It took the Carnaval de Québec for the penny to drop: confusing the festivities of winter for Christmas is as daft as mistaking autumn for Halloween.
While Irish winters may not be “graced” with -20-something Celsius and mega-metres of snow – despite our best efforts earlier this year – a few winter days in Quebec shows up just how much more we could engage, enjoy and celebrate the season on this supposed “island of eternal winter”, as the Romans dubbed us.
Couldn’t we make the multi-month stint a little kindlier, rather than our Jekyll and Hyde/crash-and-burn combo of Christmas cheer landing face down in the mud of January blues? Would it kill us to leave lit candles in our front windows, our fairy lights over the front door a little longer? A little more cosy conviviality and the songbirds of spring would be chirping before we know it.
The largest winter carnival in the world, each year the Carnaval de Québec (carnaval.qc.ca) trails across 17 days and 200+ activities in Old Québec's 17th-century charismatic core (quebecregion.com). While it was on-again, off-again from the 1890s, the Carnaval only really got it on in the 1950s, and has since spawned a vast panoply of French-Canadian craic.
Yes, it may be polished and commercial, but it's the sideshow of kinks and commotion (yes, in Canada! ) that leaves the deepest imprint. The backdrop is that of foot-tapping Québécois instrumentals over the speakers, the pacifying wood smoke of fire barrels countered by the sweet kick of Caribou shots (a mix of whisky, maple syrup and red wine – originally Caribou blood). And it's a festival enjoyed foremost not by selfie-stalled trailblazers but by real Québécois, wrapped up to blazes and donned in their traditional red tuque (knitted, tight stocking cap) and long, colourful wrap-around arrow sash.
Ice canoe race
There is the ice canoe race across the brisk flowing, kilometre-wide Saint Lawrence River. Each team of four has to go over and back twice, battling the current while pulling their boats out over each ice float – those they can’t kick away from their course – and back into the Lawrence, while getting soaked in -18ºC. Simple, when you take away sanity. A snowdrift curtains across the river and the canoes disappear in the spindrift distance; the perfect cue for us to disappear for another shot of Caribou.
Up-town, there's the Ice Palace, the immersive Odyss Land of Ice, the night parades and tobogganing and log-chopping and the likes. And everywhere Bonhomme, the official smiling snowman mascot of the carnival, waving worse than the Queen, like some Michelin Man snowballing in merriment, who hasn't yet heard those rumours of global warming. Never mind the polar bears folks – make it to the Carnaval before Bonhomme drips to the gutter.
A three-night, two-day weekend (when the Carnaval peaks) is probably enough, but ensure you give at least a further full day exploring the city.
Deriving from the Algonquin word “kébec” (“the narrowing”), Québec City is where the Saint Lawrence narrows to a cliff-lined, easily defended opening on this navigable river. But where best to visit?
The most historic part of Québec City, centred upon the Place Royale, is a Unesco World Heritage site, as well as the only remaining partially walled city north of Mexico. The cradle of French civilization in North America, the 400+-year-old Place Royale is rich with locally stocked craft shops, galleries, restaurants and cafes littered across the small enclave of tight, multi-storey streets and squares. The neighbourhood is gorgeous, but can also be pricey and twee. Check out the Musée du Fort, as well as the Montmorency Falls just outside town, before spending a cosy couple of hours in the must-see Musée de la civilisation, home of Québec's largest ethnographic collection.
Browsing through the collections, the aphorism came to mind of how the greatest weapon the English gave the Irish was the English language. If so, I couldn’t help feeling the converse had been unravelling in parallel across the Atlantic. From the 1600s onwards, European settlers could only survive the stupendous Canadian climate, topography and scale through the use of it native people’s inventions – the canoe, sledge, skis and snowshoes. And in doing so, that re-applied survival kit fed the destruction of the cultures that created it.
Outside the city, think Fargo, but without the psychopaths. Wide, white, low terrain. Roughly three hours' drive northeast of Québec City, Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean is where you begin to wrestle the daunting scale of this province. Three times the area of France and 18 times that of Ireland, Québec is Canada's largest province by area and, with eight million souls, its second largest by population.
Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean has fewer than 300,000 of those. They're scattered within a moose's roar of the 45km long Lac Saint Jean lake, which feeds the Saguenay River, that feeds the 105km-long Saguenay Fjord, that eventually powers into the St Lawrence further south.
Probably the most thrilling, rewarding way to sample it is to snowmobile some of its 3,300km of marked trails. Controlling a snowmobile really isn't difficult. Though a valid driver's licence is required, no experience or fitness is needed to glide up to 60 km/h over the undulating glacial white. The guide, snowmobiles, kit and safety equipment can be supplied by Évasion Sport (evasion-sport.com) for either a half-or full-day's folly through snow-laden forests, over frozen lakes and hushed, huddled villages. En route, stall and learn in the Musée du Fjord (museedufjord.com), before visiting a fully heated, self-contained fishing shack – one of a couple of hundred hard cases out upon the frozen fjord – for an hour's ice-fishing with Peche Adventure Saguenay (pecheaventuressaguenay.com).
Snowshoeing in the Parc national des Monts-Valin (sepaq.com/pq/mva/) is another day's glory, though it will require some fitness. Having been left off at least halfway up the mountain, follow your guide in arcing to the summit-topping "Valley of Phantoms," where metres of snow ply the evergreens into the most surreal arboricultural spectres, before pulling into one of the snow-entombed log cabins to thaw to some wood-burning warmth.
Returning home, fly back to Montreal/Toronto from the small city of Chicoutimi, leaving at least a couple of hours for the La Pulperie De Chicoutimi/Musée Régional (pulperie.com/en) to discover the depth of the region, including the paintings of the mercurial 20th-century local, Arthur Villeneuve. A barber by day, Villeneuve was a self-taught painter excelling in "naïve art" in his liberty-taking interpretation of Québec's urban and rural sphere.
Getting there/staying there
What to bring
Dress as if for an assault up the Alps in a February blizzard, starting in top and bottom base-layers, with thermal everything, eventually ending in high-end wind and waterproof outer layers. In fact, -29°C (the lowest it got, albeit at the top of a mountain) was more tolerable in the right gear than 0°C at home in the wrong gear.
Where to stay
Auberge Saint-Antoine (saint-antoine.com) is an award-winning contemporary boutique hotel in the heart of Québec City's Old Port, and is thoroughly recommended. The family-owned hotel has 95 individually designed rooms and suites, with winter escape packages available from CAD$194 (€130) plus taxes per night based on a two-night break.
Much like the cuisine, accommodation in Saguenay Lac-Saint-Jean is significantly more prosaic. Auberge des Battures (hotel-saguenay.com/en) has winter packages available from CAD$102 (€68.50) plus taxes per person, including three-course dinner and "American breakfast". Rates at Auberge des Îles (aubergedesiles.com) start from CAD$62 (€41) plus taxes per person per night, based on two sharing on a bed-and-breakfast basis. Be aware that the low temperatures will have you sleeping and eating more than usual, but just listen to your body and go with it.
Where to eat
Ranked high as one of the best foodie cities in North America, Québec City will not disappoint. Indulge in the authentic poutine, tourtière, fèves au lard, and pouding chômeur. Take lunch at Buffet de l'Antiquaire (lebuffetdelantiquaire.com) and dinner at Chez Muffy (the restaurant of Auberge Saint-Antoine: saint-antoine.com/chez-muffy) as well as at the Brasserie Française Chez Jules (chezjules.ca/en). Outside the city, the fare is generally less flattering, but Restaurant Inter (restaurantinter.com) in Chicoutimi is one beaming exception.
Air Canada offers a year-round non-stop service from Dublin to Toronto, with connections to Québec City. Economy return fares start from €522. aircanada.com.
Jamie Ball travelled to Québec as a guest of Québec Original, Québec City Tourism, Tourisme Sagenay Lac St Jean and Air Canada