The happy group of fifteen came pouring around the bend; men and women, some young some older, dressed in boots, hats, gloves . . . and bathing suits. Walking single file through the snow, they approached a small makeshift mound and were greeted by the famous master of ceremonies, “Bonhomme,” as the Snow Bath at Quebec City’s annual Winter Carnival officially opened.
The huge audience, suitably dressed for the 20-degree F. weather, began taunting and laughing at the would-be “snow bathers.” Playful snowballs immediately began to fly between the audience, participants and even Bonhomme. People shrieked and howled as snowballs flew through the air occasionally hitting someone. “This is a ball, you can’t ask for anything better,” said visitor Sarah Brooks from Ashland, Maine. Up on stage, Mark Boissy, a shivering twenty something man from Montreal, wearing boots, gloves and a multicolored bathing suit said, “This is my first time here, and it’s simply crazy, but I’d do it again!” After about ten minutes of freezing frivolity, the bathers were ushered out and another group marched forward in similar fashion. Suddenly, a slim woman wearing only boots and a tiny bikini appeared and immediately got the crowd’s attention. As she coyly posed for pictures other bathers made snow angels and then promptly tackled Bonhomme for an impromptu snow scrum. The crowd roared as bare flesh hit the snow. “Wow, this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” shouted Pam Deverage of Boston. She then scooped up a mitten full of snow, packed it into a snowball and threw it at the stage. Her throw nailed a middle aged guy in the chest who laughed and tossed one back. Last year, 105 hardy snow bathers – a new record – braved the elements.
The Snow Bath is one of the many wild activities in the annual Quebec Winter Carnival, the largest such winter festival in the world. About 650,000 people attended the three week long Winter Carnival last year. The upcoming Carnival – the 62nd runs from January 29 to February 14, and will have Quebec City rocking day and night defying, and indeed welcoming the cold of winter. “My Carnival” is the theme for this year’s Carnival.
“Bonhomme,” the snowman icon is a “living” symbol of the Winter Carnival. With his bright red bonnet and sash, the slightly weird and chubby Michelin-man-like character is not only a beloved ambassador, but also the consummate pitchman, whose face graces nearly every Quebec City light pole, doorway, product and menu during Carnival. A Bonhomme “Effigy” is needed for entrance to many events. Bonhomme (meaning good man in French) actually speaks, bilingually, mais oui. “I come from a land far away, and bring happiness to everyone,” he said one morning in a gruff semi-metallic voice. You’ve got to experience Bonhomme live to appreciate his quirky behavior.
Of course, this French Canadian city is known for its outstanding dining, and superb restaurants are everywhere. Don’t miss the romantic “Restaurant Le Saint-Amour” for a very special experience. Or try the lovely “Panache Restaurant,” the cool “Toast,” and “Le Café de la Terrasse” in the historic and iconic Fairmont Chateau Frontenac. This city is also a great place to stroll and explore artisan shops.
Another well known icy-attraction is the Ice Hotel, or Hotel de Glace, which is constructed in early January and lasts until it melts, usually by late March. This Ice Hotel is (of course) below freezing, and all walls, floors, and furniture are made out of huge blocks of ice. This example of “Ephemeral Architecture” offers visitors a few large exhibition spaces, 36 guest rooms and suites and even a chapel where the occasional icy wedding takes place. Heavy duty arctic sleeping bags are provided to all overnight guests – but it’s still freaking cold – around 25 degrees F. There’s a heated bathroom but visitors have to get out of their warm, comfy sleeping bags first. Brrr.
More than 300 outdoor shows and activities take place during the Winter Carnival including: snow canoe races, outdoor concerts, day and night parades and of course, the Snow Bath. Ice Sculpture artists from around the world work long hours creating extraordinary designs of all shapes and sizes displayed all over Quebec City. In fact artists used over 480 tons of ice during last year’s festival. There is also plenty of participatory winter fun for everyone such as riding snow rafts down some icy slopes, ice fishing, Scandinavian hot tubbing, dog sledding or being a part of a giant human Foosball game.
The beautiful Old City of Québec, built in 1608 was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and remains a fascinating place for both adults and children. And despite the frigid wintry temperatures, the city hums along just fine during Carnival. The combination of spirited people, superb French cuisine, intriguing history, fun shops, a funky funicular and live music makes for an exciting visit. The grand Chateau Frontenac – a major tourist site – dominates the Upper Town skyline and superb restaurants can be found throughout the city.
Charming year round, the dead of winter may be the time when Quebec City is at its most eloquent. “We’ve learned to embrace the cold, not fear it,” said Nicole Bergeron, a native Québécois, watching the marching bands and colorful floats of a night parade pass on by. Despite February’s chill, Quebec City’s warmth emanates from the people who breathe color and life into the cold, dark Canadian night.
Many airlines fly to Quebec City including Air Canada. www.aircanada.com
Where to stay:
Quebec City is tourism friendly and visitors will find a huge assortment of places to stay. Large hotels, like the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac, www.fairmont.com/Frontenac , modern contemporary hotels including Hotel Pur, www.hotelpur.com and luxurious boutique properties such as the Auberge Saint Antoine www.saint-antoine.com
Quebec City Winter Carnival Information:
Ice Hotel Information;
c. Bob Ecker 2016
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