Let it Snow! Quebec’s Winter Carnival

Originally published in Health & Money Magazine

When faced with the prospect of six months of sub-zero temperatures and as many feet of snow, most people will lay in a supply of junk food, lay our the shortest route to the video store, and resign themselves to the inevitable.

Not so in Quebec. Adopting the attitude that if you can’t change it, you may as well celebrate it, the Quebecois throw what might just be the best winter party in North America.

Part street party, part artistic festival, part historical display, and – in total – pure fun, this year’s dates are January 30th to February 15th.

Everywhere you go, you’ll see people wearing small plastic figurines of a smiling, waving snowman. That’s Bonhomme, the mascot of Carnival. Sales of Bonhomme are the main way of raising funds to pay for the festival. It’s a nominal charge, and the figurine serves as your admission to those events requiring one.

The heart of Carnival is the Ice Palace, a huge structure made completely from large blocks of ice. It’s located just outside the main gates into the old walled city. It serves as a central meeting point and as the stage for outdoor performances by signing groups, dancers, and theatrical troupes. Colored lights playing across the through the structure at night only add to its magical atmosphere.

Battlefield Park, adjacent to the Ice Palace, is the center for activities. There’s an avenue of snow sculptures created by over 20 teams from around the world. You can watch as they carve and mold the huge mounds of hard-packed snow into serious, whimsical, or abstract sculptures.

Believe it or not, you’ll also find a bona fide miniature golf course – made out of snow. As a concession to eyesight and sanity, the rules are bent a little. Non-regulation, bright orange balls are used. There aren’t any water hazards, either. Seems they freeze up just a bit too quickly.

Concentration on that critical putt might be broken when the dog sleds go by. Teams of deliriously happy, madly barking Malamutes spend Carnival dragging sleds through the park. You don’t actually get to drive the sled; you’re a passenger sitting on the sled while a trainer drives the dogs. Still, you’ll definitely identify with Jack London by the time the ride is over.

The ice-clogged, swiftly flowing St. Lawrence River is nearly impassible during the winter. From the top of the cliffs of the old city, the view is impressive. Over half the river is frozen solid, while the rest is pockmarked with chunks of floating ice being carried seaward by the fast-moving water.

Before there were bridges connecting the shores, people living on the opposite shoreline used a ferry service of massive canoes powered by five-man crews who alternately rowed and dragged the boats through and across the ice.

That tradition continues with the International Canoe Ice Race. Teams go upstream, cross the river, down stream, and re-cross the river to the starting point. Twice. It’s hard to say who’s more insane – the crews on the canoes (who are at least moving and are probably relatively warm, considering where they are) or the spectators who line the shore to cheer them on.

At least the spectators can get out of the cold and find fortification. In Quebec, that’s known as Caribou. It’s a strong drink of whiskey and red wine. It tastes about as ‘intriguing’ as it sounds.

The legend is that it was made with caribou blood and whiskey, exactly the sort of thing half-frozen, isolated French trappers might have concocted. True or not, it’s a good story. Whether the switch from caribou blood to red wine improved the taste is purely subjective.

The place to try Caribou is Chez Ti-Pere (25, Place de Paris). The underground pub was opened by Ti-Pere, one of the founders of Carnival. The rabbit warren of rooms is jam-packed with Carnival memorabilia. You’ll be jostled by other revelers while listening to the unique strains of Quebec accordion music. When you can feel your feet again, you know it’s time to head back outside.
Sooner or later, you’ll need to get inside for longer than it takes to tipple some Caribou. The temperatures are often in the 20-below zero range – before the wind chill is factored in – and Gore-Tex can only provide so much protection.

Fortunately, Quebec has far more museums than a city of its size should reasonably support. Also fortunately, for those of whose French is limited to “Le plume est sur la table,” almost all signs are bi-lingual.

On the historical side, there is the Musee de le Civilisation. Permanent displays tell the story of the development of Quebec, while temporary shows have covered everything from Amazonian jungle medicines, the ancestors of Ghengis Kahn, the search for dependable food sources around the world, and the charm of dolls.

A single bullet changed the course of history in North America. A pivotal battle saw a French general killed in the opening minutes of the fight. Had he survived and the French won, the British would have headed home. No Boston Tea Party. No American Revolution.

