Quebec City: A Winter’s Tale







If your snow seems all the more beautiful when it is called neige, hearty bistro food straight out of a Louise Penny novel appeals, if you have always wanted to ride a toboggan at 70 miles an hour or watch canoers dodge ice floes, consider a winter weekend in the walled city of Quebec, capitol of the Canadian province.

Our favorite photographer Luc-Antoine Couturier, who has contributed to books authored by renowned lecturer, tour guide, and author, David Mendel, joined David in assisting us relate this winter’s tale. Here’s what David, who took us last week around the old city on foot with his wife, Donna McEwan, recommends:

“If you want to have this historic city all to yourself to a certain extent—unless you are coming during Winter Carnival in early February—want a cozy meal somewhere, enjoy skating, cross-country and downhill skiing, and long for the sunshine, blue skies and clear air that a Quebec day can bring in dark winter, join us here. Watch as a ferry boat crosses the St. Lawrence River as ice floes move one way and the other due to the tides. Take a short cab ride outside the city to the falls of Montmorency—higher than Niagara Falls—to see its extraordinary icicles and ice cones. You can take an enclosed tram up to the top and then walk along a bridge at the top to see the waterfall in winter.”


David Mendel.


Removing snow from the roof!

If you choose to visit Quebec City at carnival time, you can experience one of the world’s largest winter carnivals, begun in 1894, featuring 60 teams racing canoes in the icy waters, dog sledding, lantern parades, snow sculpting, and an Ice Palace hotel. Ice bars along the street feature caribous: hot toddies of whiskey, port and maple syrup, naturally.

Our introduction to a Quebec City winter began with a brisk walk through the streets of the Old City, past skaters in front of the Palais Montcalm Concert Hall, then out of the Old City through the gate of St. Jean. We were soon on the Plains of Abraham where we watched people flying down the toboggan run. We then navigated the Dufferin Terrace, a boardwalk in summer, to see the ice on the St. Lawrence and a tugboat plowing through the semi-translucent ice blocks resembling mosaic tiles.

We ducked into the castle-like Chateau Frontenac, celebrating its 125th anniversary and subject of David’s latest book, to see the current exhibit on Princess Grace of Monaco who presided over the Winter Carnival in 1969. Photos show her dancing with the Mayor of Quebec City while Pierre Trudeau, father of current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and himself Prime Minister at the time, waltzed with the Carnival Queen.

On display is the ball gown that Princess Grace wore, celebrating 18th-century style, alongside chic dresses from the period that Prince Albert, who was to arrive soon for the dedication of the exhibit, lent to the Chateau. Said to be to Quebec City what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Chateau Frontenac is thought to be the most photographed hotel in the world and deserves your visit.

As my hands got colder, I found my thoughts dwelling on the Fraser Highlanders who remained in Quebec following the Battle of Quebec in 1759. The Ursuline nuns, missionary pioneers who first came to Quebec in 1639, knitted socks for the kilted Highlanders during their harsh first winter. I remembered that David had told me that the British officers called young French girls “muffins” because they carried muffs to warm their hands while out with the officers in sleighs. Longing for a muff, I stopped for mittens—told that they are much warmer than my regular gloves—and warmers to put inside. I made a note to revisit the Ursuline Convent, one of Quebec’s oldest buildings filled with rare paintings that came to Canada after the French Revolution, and magnificent altar frontals woven of gold, silver, and rare silks.

The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity is another religious landmark open to the public, a place of worship for two centuries. The first Anglican cathedral to be built outside the British Isles, it was designed by two British military officers inspired by St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square in London. “When you think of the winter following the Battle on the Plains of Abraham, where the British took back Quebec from the French and then the officers remained behind, the city takes on the quality of a Jane Austen novel,” David said.

The city abounds with wonderful hotels large and boutique in addition to the towering Frontenac. If you have always dreamed of exploring an igloo, why not try the only ice hotel in North America, the Hotel de Glace, made entirely of snow and ice, open from early January until late March? It features a Great Hall, chapel, ice slide, exhibitions, the Ice Bar, and heated bathrooms. You can spend the night in one of the themed suites (and get to use the outdoor spa and sauna) or try a delicious cocktail served in a glass made of ice. Located about 20 minutes from downtown Quebec, the hotel’s inside temperature is about 26 degrees Fahrenheit.

