Snowpocalypse Never: In Quebec, Winter’s Just An Excuse To Kick It Up a Notch

February 10, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Posted in Canada, Quebec, skiing/snow sports | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

ice slide at Quebec Winter CarnivalFolks in large swaths of the USA’s Northeast have been shellshocked by the so-called “snowpocalypse” these past several days, but meanwhile, up here in southern Quebec, I’ve been witnessing firsthand how little the locals let a little weather slow them down. In fact, they take it up a notch. Even with average annual snowfalls of 14 feet (4 meters) and subfreezing temperatures, for the past 55 years Quebeckers have thrown their own pre-Lenten Carnaval d’Hiver, falling around the same time as Mardi Gras, the big blowout in Rio de Janeiro, and other such overheated frolics (this year, the dates are February 29 to January 14; next year January 28-February 13).

Most Winter Carnival action takes place on a few dozen acres of the Plains of Abraham in Old Quebec City just below the National Assembly building. As I walked through the gates, to my left kids whooshed down a long, slick chute of ice and to my right, a couple of others brandished from long, blue and red plastic horns, bleating the likes of which you’d expect from a flatulent moose. Farther up to the left, I spotted somebody careening down a zipline across the way from the “Arctic Spas” area, which sported not just a dry sauna but a bunch of bubbling hot tubs, several filled with folks in bathing suits (managing to be at once sedate and at least a bit extreme).

Snow bath at Quebec Winter CarnivalAnd so it went. I checked out some ingenious snow sculptures, and careened downhill on a whitewater raft; made maple-syrup pops in the snow at a “sugar shack” and that night boogied to earsplitting techno and hip-hop in front of a glowing ice-brick castle. I’m sorry to miss this Saturday’s “snow bath,” though, in which a few dozen guys and gals strip down to beachwear and roll around in the white stuff. Frozen cheesecake, indeed.

The festivities get spread out a bit to outlying areas, too. I spent part of one afternoon down at the port watching teams of men and women charging through the ice-clogged St. Lawrence River in fiberglass canoes. It looked incredibly cold and incredibly dangerous; at dinner that night at the grandest hotel in town, the Château Frontenac, my friends and I ran into the captain of the winning team (which was, as it happens, for the 18th time in a row none other than…the Château Frontenac team), who burbled on so enthuastically about the experience and the rigorous training that goes into it. Then suddenly he stopped himself, then added with a smile, “I must sound like a freak.” No, no, we assured him — just incredibly committed (we didn’t specify whether we meant “committed” in a good way or the mental-institution way). A little less chilly and daredevilish was the Mardi-Gras-style night parade in the suburb of Charlesbourg, with some pretty snazzy floats and moves, presided over by Bonhomme, a chap in a jolly, red-capped snowman suit — the symbol of Carnival.

Clearly, a lot of locals spend a lot of the year putting this extravaganza together. Savoring a steaming hot caribou (red wine octaned-up with brandy) at a table with a couple of Quebeckers in one of the food-and-drink tents, I took my French out for a spin, marveling at the 17-day event’s quality, organization, and enthusiasm. One middle-aged gent shrugged and said, “well, everybody has their way of getting through the winter. This is ours.”

But this embrace of winter doesn’t start or stop with Carnival — far from it. I also got to pop out of town, a half hour up to a bucolic resort called Station Touristique Duchesnay, where I found locals and tourists alike snowshoeing, snowmobiling, dogsledding, cross-country skiing, and ice-fishing their hearts out. As my little group snowstomped along a ridge, we passed a yellowish frozen waterfall, and our twentysomething guide Yannick blurted — “oh, now ice-climbing — that’s my favorite thing to do in the world!” Whatever you say, dude. Afterward, with only the most minimal of preliminary instructions, Nicolas at Aventure Inukshuk let me drive a dogsled, even though eyeing that jumping, yipping team of huskies was turning me to nervous mush (get it, mush?). It was a workout, for sure, but I’m pleased to report that no humans or canines were harmed in the making of this anecdote (hey, it’s all in the brake); the team behind us, though, did at one point veer off into the woods and ended up with their mush puppies snarled up.

