Québec’s widely varied topography and snowfall makes an active winter holiday in Canada’s largest province a compelling idea. Québec in winter ticks all the boxes for a winter wonderland holiday. For instance, Le Massif downhill skiing area in Charlevoix boasts the highest vertical drop east of the Rocky Mountains.
Québec City’s region is home not only to a snowfall of more than 400cm annually but also to the world’s biggest winter festival, Carnival. Plus, while in that ville, why not sip a cocktail – then sleep overnight – at Hôtel de Glace – the Ice Hotel?
Of course, Québec’s vast territory includes fantastic cross-country skiing, dogsledding, cross-country skating, and snowshoeing terrain, too.
The Mauricie region (lying between Montréal and Québec City, being near Trois Rivières) offers intriguing snowplay opportunities, such as snow tagging, as well as fat biking through La Mauricie National Park’s snow-draped trails.
Meanwhile, the Outaouais (West Québec) region sprawling west of Montréal to Temiskaming is Québec’s “hidden gem,” attracting adventurers who enjoy off-the-beaten-path snowshoeing, dogsledding and more.
Here are some teaser details to whet your appetite for la belle province (the beautiful province) so you’ll come out and play in my home!
Charlevoix’s Le Massif
Mention Charlevoix to a Québecker and the response is usually a wistful sigh because of the region’s spectacular natural beauty (matched with delicious flavour trails). Extending east of Québec City, it’s fabulous for us outdoorsy types because of its mountains, lakes, and rivers.
Take Le Massif, a mountain with an annual snowfall of 645 cm, where 70% of the skiable terrain features snowmaking facilities.
Skiers are forgiven if they feel they’re flying over the mountain into the ultramarine waters of the St. Lawrence River (St. Laurent en français), because the dramatic elevation creates a startling trick of the eye.
Even getting to Le Massif is one sweet trip because a “ski train” whisks you from Québec City east, along the shores of the St. Lawrence River, to drop you off at the base of the slopes. Easy peasy.
Tip? Catch the train after your ski holiday to venture a bit further east to stay at Hôtel La Ferme in the artsy village of Baie St. Paul. The triptych Le Massif project (mountain resort, train and hotel) are the brainchild of former Cirque du Soleil founder Daniel Gauthier, so you can rest assured each element of the Le Massif experience is world-class delightful.
Québec City’s Carnival
Bonhomme is the jovial snowman mascot of Carnival (January 27 to February 12, 2017), this city’s red-toqued (hatted) mascot who sports not only a broad smile, but also one of Québec’s famous ceinture fléchées.
These colourful, hand-woven “cummerbunds” were worn by coureurs-des-bois, those early trappers and explorers who explored Canada’s hinterland during the fur trade era. (And yes, they make an authentic souvenir of Québec.)
What are my top recommendations for Carnival activities? Take in the night-time canoe race through the streets of the UNESCO World Heritage City, where teams of canoeists carry their canoes to the St. Lawrence River along cobblestone streets.
Cheer them on – and next day, watch the teams compete as they race from the Québec side of the river to Lévis (city on the opposite embankment) and back again.
As they paddle, they have to jump out, haul their canoe over ice floes, jump back in, and so on. It’s crazy! It’s awesome!
Other events dear to my heart include horse ski-joring and other snowy competitions, cross-country skiing, and tubing on the historic Plains of Abraham.
Two more ski resorts – north of Québec city
Meanwhile, a half-hour’s drive north of the city find Mont Sainte Anne where you can fat bike, x-country and downhill ski, board, paraglide, skate, view a ski museum, go ice canyoning – and then relax in a spa.
Dog sledding is also available here so give it a go. Actually, Mont Sainte Anne is where I learned to “mush” – drive dogs behind a sled – and it was so much fun I’ve done it often, since.
What I particularly like is that these animals are born and bred to run: they are wildly expressive and so if you’re like me, you’ll be laughing out loud (often) at their antics. They leap about on spring-like legs, all the while barking and howling. Their happy dance is infectious: I mean, how can’t you grin from ear to ear just like them, seeing them strain at their harnesses in their eagerness to run through the deep, snowy and forested trails?
Stoneham Mountain Resort is another ski resort north of Québec City. I’ll be honest with you: I’ve not yet been but it is a classic Québec destination about which I’ve heard great things, with its 593 elevation and vertical drop of 345 m. Plus, there are lots of options for staying overnight.
Hot tip: investigate purchasing a three-mountain pass: the St. Lawrence’s Summits Multi-ski Area Lift Ticket covers Québec City and Charlevoix’s Monte-Sainte-Anne, Stoneham Mountain Resort, and Le Massif de Charlevoix.
