A wonderland in winter

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A wonderland in winter

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Often called the most photographed hotel in the world, the Fairmont Le Chauteau Frontenac sits on the Dufferin Terrace and has more than 600 rooms. BRIAN SIRIMATUROS/ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH/TNS

The castle-like chateau dominates the landscape, snow-covered and majestic. The St. Lawrence River undulates under frozen ice caps, back and forth, forward and backward. The charming shops line snowy streets with hints of brick and cobblestone poking through. Quebec City in winter weaves a spectacular spell of sheer magic.

Its mix of architecture, history, art and French culture make the Canadian provincial capital feel like Europe, at half the travel time and a fraction of the cost. One of North America’s oldest European settlements, Quebec City may be rooted in its French heritage, but it has clearly created its own identity.

“It’s not Europe, but it sure does look like it,” said our guide, Tony Gagnon, who gives tours with Il etait une Fois Kebec. He speaks both English and French fluently, as do most people in the tourism sector in Quebec. But the native language is French. “I always say the best way to see Quebec is to eat and drink your way around.”

With that in mind, I’d recommend starting your visit with a dinner at Ciel, for “sky” on the 28th floor of the hotel le Concorde (1225 Cours du Général de Montcalm, Québec City. 418-640-5802, Cielbistrobar.com), located on the trendy Grande-Allee. It’s not just another rotating restaurant on the upper floor of a tall building. Its menu is a successfully eclectic twist on French cuisine.

But the reason to visit the restaurant are the views, especially in winter: A 360-degree look at the river, mountains and city. The St. Lawrence River, which was important for Quebec City both commercially and historically with the military, has tides that keep the ice caps flowing all winter long.

All around are historic buildings — Parliament, Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame, the Citadelle — but it’s the area with no buildings that caught my attention: the snowy fields of the Plains of Abraham. In the summer, it’s a 240-acre green space commemorating the 1759 battle between the French and British Empires in North America. It includes gardens, greenhouses and a museum. But in the winter you can take a guided snowshoe tour or cross-country skiing tour on its trails. Or skate on its rink. Skis, snowshoes and skates are all available for rent. (Theplainsofabraham.ca)

Winter may seem like an odd time to travel here, and indeed I’m sure Quebec City is lovely in the other seasons, but the wonders of winter, with 4 feet of snow covering everything, gave it a magical, pristine feeling. The average yearly snowfall is over 13 feet, and snow is usually on the ground from Thanksgiving to April.

The Chteau

Called the “most photographed hotel in the world” by several tourist websites, the Fairmont Le Chteau Frontenac (1 rue des Carrières, Québec City. 418-692-3861, fairmont.com/Frontenac/Quebec-City) sits on the Dufferin Terrace, built near the Citadelle and towering above the river. It’s the most prominent feature in the Quebec skyline, and it first opened in 1893. Portions were added over the years, so it now hosts 611 upscale hotel rooms, a number of conference rooms and restaurants as well as a spa.

Outside the hotel sits an ice skating rink (bring your own skates) where kids can play hockey until the wee hours and warm up with a hot cocoa at the Au 1884 coffee shop. Get tickets there ($3 Canadian each) for the famous toboggan next door.

Aside from the ornate beauty inside the hotel’s common areas, its location is the big draw. It is within walking distance of Parliament, the parks that host the Winter Carnival, the shops and restaurants along Rue St. Louis and Rue St. Jean and a funicular (an angled elevator built in 1879) ride to the Petit Champlain, the lower area near the river and my favorite part of the city.

As soon as your foot hits the brick streets of the Petit Champlain, you know you are in for a treat. To the right, rows of stone buildings house adorable shops and quaint restaurants. To the left, a pub that looks straight out of a Dickens novel. Straight ahead, more shops, restaurants and ice sculptures leading to a park with cannons aimed toward the river. The streets stay decorated for Christmas throughout the winter.