At Quebec's Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel)The highlight out at Duchesnay, though, had to be my night at the famous Hôtel de Glace (Ice Hotel), one of only two in the world, now in its tenth season. Running this year January 4 to April 4, it’s a work of art with the feel of a crystalline fairyland, including a nightclub, a chapel, and museum, an indoor ice slide, a hot-tub/sauna courtyard, and 36 rooms housing 88 people (some are plain cells, others artistically carved; rates start at CA$189*). Virtually everyone, myself formerly included, is simultaneously tickled and nervous about being unconscious for six-plus hours in an icebox. So they give you a thorough orientation on how to deal with your sleeping bag and store your stuff, dressing and undressing, getting up to go to the bathroom, and so forth. After an exceptional dinner in the main — and conventional — Auberge Duchesnay a couple hundred feet up the hill, that night’s guests hit the ice bar, which serves a range of soft drinks and tipples (try the Sortilège maple whiskey) in square tumblers of ice. Amid colored lights and disco music, an animatrice (kind of a social director) kept everybody busy — and warm –with activities like a scavenger hunt and ice sculpting. At midnight, c’est fini and it’s off to dreamland. Some people find the experience — mostly due to the sleeping bag — claustrophic, but for me it was fine. I woke up a couple of times, but not because of the cold; I did pass on my habitual 3am bathroom run, though. Folks generally spend only one night on ice and the rest up in the conventional lodge, but still, as unusual experiences go, this one’s definitely a keeper.

Leave it to the Quebeckers — they can teach us all a thing or two about making friends with winter.

*US$178; £114; €130; AU$203, NZ$257, R1378

photos: 1/3 David Paul Appell, 2 Quebec Winter Carnival

A Cold Yet Cool Reception This Winter at Sweden and Quebec’s Ice Hotels

December 2, 2009 at 11:06 am | Posted in Canada, Quebec, Sweden | 1 Comment
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by David Paul Appell

That time of year again — starting next week, chilly chic is back again, thanks to those clever Swedes (followed by crafty Quebecois). First up, from December 10 to mid-April, the Swedish Lappland town of Jukkasjärvi, up north of the Arctic Circle, will be the site of the 59,200-square foot (5,500-square-meter) 20th edition of the original ICEHOTEL (you fly into Stockholm, then connect onward to Kiruna; British Airways can also whisk you direct to Kiruna from Heathrow, believe it or not). For rates from 1,350 krona (US$197) a night per person, you can sleep in one of the 80 artist-designed rooms and suites carved from snow and ice (with thermal underwear and sleeping bags, of course), or in a more conventional, heated hotel annex. While you’re up here, activities include sauna, snowshoe, snowmobile/dogsled tours, ice sculpture lessons, and visits with the local Sami people. If you can’t make it this time around, they’re planning to open it a month earlier next winter.

Meanwhile, for those on the other side of the Atlantic, in Canada’s Duchesnay winter resort area a half hour from picturesque Quebec City, the Hôtel de Glace marks its tenth winter this January 4 to April 4. It’s quite a bit plus petit (32,000 square feet/3,000 square meters), but just as, er, cool as its Swedish inspiration, with similar amenities and activities (but no Sami, of course). An overnight in one of its 36 rooms and suites starts at CAD 219 (US$208) per person, or you can just stop in for a tour and a bracing gulp at the ice bar. A votre santé glâcée!

Where Cider Houses Rule

October 12, 2009 at 10:14 am | Posted in Canada, culinary/food & drink, Europe, France, Germany, Massachusetts, New York State, Oregon, Quebec, Spain, United Kingdom, United States, Washington State | Leave a comment

by José Balido

A demo of traditional pouring technique at a gala at the Cider Museum in Asturias, Spain.

A demo of traditional pouring technique at a gala at the Cider Museum in Asturias, Spain.

It’s autumn in the northern hemisphere, and in a few key regions of a few key countries that means apples and cider, both “hard” (mildly alcoholic) and not. While pomaceous potions are brewed — in versions sweet, dry, and downright tart — in countries as varied as Argentina, Russia, and South Africa, in certain fetching parts of Europe and North America, cidre, sidra, and Apfelwein are an integral part of the life and culture. Any one of them would make a juicy getaway indeed. So how do ya like them apples?

