If there’s one thing Canadians know, it’s how the make the best of winter. But Quebec has perfected the art of making it fun.
No matter how cold it gets, hibernation is not an option. Instead, Carnaval, the largest winter carnival in Canada and one of the oldest in the world (it began in 1894) takes a bite out of frosty February.
Carnaval fills every available park space in Quebec City with snow sculpture competitions, games, ice bars, toboggan runs, children’s activities, and more. And there are races – on snow, on ice, on snow AND ice, and even on ice and water (the ice canoe races are an extraordinary test of skill, endurance and insanity).
The festivities kick off with the selection of the Carnival queen at Bonhomme’s ice palace. From seven duchesses representing different Quebec regions, one is crowned. No gowns or bathing suits here – it’s done by drawing their names out of a barrel and the first to have her name drawn five times wins. The girls are all pretty and definitely enthusiastic, but what a kick in the eye to traditional beauty pageants.
Of course, Bonhomme is on hand, pumping up the audience with each name drawn from the barrel. Who is Bonhomme, you ask? Since 1955, this cheerful white snowman, sporting a red tuque and red arrow sash, has been the symbol of Quebec City’s Carnaval. To learn more, check the little list of fun facts here
Bonhomme’s ice palace is reconstructed each year – a massive confection of glistening blocks of ice designed by artisan sculptor, Marc Lepire. This year, the interior is surreal. Mixing sound, lights and projections, Odyss Land of Ice, offers a stunning interactive experience, which allows visitors to add to the symphony of sound or get silly and throw balls through the holes in the ice wall…or can they? It’s all so much fun that the cold is forgotten in the excitement.
My favourite area is Camp à Jos, a nostalgic re-creation of the early days of the coureurs de bois. Literally runners of the woods, these French Canadian woodsmen traded with both Europeans and native peoples. Bonhomme’s outfit is a salute to their traditional warm tuque and colourful sash.
Camp à Jos is a family area with games and activities for everyone. Forget bucking broncos, here you can ride a wild moose. And I watch children throwing axes at targets (carefully contained in a safe area). Eventually hunger and cold drive me indoors, to the cosy sausage and beer canteen, where large tables encourage mingling; after all, Carnaval is all about community.
Dessert is easy. At any Cabane à Sucre (Sugar Shack), I happily roll my stick along a ribbon of thick maple syrup in clean snow, creating a delicious lollipop. At this shop, two experts create ready made treats.
The snow sculpture competition is always exciting. There are both National and International categories, and volunteers of the carnival as well as visitors get to vote for their favourites.
The winning sculpture, a giant fish with enormous teeth was undoubtedly a technical challenge.
But both volunteers and the public gave their thumbs up to the third place winner. Who could resist the humour of the giant boot sticking its tongue out to lick some spilled milk? Or is that milk?
And some of us get to be part of a sculpture.
Over the years the always creative roster of activities during Carnaval has included a children’s sculpture competition, snow baths, dogsled races, a soapbox derby, barrel jumping (on skates of course), motorbikes on ice, and more. And don’t forget those crazy ice canoe races.
So grab your warmest clothing and boots and head for the city that never ceases to provide excitement, fun and friendly French charm.