An icy “affaire de coeur”
Finding your inner snowman in Quebec City — by Don Enright
I’m cold. I’m not chilly – I’m freezing. My skin hurts and I can’t feel my feet and the howling snow is trying to pierce my contact lenses. It’s dark and I need to get indoors. Except there is no indoors. At least, no indoors as I’ve ever known it. This is the Ice Hotel and I confess I’m a little scared.
I used to love the cold. I was a four-season outdoorsman, in fact, before I gave it all up, moved to the West Coast and went soft. Now, here I am: I have a Date With Winter. Not your shade-grown organic Vancouver winter, but the real thing. And where am I, exactly, rediscovering my inner snowman? Quebec, monsieur. Quebec.
Nobody owns winter like the people of this province. They bathe themselves in it. They devour it. They wear it as unabashedly as they do their luxurious fur coats. A wind chill of -42? Pas de problème – “Mets ta tuque pis let’s go.”
The Hotel de Glace is not a simple snow cave. Gothic archways, labyrinthine tunnels and sensuous flourishes carved in snow are accented with shifting colours, ethereal music and the warm laughter of people made of tougher stuff than I. Nervously, I make my way to the hotel bar and order a Nordique – a tart mix of vodka and Curacao and the blood of a newborn reindeer.
O.K. I may be exaggerating about that last bit. But this drink is served in a shot glass made of ice and it fortifies me.
Later, I make my way to my hotel room. Outside, the windchill is -33, but here in my cozy chambre - a giant ice cube serving as my bed – it is a tropical -5 and I couldn’t be more grateful.
A single candle is my furnace and a four-inch mattress feels sinfully decadent. Add a state-of-the-art sleeping bag and I’m warm. I’m warm! Except for my nose, the only exposed part of my body, which is cold as a puppy’s. I sleep like a baby, and wake up feeling smug and alive and remembering why I so loved this season.
Next in my pilgrimage: Le Carnaval de Quebec. The Plains of Abraham are pulsing with colour, music and laughing children. Snow slides, maple syrup taffy pulls, dog sled rides, and not far away, a micro-brewery beer tasting tent. What a civilized people. And, overlooking it all, of course, is the ubiquitous beaming image of the festival’s patron saint, Bonhomme.
Quebec oozes artistry at every turn, and the carnival’s main allée is lined with snow sculptures. Teams of three compete to turn a garage-sized lump of white stuff into objects of wonder, and today they are doing so in a wind that will freeze exposed skin in a couple of minutes. I stop to ask one of the artists what they’re competing for. What fabulous prize could propel them toward such sacrifice?
“Une tape dans l’dos,” he says. A pat on the back, and the esteem of their fellow sculptors. I’m a little humbled.
Next, a purification of the body seems appropriate, and I make my way into the wooded Quebec countryside to the Nordique Spa et Detente, where my host Hugues invites me to take part in an aufguss, which I gather is a sort of German sweat lodge. Into the dry sauna we cram, where Hugues pours orange-scented water onto the rocks. The temperature skyrockets and I feel hot for the first time in days.
Our host leads us through his ritual, artfully directing bursts of scalding humid air at each guest with a snap of a towel until we can take no more. I need to cool down, and he points me in the direction of the Jacques Cartier River. It is frozen solid. He has kindly chipped a hole in the ice and installed a ladder and a cage to keep us from being swept away under the surface. Nice of him.
I brieftly calculate possible ways to get out of this plunge, mentally transporting myself somewhere, anywhere, else. But suddenly everybody is looking at me. So the next thing I know, I’m going in with an ungainly splash. Every pore in my body screams to life. It is glorious and terrible and I have done it. Panting and laughing, I climb from the water and feel the gentle breezes of the Laurentian hills against my cooling body. Ecstasy is a strong word but it’s not far off the mark.
Finally, to crown my Quebecois journey, I make my way to the shores of the St. Lawrence River. Not to immerse myself this time, but to witness the men and women who skid indestructible canoes over the jagged, terrifying ice of this tremendous river.
The carnival’s canoe races must be seen to be believed. Their intensity is gladiatorial – canoes thunder and shriek against the shifting ice, as the athletes push, pull, row, leap and occasionally half-disappear into the icy deep. Thousands of screaming locals line the river, cheering on favourite teams. Though the end is never in doubt: once again the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac‘s team proves unstoppable.
Exhausted, sated and wind-burned, I make my way home to the lush green warmth of Vancouver. The long johns and toque will go back into storage. But the love of winter is mine again, and the warmth of Quebec and her people will sustain me until summer.