I find my friend Jeanne alone in the lodge of the Station Touristique Duchesnay resort, curled up in front of a roaring wood-fired stove.
“Welcome to Quebec City!” she says, rising to offer bises, double-cheek kisses, which I receive awkwardly, unused to the greeting after a seven-year absence from the province. She performs a little twirl and I stifle a laugh at the sight of the usually stylish Montrealler decked out in a pair of black bell-bottom snowpants, a red turtleneck and a Canadiens toque covering all but a few black curls. It’s not unlike my own outfit, assembled from mismatched pieces of long-forgotten winter wear.
“I’ve already had my orientation. Yours is next,” she says, and, seeing my confusion, adds, “Well, you didn’t think we could just sleep on a block of ice without some instruction.”
No, I suppose I hadn’t. In fact, until that moment I hadn’t fully considered what a night in the Ice Hotel would actually entail. Nor do I yet understand what motivates people to want to sleep in a -5 C room built entirely of snow and ice. But that’s what I’m here to discover.
In the two years I spent in this province in the early 2000s, I realized that Quebecers have a love of winter that doesn’t exist in the rest of Canada. Even the word – l’hiver – has an uplifting quality. It recalls the icy expel of breath on a crisp below-zero day. It hangs in the air with anticipation, so unlike the heaviness (or is that dread?) of our winter. That difference in attitude translates to a winter culture in Quebec City that is the raison d’être for its famous Winter Carnival, a host of winter sporting activities and, of course, the Ice Hotel.
This 32,000-square-foot architectural marvel, assembled from scratch every year using 20,000 tonnes of snow and ice, takes more than a month to erect, decorate and even wire for electricity. The overnight ritual, I learn in my 20-minute orientation covering everything from etiquette (snowpants are appropriate dining attire) to how to keep a mummy bag free of chill-producing moisture (no breathing into the bag), begins with dinner at the Duchesnay. The bricks-and-mortar resort just minutes from Quebec City has shared its property and amenities with the Ice Hotel for the last nine of its 11 years. In its charming chalet-style bistro, Le Quatre Temps, Jeanne and I dine on a stick-to-your-bones meal of local elk venison and pork terrines followed by black cod in a creamy cognac sauce.
Stuffed and warmed by the indoors, we head outside toward the Ice Hotel’s glimmering castle-like form. We walk through the grand entrance, hung with a 225-kilogram ice chandelier. Two children play behind an ice reception desk, complete with frozen guestbook, before scampering over to the stairs of the lobby’s short, but nevertheless tempting, ice slide. The adjoining wedding chapel is a mini cathedral that, unlike the snowy opaqueness of the Ice Hotel’s exterior, has a nearly transparent facade. Inside, soft blue lights call attention to the ephemeral sanctuary. Our tour continues to the ice bar where a DJ is set up in one corner and a small collection of bundled-up people have already started to dance. Others sip cocktails from thick, square tumblers (also made of ice) and chat animatedly from clusters of carved stools and benches, covered in animal skins to dull the chill. Though we’re tempted to stay, the suites await.
Unlike the world’s other ice hotel, in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, which is recast from the same mould each season, Quebec City’s 35-room structure is newly designed year after year. Master ice sculptors carve each of its 15 suites, in themes such as arctic adventure, undersea world, rose garden and Roman temple. Ours, the Lady Ice, contains elaborately sculpted ice furnishings and a three-dimensional snow goddess emerging from the snowy wall. The headboard of the fur-strewn bed (which we discover is actually a foam mattress and box spring on top of the aforementioned block of ice), recalls Superman’s Fortress of Solitude: long ice crystals, illuminated from beneath, glow blue-green in the dimness.
A drink at the ice bar later, we trade snowsuits for swimsuits and soak in one of the outdoor hot tubs. Our hair and eyelashes freeze in the rising steam, and though the snow falls softly around us, the cold couldn’t feel further away. That night we sleep like babies, snug in our mummy bags, waking to the porter placing a thermos of coffee at the table by our feet. It smells delicious as I drink it down black, feeling more alert and invigorated than usual for 8 a.m. I could get used to this.
There is more than a metre of snow on the ground when we strap on snowshoes to explore some of the Duchesnay’s 80 kilometres of trails. The lakeside resort is a dazzling winter playground under a canopy of snow-draped trees. Hundreds of guests from the city and further afield are here to spend the weekend skating, cross-country skiing and dogsledding across the frozen terrain. Still, I can’t forget the words of Marylene Labrie, Duchesnay’s associate director of customer service, over breakfast as she welcomed us to the resort: “In 2008, I climbed the snow to the roof of my house. This year,” she said, wrinkling her nose, “very little.”
It would be the first of many disparaging remarks we’d hear about the lack of white stuff since 2008, Quebec City’s 400th anniversary year, which was marked by a record 5.58-metre snowfall. It’s amazing that what to me seems the perfect 10 of a winter, to Quebec City residents is disappointingly mediocre.
It was usual when I lived in Quebec for people to tell me that their favourite season was winter, a point I’m reminded of as we stroll the Winter Carnival grounds later that day. The double-digit below-zero temperatures have done little to deter more than 10,000 visitors from swarming the Plains of Abraham to raft downhill on inner tubes, browse the ice sculptures, take sleigh rides and eat maple syrup chilled to taffy on snow, among dozens of other activities in Quebec’s own version of Mardi Gras.
