ICE! IS a remarkable winter attraction produced exclusively for Gaylord Hotels and seen only at properties in Nashville, Tenn.; Orlando, Fla.; Dallas, and this year for the first time at the Gaylord National, located at the National Harbor on the Potomac River in Prince George's County, Md., about 15 minutes from the nation's capital.
National Harbor is a 300-acre community of condominiums, hotels, restaurants, retail shopping and waterfront entertainment, anchored by the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Hotel.
December is a spectacular time of year at Gaylord. On my visit last weekend, conventioneers with name tags and parents with children in tow posed for photos in front of the brilliantly decorated Christmas trees and poinsettias in the hotel's grand lobby and atrium.
Hotel porters directed visitors across the street to the 15,000-square-foot insulated building that houses ICE! Twinkling white lights from dozens of Christmas trees provided a magical touch to what was otherwise a plain white tent. Most of the adults and particularly the children were adequately clothed in winter hats, boots, gloves and ski pants.
I, on the other hand, had not read the promotional material for ICE! thoroughly and found myself tripping through the exhibit with a blue parka provided by the hotel and the clothes I had worn to dinner - a black skirt and velvet shoes with kitten heels. Not the outfit to wear while touring a 9-degree display of ice sculptures.
ICE! was inspired by the world-famous Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival in the capital city of China's northernmost province, Heilongjiang. Each year, approximately 800,000 visitors from all over the world view the 100-acre ice city and park featuring stunning replicas of Chinese icons such as the Great Wall. More than 2,000 artisans using methods passed down from ancient times create this ice city.
More than 40 of these Harbin master ice carvers traveled to Maryland to create Gaylord National's ICE! The ice used in the exhibit is special-ordered from Ohio and comes in three different types: transparent, white or "snow" ice, and colored ice - red for Rudolph's nose and candy canes, blue for the chilly penguin display.
Each block of ice weighs nearly 400 pounds, which explains how a family foursome can jump aboard an ice sled and pose for a photo without fear of it cracking.
The Chinese artisans chipped and carved 2 million pounds of ice to create marvelously crafted holiday scenes.
"It's beautiful," said Aparna Vema, 11, of Kingville, Md., who toured the exhibit with her brother Ritesh. "I really liked how they took a big stuffed animal and then showed the ice animal right next to it."
"I loved the ice slides and the snow castle," exclaimed Ritesh, 8, demonstrating how they had climbed up the two-story castle.
The exquisite detail of Christmas scenes and life-size figures produced "oohs" and "aahs" from everyone.
"My favorite part was the big sculpture at the end. It had the king and queen, and it even had a little lamb made of ice," Aparna said referring the lavish Nativity scene.
And, of course, Christmas wouldn't be complete without an opportunity to shop, which is provided by a gift shop at the ICE! exit.
But this winter wonderland isn't the only holiday happening at the hotel. Those lucky enough to arrive early on weekend evenings can capture front-row seats to hear a nearly 100-voice choir perform Christmas songs at 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
But visitors also perch along the stones framing the lobby's water fountain, where a multicolored water show takes place hourly throughout the day.
The centerpiece of the hotel atrium is a 7,000-pound, 60-foot, candy glass Christmas tree made by 50 glass artists. A model train display and indoor river complete the holiday experience.
There are four restaurants in the hotel, but the Old Hickory Steakhouse is the culinary star. Dinner here will easily set you back a couple of hundred dollars, but the elegant decor, view of the Potomac, fine wine and stellar service are worth every penny.
The menu features 20-ounce prime aged steaks, fresh seafood and European-inspired artisanal cheeses presented table side by the Maitre d'Fromage, Carolyn Stromberg, who passionately guides diners through the flavors, textures and origins of the cheeses.
The Gaylord National has 2,000 suites and rooms (several with balconies overlooking the lush trees and gardens of the 18-story atrium), an indoor pool, fitness area and spa.
Besides all of the activities within the hotel complex, attractions such as the water-skiing Santa and waterboarding reindeer take place along the one-mile National Harbor throughout December. Weather permitting, a water taxi travels the Potomac to Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria and the Mount Vernon Estate for additional entertainment.
IF YOU GO
Individual timed tickets for ICE! are $24.50 weekends, $19.99 weekdays and $13 for children. Book online at www.gaylordhotels. com. (Book early, because weekend admissions are selling out.) More info available at www.
Special hotel packages such as the Grandparents Stay and Play Free Package offers overnight accommodations and ICE! tickets, from $299.