QUEBEC CITY, Canada - Experience the ambiance of Europe without jet lag!
Welcome to Quebec City's 58th Winter Carnival. This carnival is the biggest winter festival in the world, generating major economic, social and tourism spin-offs for the Quebec City area.
Its uniqueness lies in its true Nordic setting. From the opening of the 58th carnival to the end of our visit, the thrills colored our cheeks and so did the temperature and wind blowing off the St. Lawrence River.
Bonhomme, the official mascot of the annual Quebec Winter Carnival, is an ambassador for all things snow- and cold-related. ‘‘Bonhomme’’ translates to ‘‘snowman’’ in English.
Photos by Frederica Dunn
Quebec City, the world's snow capital, held its first winter festival in 1894 with the erection of its ice castle. It was an elaborate celebration providing welcome relief from the harsh cold winter. Then, in 1955, a group of local businessmen decided to revive the carnival as a good way to stimulate the economy during the long winter months.
Carnival activities reflect the character and tastes of modern-day participants, but they also include many of Quebec's famous traditions. For two weeks in January and February, the ever-present Carnival's Master ''Le Bonhomme'' (Snowman) will preside over a diversified program of events designed to encourage public participation.
The Plains of Abraham park, the main setting for the carnival, is transformed into a huge playground for the young-at-heart. You can take part in games, snow rafting, sleigh rides, outdoor sports and cultural events. Nearly 1 million people participate in Quebec's Winter Carnival, with an economic spin-off pegged at $48 million.
BIENVENUE AU QUEBEC
Our weekend started off with a bang as we were greeted by the infamous Bonhomme. This snowy mascot gave us all a big hug.
Quebec Hilton was our home and is located outside a gate to the Old City. My room had a breathtaking panoramic view of Old Quebec and the St. Lawrence River. We began our day with a large buffet breakfast served at the Allegro restaurant.
First thing each morning, we bundled up and headed for the carnival grounds - a short walk from our hotel. Entering the historic St. Louis gate, we made our way to the incredible snow sculptures. These huge snow images are carved on site by teams of artists from a variety of countries. A cash reward goes to the competition winner.
Next, we came upon Bonhomme's fascinating ice castle. I have never seen anything like it. Visitors from countries around the world lined the paths and children were everywhere.
Every year, teams of 15 people persevere for nearly two months to create this largest snow sculpture in the world. Nearly 9,000 tons of snow are packed into blocks, sculpted and laid side by side according to an artist's plan to form an immense structure measuring 50 meters across, 20 meters high and 20 meters deep.
We were drawn to the games like a magnet. What fun to be towed up the hill on a tire tube. Hilarious laughter followed our many attempts to catch the rope and plop down in the middle of the tube as it swept by. Trying to jump out of it at the top of the hill was even more difficult with our many layers of clothing. Children were quite adept at ''riding the tubes'' and found us great fun to watch with all our mishaps.
Our next venture was the ''tornado.'' Climbing into this large yellow raft that whizzed down the hill, spinning in circles, left everyone screaming and laughing. As we hit large snow bumps, I was sure that it might be my last ride ever.
My favorite was the bumper car that operated on crusty ice. Strapped in I felt like a race car driver, but without any worries about turning over. Lots of direct hits with my team mates left us in good spirits and ready for the next challenge.
A favorite viewing platform was in front of the Derby competition with horse-drawn sleighs competing from all countries. Free hot chocolate was a plus.
Soon the crowd wedged into a small space and went wild as Bonhomme stepped onto the stage. He appears everywhere during the two-week carnival.
An old folk tradition requires Bonhomme to wear an ''arrowhead sash'' around his waist. In years past, the sash was worn around the waist to protect the back or worn for the warmth it provided. All true carnival-goers wear it as a badge of pride.
THRILLS AND CHILLS GUARANTEED
The legendary International Canoe Race was a true test of courage and determination. Teams from around the world attempted to cross the mighty St. Lawrence battling ice floes, treacherous currents and Arctic temperatures.
Quebec's brightly lit night parades were the most colorful part of its program. This exciting event featured fabulous floats, bands, clowns and others even more crazily dressed.
The Quebec Carnival is truly an unforgettable experience with lots of color, variety and excitement. Between snow rafting and sculpture-viewing or the ice canoe races on the frozen St. Lawrence River or rocketing down the ice slide 120 meters long, you won't find a lack of things to do. The cold ceases to be a handicap, and becomes an asset for taking part in the festivities and enjoying winter.
The Carnival and its ''mascot'' - Bonhomme Carnaval - are very closely identified with Quebec City.
The Palace of the Carnival's King, Bonhomme, captures the imagination. Entering it will grant you access to the new igloo-shaped discotheque, a large dome where the DJs will get you dancing in the open air. The lighting creates sensational effects and the celebration will leave you with enchanted memories.
One of the most exciting events is SKI Joring, a team discipline made up of a horse and rider and a skier. The skier is pulled by the horse using a wire and they must perform jumps, ski around cones and grab rings as quickly as possible, over a race course of 250 meters. It is a very colorful sport and full of excitement.
A sight to see are the 80 courageous men and women who show their bathing suit colors when they take three dips in the snow, interspersed with short breaks out of the cold. A must for these brave souls is a ''caribou'' drink of heated red wine and vodka - quite potent.
Returning to our hotel cold and tired, we headed to the delightful year-round heated pool for a relaxing dip before dinner.
A special treat was dinner at the Chateau Frontenac's Cafe de la Terrasse. Lavish buffets are featured with specific themes. We arrived for the Friday evening seafood buffet in a casual and relaxed setting and dined overlooking the Carnival lights lit up over the St. Lawrence River.
Another evening dinner was hosted by the Cafe de la Paix in the heart of Old Quebec with authentic French ambiance. This lovely restaurant features several dining rooms in a romantic setting with soft French music and a friendly attentive staff.
When interviewed, Bonhomme Carnaval told us he embarks on an extensive goodwill tour after the close of each year's festivities visiting places such as Brazil, Europe, Japan, China and elsewhere.
More than 100 foreign journalists attend the Carnival every year, helping to attract thousands of visitors with their media coverage.
So dress warm, bring some friends and explore the Quebec Winter Carnival!
WHERE TO STAY AND DINE
Hilton Hotel: located just outside the Old City gate with a great view of the St. Lawrence River. The Allegro restaurant serves excellent buffets and a delicious brunch.
Le Chateau Frontenac: located high on a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River in the heart of Old Quebec. This beautiful old castle-like hotel is a historic landmark. The Cafe de la Terrasse affords excellent food in a ''room with a view.''
Cafe de la Paix: a famous restaurant in Old Quebec with old-world ambiance and a lovely rustic setting featuring a meat and potatoes kitchen to continental cuisine - something to please all palates.
Musee National des Beaux-arts du Quebec: an excellent art museum that features landmark works by Quebec's most famous artists. A picturesque cafe restaurant is perfect for lunch or tea after touring the exhibits.