Did we accidentally fly to France, dear?

Trip Start Feb 09, 2008
Trip End Feb 17, 2008

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Flag of Canada  , Quebec,
Saturday, February 9, 2008

"Cold makes you feel alive! You'll love it!" my Nordic hubby swore.  Did I actually believe that back in November when we scheduled this vacation?  At that time, we'd scrapped a warm sunny vacation when the tour operator went out of business (thank heavens for the Visa protection policy), and we were looking for something different.  Winter Carnival in Quebec City?  Mix in some cross country skiing?  Historic fortified city with European flavor?  Sounds great!
A week from arrival, the grim reality was sinking in - it was going to be COLD.  The weather report showed snow and well below freezing forecasts.  Ugh.
Well, I packed many layers of clothes and hoped for the best.  It was a long day of flying from Seattle; and we arrived at the Delta only to find out they were overbooked.  They'd arranged a room at the Hilton and promised an upgrade the next night.  Whatever, I just wanted to put my bags down.  The Hilton was walking distance, and the doorman helped cart our luggage over.  Imagine my surprise when I walked into the hotel lobby to find ... a stampede of cowboys.
Yes, cowboys - the Calgary Stampede was in town - literally.  Not sure if it was a convention for organizers or what, but they were everywhere - apparently they even hosted a flapjack breakfast that morning.
Well, the Hilton room was nice and high enough to have a good view.  After a quick crepe run into town, we crashed for the night.  The next morning, we shuffled back over to the Delta, and checked in for the rest of the week.  This is one of those cases where their mistake is your gain - to compensate for bumping us the first night, they gave us a corner room on the concierge level for the rest of our stay, which includes free breakfast in a private lounge and free happy hour snacks.  Sweet!
But it was time to get out there and enjoy that Carnival.  After breakfast, we bundled up and set off to see the canoe races.  Now, the river is at least half frozen over, so this canoe race isn't quite what you think.  The canoe has to be pretty hardy, the crew has to drag their craft over frozen iceflows, or kick along in thicker slush - many of them had spikes on their feet for better traction.  If they actually hit open water, then they can finally climb in and paddle.  The race route took them across the St. Lawrence twice - and there was quite a current pushing those ice flows along so crossing in a straight line wasn't an option.  It looked absolutely exhausting.

