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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.

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.)

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