We are from Maine. I open with this statement so you don’t think that my sister and I are just pansy, ill-prepared flat-landers who traveled to Quebec Winter Carnival wearing sweatshirts and Keds. We know what snow is all about. All this considered, we still had to buy reinforcement scarves, mittens and socks to withstand the chill that is Quebec City in February.
We checked into our favorite Old City hostel, Auberge Internationale de Quebec, double checked our layered sweaters, scarf knots and general bundled-ness, and headed out to the Plains of Abraham. The cold seriously hits you in the face like a bucket of ice water. We didn’t care. As we strolled towards the activity hub of the Carnivale, the Plains of Abraham, we ducked into shops and bought hand warmers, additional gloves and hot cocoa to combat the numb fingers and frozen faces.
Tickets to the festival come in the form of an “effigy” of Bonhomme, the Carnivale’s mascot. Part Michelin Man, part Stay-Puff Marshmallow Monster from Ghostbusters, Bonhomme’s grinning face is found throughout the city. Effigies proudly clipped to our coats, we headed to the Plains, where we zip-lined, (laughing so hard the tears froze to our faces), admired artful snow sculptures and shared a plate of steaming poutine, (Gravy covered mittens was a small price to pay to keep our hands from freezing off!).
As night fell, the ice palace built along the old city ramparts was a beacon for the downtown. Glowing pink, purple, blue and green, Bonhomme’s ceremonial home for the 17 day festivities was impressive and glittering. A tour through the inside clued us in on the history of the Carnivale, which has been a tradition in Quebec City since 1894.
The highlight of the evening was an unexpectedly swift ice slide ride, which was set up at the foot of the imposing Château du Frontenac. This 400 foot, greased lightning fast toboggan run had us whooping with glee. This ride was so fast our faces were plastered back in frozen grins with tear and runny nose trails.
The next morning we jostled through the crowded downtown in a vain effort to get a front and center view of the dog-sled race. Thankfully, it started to snow, not only bumping the temperature up a few degrees, but giving the race a distinctly wild, Alaska Iditarod feel. Laughing with mock romance, we then took a turn around the open air ice rink, across from the gorgeous Hôtel du Capitole. Even in the day time the lit up ice evoked a glamorous vibe and made us feel like we were starring in our own romantic comedy.
We had a considerably warmer second night. The dance party at the Bonhomme’s Ice Palace was jumping with enthusiastic revelers. We even spied a couple of unzipped parkas in the melee. The Palace was quite a striking polychromatic backdrop for the booming pop music. Unsure what to think when a pair of locals propositioned us for “a sauna and swim”, we decided what happens in Quebec, stays in Quebec and went along.
Turns out, there are outdoor spas and an authentic Scandinavian sauna included in the price of the Effigy. If we didn’t feel like movie stars before, we definitely did now!
What makes the Winter Carnivale so special is, firstly, most Americans don’t know about it. Second, there is fun for literally everyone. If you have kids, head for the snow slide, face painting and parades, if you are a couple looking for romance, the skating, and steamy spas are for you. If you are a party animal, you can “laissez les bon temps rouler” all around the city, for all 17 nights of the festival. Whether young or old, no visitor can resist the majesty of the Ice Palace, the awe-inspiring snow sculptures and overall magical ambiance of the city. Just remember to pack extra socks!
About The Author: Noella Schink is a travel writer from Portland, Maine. When she isn’t partaking in shenanigans in the snowy north, she likes to travel around the world and then share her stories. When you head north and book a hotel in Quebec City, she recommends you try Excellent Hotels.