Breaking the Ice: Quebec City Winter Festival
by TREVOR AARONSON
Quebec City, Canada has a secret. Every Quebeçois knows the question, but none is willing to give the answer.
Each February, more than one million travelers descend on this tiny UNESCO World Heritage Site (the only walled city in North America) for the Quebec City Winter Festival, a 17-day celebration that's Canada's answer to Mardi Gras. Despite the cold weather (temperatures average about 10 degrees Fahrenheit), the event warms up visitors with everything from inner tube sliding to the Polar Bear Club, when Quebec's hardy few strip down to their sweet nothings and jump feet first into an icy lake.
In the Sporting Spirit
Meanwhile, adults and children ice skate on frozen lakes just outside the city walls. The adventurous put on skis or snowshoes and trek through the Plains of Abraham, while shoppers dart merrily in and out of stores throughout the Old City.
At night, both locals and visitors give way to pre-Lenten revelry. While the 20-somethings pack Quebec City's bars and clubs, the more mature set tokes on cigars and imbibes the potent local drink, caribou. Caribou once was just that - the local Algonquin Indians used to drink caribou blood. French settlers mixed vodka with the drink to cut the taste. Today, caribou substitutes port for blood, with the heady addition of brandy, vodka, and sherry.
Hosting the festival is a six-foot snowman called Bonhomme Carnaval - a figure created for the festival in 1954. He kicks off the event each year from an ice castle near the entrance of the city walls, and it's not difficult to spot him walking around town or riding a sled during the festival.
In fact, often you see Bonhomme posing for a photograph on one corner and then greeting kids in a storefront four blocks away - mascots multiplying like streetcorner Santas at Christmas. But despite the enigma's omnipresence, no one seems to know who's lurking beneath the puffy white Styrofoam, black saucer eyes and ample beer belly.
La Mode de Quebec
"It says something about the Quebeçois way of life," my friend Jean-Michel says over a beer at the Pub Saint-Alexandre in the Old City. "I bet everyone here knows a Bonhomme. They won't ever tell you so because they know Bonhomme's identity is to be guarded."
There's no secret, however, to why the festival takes place here: Quebec is ideal for winter sports. Located on the narrowest section of the St. Lawrence River and bordered by the Laurentian Mountains to the north, the city and its environs offer everything from snowshoeing to ice skating and Alpine skiing - the latter just a 20-minute drive from the city center at Mont-Sainte-Anne (800-463-1568) and Sentier des Caps de Charlevoix (866-823-1117).
Associated most with Carnaval de Quebec is dogsledding, or mushing - the event opens with a dogsled race through the city's narrow, snow-covered streets. The course winds along the St. Lawrence River and up the steep hill toward the famous green-roofed Château Frontenac. Crowds of people line the sidewalk the entire way to watch the sleds skid around turns and the dogs run in unison without making a sound.
But you don't need to be Yukon-born to take part. Ask Bernard Gillot of Aventures Nord-Bec (418-889-8001), whose 200 malamutes take travelers through miles of frozen forest about 30 minutes from downtown Quebec City.
Would-be mush-istas can choose from trips lasting for three hours around camp, to five days across a 66-mile trail, overnighting at cabins equipped with wood for the fireplace and any food and beverages you request.
While independent trips require verbal commands to lead control the dogs - "Qavik, gauche!" - guide-led trips only require participants to control the sled by leaning in to turns and making sure the sled doesn't outpace the dogs when moving downhill.
For dog lovers, it's paradise. Contrary to popular belief, malamutes are large pure-bred dogs, and not part wolf. Friendly, even affectionate, animals, they can pull heavy loads in extreme conditions.
Born to be Wild
Now let's say canine-powered sleds don't excite you as much as burning fossil fuel as you speed across the Canadian Shield with a lead foot. No problem there. Snowmobiling outfitters around Quebec City abound, with trails in La Jacque Cartier and La Cotê-de-Beaupré cutting through the valleys of the picturesque Laurentians. Independent and guided trips can be arranged by Kamoutik Aventure (418-889-9101), Action Plein Air Sports (418-666-1336), Laurentides Sports Services (418-849-2824) and Nord Tour (1-877-1-2810).