Mauricie Region: Snow much fun!
Stay overnight in a Parks Canada oTENTik, a hybrid between a canvas tent and cabin.
They are permanent installations in several national parks, where staff have cut firewood, enabling you to have a cozy wood fire in the wood stove – as well as a campfire outside.
Although this park is popular for its more than 80km of cross-country ski trails and eight snowshoeing trails, two new activities are great snowplay draws.
Snowtagging is a popular challenge where you snowshoe (or hike with boots and crampons, which is what I did) to a remote lake, then “draw” art on its snowy surface using your snowshoes.
Yes, you have to backpack in your snowshoes – as well as a pre-designed picture drawn on a laminated sheet, which not only depicts the artwork (say of a spider, or perhaps a bicycle) but also the compass co-ordinates.
Park staff supply the compass, and so by interpreting the co-ordinates and carefully stamping the snow down with your snowshoes, you create the picture on the lake’s snowy surface. Afterwards, ascend a cliff and gaze upon your artwork. Cool!
Another fun snowy activity is fat biking along narrow, circuitous trails through the forest. Awesome!
As do all great resorts, Sacacomie offers many recreational activities such as dogsledding, cross-country skiing, ice skating, snowmobile on Bombardier machines (all equipment provided), and pampering at the GEOS Spa.
Two activities here were particularly thrilling for me.
Ice Driving Canada offers their unique activity in Canada right here at Sacacomie. Won’t your adrenaline race while you do wild laps driving a Porsche Boxster around an icy circuit?
Polar opposite is the tranquility you’ll discover while enjoying a guided snowshoe walk with Gaspar, your colourful trapper guide.
Included in this package is a fresh trout snack cooked over a campfire.
Gaspar teaches us about the ways of the forest and its denizens in winter – a great learning experience for the entire family.
Before leaving Mauricie, skate along a 12km pathway where you’ll glide through trees along Domaine de la forêt perdue (The Enchanted Forest).
Take binoculars to better see wild deer (if you’re lucky) and resident birds like Downy, Hairy or Pileated woodpeckers. Another great activity with children, particularly as there are animals here you can feed such as llamas.
Montréal: Urban winter wonderland
Multicultural Montréal serves up a wonderful array of winter festivals, where my favourite (so far…) is Montréal en Lumière (Montréal Lights). Artists compete to light up the snowy night with twinkling illuminations.
As well, hop on a Ferris wheel and ice slide, and watch live shows on outdoor stages.
Tip? Bundle up – grab a toque, mitts, and ensure you have cozy boots as well as winter pants and jacket.
And as an artist, I love Nuit Blanche, where the city springs alive with artistic performances and exhibitions.
There are many other snowy, outdoorsy activities too. For instance, Mont Royal towers over the city and it’s a great place to snowshoe or cross-country ski. And just around the corner you’ll find a tiny Aussie pie shop that is frequented by Hugh Jackman, whenever he’s in town.
One more ski resort – north of Montréal
Mont Tremblant is not “just” a great ski resort, it’s a village tucked into the Laurentian Mountains north of the city. Eric took downhill ski lessons here when parabolic skis were the hot new gear, and had a blast.
So what I’m advising now is when you rent here or anywhere, it’s good fun to try out the latest trending equipment. And why not take a class from an expert, to set you and your family on your way?
Tremblant is fun because of its 96 trails on four different slopes and its website boasts they possess one of North America’s superlative snowmaking systems with more than 1,000 snow guns.
Go boarding, downhill skiing and après-ski, enjoy the life in the village. For instance, stay at luxurious Fairmont Tremblant right in the village. Or? We’ve also stayed at nearby Château Beauvallon, which offers a daily shuttle to the ski hill.
We recommend this lodging because of its ambiance, and sometimes being a step away from the bustle of the village can be attractive.
Here too you can arrange all sorts of other activities and as a horsewoman, riding through the snow is fabulous…
I cannot close Mont Tremblant without mentioning an absolutely fantastic spa: Le Scandinave. After a ski, indulging in the Swedish system of hot and cold baths, saunas and pools is just so relaxing.
Also, it’s stunning in winter (particularly at night) because of the swirling steam of outdoor tubs and pools which are framed by trees draped in snow.
The final huzzah? After getting up your nerve in a steamy hot tub outside, dash down some stone steps and leap into Rivière du Diable (Devil River).
A hole is cut in the ice, and you “simply” jump in. And? Jump right out and dash up the stairs to the tub again! When I did this, I heard a tinkling noise as I scampered up the stairs: it was ice dropping from my legs onto the stones. Really…
Oh and the last vignette I want to give you about Le Scandinave in winter? Fuzzy white-tailed deer peering at us in the hot tub, from the adjacent snowdrifts. I mean, how Canadian can you get?