Another unique choice is Le Monastere des Augustines in Old Quebec, with buildings dating from the 17th century and a wide walled garden, transformed into a wellness center offering rooms in a contemporary style, organic meals, and a museum of its history. The Auberge Saint-Antoine, located in one of the city’s most historic areas, features treasures found as part of an area dig in every room and offers decadent dining and impeccable service.

So many winter attractions take place on the Plains of Abraham, the battlefield where the British invaders under General James Wolfe climbed the steep hill to surprise and defeat the Marquis de Montcalm on September 13, 1769. Part of the French and Indian War and the Seven Years War in Europe, the battle saw the deaths of both generals that day.

The Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec is located there, and its four pavilions house a collection of over 38,000 works dating from the 17th century to the present day. On top of world-class exhibitions and cultural activities, visitors can also enjoy the restaurant, café, and gift shop. On the day of our visit, the museum’s wide windows opened onto a series of games, bike races, cross country skiing, skating, and other competitions for hundreds of participants.


Ice skating. Photo by Luc Antoine Couturier.

Where else but Quebec City does a local season get its own magnificent exhibition? Winter is the guiding idea for the current exhibition of 70 works at the Musée, including the work by Jerome Fortin executed in metallic threads and plastic bottles, Inuit art, and paintings from centuries ago, showing the shimmering shades of snow for which the region is known.


Work by Jerome Fortin.


More from the exhibition.

The Museum pays tribute to winter and its artists in the show’s introduction: “Whether we appreciate it or not, winter is a part of what we are and requires us to be resilient and adaptable. It is a social bond that brings us together, whatever or origins, gender, education or language. We have no choice but to experience winter. It is the source of great joys and grievances and provides steady fodder for conversation December through March. People outside the country are intrigued about how we manage to survive in the extreme cold. We continue by relating our adventures and in the process turning exasperation into pride. But this white season, which we love and hate, is threatened by warming and what we have known so far could be nothing but a white mirage, and we may disappear along with it.”

We walked five minutes with Luc-Antoine to the bustling Avenue Cartier, filled with parents and children, markets, shops, and the venerable Café Kreighoff, known for its onion soup and for hot chocolate served in a bowl.

Many wonderful historic sites take you indoors to warm up. The Literary and Historical Society, now called the Morrin Centre, is a pilgrimage site for fans of mystery writer Louise Penny who flock to this former prison built 200 years ago where her novel Bury Your Dead is set. This Victorian library houses a collection of literary gems, including some dating back to the 16th century.

Before heading back to snow showers in Chicago, we visited Grant Hamilton and Dr. Louis Roy, two of Quebec’s most community minded citizens. As we looked across the St. Lawrence to the Silos of Levi, lit in neon green, Grant said: “I am certain no other large city has that much snow in the winter, but its pristine white never stops dazzling. I am from Toronto, and their snow is like Cincinnati.”


Cars buried in the snow. Photo by Luc Antoine Couturier.


A coat of fresh snow. Photo by Luc Antoine Couturier.


Winter wildlife. Photo by Luc Antoine Couturier.

Louis says that finding just the right cozy spot in your apartment when you have been outside, thinking about it carefully, and then shifting to another cozy corner, can be another great joy of winter.

We walked around the corner to 73 Rue du Sault-au-Matelot to L’Echaude, where the menu features winter fare, including an onion and black pudding tart with Toulouse sausage, sweetbreads, and mashed potatoes with bacon.


Winter sustenance in Quebec.


A hearty local menu.

Before heading back to our own Chicago winter, we couldn’t resist a visit to our favorite summer destination, Murray Bay, officially known as La Malbaie, two hours away down the St. Lawrence.


View from a Murray Bay balcony.



The cozy Trois Canards Auberge awaited with a view of the St. Lawrence, as well as cross-country, snowshoeing, and exploring homes sleeping in the wintertime surrounded by snow.


Jocelyne and her hydrangeas.

Our Murray Bay friend and award-winning sculptor and gardener Jocelyne Turcotte preserved a massive bouquet of last summer’s hydrangeas in her house by the St. Lawrence. Looking at the glorious flowers she dried made us look past the beauty of a Quebec winter to the warmth of summer and its own equal magic.