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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 ...

Some like Bieb. Others like Bublé.

But everybody loves Bonhomme.

French, English, young, old, male, female – the excitement is palpable when Bonhomme enters the room.We’re in the lobby of the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac late Friday morning when Bonhomme makes a surprise appearance. Conference-goers and families alike are all atwitter over the presence of such a star, jostling for position for a photograph, gaga over the big guy with the permanent grin.

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It’s Quebec City, opening weekend of Carnaval, and I feared my soon-to-be 13-year-old daughter might be too cool for this school. I shouldn’t have worried. Turns out how to greet Bonhomme was a topic of heated debate with her friends: Would she simply stand beside him? Throw a leg around him? Jump into his arms?

When the big moment arrived, she opted for a girly hug, which was posted to Facebook in seconds, proving that even big-city Toronto girls love Bonhomme.

The other thing they love? Shopping. The easiest way to start a holiday with a traveller this age: Let her shop. It surprises me that all the early explorers and conquerors were men, because there is no force as biologically determined to assess and acquire as a 13-year-old girl. Though lower Old Quebec – the Petit Champlain area – has more charm, it also has many of the same shops you’ll find everywhere else. Upper Old Quebec is a better choice for the spend-happy karmic kid (it really is a vicious circle, isn’t it?).

We pop in and out of stores she loves, and into Librairie Pantoute, a French bookstore, for my must-stop in every city: a book conveying a sense of that place. I want to reread Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead (I can’t seem to hold on to a copy), but the section for “Québecoise literature – mais en anglais, sil vous plait” is very small, and they’re sold out. They direct me to Jacques Poulin’s Autumn Rounds instead. I’m skeptical (I’m judging the book by the cover), but I make the purchase and off we go.

The wind has picked up, though, and the falling snow that has been creating such an idyllic picture is now icy and coming at us vertically off the river, biting our cheeks. We’re literally bowed against the wind and can’t wait to take shelter in the Château – the same fortress that saw U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Canadian PM Mackenzie King meet in 1943 and 1944 to discuss strategy at the height of the Second World War.

Our room is cozy and inviting and warm, and it takes some courage to head back out for dinner. The opening-night ceremonies have been postponed because of the dangerous driving conditions, so the city is more subdued than we expected. Later, my daughter scares herself silly with definitely-not-bedtime stories of the supernatural kind on Reddit.com – thankfully she doesn’t know about the Château’s resident ghost, Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac, a two-time governor of New France whose spirit took up residence in the hotel and has been seen wandering in his 17th-century attire. Poulin’s Autumn Rounds weaves a gently hypnotizing spell and, finally, we’re lost to slumber.

Saturday morning emerges sunny and fresh – a perfect day for Carnaval.

We pull on our layers, tuck our toe warmers into our boots, wrap our scarves around and around and head outside for the dogsled races. The snow-blanketed streets are lined with cheering supporters and the dogs are practically doing somersaults with anticipation. Team after team sets off through the thick snow in what is a picturesque, but likely not their fastest, race. I can only imagine the revelry when these same streets close in weekends to come for what promise to be spectacular Carnaval parades.We cheer the dogs and then feel the pull of the activities on the Plains of Abraham. I hope to give my daughter a sense of history, but there’s no chance when there are BeaverTails to eat and ice slides and snow rafts to try. The lineups are long, but the sun is shining, a marching band is playing and the snow and ice sculptors are carving and chipping and sanding away. It’s a veritable winter wonderland, and we’re glad to take it in from a spinning raft whipping down a hill, on a spine-thumping toboggan in an ice slide, while racing a dogsled of our own, and from atop the Ferris wheel. (No, it’s not too cold!)

That night Bonhomme welcomes the crowd, fireworks fill the sky and the jam-packed crowd roars with enthusiasm. We take it in from a coveted spot atop a speaker – the music is pounding, people are dancing, and I imagine my daughter here, five years from now, in very different circumstances. The sculptors are still chipping away as crazy Canucks in bikinis, swim trunks and tuques dip into the outdoor hot tubs and the Ferris wheel spins. Finally the crowd separates into the night-time party set and the get-the-kids-to-bed, toboggan-pulling parental set that is heading slowly toward the exit. (Keep your eyes peeled for every type of child-pulling sled imaginable here – including those pulled by, yes, the family dog.)

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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