But dogsledding and snowmobiling are by no means the most adrenaline-pumped sports available in Quebec City. At Montmorency Waterfalls Park, the truly adventurous can ice climb the frozen rocks located on both sides of Montmorency Waterfalls, where water plummets 27 stories (98 feet more than Niagara Falls) on its way to the St. Lawrence. A stairway leads to the top of the falls, while a cable car is also available.
All of these activities require a short drive outside Quebec City, but plenty of winter sports are available right in town.
Take, for instance, the Plains of Abraham, where the French general Louis Joseph de Montcalm fought Britain's James Wolfe for control of the city in 1759. The French lost, in a decisive battle in which both generals perished (the British sent Wolfe's body back to London by pickling it in a a barrel of whiskey).
Four years later, the French ceded ownership of Canada to Great Britain. Today, Canada is an independent country in the British Commonwealth. Over 80 percent of Quebec's population is francophone (French speaking) and the province has greater autonomy than Canada's other nine provinces and three territories.
War and Peace
The Plains of Abraham where the British and French battled so fiercely has been turned into a 225-acre park that's popular for cross-country skiing. On one side the park, you'll hear the sounds of a city in action. Ski to the other and you'll only hear the rushing water of the powerful St. Lawrence.
Quebec City is also home to one of the world's two ice hotels, rebuilt every winter from - you guessed it! - ice. Constructed using 10,000 tons of snow, the elaborately sculpted Ice Hotel Quebec offers rooms equipped with a block of ice on which guests place a mattress and sleeping bag.
There's more to do than just sleep here, however. Guests can view Jacques Desbois' art in the gallery, check their e-mail at an Internet-ready work station or have a drink at the Absolut Ice Bar. Why vodka? Because beer and other alcoholic beverages, well, makes you pee. Which, though not encouraged, you can do in heated comfort just outside the Ice Hotel.
Rates range from $199 to $379 per person per night. Tours are available for $12 per person. The Ice Hotel is open from January 1 to March 31; 877-505-0423; www.icehotel-canada.com).
Vive la Decadence
Finally, Carnaval de Quebec wouldn't be a true pre-Lenten festival if it weren't for old-fashioned indulgence, especially when it comes to food and drink. True to their French heritage, the Quebeçois know how to eat well.
Auberge La Caravelle (681/2 Rue Saint-Louis, 800-267-0656) offers a fusion of French, Spanish and Italian cuisine, as well as a view of Rue Saint-Louis, where dogsleds race on opening day. For French cuisine complemented by a panoramic view of Quebec City, visit L'Astral (418-647-2222), whose rotating dining room atop the 30-story Lowes Le Concorde Hotel (1225 Cours Du General De Montcalm) more than makes up for the hefty menu prices. For typical Quebeçois fare such as bannock, a flat wheat bread; and maple sugar pie, sample the dishes at Le Délice du Roy (33 Rue Saint-Pierre, 418- 694-9161).
Despite being a small capital, Quebec City has a nightlife scene that interests even the cosmopolitan Montréalais. Société Cigare (575 Grande Allée Est), a laid-back cigar bar with an American/French flair, is one of the hippest bars in town and attracts a clientele in their 30s. The 20-year-olds let their hair down next door at Chez Dagobert (600 Grande Allée Est), a rock club that has become the city's place to see and be seen.
If neither cigar nor guitar is your scene, you should head across town to Pub Saint-Alexandre (1087 Rue Saint-Jean). With good company and the largest selection of beer in all of Quebec - ranging from local brews on tap to Korean imports in the bottle - this pub should be your starting point for all late-night revelry.
That's where I met Bonhomme, anyway.
While drinking a Boréale with Jean-Michel, the six-foot snowman opened the door and started greeting the afternoon patrons. When he came over to us, I handed him a beer I'd ordered.
He stepped back, as if he were thinking the beer looked good enough to take off his heavy suit and reveal Quebec's secret.
"Non, merci," he said, laughing and patting me on the back.
That day I learned not even the local brew is potent enough to force the Quebeçois to relinquish their secrets.
The 2003 Quebec City Winter Festival will be held January. 31 to February. 16, 2003. For more information, call (418) 522-3511 or visit www.carnaval.qc.ca
Photo courtesy of Sebastien Larose/Tourism Quebec.