Travel: All dressed up for the party on ice

Adrian Mourby joins the Quebecois as they skate, toboggan, sculpt frozen statues, go to a Venetian ball and climb a make-believe Everest

IN THE Place Loto snowdust is sparkling in the glow of dawn. Floating golden points of light revolve in the sun's glare, as Lydia and her two friends saw away at a huge block of snow. It's eight in the morning and Lydia, an anthropology student from Quebec, has 24 hours in which to summon up art out of a huge block of ice.

"It depicts a man who is outside society," she explains. "This man is crushed, yet when he is complete people will see that he is happy to be on the outside."

Looking round Place Loto, at the happy band of amateur artisans beavering away in sub-zero temperatures, it's difficult not to recognise an irony in Lydia's manifesto. Quebec in winter is one of the most sociable of societies. Sculpting threesomes line the square and, in front of them, men chat as they unload fresh, unsalted snow for the dog-sled race due to start at 1pm. When I walk back to the Chateau Frontenac shopkeepers call out to each other as they set out their wares - plastic Carnaval trumpets and decorative festival sashes. Quebec is waking up to another day of civic celebration. "Here we have five months of winter," Bernard, my guide, tells me. "If you fight it you will be a very sad person. So we enjoy!"

Enjoyment is what Carnaval is about the world over. Here on the Plains of Abraham, where once the French and English slugged it out for possession of North America, and where daytime temperatures often don't rise above 15 degrees, Carnaval is celebrated by just about every activity that is possible on snow and ice. From snow-rafting and snow-rolling to ice-skating and ice-sculpture, from dog-sled racing to curling and igloo-building, these East Canadians are determined to enjoy the worst that winter can chuck at you.

Bernard is proud of his city's history. "Up to your right is where General Wolfe died. And to our left is where Queen Victoria's father, the naughty Duke of Kent, lived with a French actress while he was stationed here - that is before he was called home to marry her mother. Above us is the room where Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in 1943."

Miranda plays sulkily with her plate of waffles: by North American standards Quebec positively drips with history, but all this heritage is not impressing my 11-year-old. So I decide it's time to go and look at what is happening in the Carnaval itself - and Miranda cheers up.

Children are skating in a circle while screaming tobogganists crash down the three-track Terasse Dufferin at 40mph. As we walk up to the citadel with its guns pointing towards Maine, Bernard explains to me how Quebec has much to thank the Americans for. "Because the British were frightened that the United States might invade they maintained these marvellous city walls. And because they were worried that we French might join forces with the 13 colonies they let us keep our language."

During Carnaval a multinational company sponsors an igloo village and I saw people in red sashes queuing up to find out how warm - or not - these ice houses were. Other Amero-Indian stalls celebrate Caribou, the local alcoholic spirit, and the ancient art of skinning furry animals. Miranda shrank back in disgust when a trapper tried to show her his wolf pelt and buffalo gloves.

Back at the sculpture contest the Ice Palace of Bonhomme was nearing completion. This huge ice building is well worth visiting. Bonhomme - the snowman - is Carnaval's mascot and can be seen everywhere around the old city, dancing and hugging people like Mickey Mouse on heat. His palace, made up of 800,000 blocks of ice, has several rooms complete with an ice- carved word processor, filing cabinet and desk. The Quebecois do nothing by halves.

Bernard said it was time to choose our costumes for the Masquerade which we did from Nancy Paparazzo's shop, Face a Face. The Japanese were in ahead of Miranda and me, chortling over their court jester outfits. Several 18th-century costumes were already booked out and the president of the Carnaval was going as the devil. While we waited to be served, Snow White, Catwoman and Fred Flintstone were all snapped up. I opted for the only Don Giovanni costume left and Miranda picked out something punk that might once have been a wedding dress.

Miranda and I took a car out to the Village des Sports, 20 minutes up country. The village is like a water theme park over which the Ice Queen has waved her wand, and indeed many of its summer flumes have been turned into downhill toboggan shutes. After rafting the snow-covered hills - shades of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom here - and taking the Torpedo (a round rotating raft that flings you out in a circle), Miranda asked to try L'Everest. Billed as the ultimate challenge, Everest is a must for dads who don't want to appear chicken. We climbed a tower plastered with warnings discouraging those with heart conditions to desist. We prepared to drop the 100 feet back to earth before being scooped up by the polished incline and flung out into the snow. It is, without a doubt, a once in a lifetime experience - and I'm certainly not doing it again.

The Masquerade, like many of Carnaval's traditions, is relatively new to Quebec and the pseudo-Venetian quality of the ball wasn't helped by the fact that it was being held in the Hotel Concorde, a modern block outside the city's walls. Face painters lined the lobby turning those of us who looked only modestly camp into outrageous extras from an early Ken Russell movie. One woman danced on stilts, another had bared her breasts and was having body paint applied while a bowler-hatted pianist played Scott Joplin. Flappers, courtesans and pharaohs were everywhere - as were the crew of the USS Enterprise and at least one Elvis Presley.

Meanwhile, in the midnight air, anthropology students continued to hack, saw and sandpaper their lumps of ice into works of winter art. But The Man Who Is Crushed By Society would not be finished until the next morning. I never caught up with Lydia again, but I rather hope she won first prize.

FACT FILE

quebec

Getting there

Canadian Airlines (tel: 0345 616767) flies to Quebec via Montreal and Toronto from pounds 458, plus taxes. Air Canada (tel: 0990 247226) flies direct from pounds 462 for a minimum seven-night stay.

Where to Stay

All accommodation is subject to government taxes of about 15 per cent. Prices are for Carnaval time. The Chateau Frontenac (tel: 001 418 692 3861) costs from C$200 (pounds 82) for a single room, C$220 for a double. The Quebec Hilton (tel: 001 418 647 2411) is from C$155 for a single and C$175 for a double. The Concorde (tel: 001 418 647 2222) is from C$175 for a single and $195 for a double.

Further information

Carnaval runs annually from the end of January to the middle of February - this year it finishes on 14 February. In 2000 it runs from 28 January- 13 February. For information about Quebec and the Carnaval contact: Destination Quebec (tel: 0990 561 705). Carnaval website is: www.carnaval.qc.ca. An adult day pass to the Village des Sports costs $20 and $18 for children up to 12 years old, under-fives free. Tickets for the Masquerade cost $50.

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