Stroll down the street ahead and turn left to enter an open courtyard known as Place Royale.

The site of the first permanent French settlement in North America, Place Royale is full of history. On the square you’ll find Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, the oldest stone church in North America, built in 1688.

The Carnival

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, Old Quebec is the only walled city north of Mexico. And the area inside those walls is surprisingly walkable, even when it’s 0 degrees out. But even for Canadians, the winters can get long, so Quebec City leaders decided to do something to make the end of winter a little more exciting. After being held intermittently since 1894, the Carnaval de Quebec has been celebrated annually since 1955. It coincides with what may be the city’s other biggest event: the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament, the largest in the world, bringing in thousands of the world’s best 12-year-old players.

So with thousands of visitors and locals looking for fun, why not throw a carnival? The two-week event (Jan. 26 to Feb. 11) takes place in several parks in the city, most fairly close to one another. Several nights are set aside for the famous nighttime parade, led by Bonhomme Carnival, the festival’s mascot, a somewhat creepy snowman who bears a striking resemblance to the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. For $15 Canadian dollars, an effigy you attach to your coat gets you into nearly everything. (carnaval.qc.ca)

Outside the walls

As fascinating as the city is, it’s worth it to spend a day or more in the country. We drove about 30 minutes to Villages Vacances Valcartier. The drive alone, lined with evergreens topped with snow, is breathtaking.

Valcartier is a lodge with an indoor water park, hotel rooms and two winter attractions you don’t want to miss: an ice hotel and the Winter Playground, often called Winter Park.

Think of a ski resort, only the runs are not for skiing but for tubing. And instead of scary lifts, there is an awkward pulley system where you plop down on a moving inner tube and tote another along with you.

Nearly 30 slopes make up the park. Some are pretty basic downhill sledding. Others use round rafts of eight people that spin or fly over dips and valleys.

Yes, you needed to bundle up. Yes, your heart will thud heavily in anticipation of even the smallest slopes, but unlike skiing, this requires no lessons, so the whole family can have a blast (there is a separate area for the littlest kids). (Valcartier.com)

Winter Park sits behind the Village Valcartier hotel. Just a ways down, also behind the hotel, sits Hotel de Glace, the world-famous ice hotel.

It takes 50 workers about six weeks to rebuild the hotel every year, starting in December, and every year it is different. More than 30,000 tons of snow and 500 tons of ice are needed to create this 32,000-square-foot masterpiece.

You can take a guided tour of the ice hotel for a fee. Be sure to stop at the ice bar for a sip of one of the mixed beverages served in a cup made of ice. (hoteldeglace-canada.com)

The food

Poutine — french fries smothered in gravy and topped with cheese curds — is the most well-known Quebec specialty. If you ask Quebec City locals where to go, they’ll suggest both Ashton, a fast-food chain, and Le Chic Shack, a burger joint next to Chateau Frontenac, as the places to try them. I didn’t find a poutine I didn’t like.

But we found more specialties we loved: BeaverTail and maple syrup taffy. A BeaverTail, or queues de castor, is a pastry covered in all sorts of sweet goodness, almost like an open-faced doughnut.

And how can we forget crepes? In Old Quebec, it seems you can find a creperie around just about every corner. On one cold, snowy night we wandered over to Le Casse-Crepe Breton, on Rue St. Jean. We wanted only sweet crepes, we told the server. She returned with an enormous one filled with strawberries and chocolate, one with butter and sugar and one with the Canadian staple, maple syrup. As I sat around looking at my family, on the spur of the moment stop, enjoying the quaint shop, I realized that our guide was truly right. The best way to see Quebec is to eat and drink your way around it.

IF YOU GO

What to wear: You’ll need thermal underwear, wool socks, winter boots (the good kind; don’t think you can get away with Uggs), a heavy coat, a hat and gloves. We were able to walk 5 to 8 miles a day without being too cold in this gear.

More info: quebecregion.com/en

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