Most visitors travel to Québec in the summer months to enjoy long days, rich history, beautiful scenery, the great outdoors, and a taste of Europe in North America – it is, after all, the only Canadian province where the official language is French. But Québec really shines in the winter, under a cover of white snow.
I visited 9-17 February 2023 with a carefully selected group of tour operators and media members for AdventureWEEK Québec, an ATTA market activation program that was developed in collaboration with Alliance de l’Industrie Touristique du Québec / Bonjour Québec and their regional partners.
Most major airlines fly into Montréal, which is where our adventure began. A fresh coating of snow brought magic and light to the city’s historical buildings and cobbled streets. Upon arrival, most of the participants expressed expectations of cold weather and snow-based adventures for the week ahead. But we quickly learned that during AdventureWEEK Québec, Bonjour Québec and its regional partners would also deliver an experience that conveyed a sense of the enormity of the territory and depth of its culture. With a geographic area three times the size of France and a population similar in size to New York City, Québec is Canada’s largest province and second-most populated.
During our nine days, we visited the regions of Lanaudière and Mauricie which are located north-east of Montréal; Québec City, where you can find Wendake home of the Huron-Wendat Nation, and the rugged Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean. Each of the regions offered something unique, but wherever we ventured, the legendary Québecois “joie de vivre” had us in a near-constant state of enthusiasm and gratitude.
In Lanaudière and Mauricie (known as “Authentic Québec") we stepped off our bus and were surrounded by snow banks up to our shoulders. We visited an abbey with acres of maintained forest on the property, which included 40 km of trails for hiking, fat biking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. The abbey monks make their own food using ingredients from the land, and our guide demonstrated his foraging knowledge as he led us through the forest on snowshoes. He pointed out details such as which spruce tips are good for tea, and those which are toxic. Entering a clearing, we were greeted by an open fire, chaga tea, and chaga cream – both made from chaga mushrooms which grow on birch trees. The tea was mild and delicious, with a hint of vanilla, and the chaga cream was sweet and creamy (not unlike Baileys).
Our journey continued to the Hôtel Sacacomie, a grand but rustic white pine resort nestled in the woods overlooking the snow-covered Lac Sacacomie. Surrounded by a dense thicket of maple and pine trees, we met Gaspard. Gathered around a fire in the snow near a wood runners' cabin, he told us with great emotion about growing up in the forest and of the lives of the coureurs des bois, or wood runners. When the wind changed direction and surrounded us in smoke, we stepped into the cabin and were transported back in time. Sitting side by side on warm hides in dim light, we could feel history come to life as he shared what life was like as a wood runner, or fur trader. The wood runners lived in the forest and are credited by some for developing the fur trade in the area and allying the First Nations with the French in their resistance against the British.
From the remoteness of these woods we continued to Québec City, home to the oldest and largest winter festival in the world – Carnaval, which dates back to 1894. Each year, thousands of visitors come to Québec City to experience ice sculptures, snow baths, sleigh rides, music, and the oldest ice slide in the world. The city is also home to a unique activity that can only be enjoyed in the winter: ice canoeing. Paddling between and floating atop waltzing icebergs originated in the 1600s as a method for people to cross the St. Lawrence River. While initially the purpose was utilitarian – getting into town to trade or do business – today it is done for fun and competition. Local teams practice for a big annual race during Carnaval, and for more casual enthusiasts, floating downstream in a kayak sitting atop an iceberg offers a surreal and magical experience.
Like ice canoeing, many winter activities in Québec are deeply rooted in tradition, originating from ancient survival skills and local modes of transportation. Dog sledding, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing are deeply embedded in the local culture. Even snowmobiling, which was invented in Québec in 1935 by Joseph-Armand Bombardier, is still used throughout the region for transportation where frozen lakes and snowy fields provide a much faster way to travel than roads. Technology has advanced quite a bit since 1935, and in an effort to be less reliant on fossil fuels, electrical snowmobiles have grown so popular they are currently backordered.
Beyond survival and utility, tradition is also used to share knowledge and pass down oral history. There are eleven Indigenous peoples in Québec, and Québec City is located on the Indigenous lands of Huron-Wendat. A short drive away from the city is Wendake, the urban reserve of the Huron-Wendat Nation, and our next destination. Here, we were welcomed around a warm fire inside the impressive Ekionkiestha’ National Longhouse, where a storyteller shared myths and legends with us, all of which had been passed down by oral tradition from generation to generation.
Shifting gears, we next visited the Hôtel de Glace – made entirely of ice. Built anew every year, this one-of-a-kind hotel is home to 44 rooms and suites, each with a unique design which ranges from ocean life to witches to violins, all artfully and beautifully rendered. The hotel also features hot tubs and saunas, a slide, and a science-themed bar. During the day, the Hôtel de Glace features an art gallery open to. All overnight bookings include a room in the classically built hotel should you get cold feet and opt for a more traditional night’s sleep. We enjoyed a drink at the science-themed ice bar, where even the glasses are made out of ice.
Back on the road, we drove north through Charlevoix, a bowl-shaped region created 400 million years ago when a meteor landed there. Today Charlevoix is home to many local farms, wine growers, and cheese makers, all part of a deeper Québecois tradition of local food. While most known for poutine and maple syrup, Québec utilizes the abundance of food coming from the land – from modern restaurants inspired by Indigenous terroir to those offering marvelous wine pairing menus. Locally sourced mussels, trout, and other fresh seafood along with the sweet fortified wine Caribou, and local maple syrup whiskey are just some of the items found on menus throughout the region.
We next headed further inland to the rugged landscape of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, glorious with its fjord, mountains, and lots and lots of snow. It is a popular destination for backcountry skiing as well as the location of the largest ice fishing village in the world. Here, on the Saguenay Fjord in La Baie, more than one thousand colorful cabins pop up every year, as people take to the ice in hopes of catching redfish, turbot, and Atlantic cod. No license is needed, but there is a limit of five fish per person per day, with steep penalties for anyone caught violating the regulations. Cabins are available to rent, but only 5% are available for tourists as a way to ensure the local population is not displaced.
Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean is also home to the Parc national des Monts-Valin where we set out for the unique and magical Vallée des Fantômes, or Valley of Ghosts. As the highest mountain in Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean, Mont Valin receives on average 6m/20’ of snow annually, which turns the trees, or rather the tops of the trees buried in six meters of snow, into ghost-looking formations. After being outfitted with snowshoes and hiking poles we boarded the Fantôme-Express, a Snowcat, similar to a minivan on skid steer treads, took us on a jaunty ride along the panoramic road. The Snowcat dropped us at the foot of Vallée des Fantômes, and from there we went by snowshoe up to the summit of Pic Dubuc, the highest point in the area at 984 m/3228’. As we approached the summit, “ghosts”of various sizes began to appear. The afternoon skies cleared just enough to give us an idea of the stunning view of the landscape beneath us, including the Monts-Valin massif, the Piedmont Hills, the Saguenay Lowlands, the fjord and the town of Saguenay.
Québec is also home to a large number of plein-air Nordic Spas, and after long days of adventuring, we relaxed in Scandinavian saunas and soaked our tired bones in hot and cold baths under clear, star-studded skies. The combination of invigorating winter activities, a warm and welcoming culture, thriving local food, and unique accommodations showed us the depth of possibilities the region has to offer. Québec has one of the most well-established adventure travel and ecotourism networks in North America, which is well-prepared and ready to receive travelers with a warm welcome and joie de vivre. Gaspard, our wood-running legend said it best: “We love to welcome the people!”