North America

Québec City: Fire & Ice

Every January and February in Québec City, Canada fires up one of the world's biggest winter carnivals. A highlight is the Hotel de Glace, the Ice Hotel, a unique resort constructed entirely of ice. The theme for the fifty-first edition of Québec's Winter Carnival is 'Fire and Ice'.

By Habeeb Salloum

The inhabitants of Québec City during the harsh winter months turn their city into a playground made enticing to visitors from the four corners of the globe. While many other cities located in the northern parts of the world worry about the cold and how to pass the winter months in Québec City, the inhabitants look forward to enjoying this time of the year. From their fun-filled Carnival with its Bonhomme Ice Palace to an unbelievable Ice Hotel, the Québecois know how to make their winters pleasurable. Seemingly, this gratification in the cold is passed on to visitors who travel to the city in wintertime.

Québec City's Winter Carnival

Above all, what makes this enjoyable winter aura possible is Québec City's Winter Carnival, which is always set on its way by the colorful Bonhomme--a doll-like creature who is the mascot of the celebrations. White and roly-poly, with a red toque on his head and a reddish sash around his waist, he appears like a living snowman as he prances around, entertaining his audiences during the opening ceremonies of the Carnival.

For inhabitants and visitors alike, the dancing Bonhomme, is always the first introduction to the Québec Winter Carnival, a blowout of fun, food and entertainment in the midst of the city's coldest days. Held in the first part of February, it a fun way Québecois outwit the harshness of winter, transforming the city into one massive outdoor party.

The Carnival is the largest winter celebration in the world and the third largest carnival, only surpassed by those held in Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. As happened during the past five decades, in 2005, from January 28 to February 13, the Carnival's 51st edition will be celebrated in an accelerated flurry of winter fun, bringing a contagious joie de vivre to the city.

History of the Québec Winter Carnival:

For 50 years this renowned festival has been held in what has become known as the 'world's snow capital'. More than 1400 volunteers and some 400 activities and shows offer visitors a festive experience, full of competitions, concerts, fun, games and food in an aura of winter magic. Known as the "Mardi Gras in the Snow". It is a joyous celebration, enjoyed by residents and travelers alike. Some one million residents and interntaional visitors travel to the winter-clad Quebec City to share in its art, culture, entertainment and sports in an aura of sparkling ice and snow. Some winters the white flakes accumulate up to 13 feet in depth, and it takes about 110-thousand tons of salt to clear the streets.

The first Carnival, held in 1894 to provide a welcome relief from the city's harsh winters, was an event for carousing and drinking. In the years that followed, the Carnival was organized sporadically until 1955 when it became an annual event. With the help of the city's businessmen, it was established as a family oriented event, and it has blossomed ever since.

In 1955, the Carnival also adopted the mascot-symbol, Bonhomme. Subsequently, this creature's toothless grin and joyful appearance, along with its red stocking cap and a knitted multi-colored red, blue and white sash, made it a children's delight. Pictured above are Bonhomme Pass Pins as they evolved in ten-year increments, beginning in 1955 through 2005.

Carnival Activities

Overshadowing all the events and show spots is the Bonhomme Ice Palace with its maze of towers. Five thousand blocks of genuine ice were used in its construction, and it has become one of the most visible symbols of the Carnival. At night, this imaginative palace features a popular light and sound show.

It features music as well as flames which seem to shoot through the palace's shimmering walls in all directions, yet, do not melt the ice. It is a show, which combines music and flame-like light, a breathtaking dream world for the young. When they tire of the fireworks, visitors can shop inside Bonhomme's Palace of Ice for souvenirs from all over the world.

Among the most colorful parts of the Carnival are its brightly lit night parades. Every year some half a million spectators bundle up and line the snowy streets of the city. The parades include fantastic floats, musicians and many clowns. Even though it is usually well below freezing, the Scottish marching bands still wear their kilts.

