Quebec City changed me.
Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.
I’d never been a fan of winter. Aside from the few times each year my daughter would beg us to bundle up and take her ice skating, I’ve long made a habit of sitting under blankets drinking tea and waiting for the coldest months to pass.
In Quebec, though, you’ll hear a well-known line from a song by Quebecois poet Gilles Vigneault: Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver. My country is not a country, it is winter. It encapsulates a beautiful aspect of French Canadian culture, a deliberate commitment to refuse to put life on hold but instead to fully embrace this unique aspect of northern life.
As a result, my family has gone skating far more often this winter. We’ve gone on longer drives to take in snow-covered landscapes. We’ve gone sledding. We’ve discovered that we genuinely enjoy cross-country skiing. We’ve smiled and laughed more often in the snow than we ever have before.
It’s all thanks to Quebec City, which I’m now fully convinced is one of the very best places on Earth for a winter getaway.
On a clear day with no traffic, getting to downtown Quebec City from the Highway 401 to Autoroute 20 transition at the Ontario–Quebec border takes about three to three and a half hours. From the Toronto area, that equates to an average trip of roughly eight hours in total.
My drive time was closer to 11 hours in each direction, for two very different reasons.
On the way there, it was thanks to bad luck and bad weather: the day my daughter and I left happened to coincide with one of the worst ice storms so far this winter.
Fortunately, we didn’t catch up with it until we were most of the way to Montreal, and I knew it was coming well enough in advance that I could ask some local colleagues for advice. They told me that the Autoroute 30-40 detour around the south of Montreal can be treacherous in icy conditions and told me to stick to A-20 through the city as it’s busier and better maintained. We passed through in mid-afternoon before rush hour traffic hit, so this worked out well for us.
Our ride along A-20 was tense but uneventful. We passed plenty of other cars in ditches and guardrails, but our Volvo V60 Polestar’s BorgWarner four-wheel-drive system and heated windshield – which was incredibly helpful for keeping the ice at bay – helped keep us with four wheels on the road and rolling forward. (The sensors for the forward emergency braking system iced over and disabled it pretty quickly, but I tend not to want to rely on such systems in those kinds of conditions anyway.)
On the way back it was a much nicer day and we weren’t in a hurry, so I decided to take A-40 across the north shore and follow a detour a local had suggested called the Chemin du Roy. This is one of the oldest roads on the continent and follows the banks of the St. Lawrence River for 280 kilometres from Repentigny, near Montreal, all the way into Quebec City.
Chemin du Roy largely matches up with Quebec Route 138 throughout its length. It does diverge in spots, but these are mostly well-signed. The navigation system in the Volvo somehow figured out where I was going and highlighted the route for me, which was a very pleasant surprise.
We followed roughly half of it westward from Quebec City, rejoining A-40 just before reaching Trois-Rivières. The scenery is gorgeous and well worth going out of the way for, and I’d argue that the winter is a better time to take it in than the summer because the views would be obscured by the leaves of the trees in warmer weather.
That said; it’s not necessary to drive the road’s full length to get an idea of its flavour. Heading westbound from Quebec City, I suggest exiting A-40 at Route Gravel and heading south to turn right onto Route 138. One of the most charming sections is just to the west of Route 358 west of Donnacona; it’s worth the extra couple of minutes to continue along Chemin Vieux through Cap-Santé until it meets up again with 138, then turn back east to 358 and take it north up back to A-40 to continue on your way. This route captures the highlights of the eastern section and would only add roughly an hour to your trip.
Ah, the Volvo V60 Polestar. As performance cars go, this has for some time now been one of the most underappreciated you’ll find anywhere. Genuine credentials with the practicality of a wagon body and year-round usefulness in winter climates – what’s not to love?
Well, we do need to talk about one thing: the new engine.
The V60 Polestar used to come with a 3.0-litre turbocharged straight-six. For 2017, they’ve given it one of Volvo’s Drive-E engines instead, which means it’s a 2.0-litre inline-four with a turbocharger–supercharger combination.
The new engine is tuned to put out more horsepower than the old one – 367 now versus 345 previously – but it also puts out less torque, now making 347 lb-ft versus the previous 369 over a similar rev band.
Don’t get me wrong: it feels great to drive. These engines are beautifully responsive, and there’s no lack of satisfaction in what you get out of your right foot. Between it and the quick shifts from the eight-speed automatic, both in auto or paddle-shifting mode, and the on-point performance from the Öhlins shocks and Brembo brakes, it delivers in the spirited department. It yields better fuel economy, too: 10.3 L/100 km combined for 2017, an improvement from 11.2 in 2016 (which was likely Volvo’s primary motivation for the change).
For me, what’s really missing in this model year over last is the sound. It just doesn’t have quite the level of grunt and snarl that, in my opinion, a car carrying a Polestar badge should. That said, if you’ve never driven one before, it’s entirely possibly you’d never know the difference.
