The first thing that strikes you when arrive in Québec is the dual language: most people in this east Canadian city speak French. This version of French, however, has a distinctive North American twang, with clunkily accentuated Rs and slack pronunciation that reflects the Canadian-French attitude: relaxed, unpretentious and welcoming.
The law across Québec province states that adverts and signs must only be in French - an admirable attempt to keep the language alive. But this culture is all ruddy cheeks and burgers, rather than French-style chic and haute cuisine, with a contagious zest for life even in the dark depths of winter.
The city’s historic district of Old Québec was made a Unesco site in 1985, and it is one of only three “heritage cities” in North America. However, while there is history and culture aplenty, for many visitors, the real fun is to be had outdoors: tobogganing, ice skating, ice climbing, ice canoeing, hiking, fat biking and cross country skiing.
Unlike in many other bitingly cold countries, you’ll find Canadians outside no matter what: there is no hygge hibernating here. Among other wintery attractions, Québec - a name that translates as “where the river narrows” in the language of the indiginous Algonquin people - hosts an ice canoeing race that attracts teams from across the country. Navigating across the frigid Saint Lawrence River, if oars fail to crash through the ice, participants pop a leg out and kick through the slabs.
Meanwhile, families flock to Québec’s Winter Carnival to enjoy events such as toffee rolling, where boiling syrup is poured onto ice blocks then curled into bite-sized chunks. Children play in the snow, while the parents cradle cups of Caribou (a sticky concoction that tastes like a cross between mulled wine and port).
As for the food... well, Québec has a while to go. Most of the city’s establishments seem to be in limbo between a French bistro and an American diner. The enthusiasm is there but despite the attempts at French flair, some menus offer little more than North American stodge.
The Saint-Antoine hotel’s Chez Muffy restaurant, however, is a welcome exception, serving a range of exquisite dishes. Menus are curated to suit the cold climate; favourites include thick butternut squash soup, and hearty oxtail daube, a classic French beef stew. The produce is as fresh as it comes, with most sourced from the hotel’s own farm on the Île d'Orléans. In the mornings, guests can tuck into a breakfast of sizzling pancakes by a central fire.
A “museum hotel”, the Saint-Antoine is packed with salvaged artefacts, including a British canon ball on display in situ where it impacted in the 1700s in what is now the bar. There is also an emphasis on comfort, with bathrooms stocked with Beekman organic soaps, from the US, which are perfect for relieving cold-bitten skin.
Further afield, the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, a three-hour drive away, is home to sprawling forests and the Saguenay Fjord. The whole place is transformed in winter; just two inches of ice is enough to be able to drive over the frozen fjord. Here, snowmobiling is the only means of transport in certain parts, as well as a great way for tourists to see the sights.
The loud engines mean that, regardless of whether you speak French or English, the snowmobiling guides from Evasion Sport communicate through sign language. Despite the wind chill factor, and sideways gusts of powder slapping shins, roaring through the boreal forest at sunset makes for a magical ride to the local Auberge des Battures. Here, the cabin-like rooms are simple, but with good wine and the promise of more fresh crêpes in the morning, it’s the perfect overnight pit stop.
Right up until April, the locals run a ice fishing village on the frozen Saguenay Fjord, with tours offered by Pêche Adventures. There are holes in the floors of the makeshift cabins, through which fishers drop lines. Sea bass and halibut teem in the lake, but if all else fails, pizzas can be delivered to the door by snowmobile.
Another favourite local pastime is snowshoeing - hiking in specially designed footwear - through the Vallée des Fantômes in the Parc National des Monts-Valin. The trees are so laden with snow that they droop over walkers-by like - as the name suggests - ghosts. The snow reaches as high as hip level, and the backdrop is a thick, blank white for miles: there’s no sense of perspective or depth, which plays tricks with the mind and induces a beautiful disorientation.
For a perfect end to a day of hiking, head to Auberge Des >Îles, which offers spacious rooms with marshmallow-soft beds and gorgeous lake views. The surroundings are eerily quiet: at sunrise, the only sign of life are fishermen emerging from huts.
It is this snowy serenity, in a landscape that doubles as a natural playground, that makes the Québec area such a winter wonderland.
For more information on visiting Canada go to explore-canada.co.uk
Economy return fares from London Heathrow to Montreal start from £408 per person (all fares are inclusive of taxes and subject to change). Find out more at aircanada.com or call Reservations on 00 800 6699 2222.
Auberge Saint-Antoine - saint-antoine.com Winter escape packages available from CAD$194 plus taxes per night based on a two-night break
Auberge des Battures - hotel-saguenay.com Winter packages available from CAD$102 plus taxes per person including three course dinner, American breakfast, overnight stay
Auberge des Îles - aubergedesiles.com Rates start from CAD$62 plus taxes per person per night based on two sharing on a bed and breakfast basis
Source : http://www.theweek.co.uk/92136/winter-in-qu-bec-chill-out-in-the-europe-of-north-america1181