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Winter in Quebec City

Trip report: Winter in Quebec province

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9 January 2024 by Norire Arakelyan

Bordered by Ontario, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the U.S states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York, Québec is Canada's largest province. But, unlike its neighbours, Québec is distinct from the rest of the North American continent on a number of counts such as language – Canada's only French speaking province – or cuisine, with a distinctive underlying French influence. In fact, parts of Québec are geographically almost as close to the west coast of Europe as they are to Vancouver. It can be argued that this is similarly true in the province's architecture, cuisine and culture. But, the region is full of surprises, and as I was to find out on my trip, it likes to cherry-pick some of the best bits of both continents.


Via a mid-morning Air Transat flight direct from London Gatwick, I arrived into Montréal at around mid-afternoon. Despite the airport being located around 20 minutes from downtown, it is often busy and traffic can be severe during the week. With this in mind, consider leaving your first evening free to ensure a more relaxed start to your trip. Our transfer was pre-booked and took around half an hour to reach our centrally located hotel – Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth. The hotel is undoubtedly a local landmark – known around the world as the setting for John Lennon and Yoko Ono's famous bed-in for peace in 1969. We were lucky enough to have a sneak peak, but it is actually possible to stay in the John Lennon and Yoko Ono Suite. The Rosélys Restaurant is a highlight here too, with the Sunday brunch a firm favourite of the locals.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono Suite, Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth, Montréal

What's more, the hotel is conveniently located above the Montréal Central train station, with connections into the city's famous Underground City. Comprising of more than 20 miles of pedestrian walkways, shopping centres and entertainment venues it is a unique way to explore the city, particularly in the colder months of the year. In fact, locals told me that sometimes during the winter they can go days without stepping foot in the streets above ground. The Underground City has connections to the overground throughout mapped out points in the city, effectively meaning there is twice as much city to explore. We spend our first full day exploring the city with our knowledgable guide. While downtown deftly mixes its business district with high-fashion shopping, gourmet food and the latest entertainment, Parc du Mont-Royal is an altogether more low-key affair and the city's natural oasis. Meanwhile, the Golden Square Mile is the perfect place to admire an array of architectural styles, beautiful Victorian homes and the lush parks that line this affluent historic Scottish neighbourhood. 

Views of Downtown Montréal from Parc du Mont-Royal viewpoint

Our guide also explained the fascinating history of this city, which unbeknownst to me, is actually pretty unique compared to the rest of the province. The most notable factor which makes Montréal so unique is the culture and identity of the people. With great diversity and friendly Montréalers, this is a city where everyone is welcome and accepted. Nowhere is this more evident than in the language. Though French is the city's official language, you can easily get by in English without a problem. Most locals are bilingual and are happy to switch between the two languages as and where necessary. Montréal is also known as a very non-religious city. With large-scale secularisation in the 1960's, Roman Catholicism declined sharply and many locals stopped visiting church, resulting in many being converted and modernised. Though the city's Notre-Dame Basilica is still an active place of worship, it is perhaps more famous for its Aura Experience – a captivating display of projections, shadows, lights, and orchestral music designed by Montréal's award-winning studio Moment Factory. Our evening visit was well worth the wait and I would highly recommend planning it in as one of the city's top attractions, even if you are short of time in Montréal.

Notre-Dame Basilica in Montréal

There was also the chance to visit Old Montréal, where the lively modern boulevard and charming cobblestone side streets link tomes old and new. Modern boutiques and gourmet bistros are tucked into buildings nearly four centuries old. For a first taste of local cuisine, book into Le Mignon Steak – just a short walk from the basilica or enjoy authentic French cuisine at Chez Lévêque. Though our visit came a little early for the Montréal en Lumière Festival, if you're visiting between February and March, don't miss out on the chance to experience live music performances, light shows and free winter activities. This 10 day event runs annually, but do make sure you check the dates in advance before planning your visit.

Traditional houses in Montréal during the winter

Fairmont Le Château Montebello 

Along the Ottawa river and around half way from Montréal to the Canadian capital, the small municipality of Montebello provides the scene for the Fairmont Le Château Montebello, the world’s largest log cabin hotel. We were welcomed by the hotel's friendly and inviting staff, and the informal chalet-inspired atmosphere here meant this is somewhere I would definitely look to include in any itinerary to Eastern Canada.

Fairmont Le Château Montebello

This is an idyllic escape from the busy cities, particularly during the winter, and ideal for those looking to experience some wintry thrills. Though December is a little early for such exploits, from January onwards you can reliably enjoy anything from cross country skiing and snowmobiling. With an on-site aquatic centre, spa and even an indoor curling rink, I would definitely recommend staying here for at least two nights to give you enough time to relax and enjoy the activities. And, if you do get the opportunity to try your hand at curling, this is a must-do! 