To learn more about that mostly-forgotten (in the US, anyway) event and the rest of Quebec’s extensive military history, visit the Museee du Fort on the Place d’Armes for the diorama and sound & light show, “The Six Sieges of Quebec.” Nearby is a wax museum housed in one of the city’s oldest buildings, historic chapels, and a museum devoted to Ursuline nuns, who’ve played a major role in Quebec.

The Musee de Quebec is the main art gallery. It’s one of the few major attractions not within the walls of the old city. It’s an impressive structure in its own right, housed within three linked pavilions, including the former Quebec City prison. Permanent displays focus on Quebec’s cultural heritage, with paintings, drawings, prints, gold and silver works, and decorative arts. Sunder morning brunch in the restaurant overlooking the St. Lawrence River is a good way to start a museum tour.

The museum is not the only source for art in Quebec. Along the rue St. Paul, there are several small, friendly galleries with an eclectic assortment of styles and subjects. This is also the area where you’ll find Quebec’s antiques row. Again, it’s not particularly large, but variety and quality make up for the lack of size.

The Quartier Petit Champlain is North America’s first shopping mall. The narrow lane is the oldest street on the continent. They might not have had Visa cards back then, but plastic is popular along rue Petit Champlain now, since it’s lined with interesting shops and bistros. You’ll find unusual gifts, leather goods, Amerindian and Inuit crafts, and boutiques. The larger, trendier shopping and nightlife district is found along the Grand Allee and rue St. Paul, not far from the Musee du Quebec.

Rue Petit Champlain is at the foot of the cliffs along the riverbank. Unless you want the ultimate stair-and-step aerobic workout on the Escalie Casse-cou (which roughly translates as the Breakneck Stairs), ride the Funicilar. The cog car runs on rails up the cliff to the plaza by the famous hotel, Chateau Frontenac, bringing you back into the heart of the Carnival’s action.

What you need to know:
WEATHER: Most folks living in the Lower 48 are not prepared for the intensity of the Quebec cold. Plan to dress in several layers of warm clothing. Gloves, scarves, and hats are absolute necessities. Schedule your activities so you are not outside for more than an hour or so at a time. This is easy to do, since Quebec is a compact city.

LANGUAGE: Unlike what happens in Paris, non-French speaking Americans are treated very warmly. As the locals point out, they are not French; they are North Americans with a French heritage. You’ll be greeted in French when you enter shops and restaurants, but if you answer in English, the rest of the conversation will be in English. They are amused, and appreciative, when visitors try to speak their language.

MONEY: The US dollar is worth anywhere from 35-50% more in Canada. Exchanging money is easy. Banks generally give a better rate of exchange than hotels. Many places accept US currency. Expect a discount reflecting the current exchange rate in those places.

HOTELS & B&Bs: The major franchise hotels are located outside the walled city. They are convenient to Carnival activities and are well priced. But Quebec City is the only walled city in North America. Its old stone walls, narrow streets, and European architecture make it a more appealing choice. Price and location-wise, there is little, if any difference.
Chateau Frontenac is the massive hotel sited atop the cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence River. A true luxury hotel, it offers several Carnival packages that are especially appealing given the exchange rate. Even if you don’t stay there, take one of their tours. You’ll visit the room where the D-Day invasion was planned – with the plans left sitting on a table when the meeting ended.

You’ll also find some wonderful B&Bs near the Quartier Petit Champlain. Chez Marie-Claire and Chez Hubert, both on the rue St. Ursule in the Old City are small and very comfortable. The Chateau Bellevue on rue Laporte also has a view of the St. Lawrence, while Le Manoir Lafayette and Hotel Chateau Grande-Allee are both close enough to the walls of the Old City to almost qualify as being inside them.

FOOD: As you might expect in a city with a strong French heritage, the food in Quebec is wonderful. If you want to try traditional Quebec dishes, visit Aux Anciens Canadiens on rue St. Louis. Each dining room is decorated in traditional Quebec rural style, and the wait staff wears traditional garb. Gambrinus on 15 rue de Fort has a well-deserved reputation for innovative cuisine using local produce and game. If you have an urge for Italian food, Portofino at 54 rue Couillard is considered the best in town. The additional bonus is that the restaurant is surrounded by some of the most interesting shops in the Old City. The Chateau Frontenac has several gourmet-class restaurants as well as a bountiful, all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. Away from the Old City, rue St. Paul and the Grande Allee are the places to look for small bistros and restaurants.