Celebrating Winter a la Quebec

Many of us in the Northeast, and across the country for that matter, have been wondering what happened to winter this year. Not that I’m complaining, but there’s been almost no snow and daytime highs have been well into the 40°s, and even 50°s in New York. So to get a taste of the season before it completely passes us by, our family drove north of the border to check out the final weekend of The Quebec Winter Carnival – an elaborate celebration that provides welcome relief from what is usually a very harsh and cold time of year.

Billed as the biggest winter festival in the world, this 17-day event, now in its 58th year, was expected to draw nearly 650,000 revelers, and from the looks of it, many of them were families, at least during the day (on weekend nights, the Carnival transforms from a family-friendly playground to a wild party scene). Constructed on the expansive Plains of Abraham just outside the 400 year-old walled city, there was a whole lot for our kids to do, as long as they were sufficiently bundled up. Here’s a taste of what this festival has to offer.

International Snow Sculpture Competition – One of the Carnival’s most popular attractions, professional sculptors from around the globe create figurative works of art from giant blocks of snow. But be warned: any future snowman building with the kids will be taken to a whole new level.

Ferris Wheel — Sure, every parent has taken his or her child on a Ferris wheel, but outside, and in the middle of winter? Try it.

Ice Slide – What could be more fun than hurtling down a track that’s made of pure ice and longer than a football field?

Snow Rafting – What is snow rafting, you ask? Flying down a slope on an inner tube while grabbing hold of your kids for dear life, that’s what!

Arctic Spa Village – If you remembered to pack the bathing suit (and who wouldn’t in sub-freezing weather?), you and the kids can jump into a hot tub or sauna to take a break from the action, or just thaw out.

Snow Bath – Although not recommended for anyone under the legal drinking age, the whole family will get a kick out of watching bathing-suit-clad Canadians dance and throw snow at each other.

St-Hubert Sleigh Race – This isn’t a competition to see who can sled down a hill the fastest. It’s a horse-drawn sleigh race (single and double harness) around an obstacle course. You won’t see the highlights on Sports Center, but it’s a fascinating spectacle to watch live. The Carnival also features a dog-sledding competition and ice-canoe races on the St. Lawrence River.

The Sugar Shack – Just try to pull your children away before they have made their own maple taffy lollipop by rolling heated maple syrup on a bed of ice with Popsicle sticks.

Night Parade – The celebration takes to the streets with marching bands, extravagant floats, clowns, dynamic dance troupes, and colorful acrobats. The Carnival’s King, and everybody’s favorite mascot, Bonhomme, ends the procession, just like Santa Claus at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Since the weekend temperatures only topped out at about 15°F (and hit a low of -5°F), it proved a wise move to stay at the Hilton Quebec Hotel. Located just outside the Carnival site and right along the parade route, it provided a convenient home base where we could defrost and replenish our hand-warmers.

The frigid conditions didn’t detract from what was ultimately a really unique celebration of winter. Although I must admit — when we pulled into our driveway after the 500-mile drive home, the 29°F temperature reading was a welcome site.

Rainer Jenss traveled around the world with his wife and two sons and blogged about his experience here on Intelligent Travel. Follow Rainer on Twitter at @JenssTravel.

Photos: Tyler Jenss