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Pop-up ice bars offer Quebec fare - and the legendary Caribou, the potent drink invented to keep the sculptors warm throughout the night. (Sarah MacWhirter/The Globe and Mail/Sarah MacWhirter/The Globe and Mail)
Pop-up ice bars offer Quebec fare - and the legendary Caribou, the potent drink invented to keep the sculptors warm throughout the night. (Sarah MacWhirter/The Globe and Mail/Sarah MacWhirter/The Globe and Mail)

Joyeux Carnaval! Canada's premier winter festival is one big party Add to ...

I can’t leave without trying the notorious Caribou – the potent drink (of brandy and vodka with some sherry and port thrown in for good measure) concocted to keep the sculptors warm as they worked through the night. I get just a tiny glass, and after the first sip I am amazed that some people actually get their Bonhomme walking canes filled with the brew. Caribou carries a wallop, and hits you instantly. How the sculptors ever made anything with precision with this warming their bellies.... Somehow I survive, and enjoy another hour with Autumn Rounds (this time following the main character into the Quebec countryside).

We’ve saved what we hope is the best for last: Sunday is trampoline day. With the top of the Citadel walls peaking out from under the snow, my daughter gets strapped into the harnesses and winched up to a good starting position. Her turn is long and she somersaults forward and backward again and again and again. I envy her feeling of freedom, and am thankful she did the flips without another BeaverTail in her stomach.We’ve made the mistake today of thinking the bright sun would make for an even warmer day. Embarrassingly, we’re not weathering the wind chill with the same spirited resolve as our Québécois brothers and sisters. Or maybe it’s just they are better prepared – the cold isn’t mind-numbing, but it is toe-tingling, and you want to dress accordingly.

It was our first Carnaval, and we take our leave with great fondness. We practised our French with the encouraging shopkeepers and sellers of chocolat chaud, we jumped, we slid, we raced, I survived the Caribou…

The only way to enjoy it more? Arrive with a crowd. More kids, more fun-loving adults who like to kick up their heels. The Québécois are a festive people – that’s a nice way of saying party animals – and your kids will want to share the fun with their friends in the flesh (not just on Facebook), and you’ll want your party people along to toss back a maple whisky with before jumping back in the line for another raft race down the hill.



POSTNOTE:

We’re back in Toronto, but at night I’m joining Jacques Poulin’s Driver in his library truck as he delivers books to his network of readers in small villages from Quebec City to the North Shore. Translated by Sheila Fischman, Autumn Rounds is a lovely read – a must, along with Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead for anyone planning a visit to Quebec City.

If you go

Need to know

Carnaval de Québec, the world’s biggest winter carnival, runs until Feb. 12.

That little Bonhomme people are wearing from their coat zippers? That’s called an Effigy, and it’s your ticket to everything Carnaval. It costs $13 and gets you onto the Plains of Abraham, Place Desjardins and into Carnaval shows. Children 8 and under get in free. The only activities with separate fees are dogsledding and the Valcartier snow rafting (snow tubing, on the other hand, is free). carnaval.qc.ca

When to go

Plan to arrive and stay for a full Friday so you kids won’t have to wait in weekend lineups at the activities on the Plains of Abraham.

If you want to skate with Bonhomme at Place d’Youville, be there on a Tuesday or Thursday evening.

Two parades are scheduled for different parts of the city: One is on Feb. 4, the other on Feb. 11. Check the website ( carnaval.qc.ca) for information on times and locations.

Want to try ski joring? That’s skiing at single horsepower, literally. Get an introductory lesson on being pulled on skis by a horse and rider on Feb. 3. It’s free, but you must preregister at info@nesja.ca.

Getting there

Toronto residents will appreciate direct flights on Porter Airlines from downtown Toronto ( flyporter.com). Air Canada offers flights from the Toronto City Centre Airport and other locations. WestJet offers direct flights from Pearson airport and connecting flights from other locations.

Where to stay

Fairmont Le Château Frontenac; 1 rue des Carrières; 418-691-2157; fairmont.com/frontenac. From $189 a night.

What to wear

As they say in Quebec, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. (Il n’y a pas de mauvaises températures, seulement des vêtements inadéquats.) Advice from me: Layer, layer, layer. Advice from my daughter: Leave your Uggs at home.

Other stops

Librairie Pantoute, a French-language book store with helpful staff. 1100 rue St-Jean; 418-694-9748; librairiepantoute.com

Les Délices de l’Érable, for your maple fix: think cookies, taffy, a maple-ginger paste, maple fleur de sel and more. 1044 rue St-Jean; 418-692-3245; canadianmapledelights.com

Le Cochon Dingue, a Quebec City favourite for steak frites, the hearty soup du jour, maple-smoked ribs, seafood pot pie and more. 46 boulevard Champlain; 418-692-2013; cochondingue.com

Try the ice slide on the boardwalk in front of Le Château Frontenac. It costs $2 and is a slippery walk up, but is worth it when you come whipping down.

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