The young mother is truly excited to see BonHomme, the smiley faced, massive white mascot of Quebec City’s Winter Carnival, step out of his special bus parked by the outdoor skating rink at Place D’Youville. BonHomme waves to a crush of tiny fans trying to touch him, and, in his signature move, lifts his leg to touch his hand. It was then I realized BonHomme is in much better shape than me.
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 have 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 me by name, and I was an adult when he did!” She smiled a type of naughty, girlish smile as if just confessing a deep dark secret, like a first crush.
BonHomme, I realize, is obviously more than a mere mascot. He’s part of the fabric of winter in Quebec and it’s spirit. His big smiley face inspires people to come out and play, versus someone like me who spends the greater part of winter, burrowed in waiting for it to all go away. But Quebeckers 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 embrace it.
Quebec City is one of those destinations that work in winter, like Mount Tremblant, Banff, Lake Louise or Whistler. But then when we are in these locations we have the luxury of not worrying about practical things like shoveling the front walk and moving the car for the snow plough.
And Quebec City, which is one of the most photogenic places on earth, looks great draped in snow. The Norman architecture is just so damn romantic. There is a soulful warmth that comes from little beams of light which fall from the double-paned windows of sturdy stone buildings onto snowy cobblestones. Then there are inviting, joyful whiffs of music jumping into the night air each time a door opens. Plus ever present laughter and smiles.
Winter Carnival in Quebec 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. On the evening I attended there was a short review comprised of an acrobatic team performing with flaming torches, followed by a DJ and dancing. It’s fun to watch the ice castle be washed in an ever-changing hue of coloured lights then shift my gaze to the pulsating irregular silhouette of a mass of dancers as they move in unison to the music. Between them and the road is a ring of food stalls and carts, selling everything from barbecue to beavertails (the pastry, not the actual animal part). You may even find Caribou for sale. Caribou, in this instance, is the unofficial drink of Carnival. It’s a potent, blood-warming, sometimes breath-taking mixture somewhat like a provincial version of Long Island Ice Tea, than can contain vodka, brandy, sherry and red wine or variations thereof. Sometimes it’s cut with maple syrup. More than one person will have a bottle on reserve in an inner pocket. It’s a tonic for circulation and sinuses.
Each evening of Carnival there is something different to experience. Two nights there are massive parades with thousands of participants. One is in a suburb, another night it marches through the downtown. Because it’s an event held in the dark, this parade employs 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 I first saw BonHomme are skate rentals and public skating. It’s also a trip to walk the streets of Quebec City. Window displays are fun and there are no end of pubs and bars to take in. There’s a great jazz club Thursdays, Friday and Saturday, starting at 9 pm in the art deco Hotel Clarendon on Rue Sainte-Anne. I like to make a type of pilgrimage to the Pub Alexander, look for the Union Jack flying on Rue Saint-Jean, which is a real beer pub. Seriously, their food menu is three pages long while their beer menu is four pages. They have over 265 types of beer for sale from Canada, France, Belgium, Denmark, Columbia, China, Scotland, Italy, Holland, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, Switzerland and Germany.
Winter is a challenge for me because I don’t skate, ski or snowmobile. But, thanks to Carnival, I discovered a love for snowshoeing. Modern snowshoes are so much easier to put on and walk in that the old wooden ones of my youth. I did two snowshoeing experiences. One was to join a small tour on the Plains of Abraham with a guide dressed in ancient regime garb. 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 dog sled 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 find the most amazing ice sculptures. I was at Carnival early enough to watch teams from around the world work on their projects and then I could come back to see what fantastical temporary art they had created. It’s impressive that people posses the ability to translate a vision for snow and ice into a several ton, building-high creation.
Emboldened by the spirit of Carnival I went to le Nordique Spa. It’s one of Quebec’s 20 nature spas. Don’t panic, nature doesn’t mean nudist, it means it’s half inside, half outside. Le Nordique is a 30-minute drive from the city. It cascades down a forested hillside to the Jacques Cartier River. The 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 here I am, Mr. I’m-not-keen-on-cold, strolling snow-lined paths in a bathing suit in -12 degree weather. My skin is tingling, 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.