Otherwise, and true to Volvo form, this is a car that Canadians will appreciate. The heated front seats, heated steering wheel, and heated windshield went a long way toward keeping us warm and comfortable during our long and wintry drive – in fact, the front sport seats are some of the most comfortable I’ve ever sat in. I wasn’t the least bit stiff or sore after driving for hours straight.
My one final gripe is that this interior was clearly designed a few years ago because there’s no logical place to keep a smartphone. I wanted to use Android Auto to route around traffic on the way home and Volvo’s infotainment systems don’t include smartphone app integration, so I ended up having to balance my phone precariously on the passenger seat so that it was close enough for me to shout voice commands at it.
Fix that and put back some more of the noise, and the Volvo V60 Polestar would be darned near perfect.
Where to stay
Quebec City is, of course, world famous for its annual carnival that takes over the entire city for three weeks each winter.
But what’s a better-kept secret is that if you visit in off-peak times – we went in January, just after the holidays – you can snag gorgeous hotel rooms mere steps outside the city walls for extremely reasonable rates.
Of course, that’s the run-of-the-mill option. For the truly adventurous, a 30-minute drive will take you to the Hôtel de Glace.
This is the famous ice hotel you’ve heard so much about. Since 2001 it had been built annually within or near the Quebec City limits, but this year marks its debut as part of the facilities at Village Vacances Valcartier, a massive family-friendly resort set in a valley 35 kilometres to the north.
It comes at a price, but this is an incomparable experience. Guests sleep in rooms – and beds – constructed entirely of snow and ice. There are 44 in total, and some feature amazingly intricate sculptures carved right into the walls. The facilities also include outdoor saunas and hot tubs, a 1,200 lb ice chandelier, a wedding chapel, and an on-site bar where my daughter got to sample maple water from a glass formed out of a block of pure ice.
What’s especially nice about having the hotel based at Valcartier is that it gives guests access to the rest of the resort’s facilities as well, which add up to the perfect winter playground. Outside there are over 30 snow tubing runs of varying speeds and difficulties, and inside is an indoor water park with slides, a wave pool, and an intense tubing river that finds ways to dump water on you from all directions.
Add in the spa, restaurants, and gift shops, and you can either get in a very full day trip from Quebec City, as we did, or stay at the resort – they have conventional indoor hotel rooms as well – and opt to go into the city for day trips from there. Either way, you won’t be bored for days.
What to see and do
There’s no need to plan much more about a trip to Quebec City than to spend the day walking. Much of Old Quebec is within an easy strolling distance, and all of it is so disarmingly charming that it feels like it’s out of a fairy tale. While we were visiting several feet of fresh snow had fallen recently, and my daughter was more than content to climb up and slide down the massive snowbanks and watch the local children wander between them with sleds in hand while I window-shopped.
We were staying just outside Porte Saint-Jean, a gate in one of the remaining sections of the walls surrounding Old Quebec. We walked through it in the morning and meandered somewhat aimlessly through the winding streets to end up at the Château Frontenac, where we paid tourist rates for some maple taffy on ice from the sugar shack outside (it was totally worth it) and walked over to Au 1884 for a ride on their toboggan hill, which takes you rocketing downhill parallel to the St. Lawrence River at speeds approaching 70 kilometres an hour.
The toboggan ride ends almost directly in front of the Funiculaire vertical railway, which we then rode down the cliff into the bottom section of Old Quebec. The railway drops you off right at the foot of la Rue du Petit-Champlain. It’s been called the most beautiful street in Canada, and I was hardly about to argue.
I was especially blown away by the city’s fabulous food scene. We didn’t eat a single disappointing meal while we were there – from perfect poutine, beef tartare, and chocolate-smothered crêpes at Le Veravin near the Marché du Vieux-Port, Quebec City’s answer to Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market; to Italian fare at Sapristi on Saint-Jean so authentic you could believe you were in Europe, this town has it all. My daughter even declared the steakhouse in our hotel, le Restaurant Beffroi, to be better than The Keg, which is her absolute favourite – so this should be considered high praise from her!
And if you get tired of the city and yearn for some nature, a 10-minute drive outside the city will take you to Montmorency Falls Park. The main waterfall is 275 feet tall, higher than Niagara Falls, and although many of the park’s facilities are closed in winter, you’ll still find locals here on any given day walking along the river banks or even rock climbing up the towering cliffs for exercise.
What’s impossible to leave Quebec City without is a deeply ingrained sense of its importance in our country’s history. So much of what made Canada what it is today was forged on this city’s nearly 500-year-old streets, and without its culture, its joie de vivre, and its magic, this country could never be the same.
This year, during Canada’s 150th anniversary, couldn’t possibly have made for a better time to discover it.
|Engine Displacement||2.0L||Model Tested||2017 Volvo V60 Polestar|
|Engine Cylinders||I4||Base Price||$69,000|
|Peak Horsepower||367 hp @ 6,000 rpm||A/C Tax||$100|
|Peak Torque||347 lb-ft @ 3,100– 5,100 rpm||Destination Fee||$2,015|
|Fuel Economy||11.8/8.5/10.3 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb||Price as Tested||$71,115|
|Cargo Space||430 L|