Wait, did I really just say you should visit Quebec City in the winter?? Yes, I did and I will give you three reasons why. If you live where it is cold, you tend to get cabin fever after being trapped inside due to cold and snow. Except for an occasional ski weekend or sledding on a snow day, most families tend to stay indoors where it is warm. But it gets sooo boring. How many family movies can you watch? Sometimes you just want to DO SOMETHING!
This is where the Quebecois get it right. Instead of staying inside, they give families a reason to get outside, embrace winter and have fun! While the average temperature in January ranges from 0° to 19°F, we visited on what was probably the coldest weekend of the year. The temperature never rose above 7° with wind chills of -25° or lower. Yes, it was cold and no, I’m not someone who loves the cold. In fact, I annually consider moving south because I’d tired of my toes feeling like ice cubes. But I’m telling you, we had a blast!
If you are up for a little winter adventure, here is why you should visit Quebec City next winter:
Carnaval de Quebec
Many cities host Carnival festivities, Mardi Gras in New Orleans being one of the most well-known, but not many of these festivals are family friendly. When the Carnaval de Quebec first started 61 years ago, it was also a big party; but in the last 15 years they have done a complete 180 to create a true family-friendly event. Hosted in downtown Quebec City, just outside the old city walls, the city transforms the Plains of Abraham into Le Monde de Bonhomme – The World of Bonhomme, a jolly, giant snowman more popular for Quebecois kids than Santa Clause.
For 17 days in late January and February, a $15 ticket provides unlimited access to the festival and the many free activities offered such as sledding, an ice slide, bumper boats on ice, carnival games for little ones, floor hockey, a human foosball game, access to Bonhomme’s ice castle, and a stroll among the many incredible snow sculptures. For nominal additional fees you can go for a dog sled ride, go ice fishing, or join in on a sleigh ride.
There are also special events that take place throughout the three weekends, making every experience fun and unique to keep families coming back again and again. We got to laugh at the brave (or crazy) people who decided to take a “snow bath” with Bonhomme and attend one of the two night parades that take place during the festival. Other events include an ice canoe race, snowshoeing competitions, and sleigh races.
While the event attracts around 500,000 people each year, 46 percent of which come from outside Quebec, since it is spread out over 17 days the festival didn’t feel at all crowded. Many families were pulling young children around on sleighs and lines for activities weren’t longer than 10 minutes at most. There were also warming tents with snack bars and a tented bistro with live music to provide an opportunity to get out of the cold and warm up (a bit.)
Snow Tubing at Villages Vacances Valcartier
Billed as the “largest winter playground in America,” Villages Vacances Valcartier, located just 20 minutes outside of Quebec City, is a fantasy world for families. Offering more than 35 slides, 5,000 inner tubes and 17 mechanical lifts, it is easy to spend all day sliding, but Valcartier also offers ice skating and ice carting (think go karts on ice.)
The medieval-themed lodge offers plenty of room to relax, warm up, and eat with nine restaurants, six reception rooms, locker rentals, an arcade, and plenty of room to host your own picnic. Outside, pop music plays and costumed-animal mascots walk around greeting families. Join in on a game and you might win a ticket for a free maple taffy at the sugar shack.
At first, we were a little intimidated by the height and speed of some of the tubing trails, with slides like Everest (which doubles as a water slide in the summer), reaching speeds of 80 km/hr. But luckily for us, with 35 trails, there are plenty of green (easy) and blue (intermediate) options for us to choose from without needing to venture into the black or double black diamonds. In fact, the most challenging part may be aiming correctly to sit in the moving tube to get pulled up the mountain by towrope.
In addition to the standard tubing runs, Valcartier also offers options like snow rafting, a half pipe, and the Tornado spinning tubes that seat three to eight people. If you go, chances are you’ll also be telling your kids “this is the last run…” about ten times because they aren’t going to want to leave. Day passes start at $10.44 for kids 3-4, $20.87 for kids 5-11 and $26.09 for 12 and up.
Hotel de Glace
Would your family be brave enough for a stay at the Ice Hotel? I’ve had friends with elementary school age kids that stayed here and apparently children as young as six months old have stayed at the Ice Hotel! We opted for the much warmer Hilton Quebec, just across the street from the winter carnival; but you don’t have to stay at the Ice Hotel to get experience this frozen wonder. In fact, even if you are an overnight guest, you can only be in your room from 8 pm to 9 am because the rest of the time the hotel is open for tours.
Hotel de Glace offers family tour rates of $45.00 CA, as well as individual tickets and cocktail packages. Your basic ticket will allow you access to the Hotel de Glace, where you are free to roam the lobby and check out as many of the hotel’s 44 themed rooms and suites. Each year, the hotel opens in early January and stays open for as long as weather permits, with a different theme each year. In 2015, the theme was Space-Time, and each room transported you to a time in the past, present or future.
In addition to the lobby and rooms, visitors can enjoy an ice slide and stop by for a cocktail in the ice bar. Served in glasses hewn from chunks of ice, the Hotel de Glace offers a fun array of fanciful cocktails from something more tropical to those that embrace the Quebec culture like the maple martini.
Since it was -5 degrees inside the hotel when we visited, it was hard to imagine what it would be like at night but apparently guests stay pretty toasty. First you warm up in an outdoor sauna before crawling into a Nordic sleeping bag, which is laid on top of a comfy mattress atop your ice bed. Some suites offer a fireplace but don’t be fooled, they are for appearances only and have been modified to not throw off heat. I would be up for trying it if only there was an en suite bathroom (heated preferably), but since my daughter is cold at home under 5 blankets, I didn’t think it would be a good choice for our family but we had a lot of fun visiting and imagining a different sort of family vacation.
So have I convinced you that Quebec City is a great place for a winter family trip? Just remember a few tips if you go:
- Dress in layers
- Wear wool vs cotton
- Handwarmers and footwarmers are a must
- Bring a ski mask or baklava to protect your face
- Stock up on tissues, lip balm, and Aquaphor or something to prevent windburn
- There is nothing strange about walking around in snow pants – in fact, you’d be crazy not to
- Ski goggles or sunglasses would be helpful to keep wind and snow out of your face, especially when snow tubing
Note: Our visit to Quebec City was hosted by Tourism Quebec, but I have been excited to visit Quebec for years, especially after learning about Carnaval. I can assure you that all opinions are my own.