There are three types of Canadians – those who embrace winter, those who burrow in like a human hibernation waiting for spring, and snowbirds, who famously flock en masse to southern destinations.
Those who stay in country and don’t hibernate, charge into the hundreds of winter carnivals and local celebrations. The granddaddy of winter events in Canada is the Quebec Winter Carnival.
With a two-week festival that has 200 events and elements, Quebec takes the lead in harnessing their creativity and inherent joie de vivre in finding ways to enjoy winter.
Quebeckers are a different stock, they aren’t prepared to sacrifice so much of their year or any part of life in denied gratification. We live in a winter country, so they make the best of it.
Quebec City is one of those destinations that work in winter, like Mount Tremblant, Banff, Lake Louise or Whistler. But then visiting these locations we have the luxury of not worrying about practical things like shoveling and moving the car for the snow plough.
As cold as Quebec City gets in winter (my secret is silk long johns, they aren’t bulky under clothes, are really warm and can be washed and dry over night) it looks great draped in snow. The Norman architecture is just so damn romantic. There is a soulful warmth that comes from little beams of light which fall from the double-paned windows of sturdy stone buildings onto snowy cobblestones. Then there are inviting, joyful whiffs of music jumping into the night air each time a door opens. It’s a cold place filled with laughter and smiles. Perhaps people are on their best behaviour during a party, but it’s a pleasant change to see happiness in February versus the grim faces of work-bound commuters.
Quebec’s Winter Carnival is like revisiting Christmas without the pressure to find gifts for everyone. There’s great food, plenty of drink, lots of activities and happy crowds to socialize with. You don’t find carolers, but you can be entertained by the acts performing on stage in front of the Ice Palace at Place du Ville, across from the massive Victorian Legislature. After the formal entertainment, you can join the pulsating toque-topped mod bobbing to the music of a DJ spinning discs outside. While crowds build body heat from dancing, their ice castle background is washed in an ever-changing hue of coloured lights. Between the dancers and road is a ring of food stalls and carts, selling everything from barbecue to beavertails (the pastry, not the actual animal part). You may even find Caribou for sale. Caribou is the unofficial drink of Carnival. It’s a potent, blood-warming, sometimes breath-taking mixture somewhat like a Quebec version of Long Island Ice Tea, than can contain vodka, brandy, sherry and red wine or variations thereof. Sometimes it’s cut with maple syrup. Experienced carnival goers may have a bottle on reserve in an inner pocket. It’s a tonic for circulation and sinuses.
Each evening of Carnival there is something different to experience. Two nights there are massive parades with thousands of participants. One is in a suburb to bring the carnival to the most people. Another night parade marches through the downtown. Because it’s an event held in the dark, this parade employs lights, fireworks, torches, music and bright costumes. It’s something like an electrified circus parade. Dress warmly because it lasts over an hour.
Even if you opt out of planned evening events, there are plenty of do-it-yourself options. You can rent skates – if you didn’t pack your own – and join the crowd on pop-up rinks around the city.
Winter is a challenge for me because I don’t skate, ski or snowmobile. But I have discovered a love for snowshoeing. The city has snowshoe rentals and walking tours on the Plains of Abraham, which are sometimes lead by a guide dressed in ancient regime garb. In very short order you leave 20th century high rises to be enveloped in a wooded urban landscape punctuated with Victorian bandstands, ornate light stands and ancient defensive towers and battlements.
For those with a competitive streak, there are dogsled races and soapbox derbies in the old city. There are also horse and carriage tours, as well as horse-drawn sleight rides on the Plains. At the base of the Citadel you’ll find a winter-type of midway as well the most amazing ice sculptures. These aren’t glorified snowmen, but extraordinary temporary art installations.
In the evenings, beyond the carnival events are a pile of fantastic pubs, clubs and restaurants. There’s a great jazz Friday and Saturday nights in the art deco Hotel Clarendon on Rue Sainte-Anne. I like to make a type of pilgrimage to the Pub Alexander on Rue Saint-Jean. Look for the Union Jack. This is a serious beer pub with over 265 types of beer for sale from Canada, France, Belgium, Denmark, Columbia, China, Scotland, Italy, Holland, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, Switzerland and Germany.
A must stop for many people is the Ice Hotel. Sleeping in a hotel made of ice lacks appeal to me. I like central heating and a bathroom close by. That said, the ice hotel is an amazing facility and worth visiting. It represents vision, creativity and skill in creating something unique. They have a bar so you can get the bragging rights of drinking from ice glasses.
Running and rowing across ice and open water. (Allan Lynch Photo)[/caption]
Of course the most exciting aspect of Carnival has to be the canoe race across a partially frozen St. Lawrence River. This is an exciting madness. There are three sets of races: men’s, women’s and amateur, with close to 60 teams racing and rowing over a course that requires competitors do a return trip across the river.
These crews are lean, fit and powerful. Local longshoremen tell me the canoe crews are out at 5 am five mornings a week, training year round.
There is a staggered start to the race. Teams start at the inner harbour, running beside their canoes over ice until they reach open water. Then they jump in and paddle like mad, navigating their way between ice flows until that’s too impractical or dangerous. This is when they jump out and run with their canoe over the ice to the next open water.
Watching the race I damn near froze, and could only think of the discomfort of those competitors whose feet went in the water as they raced across ice flows. I could see that the rowing, running, pushing and pulling would keep their upper bodies warm. But watching the teams jump from the ice into their canoes I wonder how many have accidently punctured hotels in their vessel? That’s because their shoes have long cleats to give traction on ice. Even their paddles have cleats embedded in them, so more ways to harm the canoe, themselves or a team-mate. This is not a sport for the timid.
What Carnival did for me, was to wake me up to the multiple possibilities of winter fun. I beats another night in front of a television.
For information about the Quebec Winter Carnival/ Carnaval de Quebec, January 27th to February 12th go to www.carnaval.qc.ca
For other winter fun ideas check out:
The World Pond Hockey Championships, the ultimate in non-professional play as 120 men’s and women’s teams from six countries, 35 US states, eight provinces and one territory gather outdoors in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick from February 16 – 19 http://worldpondhockey.ca/en/home
Montreal en Lumiere is a cultural and food festival, running February 23 – March 11. Top chefs from Canada, the UK and France tantalize with themed meals and events. It’s complimented by a raft of international music stars. The event also includes 181 installations of light art. Details for Nuit blanche à Montréal (when museums and arts galleries stay open all night) will be announced February 13. http://www.montrealhighlights.com/en-CA
Ottawa celebrates Winterlude on weekends from February 3 -20, 2012. Strap on some skates and tour the city via the frozen Rideau Canal. To avoid the commuter rush, don’t skate early morning or late afternoon Monday to Friday. Yes, people skate to work!
Winnipeg digs into its roots to host the Festival du Voyageur, February 17 – 26 https://festivalvoyageur.mb.ca/en/
Prince Albert, Saskatchewan holds the Canadian Challenge Dog Sled Race, February 21-25, 2012 www.canadianchallenge.com. This is a qualifier for the Iditarod and Yukon Quest. Serious dogsled race fans head to Whitehorse for the Yukon Quest, the 1,000-mile/1,600-km race between Whitehouse and Fairbacks, Alaska. The race, which runs nine-to-12 days, starts February 4th. http://www.yukonquest.com/