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Warming up to winter at Quebec's action-packed carnival. Among the bonuses: Old-World charm and little commercialism

The triumph of Quebec's famed Winter Carnival is its marvelous provincial feeling. Although big and getting bigger, this 10-day snowy party on and around the Plains of Abraham emphasizes joy rather than commercialism. Clowns give, rather than sell, balloons to youngsters. Everywhere - behind the massive Ice Palace, on snowy embankments while waiting for parades - parents are seen playing with their children. People dressed as Bonhomme, the carnival snowman-king, freely pose for pictures and stop to talk to toddlers.

Of course, any venture that swells a city of 480,000 to half again its size and brings in upwards of $25 million obviously has commercial overtones. Last year, there was daily media coverage from all over the world, including ``Good Morning, America'' and Japanese television.

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And no wonder. In and around the quaint, winding streets of North America's only walled city, countless camera-ready sights, events, and just plain happenings beg for spectators - and participants.

The center point is the illuminated, block-long Ice Palace, designed by an architect, just outside the wall bordering the ``old city.''

Then there are ice sculptures (carved by international and domestic competitors), street dances, queen-of-carnival contests, international peewee hockey tournaments, and ice races on practically anything that moves, skids, or slides - from sailboards to motorcycles.

Most famous of all is the final day's incredible canoe race across the half-frozen St. Lawrence River, 300 feet below the old city's Promenade. This is an icy, slushy, now-you-see-them-now-you-don't feat that, besides bravery, strength, endurance, and a keen understanding of St. Lawrence tides, requires some suspension of common sense. Nevertheless, the ranks of competitors grow each year. Last year's race included a women's team from Toronto.

It's fascinating to realize that these races have their origin in the winter lifestyle of the river's ``island people,'' who once had only canoes to prevent total winter-long isolation.

A major winter attraction here, even at carnival time, is skiing. Parc du Mont Ste. Anne, a 2,050-vertical-foot World Cup stop 25 miles east of the city, is only a 40-minute ski bus ride from city hotels. Near the renowned shrine Ste. Anne de Beaupr'e, Mont Ste. Anne is the recipient of millions of provincial dollars in recent years in Quebec's increasingly successful effort to make the big mountain above the St. Lawrence River a major resort.

Massive snowmaking on two sides of a mountain, 15 lifts (including two brand new quad chairs and a gondola), and 34 trails - from novice to as challenging as you want - loom above a base that now boasts a luxury hotel, besides condos and inns.

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Cross-country aficionados will find one of North America's biggest centers - 93 miles of double-tracked trails and 10 heated relay stations. But you don't have to go to Mont Ste. Anne for cross-country. Bring your own skis, and just past La Citadelle - Quebec's famous fortress - you can glide onto the Plains of Abraham. Skiers and horse-drawn sleighs now wander where Montcalm and Wolfe settled the French and Indian War in 1759.

Three other alpine ski areas add delightful further choices. North of the city, Stoneham offers very popular cruising runs over a 1,250-vertical-foot drop. And nearer to the city are two lighted family hills that are fun on a snowy night - 50-year-old Le Relais and Mont St.-Castin-les-Neiges. Practical information

At carnival time (Feb. 5-15 this year) most, but not necessarily all, of the city's 7,000 beds are filled. For that matter, so are the city's car-banned streets on Carnival Night, when celebrants boisterously greet the final Saturday's parade of floats.

There are, of course, hotels and restaurants for almost every taste and budget. Still at the top of the line, for my money, is Quebec City's queen, the 500-room Chateau Frontenac, high above the St. Lawrence.

Using a new central reservations service with a toll-free number (800-463-1568), you can arrange accommodations throughout the region.

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