During the Carnival, the Plains of Abraham, where the British battled the French and conquered Canada, are transformed into a huge winter playground for families. The entrance to the plains area, edged on both sides by amazing and skillfully crafted snow sculptures fashioned by artists from various countries, leads to a field offering Aerial Trampoline, dogsled and sleigh rides, an ice climbing wall, snow slides, snowmobiling, and a sugar shack.

In addition, there are endless other activities. Visitors can watch the Provincial Dogsled Championships and the Soapbox Derby; visit the Amerindian Trail and take the opportunity to spend a night in a tepee; take a roll in the snow dressed only in a bathing suit; take part in the giant baby-foot soccer game; try breathtaking snow rafting; watch renowned snow sculptress at work; enjoy a Swiss culinary festival or savor the smell of hot chestnuts and chocolate crepes or enjoy a Calgary flapjack breakfast; taste, Caribou, a feisty alcoholic beverage popularized ever since the first carnival; take part in a soapbox derby which encourages participation from onlookers; learn ice fishing and the smokehouse basics; listen to vocal ensemble sing a cappella, then dance in the snow; and, last but not least, watch the legendary International Canoe Race.

On top of the usual activities and the lively nightlife, for 2005, the 51st year of the event, the Carnival offered a 'fire theme'. Fiery performances were staged, numerous fireplaces warmed up the ambience, and flames illuminated the opening ceremony, as well as enlivened the Ice Palace and Night Parades.

Each year when the Carnival is over, some of its officials, along with Bonhomme, embark on extensive tours throughout the world. This is paying off for Québec. Every year there are more and more international visitors.

Ice Hotel

In addition to the Carnival, for the hardy visitor a night or two in the Ice Hotel is a fine climax to a winter vacation. Very few travelers in North America have ever heard of Québec City's Ice Hotel, but it becomes the talking point of almost everyone who visits Québec City in winter. In this, once capital of French North America impregnated with the aura of Europe, this Inuit igloo adds a Native-American dimension to the city's many other tourist attributes.

Travelers to Québec City for pleasure or to attend conferences in winter are urged to stay at least one night in its famous Ice Hotel. Many try this one night adventure. Afterwards some complain that it was too cold for their taste and swear that they will never repeat the experience. The more adventurous love the stay in this unique inn constructed of snow and ice.

When visitors push aside the curtains which serve as an entrance doorway to that igloo-like structure, they are sure to be mesmerized and amazed. Before them they will see the stunning lobby and hallways filled with fanciful ice sculptures and exquisite furnishings, all created from sheer ice. A large and unique ice candelabra hanging from the hotel's 18-foot high ceiling dominates the space. The aura of eeriness creates a feeling of walking into a fairytale wonderland or an icy-dream-world.

Touring the Ice Hotel

Visitors--dressed warmly--are offered a tour of the hotel in order to inspect this giant igloo before they book a room. It is a good idea as this is nothing like any hotel most peoople have ever experienced before. All around they will see a world of sparkling ice with walls covered with original artwork etched right into the ice and all furnishings carved from ice blocks.

On the agenda, one of the first stops is at the Absolut ice bar. Drinks are served in ice utensils and appetizers on ice plates. Warm mittens are a must as visitors walk along siping their drinks.

They then move through hallways edged by pillars of glimmering ice to walk into an icy courtyard. Here, they will see steam rising fromf the ice. When asked, the tour guide smiles and is said repeats to every visitor, "It's our hot water tub in the ice. You want to try it?" With the temperature often below zero, it has to be a real challenge to undress and then make it to the tub. The guide exlains,"They run like racehorses."

The Ice Hotel officials claim that the hotel is almost always fully booked. Guests spend the night in one of the 32-cosy rooms and theme suites, which can accommodate some 80 persons. Apparently the novelty of sleeping in a freezing room appeals to a good number of travelers. Rooms are furnished with an ice slab for a bed and a bedside table sculptured from ice. The guests sleep, tucked in warm sleeping bags on the ice slabs, which are covered with deer pelts over which are placed thick foam-rubber slabs.

