Celebrating a Quebec City Winter Visit by Going All the Way
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

A writer who has successfully avoided wearing a heavy coat for years embraces winter in Quebec City, sleeping in a sub-freezing room of ice and then venturing out on foot and skis.

Quebec winter travel story

I quickly stripped off all my clothes, threw on base layers and socks at top speed, then put a beanie on my head. I pulled a sleep sack up over my body and then crawled into a sleeping bag that was designed to withstand extreme cold. I took one last look at my snow block walls and end tables made of ice, then switched out the lights. With everything covered by the sleeping bag except my nose and mouth, I eventually drifted off to sleep in a room so quiet that I could hear my heartbeat.

Intentionally sleeping in this ice hotel costs hundreds of dollars a night, though in all fairness there is a back-up you don't see in the guests' social media photos: a regular heated hotel suite with a hot shower that's a five-minute walk away. Book the Hôtel de Glace, get a regular room at Hotel Valcartier with running water that won't freeze.

Quebec ice hotel room

There are Jacuzzis and a sauna too in a courtyard of the ice hotel, though of course it's a cold walk back to the room in a robe. Drying off thoroughly takes on added importance when the temperature is 20F degrees in the bedroom, down near zero outside where the (heated) port-a-potties are. It's so cold in these rooms that a training session on how to prepare and sleep there is mandatory. Someone e-mails you a preparation guide before you arrive so you'll be dressed properly. When I grabbed my bathing suit from the Jacuzzi soak the night before to head out, it was frozen into the shape it was when I hung it up. 

One night of this was novel, two would be masochistic, so I headed into Quebec City the next day to check into a proper hotel in the old city—one where my mattress wasn't on top of a block of ice. I dropped my bags and headed out for a brisk walk, thinking my multiple layers, scarves, a hat, and ski gloves would do the trick. 

They didn't.

As the biting wind kicked up and I saw huge chunks of ice floating by on the St. Lawrence River, I started to wonder how anyone survived here in the days before central heating, wool socks, and down parkas. I was determined to walk around the old city walls, but halfway around them on a windy day, my nose and legs were telling me that was a terrible idea. Normally when the clouds part and the sun comes out it warms up your skin. Here it just made the snow reflect the light a bit brighter.

Quebec city winter vacation

Getting Locals Out of Their Warm House

Now the people in Quebec City are out ice skating in the lovely Place d'Youville Plaza and are zooming down the toboggan ride near the landmark Chateau Frontenac Hotel—a tradition since 1884. "You have to get out and enjoy yourself in the winter here," my guide Michelle said later on a city tour. Otherwise you'll just get depressed or go stir crazy."

I don't think there was much of an option but to get depressed when Samuel de Champlain and fellow French settlers first made peace with the native Americans and developed this area in the early 1600s. Their main objective was to survive. Securing food, cutting firewood, making shelter, and not dying took up most of their time. 

After circling the old walls and pondering how long it probably takes for frostbite to set in, I popped into the Immersion Quebec experience to see a virtual reality 3D history lesson in a warm heated theater. Even with the film's attempt to shine a light on the positives, winter in this region back then was a litany of scurvy, disease, starvation, and people literally freezing to death.

Old Quebec City in winterNow the city celebrates the snowy months every chance it gets, including with a big winter carnival that gets people outside at the coldest time of year. Now in its 66th year, the carnival started out as a way to stimulate businesses in the area. Even back then they were doing great in the summer, but in the winter nobody was going out to drink, eat, or shop. So local shop owners banded together to create a small festival before Lent that included parties and a parade. Now the festival goes on for more than a week, has big-name entertainment, and draws international tourists. 

