Photography by Yuri Krasov
A California poppy for so many years, I usually shy away from cold, but my recent trip to the Carnaval de Quebec, the largest winter festival in the world, makes me look back with nostalgia now. My husband Yuri and I arrived at Jean-Lesage airport during an unexpected heat wave (Canadian style) with only minus seven Celsius. From our downtown Hilton window I watched icy St. Lawrence River, snow-covered Chateau Frontenac, and Ice Palace built near the Plains of Abraham – the Carnival grounds.
The palace belongs to Bonhomme de neige, a snowman, clad in a traditional red cap and arrowhead sash, which is the face, body, and soul of the Québec Winter Carnival. Tall, plump, and snowy-white, he shows up in crowded places and greets his followers with hugs and blow kisses, spreading joie de vivre. At night, blue, red, golden, and magenta lights are playing on the translucent walls of Bonhomme’s palace, built of sheer blocks of ice right across from the Parliament building.
As always, Quebec City – the jewel of Canada and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – was lovely, beautiful, and serene. Even more so under its fluffy snow covers. In the morning, the last night’s serenity yielded to cheerful celebrations all over town. We headed to Valcartier Village Vacances, hailed the largest winter playground in North America. It has dozens of slides for tubing and snow rafting; skating and ice carting paths, and mechanical lifts.
One look at the reckless teenage crowd lining up for Everest, a 110 feet long, practically vertical slide, made me discard that thrilling possibility right off. A high-speed zone Himalaya didn’t seem like my kind of slide as well. I dragged my individual inner tube to the kiddy slides, marked green, and then joined a snow rafting descent, and a Tornado ride in a large tube that seats eight. Oh, the fun we were having while it swirled madly downhill! Nothing brings strangers together like some good adrenaline rush and nervous laughter. Back at Hilton Quebec we had just enough time to grab a bite and try some Caribou – a carnival elixir made of brandy, red wine, port, honey, and maple syrup (with possible variations).
Soon we were off to the fabled CMQ Canoe Race preliminaries. Ice canoe race is definitely an extreme winter sport, and a big part of the Carnival. Teams of the best Canadian athletes, both men and women, brave the half-frozen St. Lawrence in the Port of Quebec, and take their canoes through icy waters, floating chunks of ice, and ice-covered passages at a mind-boggling speed.
At night, festive crowds flocked to the Ice Palace, where fire dancers were performing on stage and a combination of frosty air, loud rhythms, and Bohhomme’s short but sweet appearance sparked a Loto-Quebec outdoor dance party. The next day, we spent most of our time at the carnival grounds, feeling like a part of one big Quebecois/tourist family – among happy parents, bundled-up children, proud dog owners, well-dressed pooches, and 1,500 smiley volunteers in red parkas – always nice, kind, and attentive.
The central part of a city park, Place Desjardins, had the most attractions, like Natrel’s Great Ice Slide for the young and the bold; snow slides for rafting and tubing, dog sled rides, and Arctic spas. There was also WestJet Zipline, which I endured for the first time in my life, trying to look more dignified than an overdressed sausage, just hanging (sliding) there. A kind volunteer reassured me that I was doing fine as long as didn’t hit him on the head while landing.
We took an “art gallery” tour of the TELUS International Snow Sculpture Competition, with some of the giant figures being built right in front of our eyes, and elaborate ice sculptures, stored in a special tent to preserve their glassy surfaces, by artist Michel Lepire and his team. The best was yet to come. That evening, we traveled to Charlesbourg for a spectacular Carnival’s Night Parade with its colorful floats, awashed in light, freeze-resistant marching bands in elegant uniforms, dancers, clowns, and amazing stilt-walkers.
There were so many other things we wanted to see and do in Quebec on our short winter outing!
While my husband, an avid downhill skier, couldn’t get enough of brightly-lit night-time slopes of Stoneham, I preferred a snowshoe walk (once again, for the first time in my life). On a calm sunny morning, we joined our guide at Plaines d’Abraham for a briefing on the origins of snowshoeing. After we put on our old-fashioned snow shoes (ash frame and leather lacing) the snow-covered park became immediately accessible and wonderful to walk through in a leisurely steady pace.
I enjoyed my first snowshoeing experience so much, that the next day we signed up for a grand orientation adventure in Lac-Delage, a beautiful woody lakeside, with Le Manor du Lac Delage resort at the heart of it. This time, we were wearing modern aluminum-frame snow shoes, more compact and easier to walk in when heading up or downhill. I had to brush off my middle-school knowledge of compass and under our guide’s strict supervision follow the azimuth exactly, which involved plenty of climbing through the trees and up and down the rocks. The forest was white and quiet, the snow was falling beautifully, and no one seemed to mind all that straying away from the beaten path. I’m not sure we reached our goal in grand orienteering, but a delicious lunch at the resort’s Restaurant Le Gourmet Champetre seemed like a well-deserved reward.
And then there was a visit to a fairy tale Hotel de Glace (where I didn’t have the nerve to stay overnight). The only North-American ice hotel is an architectural and artistic wonder, even though it usually exists only through the last weekend of March. Ice and snow sculptures and ice beds are festively decorated with cold to the touch LED lights of brilliant colors.
Having a vodka and cranberry shot from an ice glass in the bar, while sitting on an ice bar stool by the ice bar table, I couldn’t help but feeling I was somewhere on a movie set. Alas, the ice hotel was the last stop on our journey. Next day we boarded Air Canada for a return flight home.