Perusing another significant ice structure, the palace of the event’s jubilant snowman mascot, Bonhomme Carnaval, we take in some footage of an annual carnival tradition: the course en canot. In the 5-km race that is part paddle, part ice climb and part survival, teams of canoers take to the ice-jammed waters of the St. Lawrence River. If that isn’t dangerous enough, the Crashed Ice competition a month later sees skaters in hockey gear race down the steep, winding, ice-covered road (turned closed-off obstacle course) that connects the upper and lower city. Still another daring event greets us later that afternoon: the Snow Bath, in which people clad only in bathing suits dance atop a large pile of snow.
The following day we learn more about the relationship that Quebecers have with winter. Strolling the cobblestone streets of the 400-year-old city with tour guide Estelle Boisvert, we marvel at how everything has remained so wonderfully intact. The multi-storey row houses with their little panes of imperfect, handcrafted glass and low doorways were historically whitewashed, but now exist in their natural stone. And though one might describe the structures as looking typically “French,” they have subtle differences that equipped les habitants for a climate much different than their homeland. The cold meant increased reliance on stoves and fireplaces. Uncontrolled blazes were a constant threat and could very quickly take out whole city blocks. As early as 1690, New France’s Governor Frontenac set limits on the amount of lumber that could be used in construction. The wood-plank and cedar-shingle roofs of old were replaced with slate and tin, and “firewall” brick chimneys went up between houses to prevent the spread of flames. New France also had a bylaw requiring roofs to be cleared of snow twice per year. What the early settlers didn’t know about winter, they had to learn from the natives – how to use snowshoes, toboggans and canoes, how to stave off scurvy with an infusion of spruce bark and how to trap and hunt.
Winter is as much a case of “if you can’t beat it, join it” now as it was then. For one, it’s February and the Christmas decorations are still up, revealing that Quebecers are still on a winter high that waned for English Canada in the first week of January. Boisvert recalls fondly the city-wide outdoor New Year’s Eve party in which bars and restaurants spilled out into the streets, creating outdoor outposts from which to sell food and drinks. There was more snow then, of course (there always is in Quebecers’ memories). She describes the feeling of people of all ages keeping warm and celebrating together as “effervescent.”
It’s a feeling we will experience on our last night of Carnival. Even as we don what has become our uniform of this vacation – snowsuits and boots – we can hear the streets filling up outside our hotel. We’ve moved from the Ice Hotel into Quebec City proper and are staying at the Auberge St. Antoine, a rustic yet elegant CAA four-diamond property that was once the site of the city’s second battery.
We set out for the Grande Allée where the pre-parade party is in full swing. Already we see people carrying their carnival accessories – long plastic trumpets and walking sticks topped with effigies of Bonhomme. The trumpets are for tooting loudly (a tradition that will become increasingly annoying as the night wears on). The walking sticks are for drinking. Around us, people are popping off Bonhomme’s likeness and filling the sticks’ hollow cavities with pre-mixed bottles of Caribou. The saccharine-sweet alcoholic beverage was historically made of caribou blood and spirits; its modern equivalent is a mix of red wine, whisky and maple syrup. The not-so-subtle disguise means that tonight, at least, it’s OK to drink in the streets.
The night parade begins and the thoroughfare fills with spectacular floats and costumed characters. Six-metre-tall courtiers wave from the tops of gigantic gowns, mad scientists perform exploding experiments, 19th-century-style flying machines flap stiff-jointed wings. Stilt walkers, fire breathers and acrobats all take part in the procession. Much like a certain Quebec-born circus of international repute, the parade is beautiful, dramatic, exquisitely choreographed and slightly cheesy. But to the children in the audience and those of us just starting to feel the effects of the Caribou, it’s sheer magic.
The final, much-anticipated float carries Bonhomme Carnaval. His arrival sets off a chorus of blasts from the plastic trumpets. I turn toward the crowd to snap a picture, but even before the viewfinder meets my eye, I have to pause and grin. Behind me lies a sea of rosy pink faces, runny noses and shapeless, down-padded bodies – but also of sparkling eyes and brilliant smiles. So when a reveller comes dancing by, pulls me in for a surprise dip and plants a couple of hearty bises on my cheeks, I give in warmly this time. ’Cause baby, it’s cold outside.
Note: For the 2011 season on, the Ice Hotel takes up residence at a new location: 9300, rue de la Faune, on a park site just 10 minutes north of downtown Quebec City
AMA Travel Specialist Quebec City
If you’re not fortunate enough to visit Quebec City during Winter Carnival, winter fun still awaits you in the town of Valcartier, about 25 km north of the capital city. Grab an inner tube and speed down one of 42 ice slides at Valcartier Village, a year-round recreational resort. The four longest and steepest slides are located on a hill called Himalaya, where thrill-seekers can reach speeds of up to 80 km/h. I went down the ice slides on a raft that seats up to 12 people, perfect for families and large groups.
For a change of pace, you can go ice-skating along a path that stretches 1 km through a treed area. It’s especially beautiful after dark when the trail is lit up and music serenades you. There’s also an outdoor play area with tunnels, mazes and slides for kids. I guarantee you’ll need an entire day to fully enjoy Valcartier Village.
You’ll get by not knowing any French in Quebec City, but one thing you should learn how to say is merci. I got to practise my high school French whenever I ordered restaurant meals. I’d eaten poutine – French fries smothered in brown gravy and fresh cheese curds – in Alberta at fast-food chains, but nothing beats tasting the real thing at a Quebec restaurant. In Old Quebec City, there is no shortage of restaurants along rue Saint-Jean, rue Sainte-Anne and rue De Buade, for poutine or other Quebecois dishes. After your meal, go for a leisurely stroll through the cobblestone streets, surrounded by some of the oldest buildings in Canada, dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. To book a trip or learn more, contact Ashley at 1-888-989-8426.