Outaouais: West Québec’s Jewel
North of Ottawa, Ontario (Canada’s capital city) and its twin city of Gatineau, in Québec, is a sprawling (30,504 sq km) region of lakes, rivers, waterfalls, parks and forests known as l’Outaouais (Ooo-tay-ways).
I live here, in an area called the Pontiac, so what I’m offering you is an insider’s peek into my favourite wintery pastimes right here at home.
Snowshoe narrow, rocky trails along Les Routes des Zingues north of the village of Duhamel.
Be sure to pack a picnic in your day pack because there are many splendid lookouts over lakes Gagnon and Preston and, as Canadians know, if you find a sheltered, sunny spot picnicking can be cozy in the sunshine.
Or, as we did, build a little campfire on a snow clad lake, pull out your packed-in campfire pot and lunch, melt some snow in the crackling fire, and pour in some powdered soup. Mmmm!
Stay overnight at Auberge and Spa Couleurs de France in Duhamel. From here you can rent snowmobiles (and a guide), go dogsledding, or simply head out on snowshoes across the lake.
Tip? Snowshoeing or even winter hiking is awe-inspiring at night, under the canopy of stars, with the lights of the lodge twinkling through the trees. Then relax in the on-site spa, have cocktails before dinner, then enjoy a well-deserved meal.
West of Duhamel and north of Gatineau, find Gatineau Park.
First, I suggest you orient yourself at the small museum in the Visitor Centre, located in the artsy village of Chelsea. (art afficionados will want to visit La Fab, open Fridays through Sundays, to check out this village’s fabulous art scene).
In Gatineau Park, more than 60km of snowshoe trails, 200km of cross-country ski trails beckon you to explore undulating, forested hills and fabulous lookouts over the Ottawa Valley.
You can stay overnight in the Park if you reserve ahead: accommodations include four-season tents, yurts, and cabins. The brave can also try winter camping in the Lac Philippe area – but you must ensure you are fully prepared for this truly Canadian winter experience. Park staff can assist with information about gearing up.
Further west of Gatineau Park, other experiences await, including the gentle cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails found at Ski Pontiac, in Bristol.
Community-minded entrepreneurs Connie Renaud and Shirley Russell founded this enterprise where they arrange special activities, too.
For example, their annual full-moon skiing and snowshoeing event is fabulous, where participants can dine at nearby Cidrerie Coronation Hall Cider Mills. That family run business offers a super-friendly atmosphere to tuck into real homemade meals where hot apple cider will taste absolutely fabulous after dinner, at the bonfire.
Anyone who’s investigated Canadian winter activities will know about dog sledding and near the village of Otter Lake, at Escapade Eskimo.
This region of Outaouais is known as the Pontiac, where many operations are family-run.
Here, Caroline Desrosiers and her husband Sylvain Drapeau are your hosts, and they love all things doggy.
Their animals are healthy, friendly and beautiful athletes, and here at Escapade Eskimo they’re breeding Siberian Huskies. If you’re lucky, you may just find some puppies – cuteness personified, I think!
When my photographer husband Eric Fletcher and I went dog sledding here, we took turns mushing – that’s standing on the sled’s back rails, and encouraging the dogs to run – or slow down or stop, mind you! Let me disabuse you of any thought this is restful.
As a musher, I ran up hills, pushing the sled and shouting “Va! Va!” (On! On!) to encourage the doggies – as did Eric when he took over.
Another terrific dogsledding outfit in Pontiac is Timberland. Proprietor Denis Rozon is an intriguing counterpoint to Escapade Eskimo because his dogs (which he breeds, too) are “Euro dogs” not Siberian Huskies.
This now-recognized breed is a mix of German Pointers, Greyhounds, and Alaskan Husky and boy can they run! Although not in winter, in November, annually, Rozon hosts the internationally renowned Bristol Dryland Canadian Championship Dog Race. This event attracts teams from all over the world.
So, want to play in the snow? Then check out Canada’s belle province, and receive our lovely welcome, “Bonjour!” (good day!) wherever you go. (And yes: most of us speak English and if not? Smile and learning how to say “bonjour” will open any door.)
Katharine and Eric Fletcher are keen outdoors enthusiasts who are based at Spiritwood, their farm north of Quyon, in the Outaouais region of the province of Québec.
Winter is a picturesque time to visit and you don’t have to be an accomplished skier or snowboarder to enjoy this season in Canada. But if you do love winter sports, Canada has excellent winter resorts.
A Ganonoque cruise is a wonderful way to explore Canada’s 1000 islands region.