Curling rink at Fairmont Le Château Montebello

The château is also close-by to one of my favourite highlights of the trip – Parc Oméga. A unique 890-hectare park, it is a chance to view a diverse collection of species living in their natural habitat. A winter safari of sorts, our 12km trail had us drive through varied landscapes such as frozen lakes and creeks, valleys and forests for a chance to experience some wonderful wildlife encounters. From the safety of our truck, we managed to spot coyotes, moose, wolves, arctic fox, bison, elk, wild boars, a number of species of deer and much more. There was even the chance to feed some hungry reindeer, grateful for our endless supply of carrots.

Coyotes in Parc Oméga

It is possible to stay here in some of the park's unusual accommodations, located right in the heart of the park among the wildlife. My favourite were the wolf and bear suites where just a short protective fence separates you from you and the wildlife outside, allowing you a front row seat. Your stay includes access to an observation point and a bridge from which you can watch the animals from above.

Quebec City

In contrast to Montréal, Québec City is distinctively more French. Where Montréal is more cosmopolitan, forward thinking and trendy, Québec City is smaller, more conservative, and enjoys staying in touch with more traditional values. As I found out on our tour of the city, it is also second to none when it comes to quaint cobbled streets – think Edinburgh's old town with a French Provence infusion. A visit to the old town revealed more than 400 years of heritage, and includes the only walled city in North America – a UNESCO World Heritage site where seventeenth- and eighteenth-century stone houses and churches, graceful parks, squares and countless monuments flank winding cobbled streets. It is without doubt the more romantic option for those looking for a characterful winter city stay, and you may oftentimes find yourself wondering which continent you're on – after all, if you're tucking into a croissant in a French style café surrounded by French speaking locals, you could be forgiven for thinking you're in Paris.

Quartier du Petit Champlain during Christmas, Québec

To get a flavour of the city, I recommend strolling the atmospheric alleyways or walking along the promenade outside the Hotel Château Frontenac, revelling in spectacular views over the mighty St Lawrence River and the old lower town. However, one of my favourite parts of my stay in Québec City was the quaint Petit-Champlain shopping street. Though beautiful in the summer, Petit-Champlain transforms into a wintry wonderland from December, with festive decorations and trees along the cobblestone street and enough small shops and boutiques – from souvenir shops to Québec artisans – to while away several hours. Our short tour of the German Christmas market was a highlight too, where a mix of influences have created a real authentic celebration of the festive season. 

Without doubt the place to stay in Québec City is the Fairmont Château Frontenac, a historic building overlooking the beautiful St Lawrence River. Located in the heart of Old Québec, the hotel dominates the city's skyline with its unique architecture. The views from the rooms are breathtaking throughout, but I would highly recommend upgrading to the gold floors – located between the 11th and 17th floors – where you can take advantage of exclusive services, amenities and a more personalised service in your own private section of the hotel, making this large hotel feel like a boutique accommodation. Be sure to make time for the famous toboggan ride near the hotel. One of the oldest attractions in town and more than a century old, the slide is open from December until around mid-March. Reaching speeds of up to 40 miles per hour, it's a real thrill! Speaking of thrills, one of the best ways to get to know the city in the winter months is by fat bike. Our guided tour took us through the snowy streets where we made regular stops to learn more about the city. If you choose to, you can rent the fat bikes and explore yourself without the assistance of a guide.

Fairmont Château Frontenac, Québec City

Manoir Hovey

Located on the shores of Lake Massawippi and just a 75-minute drive from Montréal, we spent a night in the stunning and romantic Manoir Hovey. A former mansion, this rustic 5-star hotel is nestled in nature and is a great place to relax without sacrificing comfort. All of the elegant rooms overlook either the lake or gardens, where you can take advantage of the large balconies and picture windows. My luxury room even featured its own fireplace and opulent bathtub/Jacuzzi. The hotel's spa and leisure facilities were a delight, particularly when relaxing in the heated outdoor pool surrounded by the partially frozen lake. And, with just 37 rooms, the service really shines through, particularly in the Le Hatley Restaurant which is known throughout the province for its fine dining Québec cuisine. I would highly recommend staying here for a couple of nights in your Québec trip to break down the journeys between each location in your itinerary. 

Manoir Hovey, a Relais & Châteaux hotel in North Hatley, Québec province

The main cities of Montréal and Québec City are the gateways to the province’s great outdoors, but whether you choose to base yourself in a single city or compare and contrast the urban centres with one another and the wilderness on their doorsteps, you’ll quickly discover that Québec province, with its perfect blend of North American and European cultures, is the perfect introduction to Eastern Canada.

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