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Hacktreks in Quebec


Habeeb Salloum

The party was in full swing in our luxury Québec City hotel when, suddenly, a colourful doll-like creature danced into the room. "Bonhomme! Bonhomme!" my Québécois friend exclaimed as a smile lit-up his face. White and roly-poly, with a red tuque on his head and a reddish sash around his waist, he appeared like a living snowman as he pranced around, entertaining his audience. "Do you like our carnival’s mascot?" My Québécois friend smiled. His question was quickly answered by the merry crowd with their claps as they encouraged the jolly dancing Bonhomme.

The dancing Bonhomme was my first introduction to the Québec Winter Carnival, a blowout of fun, food and entertainment in the midst of the city’s cold winter days. Held in the first part of February, it transforms the city into one massive outdoor party. It is the largest winter celebration in the world and the third largest carnival only surpassed by those held in Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans.
In 2004, from January 30 to February 15, it will be a special year. The Carnival's 50th anniversary will be celebrated in a accelerated flurry of winter fun.

For 49 years this renowned festival, drawing annually one million visitors, held in what has become known as the ‘world’s snow capital’, has been generating jobs and a good deal of economic, social and tourism-related spin offs for the city and the surrounding area. The Carnival has now become Québec City’s third largest industry, generating direct economic returns of $28 million a year and surpassing its organizers’ wildest dreams.

More than 400 activities and shows extend to visitors a festive experience full of competitions, concerts, fun, games and food in an aura of winter magic. Known as the ‘Mardi Gras in the Snow’, it is a joyous celebration, enjoyed by residents and travellers alike. Some one million residents and visitors, a good number coming from other countries in the world, travel to the winter-clad Québec City to share in its art, culture, entertainment and sports in an aura of sparkling ice and snow.

The first Carnival, at that time an event for carousing and drinking, was held in 1894 to provide a welcome relief from the city’s harsh winters. Thereafter, the Carnival was organized sporadically until 1955 when it became an annual event. With the help of the city’s businessmen, it was established as a family oriented event and it has blossomed ever since.

In that year, the Carnival also adopted the mascot-symbol, Bonhomme. Subsequently, this creature’s toothless grin and joyful appearance, along with its red stocking cap and a knitted multi-coloured red, blue and white sash, made it a children’s delight. Bonhomme’s ceinture fléchée (arrow sash) is one of the Carnival’s most popular traditions. In the past, people tied it tight around the waist to support the back and provide warmth. Bonhomme has brought it back into fashion as a symbol of merry-making and pride in the Carnival.

Overshadowing all the sculptures is the Bonhomme Ice Palace - first built in 1955. 5,000 blocks of genuine ice were used in its construction and it has become one of the most visible symbols of the Carnival. Including a maze of towers, at night, the imaginary-style palace becomes the home of a light and sound show.

It features loud music and flames which shoot through the palace’s shimmering walls in all directions, yet, do not melt even a piece of ice. It is a show which combines music and fire-like light - a breath-taking dream-world for the young. When they tire of fireworks, visitors can shop inside Bonhomme’s Palace of Ice for souvenirs from all over the world. This year, a special touch, the Bonhomme’s Bal, will be added to the Palace.

Beautiful Quebec- Photo: H. Salloum

The most colourful part of the Carnival are the brightly-lit night parades. Every year some half a million spectators bundle up and line the snowy streets of the city. The parades feature fantastic floats, marching bands and many clowns. Even though it was freezing cold - about six degrees below zero - the night that I watched the parade, I could not believe my eyes when a band of young ladies marched by dressed in kilts.

During the Carnival, the Plains of Abraham, where the British battled the French and conquered Canada, are transformed into a huge winter playground for families. The entrance to the plains area, edged on both sides by snow sculptures which are fashioned by artists from various countries, leads to a field offering dogsled and sleigh rides, an ice climbing wall, snow slides, snowmobiling, and a sugar shack.
In addition, many other activities are offered such as: visitors can watch the Provincial Dogsled Championships and the Normandin Soapbox Derby; visit the Amerindian Trail and take the opportunity to spend a night in a tepee; take a roll in the snow dressed only in a bathing suit; take part in the giant baby-foot soccer game; try breathtaking snow rafting; watch renowned snow sculpturers at work; enjoy a Swiss culinary festival or savour the smell of hot chestnuts and chocolate crepes or enjoy a Calgary flapjack breakfast; taste, Caribou, a feisty alcoholic beverage popularized ever since the first carnival; learn ice fishing and the smokehouse basics; listen to vocal ensemble sing a cappella, then dance in the snow; and, last but not least, watch the legendary International Canoe Race.

A popular Québec tradition since the first Carnival, the canoe race is a test of daring and bull-headed determination. Coming to take part from every corner of the world, teams attempt to cross the mighty St. Lawrence near Québec City. To be successful, they must battle ice floes, Arctic-like weather and treacherous currents. It is the age-old fight between man and the elements of nature and here man usually wins, in the process, giving the chilly audience many thrills.

Each year when the Carnival is over, some of its officials, along with Bonhomme, embark on extensive tours throughout the world. This is bearing fruit. Every year visitors from around the globe increase dramatically.

In early January, when winter drapes its fluffy white mantle on Québec, Bonhomme makes a dramatic return to the city. The mayor hands him the key and Bonhomme again reigns until the February Carnival is over. There is little doubt that he provides the color, warmth and excitement to make a visit to the Carnival an unforgettable experience.
For more information about the Carnival,
Quebec Carnival, 290, rue Joly, Québec (Québec), G1L 1N8. Toll free number (Accommodations and information): 1-866-422-7628 or tel: (418) 621-5555.
Fax: (418) 626-7252. E-mail: Web site:
© Habeeb Salloum December 2003
Casino Du Lac Leamy

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