Otherwise, the hotels are seldom full and rates are significantly lower than in the summer. I dined without a reservation at the lovely Il Teatro Italian restaurant with snow falling outside its picture windows, taking advantage of a winter prix fixe menu special. For those who pack well, this season is a chance to escape the cruise ship crowds, the Chinese tour buses, and an onslaught of visitors that jam the streets of the historic center in summer. At this time of year it's quiet, low-stress, downright civilized even. If you're stuck on what to do though, the tourism board helpfully publishes a guide on "50 ways to make the most of winter."

frozen Montmorency Falls

The theme of my suite at the Hotel de Glace had been about the very first Quebec ice hotel, which was situated near the Montmorency Falls. I had an ice waterfall behind my pillow. Cozy. Our guide Michelle took us out on a side trip to the falls, which were almost completely frozen over. The stairs that lead down to a viewing point in warmer months were buried under snow about halfway down. "The water is always flowing," she explained. After a while though, you just can't see it anymore because of the ice."

She also took us up to the top of the Capital Observatory, where we could get a bird's eye view. Up there it's easy to make out the original city walls and the entrance gates. Apparently the gates used to be only wide enough for one carriage, later one car. When the age of the automobile started generating unrest about the traffic back-ups, the locals started clamoring for the gates to be destroyed. Governor General Lord Dufferin found a compromise in the 1870s: break down the old gates (but not the walls) and build larger ones that two cars can fit through.

Quebec City from above in winter

Down at the oldest part of the city, where the original settlers lived by the river, it's fairytale beautiful in winter, with lighted snowflakes and decorated trees and glowing craft shop windows. "Most of these buildings were rebuilt following the original plans," Michelle explains. The stones were numbered and re-assembled for some of them, but in other cases the original structure was too far gone." After many local banks moved out, it fell into a slum state where only artists and squatters feared to tread. It took a long time and a lot of dedication to get the area to its current pristine state. All the merchants belong to a cooperative to keep rents reasonable and maintain the Quebecois character—with no chain restaurants or coffee shops. 

It's hard to believe there was a slum where the boutique hotels and fancy restaurants are now when, even in winter, a steady stream of visitors comes through to enjoy the pubs and go shopping. Unless we go back to a destination repeatedly, we never see the painful transitions. We only see the end result that exists in the here and now.

Lower Old Town with snow

A Quick Ski Jaunt From Quebec City

When I pulled out my multi-layered down ski coat and heavy gloves for this trip, I tried to remember the last time I had used either. Four years? Five? I've been purposely avoiding cold places for close to a decade, apart from two ski trips. Skiing seems to me the best reason of all to embrace winter though, so I headed out to Mont-Sainte-Anne ski resort, about 40 minutes from Quebec City. 

The weather had called for a blizzard, but instead we just got a few inches of snow. That meant slower going on the way there, but fresh powder on the slopes. I met up with one of Mont Saint Anne's mountain guides Paul, who skied some morning runs with me so I could get the lay of the land. There are north, west, and south slopes at this resort and many of the 71 trails are far longer than I had expected just looking up from the base. Some get a little warmer (a relative term) or less windy, others retain their powder longer into the day.

I fumbled with my lift ticket, my pole straps, my jacket zippers, my scarf, and the Buff covering for my face like a guy who is clearly not used to all these accessories. I've been living in Florida and Mexico, where even pulling out a windbreaker is a rare event. Bundling up here seems like such a complicated exercise that I feel immediate sympathy for the parents with young kids.

The skiing was glorious though after all the layers were in their place. We swooshed through fresh powder with a grin and made wide arcs across trails that we seemed to mostly have to ourselves, even though it was the weekend. I thought back to days of long lift lines at Hunter Mountain, Killington, and Snowshoe in my youth and skiing straight onto the lift here felt like a dream come true. With the empty streets of old Quebec City and the uncrowded ski slopes here, the appeal of a winter visit became a little less crazy every day. 

Mont Sainte Anne ski resort Canada

My hard-core mogul trail days are behind me, so apart from a few straightforward black diamonds, I mostly swished down the blue cruising trails, enjoying the fresh powder. Paul's recommendation to end the day on the long La Pichard trail on the south side was a good one. Just as my legs felt like they couldn't take much more, I skidded to a stop at the Sugar Shack and had a maple syrup lollipop. The attendant pours it onto a wooden bench covered with packed snow and the cold makes it turn into a taffy consistency. I rolled it up around a popsicle stick and got a burst of sugar to finish carving turns to the base. 

