A Few Days In

Embracing the Cold in Québec City's Winter Wonderland

by Linda Cabasin
Snow Snow tubing at Village Vacances Valcartier. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

COVID-19 Notes: This is a two-part story about winter travel in Quebec City and nearby Charlevoix county. Contributing editor Linda Cabasin took this trip in February 2020 before the pandemic took hold. As of this writing, the Canadian government is limiting international visitors, restricting them primarily to family members and those traveling for specific reasons. Those who are able to travel should check with hotels because some offerings are limited right now. Those who aren't able to travel should use this to plan future winter adventures with giant snowmen and ice palaces.

QUÉBEC CITY – I’ve long believed that embracing the cold and snow outdoors is the best, most joyous way to get through a long winter. So I couldn’t resist a trip to the French-speaking province of Québec in eastern Canada to celebrate the season in historic Québec City and the beautiful Charlevoix region. My five days of wintry pleasures included the joie de vivre of Québec City’s famous Carnaval de Québec (Winter Carnival) and the adrenaline rush of a 4.6-mile sled ride at Le Massif de Charlevoix ski area just 90 minutes outside the city.

Combining these two areas gives a full taste of winter pastimes. With its deep French culture and well-preserved city center, Québec City looks even more romantic draped in snow. It’s a magical backdrop for viewing a festive night parade or an ice canoe race during Winter Carnival. A tour of the over-the-top Hôtel de Glace (Ice Hotel) and snow tubing are easy excursions. Northeast of Québec City and encompassing the St. Lawrence River as well as towering peaks, Charlevoix is perfect for more winter adventures. It draws snow lovers with skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, ice-skating, and dogsledding; unspoiled national parks; and charming towns like artsy Baie Saint-Paul. Throughout the Québec region, hotels and restaurants offer warming comforts after the day’s activities.

Good winter clothing is essential in Québec, where a 30° Fahrenheit day can seem balmy. This is where to stay, find winter fun, and soak up the scenery in and around Québec City.

Old Québec. Photo by Stéphane Audet / courtesy of Québec City Tourism.

Lay of the Land

Set on Cap Diamant (Cape Diamond) with views of the St. Lawrence River, Québec City is known for Vieux-Québec, the old city, including part of the Upper Town and Lower Town. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s the only walled city in North America north of Mexico. French explorers and fur trappers established a fort at what is now Place Royale more than 400 years ago. The city walls, stone buildings, and historic fortifications draw visitors year-round for their French charm. In winter, the city provides a memorable setting for one of the world’s most famous winter festivals, the Carnaval de Québec. Ten days of exuberant activities and events bring people of all ages outdoors to enjoy themselves in the cold and snow. The city’s delightful bistros and bars, shops, and museums offer a break from the weather.

Bonhomme greeting fans Winter Carnival. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Ice canoe race during Winter Carnival. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

What to Do

Carnaval de Québec
All I needed to fall in love with the city’s annual Winter Carnival was the event’s roving ambassador and guiding spirit, Bonhomme Carnaval. The seven-foot-tall talking snowman, with his jaunty red cap and colorful sash, is a cheerful presence at events and at his 30-foot-high Ice Palace, colorfully illuminated at night, near the Parliament building. Carnival events, many family-friendly, run during the day and into the evenings for 10 days in February in different areas, including snow slides, ice-skating, and spirited activities such as ax throwing and street hockey. Virtual events on YouTube and ice sculptures around the city are available anytime. Music of all kinds keeps things lively, and there are carnival treats like maple taffy (warm maple syrup poured on snow, then rolled on a stick) and Caribou, a potent alcoholic drink made with red wine, liquor, and maple syrup.

Hand and toe warmers made watching the colorful, creative floats at one of the carnival’s music-filled night parades along the Grande Allée a wonderful evening despite the cold. (I’m reminded of the saying that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.) It also helped that I ended the evening at Bulles, Whisky & Cie, a special whiskey-, spirit-, and cocktail-tasting event full of revelers warming up. One of my favorite daytime events was watching an energetic ice canoe race on the St. Lawrence at Bassin Louise. Teams of participants feverishly paddled their specially designed vessels through the river’s currents and ice floes. From above, I enjoyed the action along with Western-style snacks and country music.

Sold on-site for C$20, an Effigy, a token showing Bonhomme and a horn, allows access to many Winter Carnival sites and activities. It comes with a booklet of discounts.

City Explorations
After the ice canoe race, I explored the Lower Town of Vieux-Québec, including Place Royale and Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, a lovely stone church built in 1688. In this area, Rue du Petit-Champlain and the quaint surrounding streets entice with shops and boutiques selling local and regional goods. Also nearby is the excellent Musée de la Civilisation, where interactive exhibits explore stories of the area’s Aboriginal nations and the province’s history.

A beloved winter tradition dating to 1884 is Au 1884, the speedy, rattling, wooden toboggan on scenic Dufferin Terrace that provides a view including the city’s landmark Fairmont Le Château Frontenac hotel. Another vintage ride is the funicular between Upper and Lower Towns.

