I might have been seeing things but this much was clear: I'd been in Québec too long. If it weren't for the anti-inflammatory properties of a blizzard, my eyes — like those of provincial hero René Levesque, whose statue stood before me — would have been purpled and drooping from the constant influx of Grand Marnier-laced coffee and good wine, but when the 58th iteration of Québec City's Winter Carnival kicked off last February with a raucous night parade the descent to toxicity had begun in earnest: wine botas were everywhere, quarts of beer bristled beneath jackets, and surreptitious shots abounded. Later, reeling over a sumptuous dinner in a century-old, wood-paneled drawing room in Café de la Paix, a 60-year-old dining institution, I was visited by the local version of a pink elephant — Bonhomme Carnival, a toque and sash-bound Michelin Man. But alas this was no hallucination. Bonhomme ("happy man") was real — and he was everywhere.
I'd seen him on the Plains of Abraham, where Britain's General Wolf once defeated Montcalm's French army to take possession of Lower Canada, wandering amidst Ferris wheels, ice slides, and toboggan runs. I'd seen him cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and laughing in sleds drawn by somnolent draft horses in decorative tack. I'd seen him ice-canoe racing in the slush-filled St. Lawrence River, then helping teams from around the world with massive snow sculptures while the scents of smouldering pine and maple syrup wafted from warming stations. I'd seen him at his eponymous ice-castle (Bonhomme's Palace), outside a pulsating disco where lights flashed off the ice surface, and the doorway saw the kind of line-up reserved for warmer, more urbane places. And I'd seen him commune with everyone from wide-eyed, sled-bound toddlers to frisky teens and shivering mutts, sharing an obvious joie de vivre and pride in figureheading the world's largest, longest winter celebration.
The historic architecture that has garnered Québec UNESCO World Heritage status doesn't — but perhaps should — include the celebration's other annual icecapade, magnificent Hôtel de Glace, whose huge vaults, crystalline sculpture, and dazzling décor take a month to build and have seduced thousands since opening in 2001. Carnival, of course, goes further back. Since the 1600s, Les habitants of snowbound New France kept up the rowdy, European pre-Lent tradition of eating, drinking and merrymaking for a fortnight in February. Québec's first large carnival took place in 1894, but was held only sporadically until 1954, when businessfolk re-launched festivities with Bonhomme as official mascot. Snowballing to third on the List of Top Carnivals in the World behind the fêtes of Rio and New Orleans, Québec's Carnival quickly became an important vehicle for economic activity — and a must-do for skiers like me.
That's because with ski areas like Stoneham, Mont-Ste.-Anne and Le Massif within striking distance of the city, there's reason aplenty to make Carnival part of a ski vacation — or vice versa. Stoneham, with excellent fall-line pistes and reliable night skiing is actually a suburban retreat for Quebeckers. And Mont-Ste.-Anne in nearby Beaupré distills the best of Quebec skiing: a happening, quasi-urban area with big vertical, steep runs and views to kill. The true star of the troika, however, is powder-haven Le Massif, and hour and change east of the city in breathtakingly beautiful Charlevoix region and featuring both the highest verticals and snowfalls in the East — both western-like in scope. And now there's dedicated train service for skiers between Québec City and Le Massif du Petite-Rivière-Saint-François. The train travels between mountains and seashore along 140 km of riverside scenery. Breakfast is served on the morning journey and gourmand après ski fare on the return trip. At the mountain you spend the day shredding pow or piste on 53 trails and glades that descending over 700 metres from summit to la Fleuve St. Laurent, ogling the best views in all of eastern skidom, or discovering the 7.5 km-long rodelling run, an Euro-style alpine slide on a wooden sled. During Carnival, it's not unusual to see Bonhomme appear on any of these slopes.
On my last day, below the famous wind-whipped terraces of legendary Fairmont Château Frontenac overlooking the churning St. Lawrence, 410 year-old cobblestoned streets behind the fortified walls of the Old City were packed with spectators primed for annual sled-dog races featuring canids that can't be classed as huskies and thus, more resemble nervous, turbo-like greyhounds. I'd staked out a spot and stomped my feet in a bid to keep warm. Suddenly, Bonhomme himself had leaned in beside me with a knowing smile and unscrewed the handle of his hollow plastic cane. Voulez-vous de Caribou? The traditional blend of brandy, vodka, sherry and port is nothing like the ungulate blood it supposedly emulates, but it has a similar effect of keeping you warm — or at least inebriated enough to not care. Certainement, merci. As dark, viscous liquid coated my throat and dogs raced through the streets to wild cheers, this much was clear: I hadn't been in Québec long enough.