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As winter melts away, a synthetic rooftop skating rink offers one last taste of the season

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At The William Vale in Brooklyn, a rooftop skating rink provides the perfect outing for the final weeks of winter. (Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) — When the calendar turns to March, dreams of spring run rampant. Although the official change of season remains weeks away, the start of the month brings about a sense of urgency for warmer weather and sunnier skies. And if there’s ever been a winter that has so greatly intensified the demands for the brighter days of spring through its unrelenting gloom, it’s this one.

But for those craving one more dose of winter joy before the sweltering heat of summer has them missing the crispness of the air in near-freezing temperatures, a rooftop skating rink in Brooklyn continues throughout the month of March to bring the favorite seasonal activity to a new level — the 23rd story, to be precise.

Pandemic-related safety concerns and closures robbed New Yorkers of many of the quintessential experiences in the city this winter. Holiday festivities were largely pared-down. The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting ceremony turned virtual, and several Christmastime mainstays, like the Union Square Holiday, chose not to open at all. From early December through mid-February, the simple comfort of sliding into a cozy restaurant booth and shrugging off your coat was entirely prohibited. Even still, many hesitate to return to indoor dining, choosing instead to either order takeout or hope that a heat lamp and several layers of clothing will keep them warm enough in a makeshift structure on a city street.

That’s not to say, however, that pleasure was absent all winter long. There was plenty of fun to be found if you knew where to look. And if your desire for a cold-weather outing happened to lead you to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, you’d be just a short elevator ride away from the winter wonderland crafted on The William Vale’s rooftop.

You’ll get an immediate sense of the views that await you from the floor-to-ceiling windows at the end of the elevator bank, but the sights are best taken in from the centerpiece of the rooftop — a decently sized skating rink with a sweeping backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.

“The view is fairly phenomenal, and it’s one in a million,” said David Lemmond, general manager of The William Vale. “The comparison to this is almost non-existent, and especially from a skating rink.”

Good views aside, there are numerous reasons why rooftop ice skating rinks aren’t more commonplace. It essentially boils down to a variety of logistical issues involved in installing the rink and then maintaining the frozen surface of the ice. The building would need to have complicated and costly infrastructure in place, and the amount of water and electricity required would add a considerable expense as well. That's not to mention the sustainability concerns. All in all, it’s generally not worth the trouble.

For a workaround, The William Vale turned to synthetic ice.

“We searched for an artificial rink, and we found Glice, which is a super-compressed polymer that can weather just about any kind of outdoor environment that you can create,” said Lemmond. “It’s the perfect installation for a rooftop.”

Glice, a Switzerland-based company founded in 2012, markets its ice substitute with promises of a quick set-up, easy maintenance, and a greatly reduced ecological impact. The formula behind the synthetic ice is a closely guarded secret, but Glice assures prospective buyers that their product offers the highest glide factor available in the market and will respond to a skater's movements in a way that closely resembles actual ice.

Does it really, though? Glice presents compelling testimonials from NHL veterans on the company's website, but Lemmond acknowledged that some people find it to be a dramatically different experience from ice skating, particularly when they first step onto the rink. "I think the key is to get enough push behind you to get the glide going, but once you do, it really does fall into place, and it feels very normal," Lemmond said. He added that, personally, he had better luck staying upright on Glice than on traditional ice.

For The William Vale, the portability and minimal maintenance needs of Glice allowed the hotel to actualize the vision for rooftop skating, and the Vale Rink first opened in the final days of 2019.

Bringing the rink back in late November of last year required several pandemic-spurred changes to ensure the safety of guests and staff, none of which detract from the overall experience. In fact, there's something to be said for capacity limitations allowing for a less crowded skate session with considerable room on the rink to take in the views and practice your axel and your lutz (or mess around with the whale-shaped skating helpers).

Lining the rink are private chalets, The William Vale's take on the now-inescapable trend born out of our current times with plenty of staying power to persevere post-pandemic. The heated chalets, known collectively as the Winter Village at Westlight, can be reserved online for a booking fee starting at $45. Once inside, guests can take in rooftop views through a large panoramic window and order an array of taste dishes from Westlight, the hotel's 22nd-floor bar helmed by award-winning chef Andrew Carmellini.

"All of it's really good," said Lemmond of the food. "But I think the fondue is really what you're here for." Indeed, the Alpine-style fondue served with sourdough bread, fingerling potatoes, apples, endives, and gherkins is fitting for the scene.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued on far longer than most imagined in those initial weeks of confusion and closures last March, The William Vale took a bet this winter that New Yorkers would still seek out unique activities and dining experiences beyond the walls of their apartments.

According to Lemmond, that gamble paid off. "Even with social distancing, even with limiting capacity, in comparison to last year, the volume of business has been much, much greater this year. The response has been phenomenal," he said.

Even though the Glice technology would allow the rink to continue into the heat of summer (you can find a year-round Glice rink in the Maldives), the Vale Rink will operate only through the end of March to allow the hotel time to prepare for future offerings. Last summer, the 23rd floor was turned into the Turf Club, a pop-up with artificial grass and lawn games that served as a more casual extension of Westlight; no plans for this coming summer have been announced as of yet.

To book your spot on the rink before the Glice gets packed away in storage till next winter, head to the Vale Rink's website, where you can choose a 50-minute time slot. Reservations are $20 for adults and $12 for children, and the price of admission includes skate and locker rentals.

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