[First published on Vacay.ca]
QUEBEC CITY — Steve Bundy loads into the inner tube alongside me and a half-dozen others. We’re at the top of a hill overlooking the Quebec Carnival site that’s filled with children who you’d think would be the ones lined up to make this descent. Our tube, called a Tornade (or Tornado), is occupied with adults, however; and none of us seem like the thrill-ride type.
Behind us, a worker asks if we’re ready. “Let’s go,” someone in the tube says and upon those words the worker shoves us over the edge. Immediately, we’re spinning down the slope, screaming all the way.
The Tornado is a howl, a ticklish ride that lasts about 20 seconds. It twirls seven or eight times before reaching the bottom of the slope. When the craft slides to a stop, Bundy declares, “That was awesome.” It’s his first time to the annual winter celebration, but Bundy, who has relocated from Newfoundland to Quebec’s capital, is certain it won’t be his last. “I’ll be here every year,” he says.
Just like that, the Quebec Carnival has done what it so often has during its 58 years: win over its visitors who have helped make it the world’s biggest winter festival.
Rides like Snow Rafting, which involves a rubber tube plummeting down the same hill as the Tornado, and the Ice Slide, where visitors scoot through a track while seated on a sled, are most popular with adults. I’ve been to Disneyworld and Universal Studios and Toronto’s CNE many times, but I hadn’t felt like a kid again until this past weekend, when the ride on the Tornado made me eager to get right back in line and do that again. It occurred to me then that the carnival succeeds because it delivers what it promises: fun — and then some. And it does so by retaining the authenticity of a Canadian winter.
So many of us remember trudging up a hill with our toboggans or sleds, clothed in constraining snowsuits and with noses oozing with gunk, eventually wiped away with a glove or sleeve. We zipped down the slope, fell over, picked ourselves up and repeated the routine over and over until we were wiped. Truth is, a snowy hill and the gumption to go down it are all that’s necessary to have fun in winter. The organizers of the Quebec Carnival seem cognizant of that phenomenon.
Around the festival site, the hills are just as populated as the Ferris wheel line and fabricated snow village where entertainers take to the stage and marching bands parade through. At night, DJs and fire dancers delight Carnival-goers, who clamour to get into the Ice Castle, which is made of 7,000 blocks of ice, each weighing 75 pounds, and turns into a discotheque with the capacity to hold 225 people when the sun goes down.
“They know how to do winter right here,” says Sherry Khalid, who was visiting from Toronto on the Carnival’s opening weekend. “We wanted to experience winter like this.”
She and her friend, Sakina Raza, marvelled at the atmosphere. “We don’t get snow like this in Toronto. This is why we came. It’s beautiful to see,” Raza says.
When it was founded, the non-profit Carnival was meant to deliver an economic boost to the city’s businesses that endured weeks of depressed sales after Christmas. It also had a religious component that’s been largely forgotten. Like Mardi Gras and Rio’s Carnival, the Quebec event is a festival before Lent, the Christian holiday that involves fasting and spiritual observance. These days the only thing resembling religion occurs when Bonhomme, the festival’s touchy-feely mascot, appears, and children and adults flock to him to show their adoration. Bonhomme, a seven-foot snowman with a perpetual wide grin, is so popular he’s the most recognized public figure in Canada, according to Carnival statistics. When he enters a room, the crowd breaks into song, chanting his “Salut Bonhomme” theme song. If the gesture wasn’t so endearing, you would think it cultish. “When you see Bonhomme, it just makes you feel like a child again,” says one of the Quebec-born attendees, indicating the warm feelings the character engenders among those in the province.
Bonhomme is crucial to the success of the Carnival. He embodies the attitude that state of mind can overcome the bitterness of the cold. Even when the weather becomes fierce, the people of the city take it in stride. A blizzard on Friday forced the postponement of the opening night festivities, but there were few complaints. And, as time has gone on, the weather has generally been more conducive to keeping people outside, says Daniel Bouchard, the Carnival’s operations manager for 21 years. In fact, Bouchard’s team now must make artificial snow in January “because we can’t count on the weather.” He says the most significant change he has seen in the past two decades is the increasing warmth and unpredictability of the climate. “In the past four days alone, we have seen all the different kinds of weather Quebec can have: rain, wind, sun and a snowstorm,” he points out.
The Carnival, which features more than 1,500 volunteers, runs until February 12 this year and more than 700,000 people are expected to show up from around the world. As with Bundy and others, the merriment is sure to convince numerous attendees to come back.
“When we see the smile on people’s faces,” say Bouchard, “that’s my pay.”
MORE ABOUT THE 2012 QUEBEC CARNIVAL
Admission: Entry to the Carnival is $13 and includes admission to the Plains of Abraham site and access to a number of the activities and events. Some activities, including the rides, may require additional costs.
Dates: The Carnival runs for three consecutive weekends beginning January 27 to February 12. The final weekend is traditionally the most lively with wrap-up parties, championship events and headline entertainers.
Location: The Plains of Abraham, or Battlefields Park, is just outside of the walls of Quebec’s fortified old city. The main entrance is along the city’s main street, Grand Allee.
Where to eat: There’s an on-site bistro that gets very crowded, but the food is good and reasonably priced for festival fare. Otherwise, try one of the many outstanding restaurants in Quebec City. I recommend Café de la Paix, Le Marie Clarisse and, if you’re looking to splurge, the outstanding Laurie-Raphael.
Where to drink: Make sure to stop in at Le Pape Georges, a bar in Old Quebec that’s housed in one of the oldest buildings in Canada.
What to wear: Temperatures can routinely drop below minus-10 Celsius degrees and it’s not uncommon to see minus-20 Celsius on the thermometer. Dress in layers, with long thermal underwear, double pairs of socks and waterproof boots. Make sure you have a hat, warm gloves and a scarf. Snow pants offer additional protection. Have a thick, durable winter coat.
Economic impact: The Quebec Carnival generates more than $30 million in GDP and supports more than 600 jobs, according to organizers.