Embracing the Cold at the Quebec Winter “Carnaval”

Caribou, official drink of Quebec Winter Carnival…a potent mix of port wine, grain alcohol and maple syrup. Quebec City, Canada. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

I’m standing on a platform high above Quebec City’s Plains of Abraham while some guy is attaching my body harness to a long cable. One by one, my friends and I jump, swooping on a zip line over the clowns, the kids on toboggans, and the snow sculptures of Winter Carnaval’s Place Desjardins.

It’s cold. Probably close to zero. But nobody below seems to mind.

“This is how we celebrate winter,” the local behind us says before I leap. “It takes our mind off the weather. It’s a great reason to party.”

Those Quebecois are hardy souls. Let the temperature dip to 10 below and they just throw on another coat, another pair of socks, heavier mitts. And then they go outside and play. It’s the tourists you see in the Antarctic tour coats (I counted five). Locals favor long, fashionable wool and never those tubular neck gaiters. French to the core, Quebec is strictly a scarf culture.

Yes, Winter Carnaval (that’s the Quebecois way to spell Carnival) in Quebec is Mardi Gras in the snow. There are party horns galore, ingenious concoctions of alcohol, and unending soirees. And it’s a good enough excuse to have fun before the fasting and penitence of Lent that leads up to Easter. Of course, here it’s colder than New Orleans and Rio. A LOT colder. But what do you expect of a citywide party timed for the most frigid days of winter?

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You REALLY like winter and cold weather, especially outdoors.
  • You want to eat a lot of French food.
  • Good for: those who want to visit the closest thing North America has to a European city.

What Else Would You Do During Winter?

Quebec has celebrated Winter Carnaval since 1894, when city fathers decided the local population needed relief from the kind of winter that can drop 11 feet of snow between November and April. There were games, including a bicycle race on the ice, a mock war siege and what has become the centerpiece of the festival, an ice palace.

But things didn’t get serious until 1955 when Carnaval became a regular yearly event. Today, it is the third largest carnival after Rio and New Orleans, and the largest winter carnival on Earth. Of course, these days it’s not really religious at all — simply a good excuse to party during 17 days across three weekends in late January and early February. But while Winter Carnaval used to be more like a giant fraternity party, there has been an attempt in recent years to make it more family friendly.

Sliding down tubing run at snow play park on Plains of Abraham during Winter Carnival, Quebec City, Canada. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

So there are games — snow rafting, tightropes, ziplines, snow baths and outdoor shows. It’s all down on the Plains of Abraham, scene of the 20 minute battle in 1759 that handed Quebec to the British.

But plenty more is spread across the rest of this city of half a million people. Up on the walkway in front of the iconic Chateau Frontenac, you can ride a toboggan down ice tracks at speeds up to 40 mph. Or buy tiny cake cones filled with maple sugar or just stand and watch ferries chew their way through ice in the St. Lawrence River below. Along many streets, you will find outdoor bars built of ice blocks selling shots of “caribou.” Not exactly gourmet fare, caribou is a wicked mix of grain alcohol, port wine and, of course, since this is Quebec, maple syrup. At zero, it hits the spot, perfectly.

“You’ve gotta try this. It IS Carnaval!” one mellowed-out reveler said, handing each of us a glass of blood red liquid before he tipped back his long red plastic horn and let loose with a wailing bleat.

And we swear, that same horn followed us all day. Or maybe not, but it seemed like it did.

Playing in the Snow 

There is a magic to Quebec City in winter. Snow covers everything, lending a soft layer of white to buildings, streets and shops. Lights twinkle everywhere — on trees, across balconies, around rooftops and outdoor displays, hung on horse carriages and windows and just about anything else that can be wrapped. It gives a golden glow to the entire scene, a warmth that permeates the most bitter cold.

We were there during the last weekend of Carnaval and we planned to play. After the zipline, there was a ride in a snow raft down a toboggan run. Half a dozen of us piled into the raft, squirming like puppies and shrieking with laughter as the round rubber boat spined and bounced off snow walls like a pinball.

