Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ice Bar Makes a Novel Impression

People with out-of-the-way businesses occasionally have to get creative in order to keep the cash registers ringing. Many seasonal businesses get shuttered in the off season, just because heat and staffing is such an expense. Needless to say, the Grand Superior Lodge at Castle Danger went a different route this winter.

When the story broke in the Duluth News Tribune, it created oodles of buzz. A front page story and big photo declaring "Ice bar opens at North Shore lodge." The sub-title pegged the details: Blu opened for its first customers at 2 p.m. to celebrate the winter solstice. The article went on to describe shot glasses made of ice and even a couch.

So yesterday we decided to head north. Despite the below-zero temps, it was a beautiful drive up the North Shore, the lake a deep blue, the crisp sun glistening on the snow-sprinkled trees. On the way we wondered things like whether the bar would have a bathroom. We imagined an actual building made of ice.

If you go to enough fancy parties you will sooner or later see company logos carved in ice, or a fancy "ice luge" into which the bartender pours your drink at the top and it comes out chilled at the bottom. Some of these decorations can get mighty spectacular and Chris Swarbick, the designer of Blu at Grand Superior Lodge has the gift. His business, Ice Occasions, specializes in exceeding expectations when it comes to customized ice decor.

Castle Danger is in the vicinity of Gooseberry Falls, so you can get a rough idea how much of the afternoon you will be chewing up to get there and back. Since anticipation provides one-third of the pleasure of most experiences, we got our money's worth on the drive up. When we arrived, the lodge parking lot was crammed and jammed. On the right, as you pull in, there was a little tent. One of us said, "Is that it?" and you can tell by this question what our first impressions were.

Maybe the tent/bar looks small because Grand Superior Lodge is so large. And since I'd heard someone compare it to the Ice Palace in St. Paul, I somewhat expected a building made of ice. I must have mis-heard because upon further investigation I see from Swarbick's website that he won the St. Paul Winter Carnival Ice Sculpting Competition three of the last four years. The bar is a masterpiece, even if it isn't a whole building of ice.

I saw no one complaining inside. Patrons were standing three and four deep waiting to place their orders. The busy bartending staff were cheerful and good-natured. And even though the drink selection was limited (they can't lock up at night, nor can they leave cans of pineapple juice outside in twenty-below weather) and there were no chairs, the atmosphere was lively. Yes, there was that couch which the newspaper story mentioned... a block of ice with a bearskin draped across it. No pillows.

Someone there explained that Blu will remain open till sometime in February. If you want to check it out, it's only open on Saturday afternoons from 2 till 6 p.m. Can't make it then? You can see more of Chris Swarbrick's craftsmanship-in-ice at his website, His work is pretty cool.

As for our own trip to the ice bar, upon reflection, it was fun.... and something memorable to talk about.

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