Editor’s note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, international travel to Canada is limited, and many indoor dining options and activities are not available. However, that gives you plenty of time to plan in advance for the 2021-22 winter season. Consider booking during the holidays or the annual Winter Carnival for an extra magical experience in Quebec City.
It’s a common misconception that winter means hunkering down and ticking off the days until spring. Cold weather can feel like a challenging adversary, but winter can actually be the perfect time to physically and mentally reset. You just have to embrace the cold. There’s no better place to do that than Quebec, Canada, a destination practically synonymous with its cold-weather delights. If you’ve set new year’s resolutions to go vegan, exercise more, or step outside of your comfort zone, Quebec allows you to commit to these resolutions while on a vacation — and then break them over a warming bowl of decadent poutine. From unwinding at a spa in the Eastern Townships to sleeping in an ice hotel outside of Quebec City, here’s everything you need to do in Quebec to rejuvenate your mind and body surrounded by snowfall.
Plunge between hot and cold at Spa Eastman
Begin your trip by traveling further into the province than most tourists go, to the wooded and reliably snowy Eastern Townships. Check into Spa Eastman, a small but luxurious wellness resort set on over 350 acres where opportunities for peace and quiet abound. Plan to spend at least two nights here or you won’t have enough time to take advantage of all of the inclusive activities or properly unwind. Booking a treatment at the spa is non-negotiable; consult with the staff in advance on your specific preferences or ailments, and they’ll recommend a uniquely suited treatment that’s more dynamic than the standard Swedish massage.
Physical fitness activities begin at sunrise and go all day. You’re welcome to attend as many as you like, from sunrise nordic skiing to morning yoga to afternoon water aerobics to twilight meditative strolls through the snowy forests. There’s also a huge spa with indoor and outdoor hot tubs, saunas and steam rooms, and therapeutic cold plunge pools. If you’re brave enough, there’s even an outdoor frozen lake with a hole cut out for jumping in. Psych your travel companions up do it with you, and the somewhat painful, yet exhilarating, experience will leave you all in fits of giggles, especially as you frantically run back to the hot tub.
Health nuts will be thrilled by the food at the restaurant, self-dubbed “Tonique Cuisine,” which is gluten-free, dairy-free, largely plant-based, and boasts a wide range of health claims. Diet skeptics need not fear, though, as the food is still very satisfying, and organic wine is graciously on the menu. If you’re really into health and wellness and want to make a serious lifestyle change, the spa also hosts multiple lectures every day, most in French but a few in English. Topics range from aromatherapy to nutrition, and the experience is not unlike a college class. Those with a casual interest in these subjects might be better off spending their time in the hot tub, but if you’re willing to learn you can take home valuable knowledge from various wellness experts.
The amount of activities at Spa Eastman is nearly overwhelming, but there’s no point in stressing yourself out by bouncing from class to class. Choose only what you really want to do, and leave plenty of time for just steaming in the sauna, doing a puzzle or reading a book by the fire, or cozying up with a cup of tea in front of a window overlooking the snowy landscape.
Go snowshoeing with the Wendake First Nations
An important aspect of traveling to Canada is acknowledging that the land originally belonged to the First Nations, and their people and diverse cultures are still very much active. In Quebec, the main First Nation is the Wendake. Dedicate a whole afternoon to visiting the Huron Wendat community, which houses an interactive museum, a delicious restaurant featuring inventive First Nations cuisine (think bison sausages and crispy anoint fish), and many educational activities. Wendake guides can take you snowshoeing through the forest (the Wendake are known for making snowshoes), leading you to an authentic and truly massive longhouse.
Over a fire, your guides will tell you more about their lives, history, and traditions, which include an enviable matrilineal society. They might also teach you how to make and roast bannock (fry bread) over the fire, like one would a marshmallow, and pair it with blueberry jam for dessert. Wendat Huron also hosts special events throughout the year that you can book in advance, like animal skin workshops, dances and ceremonies, and oral legends. Groups can even stay overnight under warm furs in the longhouse.
Do a yoga session in a restored monastery
In the 1600s, the Augustinian sisters arrived in Quebec City and established one of the first hospitals in North America. The historic walled monastery has since been restored and converted to Le Monastère des Augustines, a bright and airy wellness hotel honoring the sisters’ legacy of health. Visit for the day to take a yoga class or meditation session, explore the museum, and dine at the health-minded restaurant, topped off with one of their signature restorative herbal teas. For a more unique experience, stay overnight in one of the “authentic rooms,” extremely tiny cell-like rooms that used to house monastery guests and sisters, complete with antique furniture and other monastic architectural touches. If the thought of joining the nunnery gives you anxiety, opt for a contemporary room, which is still very simple but with more space and modern amenities.