Some folks went for a ride in a sleigh drawn by Belgian horses with huge, furry hoofs. A clown on a stage announced upcoming activities. Young moms protectively leaned out over toddler size ice slides to guide their kids down. Teens practiced walking a low tightrope.

Revelers roll and play in snow while dressed only in bathingsuits. Bonhomme, Carnival ambassador, joins the fun. Quebec Winter Carnival, Quebec City, Canada. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

And then the snow bath began. Bonhomme was there. He’s Carnaval’s huge, white snowman ambassador who looks like a cross between Frosty and the Michelin X man. Several absolutely insane people in bathing suits — skimpy lycra for heaven’s sake — were throwing snow in the air, rubbing it on their bodies, rolling in it and, of course, hugging the fat, puffy, white guy, who obligingly huged them back.

We missed the previous weekend’s canoe race, which is a shame. Talk about insanity. Before bridges, boatmen took people across the half frozen river in canoes. Today, teams of rowers run on ice, pushing their boats to open leads, then paddle, then run, then paddle some more. Someone eventually wins, giving all a good enough excuse to eat lots of drippingly rich tourtiere meat pie that night.

About this time, the idea of food sounded quite good. We took the funicular from Dufferin Terrace down to the lower streets of Old Town, one of the oldest neighborhoods in North America. Old Town is a maze of tightly packed stone buildings with steep roofs and bright colored trim. It’s where the city began in 1608; where craftsmen lived, then dockworkers.  Most of the buildings now house shops with clothing, antiques, jewelry, chocolates and ice sculptures out front of elks, bunnies, pigs and frogs.

We found mugs of steaming hot chocolate, topped with mounds of whipped cream. Surely the calories were being counteracted by all this cold.

That night, we all stood around while the Carnaval Parade flowed by with courageous kids in shiveringly skimpy elf costumes waving banners of balloons, clowns on five foot tall stilts, jesters, space aliens, dragons and, at the very end, Bonhomme in all his white puffiness.

And then, like any good tourist in Quebec, we headed to dinner in Old Town for something appropriately rich and soaked in wine sauce.

Icefishing on Lake St. James at Duchesnay, government park in Quebec, Canada. Here,woman pulls up trout from a hole cut in the ice. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Practicalities

In winter, there’s more to Quebec than just Carnival. Among your choices:

  • Winter play at Duchesnay, a government park — Guides lead dozens of activities including cross country skiing, a visit to a sugar shack, kicksledding, a forest winter survival class, skating, ice fishing and more. Contact
  • Nordic Spas — The latest trend is towards European style spas. More than just a place for facials and massages, nordic spas feature hot and cold pools, baths, showers, saunas and steam rooms. The idea is to alternate hot with cold and relaxation. From only one nordic spa a few years ago, there are now 20 such spas in Quebec Province. Zonespa, a half hour drive from Quebec City, offers four hot pools, four cold (including a  plunge into a river), steam, sauna, a cafe and relaxation areas along with the standard massage & facial fare. Contact
  • Visit a sugar shack — probably the most iconic thing you can do in this part of the world. Each spring, maple trees in Canada are tapped to produce 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup. It takes 40 litres of sap to make a single litre of syrup, which is then graded according to how pure and clear it is. Frankly, we prefer the nasty, dark stuff. It has more character. But the fun here is in the eating. Le Chemin du Roy, a 15 minute drive from Quebec City center, does a particularly good sugar shack meal: traditional French Canadian pea soup, maple smoked ham with plenty of syrup to pour on it, tourtiere (meat pie), baked beans, crepes, home made pork rinds. And then, out back, your hostess pours maple syrup on snow, then twirls it onto a stick to make maple taffy. Serious yum.

Next year’s Winter Carnaval runs Feb. 1 – 17 with extra festivities celebrating the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City.  There are over 300 events including the canoe race, soap box derby, dogsled race, snow bath, parades, ice sculpture contests, dances, dinners, and more.