Long Live Winter

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Given that Quebec averages a winter temperature of about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, one might expect the Quebecois to hibernate in February. Not a chance. They throw the world's largest winter carnival, embracing all that is winter¿cold, snow, ice, and warm food and drink. Add in the skiing at nearby Mont Sainte Anne, and you just might have the perfect winter vacation.

You don't see a lot of beaded costumes, scantily clad street dancers or exposed flesh at the Mardi Gras festivities in Quebec City. But answer me this: Do Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans get freshies?

One day last February, 10 inches of snow fell on the city that hosts the world's largest and longest winter carnival and the third-largest Mardi Gras celebration. This near foot of snow would have turned your average metropolis into a whining, dysfunctional mess. In Quebec City, however, snow, cold and ice don't cause complaint; they cause the residents to roll in the snow in their bathing suits, paddle canoes, race cars on ice and ski.

To my disappointment, nobody stared as I carried my cross-country skis into the elevator of the Quebec Hilton and walked a few blocks¿through streets full of big soft flakes and revelers tooting red plastic horns¿to the Plains of Abraham. This 225-acre park just outside the walls of the Old City, is where, in 1759, British General James Wolfe defeated France's Marquis de Montcalm, leading to British occupation of French Canada and a still-unresolved culture clash.

But there was only harmony as I glided through fresh powder along a system of groomed trails, then off-piste through woods and along cliffs that fell steeply to the St. Lawrence River. In the muffled distance I could hear French music, cheers and cowbells: All around town, people were happily skiing, skating, tobogganing and sliding down snowy hills on sleds and rafts. An old man in a long overcoat skied across a field. A group of teenagers had built a kicker on the banks of the St. Lawrence River and were happily nailing helicopters and flips. Meanwhile, back at the main Carnaval site, artists worked on snow sculptures. Couples under bear rugs rode in horse-drawn sleighs past families towing well-bundled babies on sleds. Others played mini-golf on ice, rode in dog sleds or ice-climbed a 30-foot spike of frozen water.

And there's a lot more to Quebec's Carnaval than amateur Winter Olympics. When I was hungry, I skied along the walls of the circa 1820 fortifications, strolled into the lobby of the Chateau Frontenac, and sat down with friends to smoked-salmon sandwiches, strawberry tarts and Formosa oolong. You can't ski to high tea in Rio or New Orleans.

Two rivers flank Quebec City, capital of the province¿the St. Lawrence on the south and the St. Charles on the north¿so it's like Manhattan tipped sideways, only more attractive. Perhaps the most romantic city in North America.

The eastern tip of this peninsula, called "Vieux-Quebec" ("Old Quebec"), was first settled by the French in 1608. It still has its fortress walls and gates. Inside, stone-walled, mansard-roofed buildings with porches and ironwork create the feel of a European Renaissance village. Half a million people live in Quebec City, 97 percent of them French-speaking. Even though I'd only driven across the border, I felt that particular blend of fear and excitement that comes with foreign travel. Exotic architecture! Incomprehensible signs! Kilometers, not miles; Celsius, not Fahrenheit!

Quebec is considered the most French city in the province and the most European city in Canada. It has all the advantages of Europe¿great food, service, history and scenery¿but is populated by some of the cheeriest, most fun-loving North Americans I've ever met. As a friend of mine puts it, "Quebec is France without sneers."

Quebec City has held a winter carnival (at 17 days, longer than those pre-Lenten Mardi Gras celebrations down south) sporadically since 1894 and annlly since 1955. It now claims to be the largest winter celebration in the world, attracting about 1 million visitors a year. Because events span the city and three weekends, it rarely feels like a mob-scene. From art exhibits and parades to concerts and balls, there's a lot going on. But what with snow baths, snow volleyball, snow soccer, ice-canoeing and car-racing on ice, the spirit here is definitely not to merely exist in cold weather, but to revel in it.

Take, for instance, ice-canoeing. Whereas most winter sports enthusiasts stay as far as possible from the instant hypothermia that wetness and cold in combination can cause, the hardy souls of Quebec not only don't shy from it, they've made a sport of it.

Because Quebec City is surrounded by water, in days of yore most winter goods and travelers arrived in long, thin canots propelled by rum-fueled boatmen. Today the biggest event of Carnaval is the canoe race, during which teams of five men or women propel their boats across solid ice and open water. When they come to the rafts of ice chunks that whip up the St. Lawrence with the tide, they jump halfway out of their boats and haul them through the frigid, floating slush fields. The winners are understandably the heroes of Carnaval.

All the Quebecois seem to have turned winter to their advantage. At one nighttime parade, marching bands sported specially designed fleece covers over their hands and the valves of their instruments. It was about zero out, and no one seemed to care¿perhaps because it provided a good excuse to drink caribou, a local liquid delicacy. Allegedly named after the Native practice of drinking caribou blood, caribou is made of spiced and fortified red wine.

Carnaval revelers tote the elixir in red plastic canes. The tops¿depicting the head of Bonhomme Carnaval, the festival's Pillsbury Doughboy-like snowman mascot¿screw off, revealing the liquor within. One local warned me to drink it like hard liquor, not wine, or risk a bloc de caribou (caribou hangover): "You'll wake up feeling like you've grown antlers and your teeth have fur."

But with fresh snow everywhere, I wasn't just looking for a party. I needed to make some turns. And with more than 25 ski areas nearby, Quebec happens to be ideal for that. I chose Mont Sainte Anne, maybe the least appreciated ski resort in eastern North America. I love it. About the same size as better-known Tremblant, it has similar trails, snowmaking and vertical, and you can't beat its laid-back attitude. It doesn't have a glitzy village or a rocking bar scene, but that's because it doesn't need one. The wonders of Quebec City are just 25 miles away, making it arguably the best urban ski area on the continent.

