When it comes to winter fun, one of my fondest memories is watching dog-sled races in the very center of this historic cradle of French civilization in North America known as Quebec City.
It's all part of an annual winter celebration called Carnaval de Quebec, which is scheduled in 2010 from Jan. 29 to Feb. 14.
And along with that frosty celebration, Chabad of Quebec City will be holding its Grand Fete de Chanukah on Dec. 13. Chabad's Rabbi Dovid Lewin is hoping to build a large menorah out of ice in the center of town; more details will be hatched in the next week.
And it's all provided by nature: During the chilly season, Quebec City is transformed into a veritable winter wonderland, as snow covers colorful mansard roofs overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence River. Reminders are everywhere of Carnaval's cheerful mascot — a big-hearted snowman named Bonhomme Carnaval.
Last year, Bonhomme Carnaval's ice castle stood across the street from the Quebec provincial parliament building. During the festival, it was possible to go ice-skating on one of the city's outdoor rinks or cross-country skiing on the Plains of Abraham, a magnificent urban park within walking distance of cafes, jazz clubs and restaurants.
In case you're wondering, this particular Abraham bears no relation to the great biblical figure of the same name. Quebec City's Abraham was a simple farmer who would bring his cattle to graze on the grassy plains.
Known today as National Battlefields Park, the plains took on historic proportions in 1759, when the British attacked the city and defeated the French under General Montcalm.
Quebec retains the distinction of being the only walled city in North America. And with history at practically every turn, it is also a UNESCO "World Heritage Treasure."
A funicular goes from the lower part of town up to the magnificent 19th-century Hotel Chateau Frontenac, where FDR, Winston Churchill and Canadian Prime Minister MacKenzie King met during World War II.
But back to Carnaval's thrilling dog-sled races, which took place last year on historic rue Saint-Louis.
Off to the Races
The street, covered in a layer of snow, was closed off to traffic and roped off for eager enthusiasts — both humans and canine. With layered clothing, heavy coats and warm boots, my wife and I were prepared for the 15-degree weather under clear, sunny skies.
We watched and cheered as the competitors raced down the street in intervals of one minute and at speeds of up to 31 miles an hour.
The next day, at the Plains of Abraham, I sampled more winter fun by joining eight other people in a giant inner tube, which went careening down a snow path. My wife tried ice-fishing over a man-made, trout-filled lake; there were some nibbles, but, alas, it turned out to be the same old story about "the one that got away."
We both loved tasting something called "tire d'erable" — delicious maple taffy made by wrapping an ice-cream stick around thick maple syrup that is spread out on a board of fresh snow.
Maple syrup, of course, is a staple of Quebec cuisine, with ubiquitous "sugar shacks" in maple groves used to boil maple sap in big vats until it turns into a rich, liquid gold.
The syrup is served in an amazing variety of ways — from sweet maple syrup crêpes to a delectable dish I found called Maple Syrup Pie With Fresh Cream.
Before leaving Quebec City, we stopped for drinks at the Quebec Ice Hotel about 30 minutes west of Quebec City. The hotel, made with 15,000 tons of snow and 500 tons of ice, had 34 rooms and suites, a "N'ice Club" reception room, wedding chapel, disco and an Absolut bar, where hot chocolate never tasted so good!
For bedtime, a mattress was placed on a wooden platform, over which one slips into an insulated sleeping bag.
We couldn't get our nerve up to try the hotel, but one of our friends decided to, and told us that he was actually so hot during the night that he had to unzip his sleeping bag.
Maybe next time …
For more information, visit: www.quebecregion.com; to reach Chabad in Quebec City, go to: www.jquebec.com.