Carnaval de Quebec
It’s every traveller’s worst nightmare – your winter flight gets cancelled due to bad weather. After rescheduling flights three times and facing several lost travel days, you end up cutting your losses and cancelling your entire tropical vacation.
What to do when faced with seemingly irredeemable travel lemons? Well, you can make a pity pina colada and mourn the loss of your tropical vacation. Or, you can trade your flip-flops and sunglasses for some winter gear and a healthy dose of spontaneity, and embark on a road trip! There’s no better way to see your own country, and your impromptu vacation may just be your most memorable yet – especially if, like us, it takes you to Vieux Quebec during Carnaval!
The Best Reason to visit Quebec in Winter
Quebec City has long-been affectionately known as the world’s snow capital. As far back as the 1890s, winter festivities have been celebrated here, and today’s Carnaval de Quebec turns the city into a winter wonderland of fun every January to February, drawing visitors from around the world.
The icon of Carnaval de Quebec is Bonhomme. He is a jolly, 7-foot-tall, dancing snowman wearing the traditional arrow sash made famous by French Canadian voyageurs. Bonhomme is the embodiment of winter in Quebec, and meeting him is a highlight for many visitors (including ourselves!). He makes various appearances throughout Carnaval and even has his own theme song, which we heard as he entered his 30-foot-tall ice palace to pose for photos with waiting fans.
Luckily, Bonhomme is bilingual. So, even if it’s been a while since your high school French, you’ll be able to communicate with Carnaval’s icon when you meet him! Bonhomme turns up at Carnival’s parades and special events, and you can even skate with him. He’s one busy snowman.
Food and Drink
Winter days call for hearty, comforting food and drink, and there’s plenty of that at Carnaval de Quebec! The most popular beverage is Carnaval Grog. This is an alcoholic concoction featuring Bonhomme’s Syrup, consisting of cranberry juice, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and maple syrup. You can order this in a glass made of ice at the outdoor ice bar.
We loved chilling on Muskoka chairs around the festival’s various outdoor firepits. We also enjoyed s’mores and other delights from Carnaval’s food trucks! You can also relax in a heated tent with favourites like hot cheese fondue on a French baguette, hot chocolate and cheese nuggets. Maple fans can even roll their own tasty maple taffy in snow and watch it harden into delicious candy before their eyes!
One of the most visible features of Carnaval de Quebec is the rather impressive sculptures of snow and ice scattered throughout festival sites and Lower Town. A simple walk around Vieux Quebec can reveal impeccably carved characters from your favourite cartoons and movies. We saw ice versions of characters from Disney’s The Lion King, Shaun the Sheep, Bullwinkle, and a velociraptor, among others. There are daily demonstrations by ice-carving artists. If you’re feeling inspired, you can even take an ice-carving workshop to learn how to create your own masterpiece out of a block of ice!
You can warm your heart with a variety of thrilling outdoor activities that will remind you how awesome winter can be. Just make sure you don your snow pants or woollen underwear! Scream your head off as you slide down a 300-foot icy incline on a snow tube. There is a gentler slope for those less adventurous, or try your hand at axe throwing. Think your way out of the outdoor escape room. Zip down the ice slide at Bonhomme’s gorgeously carved ice palace.
This year, Carnaval boasted an indoor immersive Pixel experience that brought us back to the 1980s. This giant interactive arcade experience allowed visitors to become human pinballs. They channel their inner Pac-Man, and even create artwork out of gigantic Lite-Brite pegs.
Though not technically part of Carnaval, one attraction you won’t want to miss if you’re in Quebec in the winter is Au 1884. The Dufferin Terrace slide overlooking – and pre-dating – the magnificent Chateau Frontenac. Consisting of three chutes, this toboggan run operates throughout the winter, and allows you to hurtle down a hill of ice on a wooden toboggan at speeds of up to 75 km an hour. It costs just a few dollars per person, though you will have to do some legwork by dragging your toboggan up to the top of the chutes.
The toboggan run is entirely safe, but at these speeds, also a complete thrill. Ride during the day and at night, as we did, for two very different experiences. Make sure you snap some photos of that iconic view! This run was by far the most exciting experience we had during our trip. It will be one of the highlights that bring us back next winter. Warm-up with a hot chocolate at the ticket kiosk following your ride. Marvel at the fact that you just rode on a toboggan run that’s over 130 years old!
Other Carnaval de Quebec Hits
We were only lucky enough to enjoy Carnaval de Quebec for a couple of days. However, if you plan out your Carnaval experiences in advance and have a bit more time to spend in Quebec, you’ll be able to enjoy even more winter fun than we did. There are two evening parades during the festival, featuring rock music, dance numbers, colourful lights and circus acts. You can watch a day of canoe racing across the ice-filled St. Lawrence. Tour (or stay at, if you’re brave enough) the ice hotel that is carved each year anew.
So, the next time your winter travel plans fall through, think of it as an opportunity to explore your own backyard. Start with the best winter festival in Canada, in historic Quebec City!
If you love a good winter carnival, be sure to also check out the Winterlude Festival in Ottawa.