After that, we wandered off to see a few other Carnival sights.  It was cold and snowing nearly all day, and the sidewalk plows couldn't keep up.  Walking was quite a workout; we were both glad to have heavy winter boots.  The Place DesJardins sponsored area had a lot of carnival activities - we toured some of the snow sculptures, drank caribou out of an ice shot glass, and took a quick ride down a hill in a raft.  Caribou and Amarula were everywhere - the first is a semi-medicinal tasting mix of brandy, port and maple syrup (served warm - its saving grace).  The second is some ?tropical? liqueur - I never tried it so I'm not sure how it tastes, looks creamy kinda like Baileys.  The area also had some outdoor fireplaces so you could stay thawed even if you weren't drinking.
By now, it was snowing on us pretty hard, so we headed back to our warm concierge lounge for snacks.  A couple observations after our first day around town:
- Yes, they really do speak primarily French - on the menus, radio, TV, everywhere.  You would have to learn French to live here (though as a tourist, it isn't hard to get by - lots of English subtitles on menus, etc)
- There is a heavy French culture influence on the food too (not a bad thing, though I was craving teriyaki eventually ;-)
- The Delta (and Hilton) have a good location for Carnival - you are near the city walls (walking distance), and very near the Place DesJardins pavilion, where a lot of events are held.
- We were also near Grand Allee (lots of bars/restaurants)...and with a bit of a walk, Rue Cartier (fun street, more bars/restaurants) and the Plains of Abraham (big park, some xc trails back towards the Citadel and Place DesJardins area.
Monday, it was time to ski.  We rented a car and headed out for a nice drive along the river to Mont St. Anne - a ski area with downhill area and a good sized Nordic area.  It was a cold day, but sunny - a very nice day to be zipping around on skis.  We saw huge hoof tracks on one trail - moose, I'm guessing, but we didn't sport any wildlife in person
Tuesday was a very lazy day.  A big snowstorm was pushing through, there weren't many carnival events on weekdays, so we read, relaxed and ventured out only briefly.  The old city is split between "upper town" and "lower town" - upper town is on a bluff above the river, the city walls run along the bluff.  Lower town is - you guessed it - below that.  We took the funicular down, browsed a cute street called Le Petit Champlain, and then rode the ferry across the river - it was really cool to see the ferry's bow crash through the ice.  Well, until you started getting numb, and then it was time to get back indoors.  But the view of the city from the ferry is gorgeous - especially at sunset.  The perfect post-frigid-ferry activity (in my opinion) is enjoying an Irish coffee near the fireplace at St Alexanders Pub.  I was cold enough for another round before we stumbled back up the hill to our hotel.
The sun came back out the next day, so we decided to try another outdoor activity - there's a snow park a half hour from town called Valcartier (a water park in the summer).  They ran the snow tube/raft rides at the carnival, so we thought we'd give the bigger version a whirl.  What a blast! (see video/pics)  You grab a tube, plunk your butt into their rope tow system, roll off at the top of the hill, and then decide which run you want to brave - green, blue, black or double black.  They also had a section with the snow rafts and "tornadoes" (big circular rafts that could hold 6-8 people).  We tubed nearly all the runs, gave a raft and a tornado a try (the tornado is better - the spinning is something else!) and then decided to make our way to a scary looking structure called Everest.  You climb four flights of stairs.  You get to the top, and you can't see the ramp down since it's so steep - people just seem to disappear when the gate that holds their tube drops.  Ugh.  But you had to go down as at least two people (?not sure why?) so I was stuck with being Hans' ballast.  Ugh again.  It felt almost like free fall, and it's amazing how much speed you pick up.  With Everest conquered, it was time to call it a day.
There weren't that many people our age without kids out tubing on a weekday, but hey, we are young at heart.  However, now it was time to get away from the kids - I'd seen a couple "Scandinavian spas" advertised, and they looked more man-friendly than the typical massage and pedicure place, so we gave nearby Siberian Station a try.  It was great - they have a bunch of outdoor "stations", each one has something hot (tub, sauna, steamroom, fireplace) and some sort of cold dip.  I was more than cool enough just running from hot place to hot place in the snow, but Hans took a couple cold dips and even dipped in the (frozen) river - they had a dock with a cutout for crazy people like him.  We ended in the steamroom, took a quick shower, and our relaxed rubbery legs somehow got us back to the car.  I really recommend the experience, it was so relaxing and a great way to get warmth back in your bones after a day outdoors in the snow.  My only beef - the place gave you a robe, but no flip flops.  You could buy them for $10, or clunk around in your winter boots.  We played dangerous and went barefoot, which was cold and somewhat painful (little rocks on the trails to keep them less slippery = sore feet).  Net - bring your flip-flops.
With all this snow, we had to do one more ski day - so we headed west to Station Duchesnay.  It's an old school or camp next to a lake, many of the buildings were made of logs.  Rustic but very pretty, a good place to get away and relax.  They also had a spa with a Swedish name ("Tyst Trädgård") for after skiing.  We did a two hour loop, and headed in for more spa time.  This place had the same concept as the other, but just a bit pricier.  I think it was worth it - they supplied flipflops (yes!), a robe, some water, lotion, and you got your own private "station".  Ours had a hot tub, cold dip, and a funky sauna that looked like a big barrel turned on its side.  An hour shuttling between the sauna and hot tub - Hans did the cold dip too, but the look on his face didn't make me think it was pleasant enough to try.  Then it was time to head back home.  We make a quick stop on the way and had poutine at a roadside bar/café - good stuff for après ski!  They were even playing blues (in English) - a nice changes from all the French pop tunes on the radio.
Carnival events were heating back up for the weekend, so more wandering around town was in order.  Saturday was sunny but very cold.  We watched a couple runs in the sleigh races - including one horse that got a little spooked and nearly tore down the finish line by whipping the sleigh (and rider) around.  We tasted a maple covered beaver tail (flat fried dough with maple goo - messy, but delicious), tried the toboggan run near the Chateau Fronterac (see video), and enjoyed some onion soup at a pub in town.
There are two big parades during Carnival - and we headed out Saturday night to catch part of the second one.  Parade night is a little rowdy, but very fun.  All the bars along the route build an ice bar on their patio and serve various drinks.  Or you can buy a "cane" filled with caribou - maybe 5 shots worth?  Lots of fun, everyone in a good mood waiting for the parade to wind by.  It takes a *long* time for the parade to get even mid-way down the route, and we had dinner reservations at Aux Anciens Canadiens, so we only got a glimpse of the first 10 minutes.  It looked pretty impressive - this isn't shriners and politicians - they had serious financial backing and  creative displays.  Then it was off to dinner, in belated honor of Hans' b-day.  All kinds of game were running around our table - pheasant, buffalo, caribou; good stuff, but I was ready to burst.  We managed to sample a sugar tart (local specialty) - tasted a bit like a pecan pie with maple instead of pecans. 
Ah well, that was our last night, it was time to go back to our room, pack up, say goodbye to the concierge life, and catch a plane in the morning.  A memorable trip, though wouldn't Hans have been happier in a warmer climate where Carnival beads translates into bare breasts?  Guess we'll find out next year ;-)
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