The entrance to Hôtel de Glace. Photo by Christian Savard.
Only for the brave: A bedroom at Hôtel de Glace. Photo by Gaelle Leroyer.
A bedroom at Hôtel de Glace. Photo by Dany Vachon / courtesy of Québec City Tourism.
Drinking at Hôtel de Glace. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Hôtel de Glace (Ice Hotel)
An utterly unique experience, North America’s only ice hotel is an irresistible, glistening winter creation just 20 minutes from Québec City at the Village Vacances Valcartier resort. People can overnight here, bundling up in special sleeping bags on a base of ice in the hotel’s rooms, some of which have intricate, themed snow and ice carvings of everything from animals to abstract shapes. I passed on an overnight but took a tour to learn how 30,000 tons of snow and 500 tons of ice are used to build the hotel each year. I also admired the detailed creations of eighteen sculptors, the chapel — people actually get married here, easily one-upping a Vegas chapel — and the bar. A drink in a glass made of ice is de rigueur and Insta-worthy. It’s best to book a tour ahead; the Ice Hotel is popular.

A short walk from the Ice Hotel are fun snow tubing and rafting runs: Himalaya (which I did) and Everest are steeper slopes, where participants reach a speed close to 50 mph.

Snow tubing at Village Vacances Valcartier. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. Photo by Francis Gagnon / courtesy of Québec City Tourism.

Where to Stay

Québec City has some boutique hotels with traditional charm or modern chic, such as Auberge Saint-Antoine and the Hôtel Le Germain Québec. In contrast, staying at the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac is an experience on a grand scale. Travelers to Winter Carnival should make any hotel reservations in advance.

Fairmont Le Château Frontenac
Perched high on Cap Diamant and resembling an oversize château with a tall central tower, the 1893 hotel is a much-photographed, history-rich landmark and city hub. Its 610 rooms and 7.5 miles of corridors make the Frontenac anything but intimate, but the hotel has kept pace with the times: A $75 million renovation in 2014 added a spa; brought soothing neutral, luxurious modern furnishings to the guest rooms; and revamped the hotel’s excellent restaurants and public spaces such as its paneled lobby. Rooms range from small to vast and have different views. My expansive room in a turret had views over the St. Lawrence that kept me glued to the window.

Bistro Le Sam. Photo courtesy of Fairmont Le Château Frontenac.
1608 Bar. Photo courtesy of Fairmont Le Château Frontenac.
A charcuterie feast at Bistro Le Sam. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Where to Eat & Drink

Ciel! Bistro-Bar
Floor-to-ceiling windows keep diners’ attention on the panoramic city and river views at this revolving restaurant on the 28th floor of Le Concorde Québec on Grande Allée. White tablecloths and simple but elegant decor provide a backdrop for the views. Weekend brunch and dinner menus offer hearty but updated Québec fare made from local produce and regional cheeses. Ciel! is perfect for a cocktail, perhaps with a Québec-made spirit, and lingering for the 90 minutes it takes for the restaurant’s full revolution.

Fairmont Le Château Frontenac
Bistro Le Sam is a buzzy, casual space with design features that pick up elements of trains — the Frontenac was originally a railroad hotel — like studs on tables and chairs shaped like the front of an old locomotive. Cheese and charcuterie boards are a great bet, and there are ample fish and meat choices. I didn’t eat dinner at Champlain Restaurant, but this space helmed by acclaimed chef Stéphane Modat is known for its adventurous exploration of Québec’s culinary possibilities. Brunch here was a grand, traditional feast, with everything from smoked salmon to sweet crepes to beef Wellington. The bar 1608 is a chic, dark space for unwinding by the fireplace or sipping a creative cocktail, wine, or local beer.

Restaurant Le Continental
Open since 1956, the Continental specializes in classic French dishes, many prepared tableside in gleaming copper pots. The ambience and approach — they do impressive flambéing — may be old-fashioned, but the results are solidly delicious, including the rich lobster bisque, tender filet mignon in cognac sauce, and shrimps flambéed in whiskey. A feast here can be an excellent way to end an active day outdoors.

Imaginative creations at the night parade. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Plan Your Trip

How to Get There
Toronto Pearson Airport (YYZ) and Montréal–Trudeau International Airport (YUL). Taxis to downtown Québec City (flat rate of C$35.10) leave from near the baggage claim; Uber is another option.

Québec City is an 8 1/2 hour drive north of New York City via I-87 and Autoroute 20.

Getting Around
Activities at Québec City’s Winter Carnival are close enough that visitors can walk or take a bus, taxi, or Uber. A car would be inconvenient in the heart of town, and it’s best to explore Vieux-Québec on foot. The Ice Hotel at Village Vacances Valcartier is a 20-minute drive from Québec City. Bus 384 and 584 go to the other end of Boulevard Valcartier; an Uber is needed to finish the trip. Going with Tours du Vieux-Québec is another option.

A car is needed for winter travel around the coastal Charlevoix region, which begins about 90 minutes northeast of Québec City. Roads are well cleared of snow, from the faster Route 138 to the scenic coast Route 362.

The scenic summer tourist Train de Charlevoix runs from Québec City (Montmorency Falls) to Baie-Saint-Paul and La Malbaie.

What to Pack for Winter
Winter is serious in Québec City, where average winter temperatures from December through February range from lows in the single digits to highs of 25° Fahrenheit without the wind. A 30° day will feel warm. Good clothing ensures being comfortable for outdoor adventures, though.

Any packing list should include a winter jacket, snow pants (essential), sweaters or fleeces (dress in layers), and warm, waterproof winter boots. A scarf, hat, gloves and mittens, and wool socks are good, and toe and hand warmers are a useful addition. Sunscreen and sunglasses are handy. Finally, pack a bathing suit and flip-flops for indoor pools, spas, and yes, heated outdoor pools.

Keep the winter spirit alive: Linda's adventures continue in nearby Charlevoix county.