In February, the snow-covered streets of Quebec City explode with a festive party spirit. People from all over the world gather for Winter Carnaval, the biggest winter celebration of its kind, and the third largest carnival, after the famous carnivals of Rio and New Orleans.
As the locals say, “It’s samba dressed up in a flannel shirt!”
For 17 days, the World’s Snow Capital is filled with music, dancing, a dazzling array of world-class sporting, artistic and cultural activities as everyone re-discovers the wonders of winter.
Since the beginning of the French colony, the habitants formed a rowdy tradition of getting together just before Lent to eat, drink, and be merry. This intense period of revelry first took place in 1894– a winter party that warmed up the hearts of all the revelers. In 1954, Bonhomme was born and elected the representative of the event that year.
All the roads in Quebec lead to the Ice Palace of Bonhomme, the snowman King of the Winter Carnaval who reigns over all Carnival activities each February.
The glistening walls of Bonhomme’s magical ice palace were first constructed in 1955. The impressive structure even had a dungeon, used to jail (as a joke) those carnival-goers that refused to honor the effigy of Bonhomme.
Bonhomme proudly wears the traditional red hat and fringed belt, linked directly to Quebec folklore. His entourage, the Knuks, are an amusing band of colorful characters who mingle with the crowds, performing magic and antics.
Now, Bonhomme’s grandiose illuminated castle is in front of Quebec’s Parliament buildings, along with ice sculptures, dogsled races, and all sorts of games and activities for children.
The Ice Sculpture display on the 250-acre Plains of Abraham park is one of Carnaval’s highlights. The open-air art gallery of amazing larger-than-life sculptures features entries from over 20 countries.
Cross-country skiing is another huge attraction. Skiers throng to the city for the region’s variety of top quality trails. The Cross-Country Ski Classic also takes place on the Plains of Abraham park, a favorite place for families to toboggan and snowshoe.
Downhill ski runs are at nearby Mont-Sainte-Anne with 13 ski lifts, including a gondola. Stoneham, the largest lit ski area in Canada, is located only minutes from the old capital. Just to the east, the slopes of Charlevoix face the river and Le Massif de le Petite-Riviere-Saint-Francois (the highest vertical drop in Quebec) welcomes skiers in search of something completely new.
Snowmobiling has become so popular that Quebec has created an extensive network of trails to satisfy family outings or committed explorers.
Other chills and thrills you’ll never forget include ice fishing, playing giant babyfoot soccer, and dancing in the parade. The very brave can grab their bathing suits and have the thrill of joining in the fun of a bath in the snow.
Afterwards, “Caribou”, a feisty alcoholic beverage since the first carnaval, will warm you up. It’s a mixture of brandy, vodka, sherry and port. Wow!
But Carnaval’s main attractions are in the heart of old Quebec City: two magical night parades with floats heralded by the traditional music of the long red trumpets, fireworks, skating at the outdoor rink, and the famous toboggan slide beside the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac.
The lively city center of winding streets and quaint town squares traces its roots back nearly 400 years. Today it is known for its European charm and unique architectural beauty. Fascinating boutiques, galleries, pubs and cafes line the streets in the old walled city, horse-drawn sleighs clickety-clack past stately old homes, musicians serenade passers-by, and strollers stop for a view of the St. Lawrence River from the cliffside boardwalk. Quebec City is a living history book and UNESCO “World Heritage Treasure” with a new story to tell at every turn.
When you’ve had enough of the cold, stop in Le Chateau Frontenac for a hot drink and browse through the attached, heated shopping mall. To learn about the hotel’s fabulous history, follow in the footsteps of a chambermaid, a night watchman or a chef to visit 100 years of magical castle lifestyle: the rooms, halls, the restaurants, art works and treasures, and incredible views of the river below.
Spend another day exploring the museums– the Musee de la Civilisation or the Musee de Quebec, featuring a good collection of modern art.
Located in the town of Sainte-Catherine-de-la-Jacques-Cartier, 25 minutes from downtown Quebec, the Ice Hotel also offers public visits and special events–dog sledding, ice fishing, snowmobile tours and cross country skiing. Guests who choose to spend the night in this hotel crafted entirely of ice will sleep on mattresses set on wooden bases with deer pelts and sleeping bags provided for extra warmth.
For a truly unique cultural evening, climb aboard a horse-drawn wagon for a ride through the moonlit woods to a “sugar shack”, a cabin in a maple grove where sap is slowly boiled in big vats until it turns an enticing liquid gold.
The maple sugar is then served up on everything from sausage and eggs to heaping helpings of crepes. Enjoy a taste of maple taffy by pouring hot syrup into wooden troughs packed with fresh, white snow. Once it hardens, simply roll it onto a wooden popsicle stick for a sweet and delicious treat.
At the cabin, you can dance it off with a country jig or two to fiddle toe-tapping tunes.
Bundled under the wagon’s warm blankets, you’ll enjoy singing French folk songs. If you don’t speak French, it doesn’t matter. Everyone seems to improve with each chorus.
On the last day of Carnaval, the boardwalk is crowded with revelers who come to watch the legendary annual boat race across the St. Lawrence. Undaunted by the cold, several courageous teams put their lives on the line to confront one another for a tumultuous ride in the treacherous current, often disappearing beneath the freezing slush. The crews row, drag and pull their boats across the ice flows to be first to stumble ashore on the opposite side in Levis.
The traditional cuisine of French Canada will fortify you for the many activities. “Habitant” was the basic fare of early settlers from Normandy, and features pates, ham and pea soup, Tortiere (spicy pork and veal pie), feves au lard (beans) and maple sugar pie.
If you’ve never been, you must go. Join the parade and feel the magic of this incredible celebration in Quebec, the coolest winter destination anywhere. Your winters will never be the same.
Quebec Winter Carnival www.carnaval.qc.ca
Quebec City and Region www.quebecregion.com
Call Le Chateau Frontenac for reservations: 1-800-441-1414