Slide down in an ice toboggan in Quebec City
Vieux Quebec, or Old Quebec City, might be the most charming neighborhood in all of North America. Colorful doors and windows pop against adorably quaint brick buildings, and every corner begs you to take another photo. In the winter, the snow and holiday lights maximize the enchanting effect. You can spend an entire afternoon popping in and out of shops, but the most fun activity awaits in Upper Town Quebec. (The city lives on two very distinct levels; skip the icy and steep stairs and ride the funicular up and down instead.) Grab a ticket for the historic toboggan, a century-old slide on the Dufferin Terrace outside of Le Château Frontenac. With average speeds reaching over 40 miles per hour, you’ll be screaming like a kid the entire way down — not least because the toboggan precipitously overlooks the St. Lawrence River, and you can’t help but feel, irrational a though as it may be, like you may be launched into its icy, watery depths.
Treat yourself to drinks at Le Château Frontenac
The iconic Le Château Frontenac, a Fairmont property, has hosted some of history’s most famous celebrities and world leaders — with many framed photographs throughout its halls and a hefty price tag to prove it. If you can afford a stay here, by all means, splurge. You can even stay in suites themed to past guests like Winston Churchill, Princess Grace, and Celine Dion. But a cheaper option would be to grab drinks and a cheese board at Bistro Le SAM, the hotel’s more casual, though still fancy, offering. The panoramic view of the St. Lawrence River is breathtaking day or night, particularly when snow is falling. Look to see if there are any seasonal craft cocktails on the menu that feature honey. The Frontenac has a large rooftop garden and apiary with nearly 70,000 bees that produce over 600 pounds of honey, which is harvested a few times a year and used throughout the restaurants. The hotel also offers a lovely afternoon tea if you’d rather experience the stunning property in the daytime.
Indulge in comfort food — vegan or very much not vegan
If you’re steadfast in maintaining your new year’s resolutions to be healthier or stick to a plant-based diet, Quebec City will not leave you starved for exciting options. Don Vegan, with its black brick and graffitied walls and neon pink lights, feels more like a dive bar than a vegan eatery. The menu also eschews raw salads and dainty grain bowls for decadent risotto, dumplings, and chocolate cake. It’s a tad healthier than your average French-Canadian meal but no less satisfying.
But remember, life is all about balance. It would be a sin to leave Quebec without trying some proper cheese-curd-and-gravy-lathered poutine, and every local will have strong opinions on the best place to get them, but it’s up to you whether you want to go classic at Chez Ashton or more inventive at Poutineville or Le Chic Shack. For extra rich traditional French cuisine, head to Le Lapin Sauté, which specializes almost exclusively in rabbit dishes.
Wintertime in Quebec also means maple-flavored everything, and you’ll find it infused into just about every baked good. Maple syrup taffy candy is the move if you can hunt it down. This Quebecois treat is made by pouring hot maple syrup over freezing cold snow, wrapped and solidified around a popsicle stick. It’s tricky to find on a regular day, but there will definitely be street vendors selling them if you’re in town during the holidays or the Winter Carnival.
Brave a night in an ice hotel
There is nothing more spectacular about Quebec in wintertime than Hôtel de Glace. A seasonal feature of the Valcartier resort, it’s the only ice hotel in North America. Architects, engineers, and artists use tons of snow and crystal-clear ice to create this labyrinth of intricately designed rooms. Visitors can peek inside the themed rooms and have a drink at the ice bar, but overnight guests have the most brag-worthy experience. Once the daily tourists leave, guests have the run of the place. That means unlimited rides down the ice slide, all the time in the world to pose on the throne of ice, and trips between the outdoor hot tubs and saunas.
Just prepare for a truly chilly overnight, in case that wasn’t obvious. Dress like you’re going camping and pay attention to the mandatory orientation on how to set up your sleeping bag. If you get too cold in the middle of the night, you can always bail (a stay in a real hotel room inside Valcartier is included). But if you can stay zen and embrace the frosty abode, you’ll fall asleep in startlingly complete silence — and have a story to tell long after you return from Quebec.
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