Carnaval de Quebec: The world's largest winter festival

Is this the ne plus ultra of decadence? Quebec City's Hotel de Glace is a wonder of engineering and design, yet after shimmering in sub-zero glory for less than three months, it will be demolished, melting into nothing. As I sip my cocktail from a glass of the purest, lab-made ice, while perched on a seat carved from the same strikingly clear material - so smooth it demands to be caressed despite the cold - it's inconceivable that all this will be no more a few weeks from now.

Tonight, though, majestic ice columns rise up to meet arched ceilings of pristine snow, packed as hard as concrete. Entranced by these translucent and opaque white surfaces' transformation with each intensely colourful shift in lighting, I hardly spare a thought for how I will sleep on the solid block of H₂O waiting in my freezer-like chamber, but eventually it's time for the essential briefing.

At its conclusion, nothing but the demonstrator's smiling face can be seen peeping out of the Arctic-rated sleeping bag, and I am off to the outdoor spa – apparently I must warm my body before replicating the cocooning process. I'm unsure which is more bizarre: boiling myself while surrounded by snow or, as I settle down for the night, watching vapour rise into the frigid air from my bare feet.

After a surprisingly sound sleep - all but my nose retains that hard-earned heat - I step outside into silently falling snowflakes. I have passed the trial by ice, and am ready for the world's largest winter festival: Carnaval de Quebec (celebrating its 61st edition from January 30 to February 15).  

If sleeping on a bed of ice seems peculiar, what about frolicking in snow wearing little more than a swimsuit? The Snow Bath (or Bain de Neige as it's known in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec) is a highlight of this festival devoted to having fun with frozen water. Sometimes crazy fun. Scores of super-pumped snow bathers expose their flesh for minutes on end, raising their arms in ecstatic triumph; their excitement is so infectious I almost consider ... participating next year.

Other events for extremists include canoeing on the fast-flowing, semi-frozen St Lawrence River, but for the rest of us there's the thrill of watching, and more accessible activities, from zooming down a huge snow slide in an inner-tube, to gliding along in a horse-drawn sleigh. I spend a day living childhood fantasies drawn from storybooks and Christmas songs: ice-skating outdoors, strolling among spectacular snow sculptures, and hugging Carnaval's adorable snowman mascot, Bonhomme. Well, I must admit, that last fantasy was spontaneous.

At night, the scene is even more magical, as Carnaval's colours and lights gleam against black sky and white snow. A parade snakes through the streets, wowing the all-ages crowd with dozens of floats and hundreds of costumed performers inspired by themes including Mary Poppins and The Little Shop of Horrors. I am amazed by the participants' unrelenting energy and enthusiasm in double-digit-below-zero degrees, until increasingly cold toes prompt me to jig around a bit too.

Later, at an outdoor dance party in the snow, I become blissfully warm moving to the DJ's hypnotic rhythms, confirming the key lesson learned during this otherworldly winter escape: keep moving. Or drink Caribou, the powerful potion favoured during Carnaval when revellers sip it from striped plastic walking canes. The recipe for this traditional heart-starter varies, but generally it's red wine, a spirit such as rum, and maple syrup. Whatever its composition, Caribou stops Jack Frost from nipping too fiercely at your nose.

From the ice hotel to Carnaval's many diversions, I am in a near-constant state of delight in this frozen fairyland. My enchantment is only heightened by the backdrop: the original, still-fortified heart of Quebec City, one of North America's oldest European settlements (the French arrived in 1535). A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Old Quebec is a feast of historic architecture, including the 19th century grand hotel, Chateau Frontenac. Perched on a cliff overlooking the St Lawrence, its romantic towers dominate the skyline – no wonder it's supposedly the world's most photographed hotel.

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As I wander Old Quebec's narrow streets, lined with snow-draped, icicle-fringed buildings much smaller and more venerable than Chateau Frontenac, a horse-drawn carriage passes by. Hooves clip-clop on cobblestones, mingling with the solemn chime of Notre Dame Cathedral's bells. Pretty festive decorations, still frozen in place weeks after Yuletide, glow cheerfully in the darkness. Winter was never more wonderful.

The writer was a guest of Tourisme Quebec.

THE FACTS

Accommodation

The Hotel de Glace on the city fringe is a one-night experience (hoteldeglace-canada.com). Move on to Chateau Frontenac (fairmont.com), one of many historic B&Bs, or enjoy the Hilton's splendid view of Old Quebec and the icy St Lawrence (hiltonquebec.com).

More information

carnaval.qc.ca/en

quebecregion.com

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