Description: Winter Wonderland

Robert! C’est Bonhomme! The young mother is truly excited to see Bonhomme, the massive, smiley-faced white mascot of Carnaval, Quebec City’s winter carnival, step out of his special bus by the outdoor skating rink at Place D’Youville. Bonhomme waves to crush of tiny fans trying to touch him, and, in his signature move, lifts his leg to touch his hand. I realize Bonhomme is in much better shape than I am.

When Bonhomme takes to the ice, Robert squeals with delight and waves. His mother scrunches him close, storing a memory for the rest of their lives, and guides Robert’s hands together for mitten-muffled applause. For someone like me at my first winter carnival it’s an astonishing display of genuine excitement. Even the teenagers are more excited by Bonhomme than I’ve seen children and parents get over Santa Claus.

It’s fascinating to see how Bonhomme is viewed here. His appearance makes people smile and excites children and some not so small residents. Nathalie Guay, who works with Quebec City Tourism, told me, ”I was excited when Bonhomme addressed my by name and I was an adult when he did!” she smiled a type of naughty, girlish smile as if confessing a deep dark secret, like a first crush.

Smile and Laughter

Bonhomme is more than a mere mascot. He’s part of fabric of winter in Quebec and its spirit. His big smiley face inspires people to come out and play. I spend the greater part of winter burrowed in, waiting for it to all go away. But Quebecers are a different stock: they don’t seem prepared to sacrifice so much of their year in denied gratification. We live in a winter country, so they make the best of it.

And, as much as I am not a fan of post-Christmas Canada, Quebec City is one of those destinations that work in winter, like Mount Tremblans, Banff, Lake Louise, or Whistler. (Of course, when I’m in these locations, I have the luxury of not worrying about practical things like shovelling the front walk and moving the car for the snow plough.)

Description: Smile and Laughter

As cold as Quebec City gets in winter (my secret is silk long johns they aren’t bulky under clothes, are really warm, and can be washed and dried overnight) it looks great draped in snow. The Norman architecture is just so damn romantic. There’s a soulful warmth that comes from the beams of light that fall from the double-paned widows of sturdy stone buildings onto snowy cobblestones. Inviting, joyful whiffs of music jump into the night air each time a door opens. And there are the smiles and laughter. Perhaps people are on their best behaviour during a party, but it’s a pleasant change to see happiness in February. Normally I find February such a grim month.

But Carnava is like revisiting Christmas without the pressure to find gifts for everyone. There’s great food, plenty of drink, lots of activities, and happy crowds to socialize with. You don’t find carollers, but you can be entertained by the acts performing on stage in front of the Ice Palace at Place du Ville, across from the massive Victorian Legislature. There’s a short review: on this evening, it was a team who did acrobatics with flaming torches, followed by a DJ and dancing. The ice castle was washed in the ever-changing hues of coloured lights as a mass of dancers moved in unison to the music.

Between them and the road is a ring of food stall and carts selling everything from barbecue to beavertails (the pastry, not the actual animal part). You may even find caribou for sale. Caribou is the unofficial drink of Carnaval. It’s a potent, blood-warming, sometimes breath-taking mixture that can contain vodka, brandy, sherry, and red wine or variations thereof. Sometimes it’s sweetened with maple syrup. More than one person will be wielding a plastic cane full of the stuff or have a bottle on reserve in an inner pocket. It’s a tonic for circulation and sinuses.

Each evening of Carnaval, there’s something different to experience. Two nights there are massive parades with thousands of participants. One is in a suburb to bring the carnival to the most people, and another night it marches through the downtown. Because it’s an event held in the dark, this parade employ lots of lights, fireworks, torches, music, and bright costumes. It’s something like an electrified circus parade. Dress warmly because it lasts over an hour.

Even if you opt out of planned evening events, there are plenty of do it yourself options. Back where o first saw Bonhomme, you can rent skates if you didn’t pack your own and join the crow on the ice. It’s also a trip to walk the streets of Quebec City. Window displays are fun and there’s no end of pubs and bars to take in. There’s a great jazz club Thursday, Friday, and Saturday starting at 9 p.m. in the art deco Hotel Clarendon on Rue Sainte-Anne. I like to make a type of pilgrimage to the Saint Alexander Pub (look for the Union Jack flying on Rue Saint-Jean), which is a real beer pub. The food menu is three pages long, while their beer menu is four pages. They have over 265 types of beer, from Canada, France, Belgium, Denmark, China, Scotland, Italy, Holland, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, Switzerland, and Germany.