If you want to do something with grandchildren, children or release your inner child check out the Village Vacances Valcartier about a 30-minute drive from the city. Schools bring busloads of children here to get outside in the fresh air and play. They have a hill and 42 slides. You have a choice of toboggan or several styles of rubber raft to slide down the hill. They also have a one-kilometre-long skating trail through the woods, and, go-carting on ice.
Another nearby-out-of-city option is Rand Orientation at the Manoir du lac delage. This is basically a scavenger hunt on snowshoes. You’ve 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. Sleeping in a hotel made of ice has no appeal to me. I like central heating and a bathroom close by. That said, it’s an amazing facility and well worth taking in.
Of course the most exciting aspect of Carnival has to be the canoe race across a partially frozen St. Lawrence River. This is exciting madness. The day before the race I took the ferry across the river from Quebec City to Levis. Wow, 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.
The crews are lean, fit and powerful. Local longshoremen told me that the crews train year round. They’re out at 5 am five mornings a week, practicing.
Watching the race I damn near froze, and could only think of the discomfort of those competitors whose feet went in 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 – I wondered how many boats have been punctured by a bad jump by a crewman. (Even their paddles have cleats.)
There is a staggered start to the race. Teams start at the inner harbour. Holding their canoe, teams run over ice until they find open water. Then 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!
Quebec’s winter carnival wasn’t just fun, it’s inspiring. It shows how many ways we can embrace what can at times seem grim, dull, long months of winter and not to hibernating humans. It’s an alternative to the beach. Vive le carnival!
Plan your winter fun:
For information about the Quebec Winter Carnival/ Carnival de Quebec, January 30th to February 15th, 2015 go to www.carnaval.qc.ca
For other winter fun ideas check out:
The World Pond Hockey Championships, the ultimate in non-professional play as 130 men’s and women’s team gather outdoors in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick from February 12 – 15, 2015 http://worldpondhockey.pointstreaksites.com/view/worldpondhockey
Montreal offers a triple-header: La fête des Neiges de Montréal, your traditional winter carnival from January 17 – February 8, 2015 http://www.parcjeandrapeau.com/en/fete-des-neiges-de-montreal/ , the Montreal High Lights Festival, a cultural and food festival, February 19 – March 1, 2015 which includes Nuit blanche à Montréal (when museums and arts galleries stay open all night) www.montrealhighlights.com.
Ottawa celebrates Winterlude on weekends from January 30 to February 16, 2015. www.ottawafestivals.ca/festival/heritage/winterlude
Eagle Watch, Sheffields Mills, Kings County, Nova Scotia. This is an opportunity to see massive numbers of bald eagles up close and in one location. Visitors have counted as many as 48 adult birds in a single tree! There are also community breakfasts with live entertainment. January 31, February 1, 7 and 8, 2015. http://www.eaglens.ca
The Nova Scotia Icewine Festival takes place at Domain de Grand Pre, in the UNESCO World Heritage area of Grand Pre, from January 31st to February 8th, 2015. Combine discovering the hot new wines from the hot new wine area with the eagle watch. http://www.novascotia.com/events/festivals-and-events/icewine-festival-2015/-1181
Winnipeg digs into its roots to host the Festival du Voyageur, February 13 – 22, 2015 festivalvoyageur.mb.ca.
Prince Albert, Saskatchewan holds the Canadian Challenge Dog Sled Race, February 23-28, 2015 www.canadianchallenge.com. If you can’t get enough of dog sled racing, head to Whitehorse for the end of the Yukon Quest, the 1,000-mile race from Fairbacks, Alaska to here. The race starts February 7th in Alaska. http://www.yukonquest.com/
Too late for 2015, but next year check out Niagara Falls’ Winter Festival of Lights, which runs from November – January www.wfol.com , and neighbouring Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Icewine Festival, in mid-to-late January www.niagarawinefestival.com.