With a vertical drop of just over 2,000 feet, Mont Sainte Anne is one of the bigger ski resorts in the East, but unlike other places I could name, you can use every inch of that vertical; it doesn't flatten out into an exit ramp in the middle. Double-blacks like Brunelle drop straight down the fall line almost from top to bottom, until you feel like you're going to plunge into the ice-filled St. Lawrence. In the trees, meanwhile, even three days after a storm, I was able to carve turns through untracked powder that had me shrieking with joy.

Because Mont Sainte Anne is so close to Quebec, it's hard to decide whether to stay in the city or at the mountain. We opted for the city on the weekend, when most Carnaval events occur, and the ski area midweek. The Chateau Mont Sainte Anne, built when the ski area was owned by the provincial government, looks a bit like a Soviet courthouse on the outside, but inside we found nice rooms and wonderful service just 50 paces from the gondola. While a clerk at the front desk helped a guest get his truck repaired, a lady passed out free cookies and cocoa next to the ski check.

Mont Sainte Anne also has the second-largest nordic system in North America, with more than 200 miles of trails and huts in the backcountry to support multiday trips. One afternoon I was gliding through a silent, snow-flooded hardwood forest when I happened to see a partridge the size of a turkey happily chomping catkins off the top of a birch tree. While some Easterners might consider Mont Sainte Anne's more northerly location harder to get to, it also means that what falls as rain in Vermont or Maine often falls as delightful powder in Quebec.

But perhaps the greatest advantage of Quebec is that even if you're not terribly active, the cold weather can burn an extra thousand calories a day. This means that the visitor to this particular Carnaval absolutely must consume great quantities of food, and there's no better place to do that.

Over the course of Carnaval I ate some of the best meals of my life. And here, thanks to the exchange rate, even the best restaurants have Big Village, not Big City, prices. We ate four-star dinners for about $60, wine included¿about half what they'd be in New York or Paris. And while the food had attitude, the staff didn't; we felt as comfortable and casual as if we were in a good friend's home.

At Le Saint Amour in the Old Town, for instance, we ate in a kind of sophisticated indoor patio¿high-ceilinged, with brick walls and stone floor, rattan furniture, potted trees and roof windows that open in summer. But there was nothing backyard about the food: Gravlax, caribou steak, guinea fowl in a wild mushroom sauce, each course successfully amusing both palate and eye. A plate of pâtés, for instance, came with sauces painted to resemble two snowshoes, peapods protruding upward like a tree. My poached pear dessert was a splayed-out flower, the stamen a little carved sculpture of mango sorbet.

Daniel Vezina, the chef at Laurie Raphael, is to my mind Quebec's greatest natural treasure and a true artist with food. Some people have perfect pitch; Vezina has a perfect palate. He is creative, but not for the sake of creativity. When he combines ingredients, it's because they work well together. He complements foie gras with spiced, sautéed pear, or a leek and lamb terrine with local goat cheese. Even the bread has you saying, "What's that taste? Fennel? Lemongrass?"His Ile d'Orleans Apple Extravaganza, for $8, gives you four takes on the modest pomme: in soufflé, sorbet, baked and spiced, sliced into a tart. The only time I ate this well was the last time I came here. It's the food equivalent of waist-high freshies. Imagine it: untracked powder, then Apple Extravaganza. Try finding that in New Orleans or Rio.ts in the backcountry to support multiday trips. One afternoon I was gliding through a silent, snow-flooded hardwood forest when I happened to see a partridge the size of a turkey happily chomping catkins off the top of a birch tree. While some Easterners might consider Mont Sainte Anne's more northerly location harder to get to, it also means that what falls as rain in Vermont or Maine often falls as delightful powder in Quebec.

But perhaps the greatest advantage of Quebec is that even if you're not terribly active, the cold weather can burn an extra thousand calories a day. This means that the visitor to this particular Carnaval absolutely must consume great quantities of food, and there's no better place to do that.

Over the course of Carnaval I ate some of the best meals of my life. And here, thanks to the exchange rate, even the best restaurants have Big Village, not Big City, prices. We ate four-star dinners for about $60, wine included¿about half what they'd be in New York or Paris. And while the food had attitude, the staff didn't; we felt as comfortable and casual as if we were in a good friend's home.

At Le Saint Amour in the Old Town, for instance, we ate in a kind of sophisticated indoor patio¿high-ceilinged, with brick walls and stone floor, rattan furniture, potted trees and roof windows that open in summer. But there was nothing backyard about the food: Gravlax, caribou steak, guinea fowl in a wild mushroom sauce, each course successfully amusing both palate and eye. A plate of pâtés, for instance, came with sauces painted to resemble two snowshoes, peapods protruding upward like a tree. My poached pear dessert was a splayed-out flower, the stamen a little carved sculpture of mango sorbet.

Daniel Vezina, the chef at Laurie Raphael, is to my mind Quebec's greatest natural treasure and a true artist with food. Some people have perfect pitch; Vezina has a perfect palate. He is creative, but not for the sake of creativity. When he combines ingredients, it's because they work well together. He complements foie gras with spiced, sautéed pear, or a leek and lamb terrine with local goat cheese. Even the bread has you saying, "What's that taste? Fennel? Lemongrass?"His Ile d'Orleans Apple Extravaganza, for $8, gives you four takes on the modest pomme: in soufflé, sorbet, baked and spiced, sliced into a tart. The only time I ate this well was the last time I came here. It's the food equivalent of waist-high freshies. Imagine it: untracked powder, then Apple Extravaganza. Try finding that in New Orleans or Rio.