The highway zig-zags and the cars become fewer and far between as we drive higher into Romania’s Fagaras Mountains, along part of what the Top Gear crew dubbed “the best road in the world” thanks to its eye-popping scenery, sharp descents and nerve-jangling hairpin bends. The towering trees that flank the Transfagarasan road drip with mistletoe, while the snow-peaked mountains provide the dramatic backdrop.
As we drive deeper into the wilderness, we spy rosy-cheeked farmers in cold-proof sheepskin coats and big hats herding sheep, while purveyors of giant chunks of cheese stand shivering at the side of the road. Having already visited Romania’s top tourist draws – the medieval town of Brasov and Bran castle (Dracula’s castle) – we’re now on our way to one of Romania’s lesser-known attractions, its Ice Hotel, where my other half and I are to spend the night.
Set at more than 2000m above sea level and only reachable by cable car, our digs are gloriously remote and the journey there is all part of the adventure. Once in the cable car, we marvel at the epic scenery: dense pine forests and snowy peaks. When we reach the top of the mountain, we step outside and find ourselves in the midst of an epic gorge, a thick band of cloud floating below us. Spread out in front of us is the Balea Lake, alongside which is the magnificent Ice Hotel, a glowing giant igloo which blends smoothly into the wild alpine landscape as if it grew up out of the snow. Rebuilt every year when winter comes and the Balea Lake freezes, locals create the ice hotel using age-old techniques, dragging frozen blocks of ice from the lake and hand-carving everything from the ceiling to the hotel’s pretty sculptures.
The Ice Hotel has a fairytale, Narnia-like feel to it and I almost expect elves to scurry out from one of the rooms.
Every one of the hotel’s 14 hand-carved rooms is unique: ours houses an ice sculpture of a man reclining on a step. The chambers are magically illuminated by pink and blue twinkly lights, and in the high-ceilinged foyer, a naked ice couple welcome guests. Our guide, Radu, tells us that a similar sculpture was created for the previous year’s hotel and the man’s nether regions shrunk to nothing by the end of the season after being continually groped by visitors.
Romania’s chilly pad doesn’t have the luxury feel of its Scandinavian counterparts (read: no hot tubs in which to defrost), but it doesn’t have the costly price tag, either. Plus it was built in a bid to bring tourism to what is a poor area. It might be billed the world’s most affordable ice hotel, but not much has been compromised. There’s an ice church where couples can tie the knot and there’s a slew of high-octane activities on offer, including ice-skating and snowmobiling on the frozen lake, sledding, off piste skiing and ice-sculpting. As night falls, we settle ourselves at a table (also made of ice) where we’re served up a swish dinner. By now, my teeth are chattering and I’m nervous as hell about spending the night in such a frosty room, set at a toasty -2ºC. How on Earth am I going to sleep?
After dinner, we check out the hotel’s ice bar and enjoy a few vodka shots in a bid to knock us out at bedtime. Then we retire to our cool chamber, where an icy fireplace creates the illusion of cosiness. Cocooned within our icy freezer, we might look romantic and snug to an outsider, but this is not quite the right setting for a lust-filled weekend. Swaddled in our arctic sleeping bags, there’s just a narrow mattress and a swathe of animal skins separating us from our bed of ice. My boyfriend and I are togged up to the max, wearing almost every item in our suitcase: hats, scarves, thermals, gloves, jackets, socks and jeans.
Once ensconced in the sleeping bag, I’m surprisingly snug and quickly drift off to sleep, and don’t awake until dawn. Surviving a night in one of the world’s chilliest hotels turns out to be an experience of a lifetime – just be prepared for a frosty reception.
Janine Kelso travelled to Romania with Untravelled Paths. A three-night trip is €445pp (about £387) and a four-night trip is €495pp (about £430), including airport transfers, accommodation (including one night at the Ice Hotel), entry to Dracula’s Castle and Rasnov Fortress, a VIP cable car pass and a bilingual rep. untravelledpaths.com
Popular with Bucharestians is the affordable Blanduziei, where top dishes include ciorba de perisoare – meatball soup with sour cream and dill. (Str. Academiei 2, Bucharest)
When in the medieval town of Brasov, check out Sergiana, where waiting staff in traditional Romanian costumes serve up warming fare, including polenta, soup and wild boar. It might sound like a tourist trap, but it’s actually full of locals. (sergianagrup.ro)
Feast on traditional dishes such as sarmale (mincemeat and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves) at Amsterdam Cafe. If you’ve had your fill of Romanian food, this eatery serves up Dutch cuisine too.
(Str Covaci 6 Historic Quarter; tel: 00 40 21 313 7580)
Discover stupidly cheap drinks at Revenge, a pub and club in the super-cool Lipseani part of Bucharest. Music varies from reggae to hip hop to disco. (revenge.ro)
Join the capital’s hipsters at In Vino Veritas, a trendy wine bar decked out like a medieval castle. (Lipscani 45/Blanari 21, Historic Centre; tell: 00 40 7520 10000)
The bling-tastic Eleven champagne bar and lounge is a whirl of mirror balls and edgy wall projections. The bar of choice for Bucharest’s in-crowd, don’t leave without visiting the loo where you’ll find images of swimming fish at your feet and the soothing sounds of running water. (eleven.com.ro)
The award-winning Hostel Tina in Odobesti 2B Street, Bucharest, is known for its homely atmosphere and fit-for-a-king breakfasts. Private rooms from £22.42, based on two sharing. (hostelbookers.com) midrange
In the heart of the capital’s hip Lipscani district is The Rembrandt, a stylish boutique hotel. Rooms have DVD and CD players. Double rooms from £78pn. (rembrandt.ro)
Set near Cismigiu Park in Bucharest, the all-suite Hotel Epoque offers plush accommodation within walking distance of the Royal Palace and the Bucharest Opera House. Double rooms from £82pn. (hotelepoque.ro)