thick sleeping bags.
Every winter season, blocks of ice are taken from the glacier lake itself and then hand carved by local craftsmen using traditional techniques. It’s built from scratch in November, taking 20 days to complete. The official opening date on Christmas Day, the 25th of December, each year. The Ice Hotel stays open to guests all the way up until the end of April. After which, the warm weather sets in and the frozen structures begin to melt.
One of the coolest features of the hotel is its ice church. This place which plays host to white weddings, christenings and renewal of vows. From the altar and the pews to the collection box and even the organ, every sculpture in the Ice Church is made from ice. The intricate details and carvings are stunning. The outstanding sculpture of Jesus Christ at the front end of the church and the eye-catching ice-carved depiction from the Last Supper on the other end really capture the spirit of the church.
What I really like about the hotel is that they adopt a new theme each season. This year, the rooms were designed based on countries. The Spain room sports sculptures of a bull and bullfighter, the Holland room adorns a windmill and tulips all carved out of ice, the Swiss room featuring a figure of Heidi, and so on. My room, France, had a spectacular Eiffel Tower by the entrance and art sculptures on the walls.
There are a total of 13 rooms in the main hotel. Each of them are built next to one another in a row facing the restaurant. Only a thin curtain separates the rooms from the social hangout bar area. If you want a little more privacy, there’s also the option to choose from the four igloos just outside the main hotel structure.
Home to the only ice restaurant in the world, the hotel also offers a delicious four-course dinner. Starters and dessert are served on plates of ice and complimentary cocktails at the Sub Zero Ice Bar to boot. That evening, I tuck into delicious salmon tartare, beef steak and fresh-from-the-oven chocolate brownie. All served from ice plates and sip on traditional Romanian liquor, palincă, from an ice shotglass. Marius can’t seem to stop filling my glass with palincă, and I happily spend the rest of the night partying under the ice-covered disco lights. I’m with a fun group of fellow travelers, all here to seek a unique experience just like me.
How to Sleep on Ice
Just before going to bed, Marius gives me a briefing on how to sleep on the ice bed. Temperatures in the ice hotel typically waiver between -2 and +2 degrees Celsius, so it’s really not that cold. But Marius insists I learn this technique to make sure I get a cosy night’s sleep.
“First you place a thick bedding on the mattress – which is wet from all the humidity – to separate you from the cold. Then place the reindeer fur on the mattress and a layer of the felt blanket. Then slip into the specialist sleeping bag (provided by the hotel) and cover yourself with another felt blanket.”
Curious to see if that really works, I memorize the sequence and diligently tuck myself into bed (after emptying my body of any liquids). Marius’ technique works miraculously. It doesn’t take long before I slip into deep slumber.
That night, I have a full night of sleep. This despite the fact that I’m sleeping on an ice bed, surrounded by nothing but pure ice.
How to Stay at the Hotel of Ice
This trip to the hotel of ice in Romania was booked through Untravelled Paths, as part of the Ice Hotel Experience. The package includes a guide, all the transfers, visits and accommodation. There is no public transport to Bâlea Lake and it’s not an easy task getting up to the Făgăraș Mountains.
It helps a lot to have a rented vehicle (and are familiar with driving on snow). Service at the hotel itself isn’t great – and many of the staff don’t speak English so it can be a challenge. But my guide from Untravelled Paths definitely made sure I was well taken care of.
Cabana Bâlea Lake, the main cabin/resort that owns the Hotel of Ice, is located just a short walk from the hotel. All your luggage can be left at the cabin and you’ll also have access to the bathrooms in the hotel. Also if you choose not to dine at the ice restaurant, you can opt for the ala carte menu in Cabana Bâlea Lake. This is a lot more affordable – and warmer.
Disclaimer: This trip was made possible by Lonely Planet and Skyscanner, but all opinions expressed above are based on my own.