Besides the rooms and theme suites, Ice Bar and hot tubs, the hotel incorporates two exhibition rooms, a movie theatre, a magnificent chapel, a large ballroom, and functional fireplaces. It is as if the owners of the hotel want to prove to the world that guests at the ice hotel are offered the same amenities as those who stay in regular hotels.

As for the chapel, worshippers listen to sermons sitting on stools of ice. However, this icy house of worship is, in the main, used for marriage purposes. A marriage in the cold is so popular that the chapel is fully booked weeks in advance. One wonders why couples come here to tie the knot. Perhaps the tour guide has the ultimate answer when he responds with a stab at Gallic humor, "I guess this chapel will cool the couple's passionate ardor."

History of the Ice Hotel:

The inspiration for this unusual ice abode comes from the small Swedish village of
Jukkasjärvi, where for many years an Ice Hotel has been built every winter. Jacques Desbois or 'Mr. lgloo', as he came to be known to some people, read a story about the Swedish Ice Hotel, and he is reported to have said, "If they can do it in Sweden, we can do it here in Québec"..Enthused about beginning a similar project in Canada, he traveled to Jukkasjärvi to meet with the creators of this magical structure. The visit convinced him that it was feasible to build an ice hotel in Canada. Now, Ice Hotel Québec-Canada Inc., in partnership with Icehotel, Sweden, has great plans for the future with projects for a second Ice Hotel in Western North America within the next three years.

Ice Hotel Québec-Canada opened its curtains (for doors) during the winter in 2001, but as happens every year, the ice hotel is fated for an annual rebirth. Under the warming sun of early April, it slowly melts away like Dorothy's witch, only to come to life again the next winter.

The construction of the Ice Hotel, one of the most uncommon and complicated construction projects, takes approximately five weeks. At least 12,000 tons of snow and 400 tons of ice are used in the creation of this amazing ice and snow crystal cathedral. It's total surface of 3,000 sq m (30,000 sq ft), is more than enough space to accommodate, besides the guests, a large number of visitors - more than 400 guests for any type of activity.

In early January, when winter covers Québec with its fluffy white mantle, Bonhomme makes a dramatic return to the city. The mayor hands him the key to the city, and Bonhomme again reigns until the February Carnival is over. This iconic figure is an important factor in making a visit to the Carnival an unforgettable winter experience.

For those seeking a distinctive and unique experience, staying in accommodations destined to disappear every spring, would truly be a memobable event. Along with Québec's Winter Carnival, the unique Ice Hotel already is well on its way to becoming among Québec's and Canada's most outstanding winter experiences.

Contact Information:

Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada Inc., 143, route Duchesnay, Sainte-Catherine-de-la-Jacques-Cartier, QC G0A 3M0 Canada. Tel: (418) 875-4522 or toll-free CAN/USA 1-877-505-0423. Fax: (418) 875-2833.). E-MAIL YOUR QUESTIONS: General information: information@icehotel-canada.com; Reservations and special events: reservations@icehotel-canada.com; Marketing, promotions and special projects: marketing@icehotel-canada.com or see website: http://www.icehotel-canada.com/en/index.en.php

For more information about the Quebec City Carnival:

Quebec Carnival, 290, rue Joly, Quebec (Quebec), G1L 1N8. Toll free number (Accommodations and information): 1-866-422-7628 or tel: (418) 626-3716.
Fax: (418) 626-7252. E-mail: bonhomme@carnaval.qc.ca Web site: http://www.carnaval.qc.ca/

The complete up-to-date program will be online for the unveiling of the official program, to be done during the week of January 5, 2005.

Photo Credits: Bonjour Québec, Official Tourism Site of the Québec Government; Habeeb Salloum; and Contributed Photos.