25 March 2014 by Emma Sanger-Horwell
From snowmobiling to ski hok, Wexas Travel's Emma Sanger spends five days exploring the winter wonders of Canada's Quebec Province
Our five-day winter tour of Québec began in the beautiful winter playground of Duchesnay, just 30 minutes from Quebec City. Duchesnay is an ideal base for an activity break at any time of the year, but it's during the winter months, when the snow lies thick on the ground, that it really comes into its own. During our short stay we tried a new winter activity called ski hok, which is a sort of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing hybrid. Our adventure began by 'skiing' to the top of a small hill, before gracefully sliding, or in some cases not so gracefully falling, down the other side. On the plus side, our many unscheduled "rest" stops gave us the perfect chance to take in the beautiful scenery of Duchesnay, carpeted in snow and surrounded by beautiful maple tree forests, with what seemed like dozens of cross-country skiing trails heading off in almost every direction.
From Duchesnay our journey continued, this time by helicopter, taking in a bird's eye view of historic Quebec City and the St Lawrence River. We circled around the spectacular, and partially frozen, Montmorency Falls, which are some 30 meters higher than those at Niagara. Landing near Hotel Musée Premieres Nations in Wendake, an aboriginal four-star boutique hotel around a twenty-minute flight from Québec City, we took some time to explore the hotel's fascinating museum and learn a little of the history and culture of Québec's Huron-Wendat people.
From Wendake we continued our journey, travelling overland this time to Hotel de Glace - the only ice hotel in North America. The hotel, which is only 10 minutes from Quebec City making it ideal add on for wintertime visitors spending a few days in the city, features a number of different room types from standard rooms to elaborate suites, which feature breathtaking, hand carved ice sculptures and carvings. For anyone wanting to tie the knot, the hotel also features an Ice Chapel, which has to be one of the world's more unusual wedding venues. On arrival we were greeted with a drink at the Ice Bar - served in a glass made of ice, of course - before taking a guided tour of the hotel where we learned about the building process, an impressive feat of engineering that takes place at the start of winter each and year, when the hotel is built from scratch. What stood out for me, having been lucky enough to visit several of Scandinavia's ice hotels, is that Hotel de Glace is very family orientated, with a wonderful kids' play area featuring slides and characters from the recent Disney's movie Frozen, all carved from, you guessed it, ice.
The following day was dedicated entirely to Québec City's Winter Carnival, the largest winter carnival in the world. Since French colonial times, the inhabitants of the region created a unique and somewhat rowdy tradition of getting together just before Lent to eat, drink and be merry. Today the carnival is still centred round having fun outdoors and, in particular, enjoying the snow. Starting each year on the last weekend of January, the Carnival lasts right through until mid-February and takes place in the historic Plains of Abraham area of the city, which, conveniently, is within walking distance of the town centre and most hotels. The carnival area itself is a gigantic snowy playground for children and adults alike, featuring ice-sculpting workshops, horse sleigh rides, tubing, sugar shacks serving maple syrup ice lollies, ice skating and even outdoor hot tubs. In the evenings, concerts and parades keeping the fun going until small hours. The mascot of the carnival is Bonhomme - a snowman with a red hat who, as luck would have it, lives in an ice castle situated right in middle of the main arena, where he greets his many fans. Quebecois children grow up watching Bonhomme, and his many adventures, and meeting him in person is much like meeting Father Christmas.
Carnival is a perfect time to visit Quebec City, but make sure you book well in advance, as this is one of the busiest seasons of the year. If you want a great view of the carnival area, head to Hilton Quebec's bar, located on the hotel's 23rd floor, which offers spectacular vistas over the city and carnival grounds.
Following our visit to the Quebéc Winter Carnival, we enjoyed a city sightseeing tour of Old Québec, the city's famous historic area. Québec City is one of the oldest cities in North America and the only walled city north of Mexico. It's also ideal for exploring on foot, and although there are a few hills to deal with, the distances between many of the main attractions are fairly short. The old town itself is oozing with old, country-style charm, with narrow cobbled streets, tiny cafés and the majestic Chateau Frontenac standing guard over the city. On another note, the countryside surrounding Québec City is home to an abundance of wildlife, and one of the world's best whale watching sites - a place called Tadoussac - is just two-and-a-half hours drive from the city.
Leaving Québec City behind we journeyed to Mauricie, a region that prides itself on its wide open spaces and beautiful nature. After two hours on the road we arrived at Hotel Sacacomie, our home for the next two nights. This wonderful wilderness resort offers an abundance of activities throughout the year, including hiking, kayaking, fishing, wildlife excursions, horseback riding, snowmobiling, husky safaris and more, as well as the chance to enjoy some much-needed pampering. The hotel has a wonderful spa featuring various hot tubs and saunas, as well as a Nordic Bath Experience, which was a particular highlight of my stay. On arrival, Gaspard, one of Sacacomie's knowledgeable guides, welcomed us with a drink - a whiskey spiced with locally produced maple syrup - at the hotel's very own ice bar.
Soon after check in the adventures got under way as we headed out into the wilderness on a snowmobile safari. After some basic instructions and the donning of appropriate cold weather clothing we set off along marked trails through the winter wonderland of Sacacomie. With an incredible 32,000 kilometres of snowmobile trails known as the Trans-Quebec, which stretch all the way from Hudson Bay to the southern borders of the province, this region is tailor-made for snowmobiling. We had no trouble at all getting completely lost in the complex network of trails, which wind their way through beautiful snow laden forests, as our guide Gaspard attempted to guide us to a small coffee house for hot chocolate, before heading back to the hotel. Once back, we hurried to the spa for a relaxing soak in a hot tub; the perfect way to relax at the end of an incredible day.
The following morning we headed out into the wilderness again, this time on a husky safari, which conveniently enough began just a short walk from the hotel. We were greeted by a pack of excitable huskies, but were told, no matter how tempting it was, not to pet them before the tour began. Cuddling would have to wait until the end, and so with two people per sleigh - one driving and the other soaking up the views - we headed off into the Narnia-esque landscape, racing beneath trees covered with snow, beautiful blue skies and the rays of the sun glistening through icicles at the side of the trail; an amazing end an unforgettable few days.