Quebec: The Ultimate Winter Playground
Touted as the “snow capital of the world,” Quebec receives an average snowfall of more than 13 feet per year, and the magical winter wonderland has an outdoorsy culture forged by centuries of winter sport. A host of activities including skiing, skating, toboggan sledding, snowshoeing, and tubing are easily accessible in and around the quaint and charming capital of Quebec City and also further north in the beautiful Saguenay/Lac Saint-Jean region.
Before heading out for some wilderness adventures, I enjoyed a few days at Quebec City’s famous Winter Carnival, a two-week event held every February. With family attractions, parades, and games, the event also includes some carnival madness featuring the infamous ice canoe races on the frozen St. Lawrence River and the celebrated snow bath with Carnival mascot Bonhomme. Two friends from my travel group participated in the snow bath event, joining many brave souls who danced in the snow with Bonhomme wearing only their bathing suits, tuques (hats), and boots. Watching this hilarious event set the stage for us to call upon our inner polar bear strength for more outdoor activities to come.
One such occasion for adapting to cold was my first experience at a Nordic spa, just outside Quebec City at Stoneham. I spent sauna time with Le Nordique owner Hugues Lavoie who explained the hot, cold, relax regimen to obtain the best health benefits for stimulating circulation and improving skin tone. Following the Nordic protocol—going from Finnish sauna to icy plunge in the river to relaxation room—I repeated the sequence three times before rewarding myself with a warm Jacuzzi.
Wearing a bathing suit and hopping between outdoor stations with the air temperature at -7 degrees Fahrenheit was challenging for this Southern gal, but I found the courage by keeping in mind that the Nordic spa experience is touted for enhanced well being. And the finale—relaxing in a steamy outdoor whirlpool situated between mounds of snow, with eyelids and hair covered in frost—certainly brings a magical feeling.
About three hours north of Quebec City, the scenic Saguenay/Lac Saint-Jean region is home to the Saguenay Fjord, the only Nordic-like fjord in North America. I wanted to explore the area known for its stunning scenery and quaint villages during this wintertime trip, all the while knowing I plan to go back in summer to cycle the Veloroute des Bleuets, a 256k biking trail around Lac Saint-Jean and along the Saguenay River.
Some in our group went snowmobiling with Evasion Sport on one of the numerous snowmobiling routes in the Saguenay wilderness, but I opted instead for a short spin across the frozen Lac Saint-Jean. I was more excited about the next day’s activity: a magnificent snowshoeing excursion through the Vallee des Fantomes at the national park, Monts-Valin. The unique setting between mountain peaks receives exceptional amounts of snowfall and its snowy trees eerily resemble forest ghosts on the mystical landscape.
Access to the trailhead is by a hybrid snowcat/van, so this snowshoeing trek in frigid, single digit temperatures seemed like a wild adventure, but one that I would later say is “not to be missed.” The hybrid vehicle lugged up a snow-covered mountain road to deposit more than a dozen passengers at the trailhead, where we began a three-kilometer climb to the summit.
In addition to the splendid, 360-degree summit views and the vast unspoiled snowscapes, a highlight was, admittedly, our lunch stop at a cozy cabin near the top, where box lunches pre-ordered from park headquarters awaited us. Our enthusiastic park guide, Robert Fluet, was on Nordic skis that were faster than our snowshoes, and he went up ahead in time to have a fire blazing in the wood stove at the hut. Though it seemed like heaven to feel the warmth, ironically we were sweating from the uphill workout.
The downhill return along the same path was an easier trek to meet the snowcat as we anticipated a rewarding Jacuzzi soak at our lodging for the night, Auberge des 21, overlooking the scenic Baie des Ha! Ha! on the Saguenay River.
On to another invigorating sport popular throughout the Quebec province, we spent an afternoon dogsledding with one of the very best outfitters for a personal, hands-on experience. In addition to offering lunch and lodging, owner and musher Vanessa Quintard of Plein Air de L’Anse offers guests the chance to drive their own sled or be a passenger, and also to interact with the huge, powerful dogs that are amazingly friendly.
To drive a sled, it is preferable to have had experience skiing or with other balance sports, and the guides explain how to lean properly and command the dogs. Two in our group volunteered as drivers, and along with two guides, we set out on a wilderness tour in four sleds, each carrying one passenger.
Mushing over the hills and through the woods is magical and exhilarating at the same time, and watching the dogs at work is fascinating. We stopped along the way to take pictures and twice to right sleds that had toppled over by taking a curve off balance—proving there’s more to mushing than holding the reins. Interestingly, the musher applies the brake mainly to keep the dogs running at a good pace, as their energy and drive is always in high gear.
Each guide at Plein Air de L’Anse takes care of his/her own sled dog teams, which include Siberian huskies, malamutes, and the malamute/wolf cross. I enjoyed the hectic process of getting the sleds ready and holding the dogs back, then helping unharness the six that pulled my sled and filling their water buckets after our ride—a truly memorable experience.
Winter season in Quebec is a storybook scene—from colorful fishing shacks set up on the frozen lakes to Nordic skiing and horse-drawn sleigh riding across snowy plains. Indoors, Quebec’s intriguing history and French influence can be discovered in a variety of museums, galleries, shops, and local food and drink. And for visitors, Quebec offers plenty of warmth in its friendly traditions and welcoming Quebecois hospitality.
More to do:
- Stay in Old Quebec at the chic Hotel 71 and go day skiing with ski busses running from town center to the popular Mont Saint-Anne and Charlevoix-Le Massif ski areas. Or stay in Charlevoix at the award-winning, contemporary Hotel La Ferme and enjoy the unique light rail transit ride to the slopes.
- Not for the weak hearted: Try ice canoeing with a guide at Canot à glace Quebec on specially outfitted boats. Paddle/navigate the St. Lawrence River through chunks of ice, sometimes with one leg in the boat and the other pushing on top of thick ice.
- Tube ‘til you drop at Valcartier Vacation Village, a family destination billed as North America’s largest winter playground. With more than 35 different slides for tubing and snow rafting and names like the Himalaya, Everest, or Avalanche slide, Valcartier offers a high adrenaline experience.
- Visit the newly renovated Musée du Fjord in Saguenay and enjoy a multi-sensory spaceship experience detailing the history of the Saguenay Fjord. Learn about the divided currents and native salt water and freshwater marine species through hands-on exhibits and a touch aquarium.
- Rent an ice fishing hut with Pêche Aventures Sagueney on the frozen Baie des Ha! Ha! where you’ll drop your line through a hole in the floor that is drilled through the ice. Wait for your deep-sea catch to bend the rod while relaxing on the couch in the comfort of a wood stove and indoor amenities.
- Take a steamy soak in a 100-degree Jacuzzi surrounded by mounds of snow at the lakeside Chalets et Spa Lac Saint-Jean, one of many accommodations with Nordic Spa and outdoor warming pools throughout Quebec.