As I waited at the bar for my drink, the thumping beat of disco got my toes tapping. No sparkling disco ball suspended from the ceiling set the scene, but multicolored lights strategically placed around the room's glittering columns and sculptures created a magical effect.

The bartender handed me my glass -- a chunk of ice about four inches square with a hole drilled in the center, which held a maple-cream-and-whiskey liqueur. There was no lip on the glass, and my fingers were stiffening from clutching a thick hunk of ice, so I quickly tipped it toward my mouth and hoped for the best. It was my welcome to Hôtel de Glace, or the Ice Hotel.

I'd first heard of people staying in a hotel made entirely from snow and ice about 20 years ago, when the original Ice Hotel opened in Sweden. Images of patrons merrily downing drinks in the hotel's ice bar, snug in heavy parkas and thick gloves, captivated my imagination. And pictures of the icy slabs they called beds made me wonder if I had what it took to last a night. If the hotel hadn't been in faraway Sweden, I'd have booked a night in a heartbeat.

Fast-forward about a decade. A Québec businessman with a passion for Inuit life and a talent for creating igloos read about Sweden's Ice Hotel and soon opened his own. A trip to Québec was infinitely more doable than jetting to Sweden, so when my friends headed south last winter to snorkel in Bonaire, I headed north for a memorable night on ice.

The name Ice Hotel is somewhat of a misnomer. Instead of being carved from ice, most of the hotel is actually made of compressed snow. Workers first set up stainless steel molds and wooden walls a few feet apart.

Next, they use snow guns to fire manmade powder between the two, then leave it to freeze -- a process that takes anywhere from 10 hours to three days. Once the walls are sufficiently frozen, the steel molds are slipped out and reassembled to create another section of the 36-room, 33,000-square-foot hotel.

Meanwhile, artists attack giant blocks of ice with chain saws and other tools, crafting pillars, furniture and sculptures; they also carve artwork into the hardened snow walls. After four or five weeks, the result is an enthralling fairy tale castle, one whose design and artwork changes each year.

More than 65,000 visitors annually shell out about $15 (Canadian) per person just to see the Ice Hotel, a tour guide told me, and it's worth every penny. In last year's hotel, massive wooden front doors opened into an immense, sparkling lobby with a soaring ceiling nearly 20 feet high. A fiber optic-lit candelabrum vied for attention with intricate ice sculptures.

As someone who's spent many winters in Wisconsin Dells' indoor waterparks, I immediately noticed a twisting ice slide at the lobby's far end. Incorporated into the hotel a few years ago on a whim, it was so well received that it's now a regular component, joining the popular wedding chapel, bar and N'Ice Club reception room.

When I first arrived, several of us were told that our reservations had been lost and the hotel was booked solid. As compensation, management had hastily constructed igloos for us to sleep in, located in the Ice Hotel's interior courtyard. We were also booked rooms at the affiliated Auberge Duchesnay, a posh hotel on the property, in case we didn't care for the igloo accommodations.

I felt disappointed at missing the chance to fulfill my dream of staying in the Ice Hotel and upset at being relegated to this squatter's village, but my anger dissipated as I toured the ornate structure.

I was still enjoying a magical place, after all, and after seeing the plain standard room I would have had, I figured an igloo might even be a cooler (pardon the pun) alternative. There was a stark contrast between the regular guest rooms and pricier suites. The rooms were cramped with beds and little else. The suites were spacious and elaborately decorated, featuring carved headboards and footboards, in-wall original artwork, seats, faux light fixtures and even fireplaces. It's a good thing the tour and bar were so impressive.

Proper PJs are essential

Before setting us free for the night, hotel staffers took us in small groups to the nearby pavilion, or Ice Hotel headquarters, for a 30-minute briefing on how to dress for bed and tuck ourselves into the supplied arctic sleeping bag. The thick walls insulate the interior from wind and extreme cold, but temperatures in the hotel hover between 23 and 25 degrees.

Jesse, our instructor, expounded on the importance of proper PJs -- nothing too heavy, which would make you sweat, and nothing made of cotton, which would absorb any sweat and make you cold. I knew he was right, but the thought of slipping into thin pajamas was a bit unnerving, especially as my fingers were still frozen from my drink in the bar.

The sleeping bag demo didn't quell my now-jangling nerves. The bags came with an inner lining you'd step into first -- sort of like a funeral shroud. Then you'd slide into the bag, which extends past your head, and pull a collar-type piece completely around your neck, cinching it with a string (imagine yourself in a sack of potatoes, with your head the only appendage sticking out).

By doing this, Jesse explained, we'd keep all of the heat our body generated in the bag with us, rather than letting it escape from our shoulders and necks. We'd also stay toasty down to 40-below (50-below if you covered the sleeping bag with the extra synthetic blanket provided).

"A lot of people tell me the next day they were way too hot," Jesse said. "But if you're worried, tuck an extra pair of socks or maybe another top in your bag. That way, if you're cold in the middle of the night, you can easily add a warm layer." The final tip: Wear a hat.

The big test

The thought of crawling into a tiny igloo, then tying a sleeping bag around my neck, was stirring unease. I hoped that a dip in the hotel's hot tub would calm me down. Jesse had also told us we'd fare best if we super-heated our bodies in the outdoor sauna or hot tub for 15 or 20 minutes before snuggling into our PJs.

Soaking with other guests did soothe me. But a little too soon, it seemed, it was time to get out, dry off, crawl into the igloo and go to sleep.

I found my sleeping bag neatly sitting on a mattress on the igloo's floor, which was covered with fragrant evergreen branches -- a nice aromatherapy touch. I couldn't bear to tie that string around my neck and totally seal myself in the bag, so I put a gaiter around my neck instead. And then I tried to sleep.

For two hours I tossed and turned in time to the faint bass tones I could hear emanating from the disco, which stays open as long as any guest wishes. My nose steadily dripped, and I silently chastised myself for getting worried about overdressing; I could have used another layer on top, plus a thicker hat.

Visions of the warm, comfy bed waiting for me in the Auberge Duchesnay soon popped into my head. I didn't want to wimp out on my longtime dream of staying in the Ice Hotel, but, I reasoned, I wasn't actually in the Ice Hotel -- I was in an igloo. So I wriggled out of the bag, grabbed my belongings and headed to a real bed.

I first stopped at the pavilion to drop off the towel and robe they'd given me for the hot tub. There, I glanced at the Ice Hotel's guest book. An 87-year-old woman from Maine, who had recently stayed there, scrawled an excited note about being the oldest person to stay overnight. That made me feel like a total loser until a mother and daughter from New Jersey walked in dispiritedly.

"We were just so cold we couldn't take it anymore," said the daughter. "I even took an Ambien [sleeping aid], but it didn't help," said the mom.

The next morning at breakfast, I spotted the New Jersey duo again. They had planned to sack out on the pavilion's couches for the rest of the night, when an employee told them there were unadvertised "emergency bedrooms" upstairs -- and that plenty of Ice Hotel guests were already taking advantage of them.

So I wasn't alone. And if I go back this year and stay in the real Ice Hotel, I'm sure I'll last the night.

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer living outside Madison, Wis.