Road Trip: City Nights and Winter Delights in Quebec

When most Canadians dream of a winter holiday, they likely imagine a sandy, warm beach, rather than travelling to a place that’s actually colder than where they live. I’m as much of a fan of warm weather and cold cocktails as anyone, but I also don’t shy away from adventure when it presents itself.

Montreal is an incredible city to explore in the summer, but it has a vibrant pulse all year long, making it worth visiting any time of year.

Checking in to the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel, I was reminded of a historical event that transpired within its walls fifty years ago. Following their marriage on March 20, 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono used the publicity opportunity to promote world peace with Bed-Ins. Following the first event in Amsterdam, they flew to Montreal and stayed at the Queen Elizabeth. Inviting famous people like Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary to join them, along with members of the press, they recorded the song “Give Peace a Chance” there on June 1, 1969.

Montreal is a beautiful city that is famous for its rich and unique culture, vibrant nightlife, incredible food, and friendly people. Home to summer festivals like Just for Laughs and Jazz Fest, the city also hosts an annual event called Montréal en Lumière which features zip-lining, Ferris wheels, slides, street performers vendors, and of course areas to enjoy a warming beverage.

I never visit Montreal without stopping by Schwartz’s Deli or the St-Viateur Bagel Shop, but it’s always good to try new places as well. Dining at Le Blumenthal and Les Enfant Terribles, I can now add both to my list of culinary experiences not to be missed. Poutine is a staple in the city as well, with most restaurants putting their own spin on the famous dish.

Montreal is also home to the legendary, talented, and hilarious pastry chef Christian Faure whose creations have been enjoyed by dignitaries, celebrities, and royalty. Visitors to Maison Christian Faure in the Old Port can purchase his creations or even take a class. Given the honour of attending several over the years, I have an appreciation for the diligence and passion he has for his craft.

Spending time within the city for a couple days before heading up to Chicoutimi, the 2019 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack made for an excellent vehicle choice. Its compact footprint and agile handling proved helpful navigating Montreal’s narrow city streets while the ground clearance and all-wheel drive were more than capable of navigating snow-covered city streets. Compared to the Golf SportWagen, the Alltrack sits 1.5 cm higher thanks to longer springs and dampers, but it also gets its own bumpers and body cladding, aluminum mirrors, and skid plates underneath. Speed-sensitive electric power steering feel is smooth but communicative and is nicely weighted.

Despite poor weather, steep hills, driving with a heavy right foot in Sport mode most of the time, and using the DSG’s Tiptronic manual gear selector to optimize power; fuel consumption of the Golf Alltrack was impressively within spitting distance of its claimed rating 9.6 L/100 km. Its standard turbocharged 1.8L inline-four-cylinder engine delivers 168 hp, which doesn’t sound like a big number, but neither is the 1,552 kg curb weight. Acceleration therefore feels sprightly and more than adequate for the needs of most drivers.

The -30° temperature Quebec experienced during my trip (not including wind chill) will put any human or vehicle to the test.  Thankfully, the cabin and heated seats warmed up quickly. Seat comfort can be an issue in some vehicles, but driving for 300–400 km at a time wasn’t an issue at all. The booming Fender premium audio system helped make the hours fly by. The large, versatile cargo area help make it a worthwhile road trip companion, not just an urban commuter.

Outside of the city, as we approached the Saguenay region, it seemed like every second vehicle on the road had a sled in the bed of the pickup or towing behind on a trailer. At a certain point snowmobiles began to outnumber cars and SUVs.

Snowmobiling is a hobby in many places, but in Quebec it is more of a way of life. Invented here in 1935 by Joseph-Armand Bombardier, not only is it the most fun way to get around, during the depths of winter, it’s sometimes the only way to get around.

Completing the drive from Montreal up to Quebec City then Chicoutimi, the elevation increased and the temperature dropped, resulting in an abundance of snow. The roads were plowed and well maintained, but the sleds travelling the trails along the side of the road appeared to be having way more fun.

Offering over 33,000 km of marked and interconnected trails, Quebec is home to one of the largest networks of snowmobile trails in the world. That doesn’t include the frozen lakes that feature a network of dedicated roads for riders to reach their ice fishing huts in the many such villages across the province. Having the opportunity to try my hand at the activity, I can definitely see the appeal, even if I didn’t catch anything on my first attempt.

Throughout Quebec’s various regions, there are many vibrant communities to explore, each with their own geography, history, and unique culture. People in this province embrace what they call joie de vivre, or “joy of living”, and it shows. They are friendly, they love food, and they don’t hate tipping back a tasty beverage from time to time.

The Saguenay Fjord is 105 km long and 210 m at its deepest point. Flowing out to the St. Lawrence River salt water and fresh water converge, creating unique ice patterns and making the area home to a variety of marine life. A visit to the Fjord Museum (Musée du Fjord) offers a fascinating look into the unique geographic situation that created the Fjord, as well as the marine species living beneath the ice and the humans that settled the area.

Overlooking the Saguenay Fjord, Cap au Leste offers stunning scenery. It’s an aquatic playground in the summer with boating, kayaking and whale watching in close proximity. The area offers spectacular colours in the fall, but in winter it comes alive with those who embrace the season as snow can typically last from October until May. Making use of the classic chalets and traditional cabins, winter all-inclusive activities include snowmobiling, ice fishing and dog sledding. There’s also a nearby animal sanctuary and ski resort.

Roughly an hour away from Cap au Leste, the Monts-Valin National Park offers its own winter activities such as hiking and snowshoeing in the postcard-worthy Valley of Phantoms. Following a fun-filled day hiking through the wintry landscape, we warmed our extremities by the fire in our private cabins within the park. Without the distractions of cell service, television, or Wi-Fi, we were free to truly unwind, listening to the sound of the wind and crackling fire as we sipped on some local beer and spirits.

The following morning, I drove to Centre Plein Air Bec-Scie. Okwari Adventures provides fishing guides and nature education in the summer, but also offers winter activities that include cross-country skiing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling. Machines have obviously evolved since the early part of the last century, and thankfully so has the gear. Materials are far more advanced these days, so you can wear multiple layers without feeling like the Michelin Man, but you definitely want to ensure that you don’t have any bare skin. You’ll be exposed to the elements and chances are good you’ll be moving briskly.

Offering a selection of late model sleds, I jumped aboard an Arctic Cat Pantera 7000.

Anyone who has ridden a snowmobile knows that acceleration was instantaneous and seemingly endless. The rear track provides a surprising amount of grip to take you across terrain you never thought you’d be able to traverse. This leads you to places you would otherwise never see. Travelling across picturesque landscapes where no other vehicle could go, we toured through rolling snow-covered valleys, passing by farms and cabins, smoke slowly curling from their chimneys like an oil painting.

We then rode the sleds across town to Bistro Café Sum Mum where we warmed up over a delicious lunch before ice fishing on the bay. Fishing huts have come a long way. The one provided by Okwari Adventures was heated, well insulated and fully equipped with everything needed, aside from talent. I didn’t catch any fish on my first attempt, which just provides added justification to return. Regrettably we didn’t have any fresh caught fish for the chef at Auberge des Battures, but that didn’t stop him from preparing an incredible meal.

The drive back to Montreal was an eventful one, with howling winds sending snow across the roadway, compromising traction and minimizing visibility to almost nothing. Once again, the Alltrack inspired confidence with its capability and comfort in the worst of conditions.

Winter can be a long, lonely season if you don’t find entertaining ways to enjoy it. You don’t need to travel to an exotic country to experience unique culture and fun, there is plenty to explore right here in your own backyard.