Although it’s been a relatively mild winter this year in Canada, the idea of traveling to a place colder than where you live may seem a bit odd. But a trip to Québec’s capital to experience the best that winter has to offer is definitely worth bundling up for. From the annual Carnaval de Québec (the world’s largest) to the magical Hôtel de Glace (i.e., the Ice Hotel) nearby, a cheerful atmosphere is on display by hardy Québecois and tourists alike. In fact, despite the temperatures dipping into the double digits below zero, a getaway to this historical city actually serves as an escape from the winter doldrums.
Lobby at Hotel Pur
Where to stay, you ask? There is no shortage of terrific hotels in Québec, from the renowned, castle-like Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, boasting a magnificent view of the St. Lawrence River; to the more urban, boutique hotels, such as the Tryp Hotel Pur. Located in the technology district of Saint Roch – about a fifteen-minute walk from the Old City – Hotel Pur is stark, almost futuristic, in design. Aside from the simple but well-appointed suites (some of which include a floor-to-ceiling view of the neo-gothic Church Saint Roch across the street), the hotel’s calling card has to be the breakfast menu at its restaurant, “Table”. The ambiance at this eatery is rustic and welcoming, featuring a large open room with a couple of long, communal tables as well as regular seating. Better tasting and more reasonably-priced than most hotel breakfast menus (the warm grapefruit brulée puts a healthy twist on what is usually a heavy dessert item; the granola with fruit and yogurt also proves to be a wise choice), this will provide you with a great start to your day. The self-serve cappuccino machine available to guests in the hotel lobby is also a nice touch, especially after a long day of exploring in the chilly temperatures.
And explore you will. After meandering around the hip clothing boutiques and restaurants located in revitalized St. Roch, the cold, uphill walk to the Old City may be a bit taxing. But what awaits you after your climb proves to be worth it – you are just steps away from the walled area of the Old City, and after entering it, you will feel like you have been instantly transported to an old European city. Sure, there is American Apparel and McDonald’s, but you will also find shops like Boutique Mėdiėvale among the narrow, cobbled Rue Saint-Jean, where you can find medieval style fashion, home décor, not to mention Spanish swords; or further down, on rue Saint-Louis, a number of art galleries including the Art Inuit gallery.
Thereafter, if you happen to be travelling in late-January to mid-February, you will have the chance to take part in Carnaval, where both kids and adults can enjoy the winter activities while devouring un Queue de Castor, a piping hot doughnut-type pastry rolled in cinnamon and sugar, or tire sur la neige, a taffy candy formed by pouring boiled maple sap directly onto fresh snow.
A bedroom at the Ice Hotel
In terms of local cuisine, there are tourtières (meat pies) or poutine (potatoes with cheese curds and gravy), or more adventurous dishes featuring bison meat. Vegetarians can find refuge from these carnivorous dishes at Le Commensal, located on Rue Saint-Jean outside the Old City, which is also where you will also find the Ėrico Choco Musée (chocolate museum).
But the highlight of traveling to Quebec in the winter – la pièce de résistance – has to be the Hôtel de Glace, the seasonal ice hotel that opens the first week of January and lasts until the end of March each year. Modeled after the original Ice Hotel in Sweden and located just outside the city, the hotel’s design theme and layout has changed with each edition since opening in 2001 (an “ephemeral architecture contest” is held annually). The entire structure, including the 36 individual suites, beds, tables and chairs, is constructed out of 500 tons of ice and 15,000 tons of snow. Inside, Hôtel de Glace features elaborate, crystalline ice sculptures and an ice chandelier weighing over 600 pounds.
Guided tours at Hôtel de Glace are available for those who are content with simply viewing the property, while the more daring sign up for the overnight stays. Such guests are given instructions and an orientation session on how best to keep warm. Indeed, the tour guide assures me that everyone lasts the night and in fact they recently hosted a 91 year-old woman. Nevertheless, there is an indoor pavilion with a small restaurant as well as restrooms and a gift shop to provide respite. In terms of activities, there is an ice rink for recreational skating as well as an ice slide, and on the flipside, a Nordic sauna and hot tub. At night, there is a nightclub with dance music piped in and a bar serving drinks. To be sure, the signature vodka cocktail served in an ice glass gives new meaning to the phrase “A Cold One”. There is also a frozen chapel to host wedding ceremonies, where, despite the relatively skimpy attire worn by the bridal party, no one appears to suffer from “cold feet”.
All said, a trip to the Hotel de Glace is definitely something to add to your “ice” bucket list.
Photo provided and travel subsidized by Hotel Pur. Photo of Hotel de Glace ©Xdachez.com.