By Jane Muller
Quebec City hosts the world’s biggest winter carnival with a history dating back to 1894 and a rebirth in 1954 when it became an annual winter celebration.
While the February event is steeped in tradition, it’s not frozen in time. The evolution has condensed festivities to 10 days, refined the Saturday evening parade and created experiences like ice carving workshops. Next year’s celebration of the freezin’ season runs from February 7 to 16.
The festival and its famous representative Bonhomme, both celebrated their 65th in 2019 and although the event’s representative is getting up there in age, the 7-foot tall snowman can still rally a crowd.
My group met the carnival king at the Ice Palace, the centrepiece of the festival and Bonhomme’s official residence. Each year, its design is a little different. For an idea of its scope, the 2019 palace comprised 1,800 blocks of ice. The glistening structure becomes an entertainment venue at night during the two weekends of the carnival and visitors can tour inside and out every day and night.
The location is just a few steps from the Carnival grounds and opposite the impressive Parliament Building of Quebec. Nearby is the giant snow sculpture that also changes each year. The 2019 version was a 30-foot tall masterpiece featuring symbols of Quebec City.
Most carnival venues like the fairgrounds on the fabled Plains of Abraham are near Old Quebec. Transformed into a winter amusement park, there is a lot for kids to do with attractions like an ice castle with a slide, Ferris Wheel and bouncy castles. There’s also snow rafting on the slopes as well as a tube run and play zone for younger kids.
Outdoor skating is the main attraction at Place D’Youville and at Dufferin Terrace, take in views of the St. Lawrence then speed down the century-old toboggan run. The Dufferin Ice Slide is open all season.
There are two chances to see the incredible parade presented each Saturday evening of the festival. We had VIP tickets that provided grandstand seating and free bar service. The warm boozy beverage, Carnival Ponce, was flowing as well as hot chocolate.
This is a winter carnival with most events taking place outdoors. Dress for the weather and you’ll enjoy yourself. This is especially true when taking in the parade, a spectacle that showcases everything from circus acrobats to fire breathers, a rock show and incredible pyrotechnics.
Intrepid members of the canoe racing teams don wet suits to face the ice flows and frigid waters of the St. Lawrence River. The races are scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 9 from 1 to 4 p.m. Be aware that the viewing area is far above the river and the space does get crowded.
Although there are lots of people, the narrow streets of Old Quebec don’t feel crowded. Take time to explore the boutiques, galleries, museums and restaurants and be amazed by the glistening ice sculptures that populate Place-Royale and rue du Petit Champlain.
Within the walls of the old city dining options abound. L’Echaude is a classic French restaurant with a varied menu that includes brunch with dishes like crispy homemade black pudding, steak tartar and duck confit. When in Quebec, poutine is a must and it’s one of the delicious selections at Chic Shack. Instead of fries, crisply hand-smashed roasted potatoes are covered with a choice of three topping combinations. The red ale-braised beef combo is amazing. The house-made sodas featuring real fruit are superb, as are the cocktails.
While experiencing northern temperatures, enjoy some Nordic cuisine at Chez Boulay-bistro boreal. The menu highlights fish and game along with traditional regional products. Citrus fruits and olive oil from the south are replaced with cranberry seed oil, hemp seed oil and cider vinegar on the tables.
Breakfast at the Hilton Quebec was good and the view fantastic at the executive lounge on the 23rd floor. While it was a carnival centre in 2019, the Hilton will be closed for renovations in 2020. Luxury accommodations can be found at the iconic Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. Also located in close proximity to all of the festivities are Quebec City Marriott Downtown and Le Manior d’Auteuil. Book soon to secure a room for 2020.
For access to more than 20 of the official Carnival attractions, including Bonhomme’s ice castle visitors need to purchase a $15 “effigy”. Kids under the age 8 don’t need one of the cute plastic tags. They might want an arrow sash though. The traditional fabric belt was meant to keep the cold from creeping up your back but today it’s a serviceable souvenir of a Quebec Winter Carnival experience.