The Québec Winter Carnival: The world's biggest winter festival

The cold will set you atremble, and the velocity will make you quake. From up here at the top of Quebec's famous toboggan ride, Au 1884 (named for the year of its birth), the city is a white light at the end of a vertiginous tunnel. Rimming the old city's ramparts like a moat is the St Lawrence River, its frozen surface slashed open periodically to reveal indigo waters. Stretched out along the buried remains of forts and castles left here by the French and British is Dufferin Terrace, sealed in a sheet of ice. And far, far below, at the foot of this precipitous slide, is Fairmont's Château Frontenac, its turrets festooning the skyline like a fairytale.

The operator nudges my toboggan and down I go. The old city flies up to meet me in a blizzard of white. Wind sandpapers my face. Snowflakes prickle my cheeks. The squall stabs my eyes. My heart, left somewhere high above me, jumps back into my chest and flails rabidly as the toboggan grinds to a halt metres from the chateau's front door. The annual Quebec Winter Carnival has begun, and I am its latest initiate.

All through the old city and beyond its ramparts people are defying the coldest seasons and taking to the streets in celebration of this, the world's biggest winter festival. Held annually in the only walled city north of Mexico, the carnival spins enchantment from darkest winter's offerings. Everything is turned to magic – the glacial wind, the gurgling slush, the slippery snowfall. Tobogganers fly down the slick flanks of the Parc du Bastion-de-la-Reine; urban fishers hover above holes punched into the river ice; sled-pulling dogs thread their way through the old city's narrow lanes; skaters twirl on outdoor rinks and sculptors fabricate fantasies from hunks of blue ice. Who wants to stay indoors when all that's cool is happening outside?

So enticing is the cold, guests have booked out the famous Hôtel de Glace, a fantastical structure built anew each year from ice and snow. Though the inn is full, I take a tour around this frigid artwork with its fantastically themed rooms. Leaning against the frosty bar counter, I sip a neon-coloured cocktail from a glass carved from ice. In the chapel, I linger beneath vaulted ice ceilings on a fur-lined, ice-block pew; though polar clothing is mandatory in this frozen sanctuary, it's the site of many a warm-hearted wedding.

Such cold induces a ravenous appetite: after a day spent filling my lungs with winter's curative air, I'm enticed by the glow of restaurant windows from within the city's historic facades. Shutting out the snowstorm behind me, I enter Chez Boulay-bistro boreal, where deathly cold is supplanted by warm hearth. Here, celebrated chefs Jean-Luc Boulay and Arnaud Marchand apply French techniques to produce sourced from boreal forests – wild fruits and leaves and flowers, mushrooms, lichens. I replenish my energy with scallops from Gaspésie near the Gulf of St Lawrence, served with buckwheat and a jus made from balsam fir. Quebec's winter has seeped into my veins, and now its coniferous flavours, too.

The flurries have subsided by the time I emerge from the bistro, and so I make my way on foot through the still-bustling, light-struck streets to Bulles Whisky & Cie, a celebration of spirits within this carnival of snow. The DJ is spinning her turntable and mixologists are whirling their shakers as guests fling off their coats and seek succour in bubbles and whisky. But this this is more than just a binge-fest: participants are lured in from the cold by masterclasses with distillers and vintners and bars featuring spritzes and tonics as icy as the streets outside.

There don't appear to be any sore heads next day on the banks of the St Lawrence River, where spectators are lined up for the carnival's thrilling ice canoe race. Used as a form of transport across the frozen river during French colonial times, ice canoeing is now a competitive sport. From the comfort of the docked Quebec-Levis ferry, I watch as ant-sized athletes alternatively paddle through slush and thrust their craft over walls of shattered ice. It's an act of insubordination, a daring gallivant across an icy landscape that might open its maw at any moment and suck the canoeists in.