A Taste of Europe in Canada

One of the best things about visiting Quebec City is it feels much older than anywhere in the USA. It also truly feels like a foreign country—and not just because the drivers are polite. Most of the signs are in French and it's the language I hear all around me. While less than half the residents of Montreal consider French their native tongue, in Quebec City it's 94%

This Frenchness also influences the wine consumption, apparently. While American adult consumption of wine averages out at 10.4 liters per year and across Canada it's 12.5, in the province of Quebec they quaff an average of 23.4 liters per year.

So as I dined out with a local at the unabashedly French restaurant Le Saint-Amour, we ordered wine from their extensive list before doing anything else. Then I went all in on the French theme, from foie gras to a "piglet duet" and a cheese platter for dessert. Perhaps as a sign of how tourism has grown over the years in Quebec City, Le Saint-Amour ran for years with an open courtyard as the dining room, thus it was only open in the warmest months. Eventually they covered the top and made it an atrium. On a weekday night in winter for our visit, nearly every table was full.

Le Saint Amour restaurant amuse bouche

The next day I visited famous Boulangerie Paillard for lunch and had to chuckle at how I'd seemingly stepped into Paris. Besides the copious piles of croissants and baguettes, as I sat down with my boeuf bistro sandwich I was serenaded by a musician with a red beret and an accordion. When you're putting on a show for visitors to what feels to us like an exotic city, it's okay to be cliché

Craft Beer in Quebec City

While I enjoyed the good wine and cheese along the way, I wanted to see how Quebec City fares on the beer front. I went out on a walking tour with Broue-Tours to learn more about the local craft beer scene.

Our guide Remy, who is involved in a brewpub business outside of the city himself, started us off at Noctem Artisan Brasseurs, where everything is cat-themed. I loved the Catnip IPA, but the Suncat Cassis sour was the prettiest to look at, the berries coming from nearby Orleans Island. 

Noctem Artisan brewpub Quebec

As soon as we started moving toward the next spot in this St-Roch neighborhood, I realized that a winter brewpub walking tour is not the same as the warm weather ones I'm usually on. With this one we started getting cold after a couple blocks and by the time we got to second stop, our pace had picked up and the chattering stopped as we buried our noses and mouths in our scarves. Nobody wanted to stop for a history lesson.

Instead we peeled off layers at Microbrasserie La Barberie, the oldest craft brewery in the city. To keep people coming in during the cold winter months, they let local workers bring own their lunch in here and eat it with their beer. There's even a microwave in the corner. I had an English red ale I could drink all day and one of the best sours I've ever tasted, a peach one that didn't seem as funky and lip-puckering as the usual. Perhaps reluctant to face the whipping wind outside, we ordered an appropriate double chocolate stout and stuck around.

Browue Tours Microbrewery La Barberie

The last stop was female-owned brewery Korrigane, this one with a dragon theme. At this point our palate may have not been very discerning and I did hesitate a little when our guide ordered something called Strong Old Ale. We also sampled a session ale and a Kraken Black IPA and then it was definitely time to call Uber.

On my last night in the city, I took the river ferry that pounds through the ice so I could get the classic view of the walled city and the Frontenac Hotel from the water. In the summer the ferry gets quite crowded, but my ride felt ghostly with just three other passengers. I tried getting some good photos, but the boat was moving quickly, I didn't have a tripod, and making camera adjustments with heavy gloves on is never easy. I finally gave up and just enjoyed the dramatic winter view, no sharing necessary. Unlike the people who had to cross this river in canoes hundreds of years ago, I could ride a funicular up the hill and get under a blanket in a warm bed.

Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning writer who lives in Mexico. He is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations, Travel Writing 2.0, and A Better Life for Half the Price. See his long-running blog on bargain travel here.

Related Features:
Rock, Paper, Cod - Amy Rosen
Four Weeks Unplugged in Remote Canada - Julia Hubbel
Days of Musical Bliss at the Montreal Jazz Festival - Tim Leffel
Celestial Quebec - David Lee Drotar

See more travel stories from Canada in the archives

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