From late October to mid-April, Québec province becomes Canada’s icy adventure playground, and skiers flock here in droves to take to the slopes.
But you don’t have to be a pro on the pistes to get under the skin of this fascinating corner of Canada in winter. In fact, there are myriad winter activities on offer, such as dog-sledding, fat biking or tubing; or simply exploring the province’s unique identity in Montréal and Québec City – these cities can be at their most beguiling in the cold season, particularly if you time your visit to coincide with one of the big winter festivals, Igloofest or Carnaval de Québec.
In place d’Armes, a historic square in Old Montréal, there is a pair of bronze sculptures standing on either side of the plaza. The first is a man clutching an English pug; the other is a woman holding a French poodle. The owners are turning their exaggerated noses away from each other, while the two dogs are staring at each other, eager to meet.
This take on Montréal’s mixed heritage says a lot about a city (and a province) characterized by dualities – it’s at once French and English, Québécois and Canadian, old and new, and all the more compelling for it. Montréal was recently voted the best city in the world to be a student, and with its laid-back attitude, hip neighborhoods, astonishingly good coffee, and lively drinking scene, it’s not hard to see why.
For an intimate exploration of the city's streets, consider a local tour guide. Thom Seivewright (livinglikealocal.com) injects enthusiasm and knowledge as he shows visitors around his city. He tailors each tour to suit individual interests, but it's worth asking him to show you some of the murals around boulevard St-Laurent, which are a riot of color and artistry.
Taking place each January or February, outdoor rave Igloofest (igloofest.ca), down at the Old Port, is the hottest ticket in town. Party-goers dig out their finest retro snowsuits for the electronic music festivities, held over four successive weekends.
The Laurentian mountains are a one-hour drive or a slower bus ride from Montréal and are a paradise for winter sports freaks. There are few better ways to experience this wonderland of white than dog-sledding at the Kanatha-Aki activity center (kanatha-aki.com) at Val des Lacs. Brace yourself on the side of the sleigh as it careens through a maze of pines while a gang of huskies barks excitedly up ahead; the trees periodically open out, allowing you to drink in views of dramatic mountains or a snow-bordered lake along the way.
Skiers should head over to Ville de Mont-Tremblant – aficionados consider this place to be one of North America’s foremost ski destinations, and gazing up at the 968m namesake mountain, you won’t disagree. But this cheery little Alpine-style resort offers up a whole host of activities all year round. No longer a summer-only activity, specially designed 'fat-bikes' allow cyclists to take to the mountains all year round. You can rent one of these mountain bikes with super-wide tires at Centre Adventure Chalet des Voyageurs (tremblant.ca/plan/rentals/bike-rentals) and follow a signposted cycle trail. Full disclosure: operating one of these beasts on hilly terrain is not an easy task. But if you’re in reasonable shape, it’s a lovely way to escape the crowds of the ski resort and sample the icy beauty of the surrounding area.
You’ll have worked up an appetite fat biking, so call in for dinner at buzzy Italian Coco Pazzo (coco-pazzo.ca). Helpful staff know the menu inside out, and will no doubt persuade you to try the knockout signature dish, linguini pescatore. You’re unlikely to regret it.
You can get to Québec City on a three-hour train ride from Montréal (viarail.ca). It’s a comfy, civilized journey, and on a sunny day, sitting back and soaking up the scenery is almost as good as being out there in it.
Where Montréal is all modern skyscrapers and asphalt, smaller and sedate Québec City features stone walkways and centuries-old fortifications. Your visit here will no doubt start in the Old Town, a confection of cobbled lanes and 17th- and 18th-century buildings huddled at the foot of imposing Cap Diamant. The crowning glory at the top of the cliff is Le Château Frontenac, which, with its striking green roof and dramatic turrets, looks too fancy even for your average fairytale. Staying here doesn’t come cheap but treat yourself to a taste of the high life by popping into its famous bar Le Sam (bistrolesam.com) and quaffing a cocktail. Outside, the Terrasse Dufferin offers glorious views over the St Lawrence River, and is also home to the Au 1884 toboggan slide. Three toboggans can race down side-by-side, and the slide’s rickety demeanor only adds to the thrill.
Make sure you head out to Montmorency Falls, only 12km from the city center. These falls stand 30m higher than Niagara, but are narrower (which might explain why they're less famous). A suspension bridge spans between them, offering views over the deluge that will enrapture and terrify in equal measure.
For a one-off experience around Québec City, spend a night at North America’s first ice hotel, the Hôtel de Glace (hoteldeglace-canada.com). As of this year, it’s part of the Village Vacances theme park, where you can wedge yourself into an inflatable raft or inner tube and be launched down ice slides at speeds of up to 80km/h. A combined ticket allows entry to the park and throws in an interesting tour of the hotel.
If you can, time your visit for Carnaval de Québec (carnaval.qc.ca), which takes place yearly in January or February and is allegedly the biggest winter carnival in the world. There's a parade, seasonal activities and plenty of boozing opportunities.
Winter is a fantastic time to visit Québec, but temperatures can plummet to -20˚C and you’ll only get the best out of your trip if you pack for the cold. Layers are key, including thermals, ski pants and jacket, fleece, lined hat, ski gloves and a decent pair of winter boots. Sunglasses and hand and feet warmers can also be a godsend.
Tom traveled to Québec with assistance from Destination Québec (QuebecOriginal.com), Laurentians (laurentides.com), Québec City (quebecregion.com), Tourisme Montréal (tourisme-montreal.org) and WOW air (wowair.co.uk). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.