As a Canadian who revels in the glories of the four seasons, from the crisp air and foliage of autumn, our short-but-sweet summers, and the re-greening of spring, I’m always amused when potential travellers ask me, with a hint of trepidation and a hushed tone of voice, about Canadian winters.
The truth? Winter is the best time of year to visit. Nowhere else have I seen such an exuberant celebration of winter as in the province of Quebec. Quite possibly the textbook definition of “winter wonderland,” one can wholeheartedly revel in the sheer delight and beauty of the snowy months.
Here are just a few of the (many!) reasons to make your way north of the 49th parallel to experience quintessential Quebec.
French Canada’s Capital: Quebec City
Quebec City, the capital of Canada’s French-speaking province, was founded four centuries ago by French explorer Samuel de Champlain as a colonial outpost of New France. (The nation of Canada, by comparison, is a mere 150 years old).
Steeped in four hundred years of European influence, Quebec City’s French-Canadian traditions run deep, despite the fact that the French lost to the British in 1759 at the pivotal Battle of the Plains of Abraham. After the battle, the French ceded the city and their territory to the British in 1763, and the rest is (Canadian) history.
And what a history it is: the Old Town of Quebec, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the only fortified city north of Mexico whose walls remain. Set upon the St. Lawrence River, this elevated town looks even prettier with a dusting of the white stuff: the cobblestoned streets, narrow and winding, with charming little shops, restaurants and cafes lining the streets, are perfectly walkable and well suited for discoveries of your own.
Quebec City’s Winter Carnival
Instead of shying away from winter, Quebecers embrace all things frosty! One of the largest winter festivals in the world, the grand Carnaval de Quebec first appeared in 1894, an annual celebration that takes place each February before Lent.
Highlighting fantastic ice and snow sculptures, the massive Ice Palace, nightly carnivals and parades with live entertainment, including winter sports and activities day and night, this all-ages event is one to behold. Look out for the cheery snowman mascot, the Bonhomme Carnaval (bonhomme de neige means “snowman”), who presides over the festivities.
For grownups, the typical beverage of choice is a “caribou.” Said to have been made by traders of yore from a mixture of caribou blood and whisky, today this refers to a concoction of red wine or port, whisky, and a touch of maple syrup.
A Sweet Tradition: The Sugar Shack
Canada is the dominant producer of maple syrup in the world, and 90 per cent of the supply comes from la belle province of Quebec. The sugar shack—cabane à sucre—is an institution here, particularly in the spring, when maple sap runs freely.
It is then gathered en masse and boiled down to prepare the year’s batch of maple syrup. Sugar shacks invite visitors to enjoy maple taffy stretched on snow and witness the transformation of sap into liquid gold.
Many sugar shacks are open year-round, serving up hearty meals, selling their maple-infused wares, and offering family-friendly activities such as sleigh rides. There are many types of sugar shacks, some catering to families, others traditional, contemporary, or even for the dedicated gourmand.
French-Inspired, Distinctly Quebecois Cuisine
An earthy variant of French-derived cuisine that stays true to its humble origins, Quebecois cuisine evolved from the needs of early settlers, who simply needed to stay warm and nourish themselves in harsh conditions.
In short: Quebecois cuisine is the stuff of dreams. It’s no-nonsense, hearty, and rich. It sticks to your ribs, and is, of course, terribly delicious. With a real respect for farmers and local products, you will find incredible local produce, meat, and fantastic cheeses to boot. You also get excellent value for your dollar in many of my favourite restaurants around town.