My January arrival to Québec City was anything but the warm welcome I received the previous summer. Don’t get me wrong, the province’s unmistakable hospitality and friendliness were in full force. But at a temperature of 8 F, gone were window boxes bulging with flowers, sidewalk cafes streaming with patrons and street performers surrounded by revelers—all perks that beckoned me back. Instead I found a city, not in hibernation, but teeming with excitement for the snowy season. Once again it overflowed with perks, just different perks.
Greeted by a white wonderland, Québec City was in a festive mood. The frivolity and high-octane activity reflected its excitement for a 60-year-old tradition—Québec Winter Carnival. Comprised of 17 days of annual celebration, this is when the city is transformed to a magical, cold-climate playground.
Meet Bonhomme Carnaval. You can’t miss the forever-smiling, 7-foot-tall snowman decked out in a red carnival tuque, arrowhead sash and large black buttons. As the official Winter Carnival ambassador, he lives at the North Pole and is purportedly revered by children more than Santa (“because he’s real,” his tiny fans say), he pops into and out of around-the-city events by limo and his identity is a high clearance secret. Paying additional homage to Bonhomme, festival goers wear their own red hats and sashes, and a photo-op with the treasured icon equates to Carnival’s E ticket.
Attracting 700,000 visitors this year during one of the harshest seasons in memory, a local resident explained its annual timing and continued popularity. “Winter Carnival happens at a time of the year when we need to remember to get outside. Winter is something we were born with—it’s in our DNA.”
To a Southern Californian and fair weather fan like myself, Carnival gave a new vision of winter, a different perspective. Offering more than 200 activities, here’s only a sampling of the choices on my dance card:
Loto-Québec Zone – Located city center near the stately National Assembly, this was the site of Opening Night. Renowned as the world’s biggest winter celebration, Québec Winter Carnival was launched with fireworks and the Coronation of Carnival’s Queen alongside her king, Bonhomme. Also the setting of Bonhomme’s Ice Palace, the Zone housed his 40-foot-high castle abode. Created over three weeks using 300 tons of ice, it provided a peek into the beloved celeb’s life, revealing his dining room, shower and kitchen stocked with exclusively cold items, including ice cream, popsicles and chilled soup.
Part deux – Now, onto Place Desjardins and the activities on the Plains of Abraham, the historical scene of battle and one of the world’s most prestigious parks.
Battle of the Dukes – Putting the exclamation point on Winter Carnival was its kick-off snowball fight for “kids” 18 and above. Going for a Guinness record to stage the world’s largest snowball fight, Bonhomme sounded its start and snow missiles began to fly.
Ferris Wheel and Bumper Cars – While a ride on the Ferris wheel delivered a soaring perspective of both Québec City and Carnival’s overall fun, the event’s bumper car ride had a bit of a winter twist--electric bumper cars on a 30-by-60 ice rink.
Snow Sculptures – The Plains of Abraham was converted into a plein air museum, where seven teams of future sculptors, 10 national and 12 international sculpting teams competitively chiseled creative life into blocks of ice, transforming them into art.
Horse-drawn Sleigh – Whether desiring a romantic ride through the snow beneath a woolen blanket or seeking good ol’ family fun, a step into the carriage provided a step back into time.
Uniprix Ice Slide – Rounding out the activities, the 400-foot ice slide appealed to adventure-seeking participants ready to have a high-speed go at an extreme sporting option.
Sugarbush – Appealing to everyone’s sweet tooth was the chance to twirl maple syrup onto a Popsicle stick, roll it into fresh snow, and voila, it’s maple taffy.
More must-see, must-do activities – Thrill seekers watched 200 snowmobile racers brave the challenging circuit specifically designed for Carnival. Among the most competitive sportsmen were racers who paddled and pushed their canoes across the frozen St. Lawrence River in the Icy Canoe Competition. Eighty venturesome Speedo and bikini clad bathers joined Bonhomme to frolic in the snow as participants of the Qualinet Snow Bath. And there was ice fishing, dogsledding, a hockey tournament and two night parades. Complete with floats, dance troupes, costumed characters and marching bands, lively revelers cheered the parades’ passersby with toots from Carnival’s traditional red trumpets.
Rounding out the city wide celebration was the 2014 addition of Carnival Streets. With eight streets representing eight distinct areas, more fun ensued from their made-in-Canada activities, including such events as curling tournaments and lumberjack competitions.
The reality of Winter Carnival’s activities is that all are out-of-doors and all are in well-below-freezing temps—situations where comfort can be questionable. But my discovery of a regional secret, Caribou—a hot alcoholic combo made with brandy, vodka, sherry and port—required only a nip or two to temper the temperatures.
Hôtel de Glace – I would be sleeping on the job if I didn’t share my arrival night’s lodging in the Ice Hotel. Imagine an 11 p.m. check-in after a five-hour flight to a climate as close on the thermometer to 0 F as my San Diego home was to 70 F at my departure. When I tallied the score—my driver wished me “good luck,” guests stay no more than one night and my quest for a hotel employee who himself had slept in the glacial abode was unsuccessful—I questioned my wisdom for overnight adventure.
The mandatory tutorial shared the scoop: “We’ll teach you what to do and what not to do to have a good time.” Tips included the expected: dress in layers, wear no cotton and go to bed completely dry. But it was the unexpected that I’ll remember. Rule 1: If you’re wearing leather boots, stuff them with socks after setting them aside for the night. A woman who didn’t awoke to frozen footwear, necessitating her to be carried from her ice room to reception where her boots were blown dry to room temperature. Rule 2: Don’t set anything—keys, jewelry, cameras—on the solid ice bedside table. Its heat will cause the item to melt into the frozen furniture.
Fortifying myself with a vodka cocktail served in an ice glass in the Ice Bar, I braved the outdoors to be warmed by the Jacuzzi, adhering to Rule 3: Before retiring, get your body toasty warm. Settling into Room 16, I slept within an Arctic-rated sleeping bag atop a wooden frame upon a carved-from-ice bed. Upon rising I congratulated myself and mentally crossed the surreal scene from my checklist; but when viewed from the perspective of sunrise the elite event became an extraordinary one, for it unveiled a six-week, 50 person and 30,000 tons of snow endeavor of Disneyland proportions.
Mardi Gras meet Winter Olympic Games. This Canadian visit took me beyond cafés and croissants to an oh-so-different destination, a cold weather cool one where Carnival was the epicenter of activity.
Winter’s Québec City. The right time. The right place. It matters. Joyeux Carnaval!
Québec Winter Carnival 2015: January 30 – February 15.