We met someone by the yams the other day who told us her son lives in Montreal now, and we just melted. It wasn’t the yams making us melt, either. Just the mention of that magic destination in the middle of winter started a flood of warm Canadian memories.
We have seen Montreal from both sides now, as a working journalist on assignment for Better Homes and Gardens and a plain old working stiff visiting a large client, a printer (a huge printer nonetheless, but still a printer) whose main office was on the gritty side of town, in the environs of Monsieur Donut and undoubtedly a poutine joint or two. And we love it either way … both ways.
We love Montreal and Quebec in general, and we especially love it in the winter. It’s why we cheat at Duolingo attempting to learn French. Quebec is easy to get to, especially by train from New York, it’s cosmopolitan and provincial at the same time, the food is wonderful (especially if you like poutine and BeaverTails), and the winter-sports scene is almost indescribably … pleasant.
People are eschewing a pleasant winter-sports scene in favor of something more extreme, and we don’t entirely get it, not after spending any length of time in the Laurentians. East Coasters have been coming to Quebec for the winter sports since the turn of the last century, and that unbroken heritage of ski trips and ski trains makes for a very civilized, very hospitable ski destination, with enough of the extreme stuff to satisfy all but the most extreme.
Don’t ski? No problem. The winter carnival in Quebec City is the best of its kind in North America. Sorry, St. Paul and Saranac. Too bad, Michigan Tech. There is something magical about the Carnaval de Quebec. Running from Jan. 30 through Feb. 12, the Carnaval is one big party celebrating winter and the uniquely French-Canadian embrace of the grim and terrible – in this case, cold and darkness.
How do you ward off the cold? By dressing warmly in layers of down and the thickest, clunkiest Sorels you can find, and by drinking Caribou, a hard-hitting concoction of brandy, vodka, sherry, and port.
How do you defy the darkness? By spectacularly lighting the splendid Chateau Frontenac and building more castles out of ice, and lighting them. Add in ice skating, skijoring (skiing behind horses), ice slides, canoe races, ice rafting, snow-sculpture contests, and so much more, and the Carnaval is a celebration worth a trip north itsownself.
But we can’t forget the skiing, since skiing is one of the main reasons (outside of Carnaval and Montreal being, well, Montreal) to make a trip to Quebec in the winter. Twelve ski resorts are scattered along Route 117 north out of Montreal, and all have their charms. No. 1 on most people’s lists is Tremblant, and for many good reasons: It has the most runs by far, the highest elevation, the greatest numbers and quality of amenities, and the most sophisticated après-ski scene. The New York Times calls Tremblant “the closest thing you get to the Alps without blowing your budget on an overseas flight,” and you know they don’t lie.
If you want to zig when the others zag, are skiing with kids, or just want to save a little money, consider Mont Blanc, at least for a day of your trip. Its facilities are more family-friendly without sacrificing that French Alps feel, and the lift-ticket prices give you a whole lot of runs for your money.
The best ways to get to these destinations from Montreal or Quebec are to fly or rent a car. However, one of the best ways to get to Montreal is to take Amtrak from Manhattan or other stops in New York State. The Adirondack runs daily from Penn Station to Montreal, is inexpensive, and is extremely scenic any time of year. Once you hit Montreal, grab your car, bunk down for the night at an historic boutique hotel like the Hotel Gault, and you’ll be ready for that big ski run in the morning. Or not. Maybe you’ll be seduced by a smoked-meat sandwich at Schwartz’s and decide not to leave. It’s been known to happen.