It was blizzarding in Quebec City; the forecast was calling for ten inches of snow and a high temp of 8°F. You’d think this would’ve been a day to stay home, but no, that’s not how the Quebecois roll. They bundle up the kids, put grandma on a ski-wheelchair (no joke!), and pack their Caribou mulled wine because it’s time to carnaval!! The Carnaval de Quebec tradition started in 1894 with some dudes just looking to get silly in the snow, then by 1954 it was an annual tradition across the city. Today it’s the world’s biggest winter carnival, rocking for 10-17 days with over 200 activities and 500,000 party-goers. We heard about it when researching the best winter festivals for the “Snow & Ice” chapter of Ultimate Journeys for Two, and put it on our calendar for the following year. Come January 2018, the time had come to fly into the UNESCO World Heritage City with our best long johns to enjoy winter like only the Quebecquois can.
Quebec City from Above
We checked into the Hilton Quebec, the official hotel of Carnaval, and were greeted by Richard the concierge…a man in his 60s, adorned in almost as many Carnaval commemorative pins. “Bienvenue au Québec. You are going to love this festival,” he said in an endearing French Canadian accent. “From your room you can see Bonhomme’s ice palace, the Nordic village, the walls of the Old City, and the St. Lawrence River where the ice canoe race happens.” The wall-to-wall windows were like a 3-D map to plot our four days of fun.
Before we were swept into the whirlwind of festivities, we got our bearings with a tour of the old city and a crash course on its 400+ years of history. French explorers saw this spot, where the river narrows between the steep cliffs, as the perfect place to start a colony. Working with the foreboding terrain, they built walls around what is now the only fortified city north of Mexico. We entered the ramparts, and truly felt as if we were in France, with all the charm of narrow cobblestone streets, 18th-century homes, grand churches, and trendy cafes—but with even friendlier people and more English spoken. The city had fully embraced winter, with miles of groomed cross-country ski trails in the central park and a dozen ice skating rinks set up around town. Sure it was chilly, but people were happy and that alone makes you feel warmer.
Bonhomme’s Ice Palace
Now to get to the heart of the Carnaval: Bonhomme’s Palace. A giant snowman wearing a sash and doing leg-kick dance moves, Bonhomme is the King of Winter and Carnaval. The Quebecois relate him to Santa Claus, but better because he only makes trips to their province and sticks around for more than one night. We entered his 1,800-ice-block palace and each corridor was an interactive spectacular of lights, music, and games. His backyard was the ultimate playground with human foosball, log races, floor hockey, First-Nations crafts, and activities for all ages.
The Grand Allée
The festivities continued up the Grand Allée, a main thoroughfare taken over by ice slides, fire pits, musicians, curling rinks, and an international ice sculpting competition. We were here in pure sunshine and then again in a blizzard; the same volume of people was out smiling ear to ear.
A theme that ran through the Carnaval was Quebec heritage—from First Nations, French pioneers, lumberjacks, fur traders, to hockey players. In addition to impressive multi-media displays and a mechanical moose, Camp à Jos got old-school with ax-throwing, wood cutting, and taffy made with nothing more than maple syrup and snow.
From the pioneer activities at Camp à Jos to the Village Nordik, Carnaval is also a light-hearted course in winter survival. At the Port of Quebec, Canadian kids and Californians alike had the chance to hang out in igloos and try their hand at ice fishing. Get a bite and the Old Port Market will cook it for you with a side of hash browns. (Or if you’re like Anne, you freak out when you catch one and try to put it back as fast as you can).
Eat Well, Stay Warm
They say eating a hearty meal is essential to staying warm. (You don’t need to twist our arm.) We took this opportunity to try poutine at Le Chic Shack, fondue at Shaker, and a five-course tasting menu at Restaurant Légende. All were delicious but Légende was easily one of the best vegetarian dining experiences we’ve ever had. Let’s start with our martini…it arrived in a bell jar filled with maple smoke. Sipping gin with hints of pine and smokey maple in the air, we were transported to a campfire in the forest. We sampled tofu that was as creamy as custard and eggplant caviar that could have been Beluga. Each item on the seasonal menu was inspired by their Quebecois roots (if it’s not local, they don’t serve it) and offered sustainable dining at its finest.
The Ice Canoe Race
Remember how we said, we featured the Carnaval de Quebec in Ultimate Journeys for Two? The Ice Canoe Race may have been the event that won us over. We timed our trip to ensure we could attend this one-day bonanza, where 60 teams storm the semi-frozen St. Lawrence River. Kitted up in dry suits, carbon fiber crew boats, and crampons, they scoot along the ice until they hit the “open water.” It was a battle of icebergs, strong currents, blizzard conditions, and borderline insanity. Crazy or not, these guys deserved a cheering section so we joined thousands of fans for this uniquely Canadian spectacle.
The Night Parade
As Saturday night fell, the parade sparked up. Six hundred performers, 18 floats, 7 dance companies, and 11 animators brought winter scenes to life. To stay warm through the festivities, we took the local tip…drink Caribou. Everyone has their own twist on this mulled wine recipe; we went with a mélange of cinnamon, maple syrup, orange peel, and Cabernet Sauvignon. With a fire in our belly and music in the air, we danced alongside the duchesses, lumberjacks, icebergs, and more fanciful characters until Bonhomme blew a kiss goodnight. Watch this Instagram Stories video compilation for carnival in action.
Le Monastère Detox
After four days of partying, it was time for a detox at the Le Monastère des Augustines…Canada’s oldest monastery and hospital turned into a wellness hotel. We walked into a modern glass building, only to find it was encompassing a 17th-century stone facade. Our floor was renovated with contemporary suites, though if you’d like a taste of monastic life you can stay in the original dormitories, complete with centuries-old antiques. We woke up early for yoga and a healthy breakfast, taken in silence. To uphold their tradition of healing and service, the Le Monastère is a non-profit that benefits caretakers, social workers, and families with ill loved ones.
North America’s Ice Hotel
With rejuvenated body and mind, we were ready to take on our last adventure: a night in a world-renowned ice hotel. Made of 70 million pounds of snow and ice, Hôtel de Glace stays between 23-27°F at all times to keep the walls, furniture, and art from melting. We were a bit nervous as we went into our orientation on surviving in a below-freezing suite, but felt better when we heard the routine involved an exclusive cocktail hour at the ice bar and reveling in the hot tub. By the time we walked through the arches of the Hôtel de Glace, we were 100% on board. The walls were sculpted with fanciful scenes of circus animals, acrobats, and jugglers. An ice slide had kids squealing with glee and a cocktail bar serving cheeky drinks like the “Ski-Doo Accident” and “Sex on the Ice” had the adults giggling just the same. It is too dazzling to fully describe, you’ll just have to watch our video tour to grasp a fraction of its magic.
You’ve gotta love while most people in the north are counting the days until the spring thaw, Quebec comes up with more and more reasons to fall in love with the cold.