Spas and Toboggans

Description: The ice hotel

The ice hotel


What Carnaval did for me was wake me up to the possibilities of having fun and shaking off the winter doldrums. I felt inspired to do more than sit in front of a television.

Winter is a challenge for me because I don’t skate, ski, or snowmobile, but I’ve discovered a love for snowshoeing. And modern snowshoes are so much easier to put on and walk in than the old wooden ones of my youth.

I did two snowshoeing experiences. One was to join a small tour on the Plains of Abraham. So, a short walk from my hotel to Maison de la Découverte, I followed a guide across the Plains of Abraham. In very short order, we left 20th-century high rises behind and were enveloped in a wooded urban landscape punctuated with Victorian bandstands, ornate light stands, and ancient defensive towers and battlements.

For those with a competitive streak, there are dogsled races and soapbox derbies in the old city, and horse and carriage racing on the Plains. There’s also an outdoor fair with ziplining, sliding, and even a Ferris wheel at the base of the Citadel. This is also where you’ll fid the most amzing ice sculptures. I was at Carnaval early enough to watch teams from around the world work on their projects; later I came back to see the fantastical temporary art they had created.

So inspired was I by Carnaval that I went to le Nordique Spa, one of Quebec’s 20 nature spas. Don’t panic: nature doesn’t mean nudist. It means the spa is half inside, half outside. Le Nordique, about a 30 minute drive north of the city, cascades down a forested hillside to the Jacques Cartier River. A main building houses reception area, changing rooms, and café. Below are a series of hot- and cold-water pools and several more buildings housing saunas, steam rooms, solariums, and treatment rooms (for massage only). The idea is to go at your own speed, warming up, cooling down, and repeating as necessary or desired. And there I was, Mr. I’m not keen on cold, strolling snow-lined paths in a bathing suit in 12 degree weather. My skin tingled, but in a good way. This is a real treat because no appointment is necessary (unless you want a massage); you just show up and linger. And it’s cheap. Admission is $39 for the whole day.

Description: Village Vacances Valcartier

Village Vacances Valcartier

If you want to do something with grandchildren or release the inner child in yourself, check out the Village Vacances Valcartier, about a 30-minute drive from the city. School bring busloads of children here to get outside in the fresh air and pal. They have a hill and 42 slides, so you can get on a toboggan or choose from several styles of rubber and slide down the hill. I did it, and it was a kick. I haven’t done that since puberty! They also have a one-kilometre-long skating trail through the woods. And, if you have harder to please teenagers, consider go carting on ice. I was a bit gutless, but it gives you an insight into how they’ll drive your or their parents’ car when you’re not looking.

Another nearby out of city option is Rand Orientation at Le Manoir du Lac Delage. This is basically a scavenger hunt on snowshoes. You’re given a compass and map and set out to find a course through the woods. It’s another fun family outing.

While you’re wheeling around the countryside, you might as well stop by the Ice Hotel. The idea of sleeping in a hotel made of ice has no appeal to me. I like central heating and a bathroom close by-but it’s an amazing facility and well worth taking in. During the day-the rooms are closed to non-guests in the evening you can tour the hotel, the bar, the chapel, and the 36 rooms and suites.

Adrenalin Junkies

Description: Adrenalin Junkies

Of course, the most exciting aspect of Carnaval has to be the canoe race across a partially frozen St. Lawrence River. This is madness and it’s awfully exciting.

Teams start at the inner harbour. They hold on to their canoe and run over ice until they find open water. Then they jump in and paddle like mad, navigating their way between ice flows until that’s impractical or too dangerous, then jump out and run some more with their canoe. Talk about adrenalin junkies.

The day before the race I took the ferry across the river from Quebec City to Lévis. It’s a major distance to row in good weather, but the ice flows are killers. These are serious pieces of ice that, if you’re caught between, could easily crush you if you didn’t drown first or die of hypothermia. So watching these crews head out, even on a sunny Sunday afternoon, was exciting.

The paddlers are lean, fit, and powerful. The local longshoremen told me that the crews train year round. They’re out at 5 .m. five morning a week, practicing.

Watching the race, I nearly froze and could only think of the discomfort of those competitors whose feet went into the water as they raced across ice flows. I could see that the rowing, running, pushing, and pulling would keep their upper bodies warm, but then I saw feet going into  water as they ran over ice and jumped into their canoes. And since their shoes have cleats they need the traction on ice: even their paddles have cleats. I wondered how many boats have been punctured by a bad jump by a crewman.

Quebec’s winter carnival wasn’t just fun; it gave me a new appreciation for what I normally saw as those grim, dull, long months of winter. No more wasting time for me. Vive le Carnaval!

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