Canada: Quebec Though found in Ontario, British Columbia, and elsewhere, in Canada fermented jus de pomme has been a particularly important part of Quebec’s heritage ever since it was brought from France centuries ago (and they keep innovating, as with the relatively recent “ice cider”). A Route du Cidre covers some 30 producers, many family-owned but several run out of Roman Catholic monasteries (Cistercian cider – who knew?). Most are in Montérégie, just south and west of Montreal, and you’ll find the rest in the Laurentian mountains and the Quebec City area (including three on an idyllic isle, Île d’Orléans). CidreDuQuebec.com.

Britain: England & Wales Scores of small and medium producers crank out hundreds of labels worth of cider and perry (its pear counterpart). England’s West Country, Herefordshire, and East Anglia are hotspots, including historic thatch-roofed inns such as Bretforton’s half-timbered, Elizabethan Fleece Inn, Hereford’s Cider Museum, and a Cider Route covering big producer Bulmers and ten others. CiderMuseum.co.uk, CiderRoute.co.uk, UKCider.co.uk, WelshCider.co.uk.

France: Normandy & Brittany Normandy’s best known for Calvados, but also strong in sweet, brut, and semi-brut cidres; the epicenter’s the Pays d’Auge/Calvados region, anchored by the picturesque village of Cambremer and the larger capital, Lisieux. The Route du Cidre here takes in two dozen visitable cidreries. Brittany’s lower on the radar but does some fine work in a slightly different style, served up in colorful ceramic bowls and cups instead of glasses. Its own Route du Cidre in the Cournouaille region covers nearly 40 villages and towns and a dozen cidreries. Besides a wonderful Gothic old quarter, the Breton capital Quimper offers an interesting, apple-oriented Still Museum. Cidre.fr, Deauville-Normandie-Tourisme.com, RouteDuCidre.free.fr, TastyBrittany.com.

Germany: Frankfurt/Hesse & Moselle/Saarland German Apfelwein (aka Ebbelwoi) is on the dry side, and in Frankfurt with its more than 60 Ebbelwohnkneipen (cider pubs), many of them in the Sachsenhausen district, it’s arguably as big as beer; you can also visit Kelterei (cider houses) throughout its hinterland in Hesse, as well as down south in the Moselle and Saarland region bodering Luxembourg. The epicenter here is the town of Merzig, and a Viezstrasse (Cider Route) takes in some two dozen small producers. Frankfurt.de, Merzig.de, Viezstrasse-Online.de.

Spain: Asturias In the green north, the Basques and Galicians put out dry, refreshing sidras, but nobody puts it at the center of their cultural universe and identity quite like their neighbors in the lush, rolling principality of Asturias. Every town has at least a couple of sidrerías, where sidra natural is poured from bottles held high over the head, to “awaken” the fizz (a top sidrería hotspot is capital Oviedo’s hopping Gascona Street). Some of the 110 llagares (cider houses) give tours, and there’s also an interactive sidra museum in the town of Nava (among other things, you can sample a wide range and try your hand at the distinctive pouring method). Visit llagares on your own or book tours through Comarca de la Sidra, which include ancient, atmospheric family operations that don’t sell their output. LaComarcaDeLaSidra.com, Sidreria.com.

USA: New England & Upstate New York There are dozens of atmospheric mom-and-pop cider makers dotting the landscape in all five New England states – some still using old-fashioned steam-powered mills (B.F. Clyde in Mystic, Connecticut) or really old-fashioned rack-and-cloth models like the one at Cold Hollow in Waterbury Center, Vermont. Meanwhile, over in the Empire State, the Hudson Valley just north of New York City is prime apple country, and the Finger Lakes out west is also worth checking out for outfits like Lafayette’s quaint, century-old Beak & Skiff.  NewEnglandApples.org, NYCider.com.

USA: Pacific Northwest Cider’s pedigree here may not be quite as venerable as in New England, but it’s certainly well established, as there are dozens of lovely spots in Oregon and Washington within convenient driving distance of cities such as Seattle (for example, Orondo Cider Works, three hours east) and Portland (Ryser’s Farm and others in the countryside just south of the city). TriCountyFarm.org, WashingtonAppleCountry.com.

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