Yes, it is worth braving the sub-zero temperatures to visit the Quebec Winter Carnival!
Mother Nature took my plan to stop hibernating and embrace winter this year way too seriously. We have been experiencing record snowfalls and bone chilling cold in New England this winter. In fact, since early January my daughter has only had one full week of school — and today is yet another snow day. Yet despite the cold and snow, I knew there must be fun alternatives to hiding out inside under blankets.
For 60 years, the Quebec Winter Carnival has been giving Quebecois families a reason to get outside, celebrate winter, and have fun. This year, our family was invited to join them. The carnival, which runs for 17 days from the end of January to mid-February (it will be held next on January 29 – February 14, 2016), started off as a rowdy, pre-Lenten celebration; but has recently evolved into a true family event and the largest winter carnival in the world today (and 3rd largest carnival overall.)
As the largest festival in Quebec City, it draws in some 500,000 visitors each year, 47 percent of which are tourists from outside of Quebec City. Many of these visitors are from New England and Ontario, in fact, waiting in line to go dog sledding we met someone that literally lives around the corner from us in Rhode Island. However, we also met visitors from as far away as France, Texas, and Illinois.
When I saw the weather forecast for our weekend in Quebec, I started to get second thoughts. With expected -25 degree Fahrenheit lows and highs for the weekend peaking out at 7 degrees, I wondered what I was getting our family into. As we drove through Eastern Quebec on our journey to Quebec City, our car thermometer registered -20, and that was without the wind chill. But listen, while our toes and fingertips got pretty numb after five hours outside, it was fun, really fun — and perfect for families.
Throughout the festival we saw families with babies, toddlers, and young kids — many of which were being pulled through the area on sleds (I guess that’s the Quebec version of a winter stroller.) And unlike those carnivals in Rio or New Orleans — this one isn’t crowded at all. I guess not too many people are brave enough to face the cold. If you are a family that sleds, skis or ice skates, you can totally do this, and here is why you should:
10 Reasons to go to the Quebec Winter Carnival
1. Bonhomme — Since 1955, the towering Bonhomme has been the mascot of the Quebec Winter Carnival, making this giant snowman a favorite among the children and as popular as Santa Claus. Bonhomme makes appearances throughout the Carnival, including at both night parades, but you are most likely to find him welcoming you at his Ice Palace.
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2. Ice Palace — Any Frozen fan will be fascinated by a real life ice palace located just across from the Parliament building. Your $15 Effigy pass to Carnival gets you into all the activities for the full length of the festival, and lets you explore the Palace and possibly meet Bonhomme. Each year the castle is constructed differently, using 300 lb. ice blocks brought in from Montreal. This year the Palace featured six rooms, spread out in the shape of a snowflake, and included a spa area, Bonhomme’s office, a reception room, a museum room with artifacts from previous carnivals, a children’s playroom and a gym.
3. Maple Taffy — I’m not sure how I got to 44 before trying maple taffy, especially after years of vacationing in Vermont with a grandmother that did her own sugaring; but now that I’ve been turned onto this sticky, sugary goodness it won’t be the last time. Made by heating maple syrup to a blistering 234 degrees and then pouring it in thin strips on freshly packed snow, it is as fun to watch them make as it is to eat. After letting it cool for a 20 to 30 seconds, you press a flat popsicle stick onto one end and slowly roll it up to create a taffy pop. Kids and grown ups alike will love this tasty treat — we were mighty glad that our little one got her braces on “after” the trip.
4. Ice Slides & Snow Tubes — Your Effigy pass gets you full access to Le Monde de Bonhomme, with all of its many delights for families, including the ice slide and multiple snow tubing and tobogganing runs. The lines at these attractions might be a bit longer than some other attractions, but nothing was too long.
5. Ice Fishing — Your kids can also experience a true winter activity that you can’t do just anywhere — ice fishing! Within the main carnival area, they have set up a small, stocked trout pond with circles cut into the ice. The size pretty much ensures your success. No long hours camped out on the ice, they hand you a baited rod, you pick a hole and viola. I barely had time to take out my camera before my daughter hooked a fish. Once caught, you have a choice of donating it or having them cook it for you to eat directly.
— Another activity that is worth the additional fee of $10 per adult and $8 per child is dog sledding. While you only get to mush one time around the track, it was still a dream come true for our family and it gave us an appetite for more. Now I need to book a day trip!
7. Sleigh Rides — A bit longer, but not quite as exciting, are the sleigh rides. More of a sleigh tram, they employ giant draft horses to pull a trio of sleighs linked together. Bundled up under warm blankets, we enjoyed this 10 – 15 minute excursion across the Plains of Abraham. This is one of the few additional activities, costing $8 for adults and $5 for children.
8. Snow Sculptures — One thing that fascinated my whole family was the field of snow sculptures. These finely-chiseled works of art varied from soldier tributes to fantasy creatures and all kinds of things in between. If you didn’t get a close look at Bonhomme’s castle, there was also an ice pagoda that will drop your jaw.
9. Fun & Games — The carnival is truly geared for family fun. Some of the other activities included in admission include carnival games for the little ones, bumper cars on ice, floor hockey, and a human foosball game.
10. Night Parades — The Winter Carnival stretches out over seventeen days and features a night parade on two of the three weekends. One is earlier and more kid-oriented but both are family friendly. The night we attended we saw children as young as toddlers bundled up in their snowsuits for warmth. The parade itself passes by in about 30 minutes, featuring an array of floats with singers, jugglers, and marching bands before closing out with Bonhomme himself. The last few floats highlighted some of the local wildlife including owls, wolves, and what looked like narwhals.
Each week Winter Carnival features different special activities, so you’ll want to check the current schedule before you go. Some of these special events include ice canoe races, ice skating with Bonhomme, snowshoeing championships, sleigh races, and the famous “Snow Bath” with Bonhomme. For one weekend afternoon, a bunch of crazy, I’m mean brave, people don their bathing suits for a chance to frolic in the snow with Bonhomme.
A couple of people in our group took part and said it wasn’t too bad so if you are interested, you need to apply early. First they will warm you up with aerobic exercise, then slowly introduce you to the cold in increasing time intervals, working up to ten minutes outside in the snow. Even if it doesn’t sound fun to do, it is fun to watch for a while.
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Need more reasons to visit Quebec City in the winter? How about snow tubing at North America’s largest winter playground? Or a visit to the Ice Hotel?
Tips for Visiting the Quebec Winter Carnival
- Dress warm! This means lots of layers (base layer, warm clothes, snow pants, boots, ski jackets, warm hats, scarves/neckwarmers/baklavas, and the warmest mittens you have!) Remember that wool or synthetic blends are going to be warmer than cotton.
- Bring along hand warmers and feet warmers and use them liberally.
- Coat your lips and face with protection from the wind and cold with something like Aquaphor, Vaseline or at least lip balm.
- Bring tissues — cold noses get runny.
- Stay nearby so you don’t have to walk far to get warm. We stayed at the Quebec Hilton, the official hotel of the winter carnival, a less than five minute walk to the festival site. It was comfortable, convenient to the festival and the parade route, and offered all the amenities you’d want including a pool, fitness room, restaurant and even room service.
- Warm up frequently in one of the main warming tents scattered throughout the festival grounds or at the bistro tent for lunch.
- Go before you go — port-a-potties aren’t fun when it is zero degrees and you have a million layers on. Another reason to stay nearby!
So have I convinced you to add Quebec Winter Carnival to your bucket list?