Long after the race has ended I commit an act of bravery myself: leaving my robe in a dressing room at Strom Spa Nordique, I head out into the stinging air dressed for a swim. But the chill is short-lived: goosebumps are vanquished as I sink into a steaming infinity pool perched high above the St Lawrence River; geothermally-warmed water enfolds me like a blanket.

I could float amid this frostbitten landscape forever, but such indolence will lead to lethargy and wrinkly skin; instead, I haul myself from the pool and submit my body to bursts of icy spray from a Nordic waterfall, race through frosty gusts to the marble steam room, scrub my body with salt and wash it off in a torrent of ice, submit to the hot current propelling me along a meandering whirlpool and stick my big toe – it's the best I can do – into a bath of ice.

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Finally, I sink into the spa's indoor flotation bath, the largest in North America. Resting my head on an inflatable pillow, I push off from the side. Candles flicker in my peripheral vision; saltwater renders me weightless. It's the perfect antidote to winter, a womb-like space which pacifies my psyche and warms the very marrow of my bones. The thrills and chills of a Quebec winter are soon subsumed by heat; I've found bliss in a cold climate.

FIVE OTHER WINTER FESTIVALS IN CANADA

WINTERLUDE

Skate on the famous Rideau Canal Skateway, take part in an igloo-building workshop and find your way through a snow maze at the annual winter celebration held in February each year in Canada's capital city, Ottawa. See ottawatourism.ca

ICE MAGIC FESTIVAL

Ice sculptures bloom upon the frozen Lake Louise during the 12-day Ice Magic Festival, held from mid-January. Ice artists from around the world are drawn to the festival's International Ice Carving competition, but the village of Lake Louise retains its quintessential Albertan hospitality and ambience. See banfflakelouise.com

YUKON SOURDOUGH RENDEZVOUS

Whitehorse is known for its wacky personality, and this sense of fun is at its most entertaining during the annual winter carnival held in February. Try your hand in the hair freezing, cross-dressing or beard-growing competitions, and enjoy activities such as potato sack races, snow-carving and a masquerade ball. See yukonrendezvous.com

MONTRÉAL EN LUMIÈRE

Winters' gloom is washed away with light, sound and food during this epic festival which sees over 1000 performing artists, chefs and winemakers presenting their most illuminating – and delicious – work from late February. See mtl.org/en

FESTIVAL DU VOYAGEUR

Held in Winnipeg's French Quarter and dubbed a "kitchen party", this midwinter cultural festival celebrates the region's French heritage and the voyageur era with activities such as wrestling, tug-of-war and log sawing, French-Canadian cuisine, Fiddling & Jigging Contests and the International Snow Sculpting Symposium. See heho.ca/en

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Air Canada operates direct, non-stop services to Vancouver daily from Sydney and Brisbane and four times a week from Melbourne, with onward connections to Quebec City. See aircanada.com

STAY

Prices at Hotel de Glace start from around $A416 twin share and include breakfast, access to hot tubs and sauna under the stars; guests are assigned a room at the adjacent Hôtel Valcartier where they can store their luggage and retreat should their suite at the Hotel de Glace get too icy. See valcartier.com/en

TOUR

The Québec Winter Carnival runs from February 7 to 16, 2020. Tickets for the VIP Parade Experience cost around $80 each; tickets for the Canoe Race VIP Experience cost around $55 each. See carnaval.qc.ca/en. Hotel de Glace's Behind the Scene tour is available on Saturdays and Sundays and costs from around $28 per person; see valcartier.com/en. Bulles Whisky & cie is held on February 7 and 8. Tickets cost around $38 each and include a keepsake glass and one welcome drink; coupons can be purchased for additional drinks; see bulleswhisky.com. Tickets for the thermal experience at Strom Spa Nordique cost around $60 and include access to various baths, saunas and relaxation areas; see stromspa.com.

MORE

traveller.com.au/canada

carnaval.qc.ca/en

quebec-cite.com/en

Catherine Marshall was a guest of Destination Canada

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