QUEBEC CITY CELEBRATES 400 YEARS

From Its Ice Hotel to the St. Lawrence River

By Barbara Singer

Quebec City began its big 400 birthday celebration in January, 2008 with a full year of festivities. I arrived all the way from sunny Santa Monica, California to encounter the diversity and power of nature for a chilly winter and an exhilarating experience. Travel is most exciting when you visit an unfamiliar destination that you’ve always wanted to know. I was overwhelmed by the presence of winter and the need to be dressed extremely warm, an experience foreign to a Californian, yet the joy of the journey was my motivation.

It’s been a few weeks since I attended the biggest and coldest birthday celebration of my life, Quebec City’s 400th year anniversary of its founding by Samuel de Champlain in 1608. This beautiful Canadian city has prepared extraordinary multi-sensory experiences on-going through October 19, 2008.

The renowned Ice Hotel Quebec on the banks of Lac St. Joseph, constructed each winter from 15,000 tons of snow and 500 tons of ice and only open from January to April, provides a unique experience (© 2008 Barbara Singer).

The spirit of winter is embraced here with its spectacular winter carnival, seasonal natural beauty and a joie de vivre. From the plane I could see Quebec City covered with a white blanket of snow at night. Although I was warned, I had no idea how biting cold it could be. It was 15 below zero. Luckily, I was outfitted with enough layers for an expedition to the North Pole.

What a relief to see my driver, Monsieur Moule, from Autocar Excellence, waving to me in the Jean-Lesage International Airport. Soon after I stepped into my first serious snowstorm, he whisked me through the beautifully illuminated Old Quebec City directly to the Quebec Hilton, which would be my lodging and a perfect location to get to all the city’s celebrations and attractions.

My first experience with Mr. Christie’s Winter Carnival, the largest winter carnival in the world, was during breakfast at the Quebec Hilton, when suddenly Bonhomme appeared in the room and everyone cheered.

This giant snowman with his red stocking cap and historic red arrow sash is the beloved ambassador of the yearly carnival, this year is number 48 and it coincides with Quebec’s birthday celebration. He looked like a distant relative to Frosty, the snowman. You never know when and where he will show up. His picture is plastered everywhere and people wear his plastic picture pin get into events. I stepped right up to shake his hand get my photo taken with the smiley faced icon that I was soon to see all over town.

If you are wondering just “Who is Mr. Christie?” I discovered it is the sponsor, Kraft-Canada, known for its cookies and Mr. Christie’s Tea Biscuits.

The streets of Quebec were filled with fun loving people of all ages, who didn’t seem to mind the freezing temperatures and eager to visit Bonhomme’s fantasy Ice Palace filled with his whispers, music and its nightly light show. Families love all the activities to enjoy for both kids and parents together.

The next few days were a whirlwind of endless carnival activities from the remarkable and zany Carnival Night Parade featuring Bonhomme, dancing clowns, marching bands, gigantic whimsical floats and sky high animated puppets strutting down the boulevard to a virtual carnival-like Disneyland on the snow covered Plains of Abraham, where the British battled the French to conquer Canada. Here it was non-stop snow rafting, ice sculpting, ice sliding, kiddie hockey, sleigh rides, ice skating, family fun, outdoor hot tubs and lots to eat.

Excited crowds lined the St. Lawrence River to cheer for their favorite brave teams, who forge through the icy currents in the famous Canoe Race. I watched a fierce race while standing next to the commentator’s box with my fingers and toes frozen. It’s a hoot to watch the Snow Bath, as those brave ones strip down to swimsuit only and roll in the snow.

Finally, I learned the secret to warming up; it’s to sip caribou, a combination of port wine, rum and maple syrup through a carnival cane; it’s lethal.

Taking a break, I connected with the timeless sophistication of Quebec City to explore this UNESCO World Heritage treasure of architecture and history, while wandering through its narrow streets admiring ice sculptures and picking myself up after a plop in the snow, marveling at breathtaking views and shopping whenever possible (my favorite purchase was fur earmuffs at Harricana).

The writer, Barbara Singer, in the Ice Hotel (© 2008 Barbara Singer).

Would you believe that my most exciting experiences were on the small historic island of Ile d’Orleans, first I was led a dogsled excursion (Expeditions Mi-Loup) guided by Louis Do and his six barking huskie dogs, who kept twisting their ropes or stopping to poop through the forest. My next thrill was a ride on a fast moving snowmobile. I kept thinking “if my friends could see me now”.

Ice Hotel Quebec

Just 30 minutes outside of Quebec City sits the renowned Ice Hotel Quebec on the banks of Lac St. Joseph, constructed each winter from 15,000 tons of snow and 500 tons of ice and only open from January to April. It contains 36 rooms and suites, each uniquely carved with exquisite ice furniture, ice candelabras and artwork. The original concept came from the ice Hotel in Sweden.

