With the holidays behind us and spring still months away, Long Islanders can be forgiven for thinking that the only direction worth going now is south, and the farther south, the better. Alas, winter cannot be avoided that easily. Nor is there any reason to just give up and hunker down. To be sure, winter does have something to offer even non skiers and boarders, and nowhere more so than at a joyous celebration of all things hibernal at a popular and well-established winter carnival. Profiled below are five of the oldest, largest, and most highly rated such seasonal celebrations in northeastern North America, any one of which is just about guaranteed to have you shaking off the winter doldrums and seeing the season of darkness in a refreshing new light.
As of press time, all five carnivals have yet to completely finalize their schedule of events. In addition, outdoor events are always subject to cancellation as a result of weather that is either too cold or too warm. So be sure to check the latest website listings before heading north.
Lake George Winter Carnival, Lake George, New York
2020 Dates: Saturdays and Sundays throughout February
Back in 1961, the undisputed summer playground of the Adirondacks decided to quit giving into winter and make something productive of it instead. Now in its 58th year, the Lake George Winter Carnival is geared primarily toward downstate visitors, and especially families, who can come on any of its four weekends and see and do most of the same things. Activities on the invariably frozen-over lake include skating, dog sledding, horse-drawn carriage and sleigh rides, and snow mobiles and ATVs rides. Shoreline events, which occur primarily at Shepard Park, include cook-offs, bonfires (with hot chocolate and s’mores), a polar plunge for the daring, and Saturday evening fireworks. Each weekend has its own one-off events, but whenever you go, the highlight is destined to be just getting out on the expansive ice, having fun, and enjoying the North Woods scenery.
While you’re there: White Water Bay, the indoor waterpark at the Great Escape Lodge, will be open throughout the carnival. Entrance is free for hotel guests. Nonresidents pay $30-$45 depending on the day.
Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, Saranac Lake, New York
2020 Dates: Jan. 31- Feb.9
Located in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains, the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, which debuted back in 1897, is much more of a locals’ event, featuring as it does a linear sequence of activities, competitions, and entertainments with two distinct highlights: the lighting of the enormous walk-through ice palace and fireworks on Feb. 1 and the gala parade on Feb. 8. Downstaters will have to be content with watching most of the advance-registration-required competitions such as curling, hockey, snowshoe and ski races, but can skate themselves on Lake Flower and ski and tube at nearby Mt. Pisgah. And everyone can watch and enjoy the woodsmen’s exhibitions, light-hearted fun such as arctic golf, lake bowling, and the ladies fry pan toss, and nightly entertainments around town. The theme of this year’s carnival is “Myths and Legends.”
While you’re there: Assuming thick enough ice, the public toboggan chute in nearby Lake Placid will be open throughout the carnival. Adults $15, students $10 (includes use of toboggan).
Brattleboro Winter Carnival, Brattleboro, Vermont
2020 Dates: Feb. 15 - 23
Initiated in 1955 as a way to keep the local schoolchildren active and entertained during their winter break, the Brattleboro Winter Carnival has grown over the years to nine days of mostly younger kid-oriented activities, both indoors and out. Daily activities include the Retreat Farm Winter Playground ($8 adults, $6 children), sleigh/hay rides at Fair Winds Farm ($8 adults, $4 ages 3-12), and small-scale downhill skiing and outdoor skating at Living Memorial Park. (There is also discounted skiing at nearby Mount Snow.) One-off activities include a pancake breakfast, ice fishing derby, and county jamboree, all at various locations throughout this working-class, southern Vermont city.
While you’re there: What Brattleboro itself lacks in quintessential New England charm can be found in abundance in a number of nearby villages, such as Newfane, Grafton, and Weston.
Winterlude, Ottawa, Canada
2020 Dates. Jan. 31 - Feb. 17
Billing itself as “an urban winter celebration,” Winterlude, now in its 40th year, draws several hundred thousand fun seekers of all ages to the Canadian capital during the course of its three-week run. Most of the musical entertainment takes place by night on Sparks Street downtown, while daytime games and activities for kids (snow tubing, skating, and mini-skiing) occur at the Snowflake Kingdom in riverside Jacques-Cartier Park, and competitive, world-class snow and ice sculptures populate Confederation Park. But no visit to Winterlude is complete without both sampling a beavertail (a gooey flat doughnut) and venturing out on the ice of the world’s largest skating rink, the five-mile long Rideau Canal which stretches from the base of Parliament Hill to Carleton University. Access to most events is free.
While you’re there: South-of-the border visitors should make time to tour Canada’s iconic Victorian Parliament Building (free, but reservations are required) and several of its national museums.
Quebec Winter Carnival, Quebec City, Canada
2020 Dates: Feb. 7 - 16
It takes a lot more time and effort to get here, but with over a million attendees, Quebec City’s Winter Carnival (Carnaval de Quebec in French) is one of the largest such seasonal celebrations in the world. And the setting, arguably North America’s most picturesque and European city, is hard to beat. Befitting its late 19th-century origins as a pre-Lenten (Mardi Gras) celebration, Carnaval is as much a public street party as a celebration of winter, especially after dark in both the Upper and Lower Towns. Daytime activities take place on the historic Plains of Abraham overlooking the St. Lawrence River and include a true carnival (with rides and games), snow sculptures, snow tubing, and Bonhomme’s (the event’s snowman mascot) Ice Palace, which is even more impressive at night. Also open is the famous toboggan chute at the architecturally magnificent Chateau Frontenac. Evening activities include two high-tech parades, and nearly nonstop live entertainment. All-access passes to sponsored events cost $10 CDN online and $20 CDN on site.
While you’re there: Less than 10 miles away, 272-foot Montmorency Falls are actually higher than Niagara. In winter, the partially frozen chutes are even more spectacular.