Each time I see a map of eastern Canada, my eye drifts inevitably northwards. Beyond the region’s vibrant cities – which mostly cluster in the relative warmth along the international border – lie vast forests, glacier-carved lakes, and swaths of roadless wilderness. The fracturing upper coast juts above the Arctic Circle. Go far enough north and you hit polar bear country.
From the time I moved to neighboring Vermont, I dreamed of that northern wilderness. But after dozens of trips exploring eastern Canada – and Quebec province in particular – I learned you don’t need to go off-grid to experience the best winter adventures.
Each year, snow piles into towering drifts along cities’ cobblestone streets, and neighborhood ponds freeze into ice skating rinks. Dance parties illuminate frozen fields, bringing crowds to outdoor festivals. Once, while sitting in a chic café in Québec City’s UNESCO-listed historic center, I saw a horse-drawn sleigh race past the picture window with bells jingling.
That means travelers can get a taste of Quebec’s thrilling winter season without leaving city limits. Here are some of my favorite ways to experience a region that rewards travelers willing to venture out into the cold.
Winter kicks off a countdown to the season’s first hard freeze, which is when local skaters flaunt serious skills at neighborhood rinks in Québec. Lacing up a pair of rented figure skates on my first cold-weather trip to Montréal, I joined the crowd at Lac-aux-Castors, a skating pond surrounded by forested hills in the downtown Mount Royal Park. With classical music on the loudspeakers and plenty of room for my awkward, novice-skater moves, it’s still one of my favorite places to skate in the city.
On Montréal’s charming historic waterfront, skaters loop around the riverside Old Port Skating Rink, backdropped by a towering Ferris wheel and the silver dome of Bonsecours Market. It’s especially popular on winter nights featuring fireworks shows, DJs, and other events. When I’m ready for a quieter, neighborhood feel, I prefer the skating rink at Parc La Fontaine. Trees line a track that loops through the city park, and a stop for rink-side hot chocolate is a must. (I’m also looking forward to Montréal’s newest skating destination, a massive rink called Esplanade Tranquille that’s slated to open winter 2022 in the Quartier des Spectacles.)
When it comes to skating rinks, though, Québec City won’t be outdone. Just outside the ramparts of Old Québec, Place D’Youville skating rink is arguably the most picturesque in the province, flanked by the stone archway of St. John Gate and the holiday light-decked, Beaux-Arts Théâtre Capitole. And if you want to try out speed-skating with specialized skates and an Olympic-sized rink, you can head to Québec City’s new Centre des Glaces, which claims the title of largest indoor skating center in North America.
Frigid temperatures are no excuse for staying inside on a trip to Canada, where locals pride themselves on keeping the party going all winter long. A highlight of Québec City’s 9-day Carnaval de Québec is outdoor dancing to DJ music at the Ice Palace. I bundle up and fill my pockets with plenty of hand warmers, but some locals swear the secret to staying cozy is the occasional nip of caribou, a concoction of warm red wine spiked with liquor and maple syrup that’s sold all over the city during the carnival.
Montréal’s answer to that outdoor dance party is Igloofest, an electronic music festival in the Old Port across four weekends in January and February. It’s the place to see locals turned out in their most eye-catching winter wear, which ranges from vintage fur coats to full-body ski suits – there’s an annual contest for the best festival outfit. An immunization passport is required. (Update: Due to new COVID-19 restrictions, Igloofest 2022 will not take place.)
Don’t be surprised to see locals toting skis through the heart of Québec City, whose stone ramparts and cobblestone streets are at their prettiest in winter. Just outside the fortified center are the Plains of Abraham, fields where cross-country skiers loop through snowy terrain commanding views of the St. Lawrence River far below. I love to fit a quick ski in whenever I’m in town.
With 8.6 mi (13.9 km) of ski trails that are free to use, it’s a recreation destination with some serious history. When the cross-country skiing World Cup races took place here in 2020, athletes were gliding over the site of a pivotal 1759 battle between French and British forces struggling for control of the region.
Things have calmed considerably since then. And since the Plains of Abraham are mostly flat, even beginners can get started with some rental gear from the onsite shop. If you’re ready for longer trails and more challenging terrain, there’s 24.6mi (38km) of classic skiing and 6mi (10km) of skate skiing at Sentiers du Moulin, a forested trail network just 20 minutes outside the city center. You can rent skis there, and thaw cold fingers at the ski area’s five heated, trail-side cabins.
Winter weather brings a flurry of activity to the outskirts of Québec City, where the Hôtel de Glace is built from scratch each year. I didn’t know what to expect on my first visit, but every detail of the hotel is molded and carved from ice, from the tinkling ice chandelier to beds and elaborate décor.
Bookings include a room at neighboring Hotel Valcartier where you can shower and keep luggage, but even when I’m staying elsewhere, I make a stop to tour the grounds. Daytime visitors can explore rooms with ice-block walls and snowy floors, and sleeping platforms covered with thick, insulating bedding. The ice chapel is lined with frozen pews for guests at winter weddings, and visitors gather for cocktails served in ice glasses at the ice bar.
The theme changes every year, keeping a team of snow-and-ice artisans on their toes. After opening in early January, the hotel welcomes guests until warming spring weather turns the ephemeral structure into a pile of melting ice cubes. If you’re craving more frozen artwork and you’re visiting during Carnaval de Quebec, head to the festival grounds by Old Québec to see elaborate snow sculptures crafted by teams from around the globe.
As I stepped into the festival grounds at my first Carnaval de Quebec, I was startled to see a team of huskies rushing past with steam billowing from their thick coats. During the carnival, mushers offer rides right in the heart of the city, with sleds drawn behind a team of six or eight dogs.
First Nations people have long used dogs for winter transport, a tradition that thrives in the snowiest parts of Canada. Even outside of the festival season, you can try the winter sport in and around Québec City.
About 15 minutes from the city center is Chenil La Poursuite, where Malamute Husky sled dogs draw sleds through forest trails. Hour-long and half-day outings are available, followed by fire-side hot chocolate and time to play with the sled-dog puppies. Other nearby options include Pourvoirie du Lac-Beauport and Aventures Nord-Bec Stoneham, offering dogsledding trips that range from quick, kid-friendly tours to two-hour rides that go deeper into the woods.
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