At first sight the Ice Hotel is surreal; it’s a dynamic architectural design. There is a chill dance floor for late night partying and the N’Ice Bar, an immense lobby, outdoor Nordic spa and hot tub, ice hotel chapel for winter weddings, vaulted ceilings and more. A one-night stay here was worth the trip to Quebec City; rates start at $179 (includes one drink and breakfast) and it can surpass $500 with gourmet dinner at the 4-Star Hotel & Lodge Auberge Duchesnay and snow fun activities. Guided tours take place during the day for a fee; however, after 9 p.m. only guests are allowed inside this icy enclave.

There is a ritual to partake in this experience, so I began with check-in at a station, where my luggage was stored and I was issued a bag with warm robe and towel and enough space to carry my essentials. Next it was important to attend a briefing with Jesse, a staffer who spends his summers as a forest ranger in the Canadian Rockies, who demonstrated how to get into the Nordic sleeping bag and wrap up to keep warm. It was suggested to sleep nude for ultimate warmth, anything more is guest’s choice. A friend warmed me to sleep with woolly hat, gloves and warm socks; she was up all night with a cold nose. The ice beds are stacked with deer pelts and not as cold as they look.

My anticipation was heightened as I walked down the flight of steps, lit by torches leading to the hotel entrance with colors flashing and music blasting, there I stood in awe, marveling at this luxurious igloo. I joined the tour of the rooms and found my room Chambre 11 called Le Passage. There were no French paintings on the walls, only carved ice sculptures. Some of the other rooms were sculpted to commemorate the 400th anniversary.

My sleeping bag was positioned on the mattress of my ice bed; candles flickered on my solid ice table as I carefully sat down on my only ice chair.� This ice room was translucent and rather erotic. There were no locks, no closets, no doors and no amenities in the ice room. It was so riveting here that I was ready for my ice cocktail. I opted for a N’ice Martini made from Apple Ice Wine, which was served in a block of ice that was too cold to hold without wearing gloves.�

Hectic daytime activities here can keep you busy with ice fishing, dog sledding, cross country skiing, snowshoeing and skating or snuggling up by the fireplace at the lodge with a cup of hot chocolate.

Sporting activities like the famous Canoe Race, take place nonstop on the Plains of Abraham during the winter festival, the largest in the world (© 2008 Barbara Singer).

Gourmet dinner at Auberge Duchesnay required bundling up for the snowy weather and climbing 48 steps to the lodge.� It turned out to be a group affair, the more the merrier. Their restaurant had a crackling fireplace and dishes to die for. As Chef�Sebastian Rivard prepared innovative dishes like my appetizer of local wild mushrooms paired with succulent smoked duck breast topped with maple balsamic caramel-the presentation and taste were superb; next arrived my tasty main course of marinated shrimp with miso paste with cashew, onions and bell peppers served on stem rice topped by ginger and Asian oyster sauce. The roasted tender Quebec venison cooked with dark beer and covered with peppercorn puffed pastry, that guests David and Joy ordered, looked quite appealing, too.

After sitting in the hot, hot tub for 45 minutes, it was time to weather the cold and jump into the sleeping bag with Ice Hotel temperatures between 23 and 26 degrees Fahrenheit. I decided to sleep in my non-cotton thermals and then pulled down my wool hat, pulled up my wool socks and covered my nose and zipped up the sleeping bag. The secret is not to wear cotton, since it gets wet with perspiration and makes you feel cold. All the time I was hoping that I would not have to get up during the night to walk the long, cold corridors to the toilets. Strangely enough, I slept quite well after I found my comfort zone in the bed.

The next morning I was awakened by a staffer, who handed a cup of coffee to warm up; however, it still took 20 minutes for me to roll out of the sleeping bag and head out to the warm washrooms and showers. When I finally entered the lodge station, after taking last minute photos, I was greeted with “How did you survive?” Yes, I made it and loved the adventure. All the other survivors were huddled together talking about their overnight quest. For me the Ice Hotel was a matchless experience, a treasure in a cold paradise that I will long remember.

As the seasons change, the celebration continues and Quebec City takes to the streets with street art troupes performances, mysterious aquatic show, pyrotechnics in the middle of the river and spectacular shows throughout the city. Exclusive shows by Celine Dion, Cirque du Soleil, Fergie, YES and Linkin Park are headed to Quebec City to delight spectators in the summer. Europe is too expensive these days; however, Quebec has the essence of Europe with fun, fine food, history and plenty to do. It’s appealing and affordable, too.

Happy Birthday Quebec City 1608-2008!

For more information, contact the Quebec City Tourism�Quebec City 400th Anniversary,www.quebecregion.com, 877-783-1608; www.monquebec2008.com, (click on “English version” on upper right corner). Or for the Ice Hotel Canada, www.icehotel-canada.com.

Monday, 12 May, 2008

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© 2008 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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