Québec City: A Real Winter Wonderland
Daniel and I got married on New Year's Eve, and it has become our goal to spend our anniversary in a new location every year. This year's trip was planned entirely by him; it was a complete surprise to me, and the location was only disclosed after I (finally) guessed it - we were going to Québec City! We packed ourselves, and our winter boots, into the car and started north. Because I had only learned where we were going that morning, I didn't have any time to prepare. I didn't know much about the province, and therefore didn't really know what to expect. I only knew that it was "European-esque," that everyone spoke French, and that it would - most certainly - be snowing.
But Québec City blew us away. We've spent time in different cultures and surrounded ourselves with different languages before - but to experience a culture so distinctly different from our own only after driving 8 hours was almost disorienting. (That's not typical for Americans!) It was - as it always is - exhilarating. Here are our favorite experiences that Québec City gave us:
New Year's Eve Celebration
Our first night in Québec City was spent at the New Year's Eve party in the Grand Allée. This party had traditional music - complete with a pulsing electronic track, and several live string musicians - and their local radio station hosts chatting excitedly in French. It seemed like the entire town had come to sing along to the music, hundreds of bodies dancing together in a snow-covered field. There were rows of bars, restaurants and 'Café Starbucks' filled to the brim with people who had made it out to celebrate. As the sun fell, the Christmas lights strung across the streets strummed in unison with the lights projecting from the stage. It was 20 degrees Fahrenheit that night, but we found ourselves comfortably warm within the mass of dancing people.
Near midnight, everyone squeezed onto the snow-covered field. The music pulsed through all of us, fireworks and flames spitting out of the stage, beer splashing out of cups and bottles as the crowd rocked. Twenty seconds until midnight, and the thousands of people became one voice - counting down, in French, to the New Year. Daniel and I chimed in, our English being swallowed up in the pounding music and the yells of the crowd. The clock struck midnight and the field was taken over by celebratory screams, pounding music, and a brilliant display of fireworks. No matter your language, culture or creed - everyone had the same objective in that particular moment: celebrate a new beginning, and tip a hat to the past.
Québec City hosted a wonderful New Year's party. The city was dressed up beautifully, the crowd was excited (and polite! We squeezed in and out of the crowd to go to the bathroom - twice. That would not be tolerated in New York.) It wasn't regulated by heavy police presence, and it didn't feel like it needed to be. I'm a sucker for New Year's parties in general, but I'd definitely recommend a trip to Québec City over the New Year if you're looking for an exhilarating celebration that isn't as exhausting and militarized as, say, Times Square.
The next morning we woke up, and I really felt like we just couldn't top last night's experience. But after breakfast and showers, Daniel surprised me with his next anniversary gift: we were going to spend the day dog sledding!
Dog sledding was #1 on my Bucket List (and I live religiously by my bucket list.) And not just 'any' dog sledding. I wanted to go dog sledding in an environment that fully embodied the image I had built throughout my Balto-loving childhood. So when Daniel told me we were going to be driving to an island off the coast of Québec City - an island inhabited by long, snow-covered Canadian trails - my heart burst with excitement.
We bundled up - boots, three pairs of socks, two pairs of leggings, a sweatshirt and a winter coat, a scarf and a hat - and began our journey to check off a Bucket List item on the first day of the year. When we got to the cabin where we had booked our sled, we communicated our intentions in clunky French, shimmied into our optional snowsuits (because what's another layer?), and followed an instructor out to the dogs and sleds.
My brain tried to take in every detail at once - the dogs were full of wild excitement. They were beautiful creatures - full-bodied and powerful with giant, webbed paws and silky coats. They communicated with each other in ways I was familiar with because of my experience with dogs, but also in ways I read about in books regarding communication among wolf packs. These weren't the soft, domestic dogs I was used to. While getting settled on our own sleigh, our Alpha chewed through two harnesses in just seconds because he didn't like the fact that he couldn't run while the harness was on and the sleigh was braked.
Before they loosed our team, we went over a short series of instructions that we hardly digested. Lean into your sleigh to help the dogs turn, push down on the metal bar to brake, don't yell at the dogs, trust them. Daniel and I had our very own sleigh; he was going to be the musher, and I was his passenger. We waited in anticipation - hundreds of dogs barking and howling around us - and then the supervisors untied our team and we were off! We took off across the snow, following the sleighs in front of us, and we automatically began laughing with exhilaration. These dogs were fast, and their excitement was contagious!
We whipped across the snow and, in just moments, left the farm's property and arrived at the forest's edge. Then our team stopped. Our Alpha pulled the team to the side and started sniffing the bushes. (That's a behavior I was familiar with in domestic dogs!) We couldn't - and didn't know how - to get them to start going. It was actually sort of hysterical. The few teams that were behind us flashed by while our dogs sniffed around and peed, completely unphased by their much-more-focused peers. After the last team had been loosed, a supervisor back at the farm jumped onto his snow mobile and came to our rescue. When he reached us, he only spoke French, so he couldn't tell us what was going on. We only watched as he unharnessed our Alpha (the same one who had chewed through two harnesses) and replaced him with another dog. Then we were really off!
This Alpha was a bit slower, but we still skimmed across the snow and into the forest - my heart leaping. One of the benefits of our little mishap was, instead of spending our time following closely behind another sleigh, it felt like we had the entire Canadian forest all to our own. I tried to take it all in; it was beautiful. The evergreen trees blanketed in white, the endless stretch of trails ahead of us, and our dogs skimming across the snow at just the right pace to make the journey relaxing. Throughout the hour while we were on the sleigh, we passed through forest, fields and coast. Everything was crystal white, untouched and silent. Snow fell lightly all around us, and our dogs would sometimes voice their joy in short barks - they were loving this as much as we were. Occasionally, the supervisors would ride by on trails designated for their snowmobiles, which would only eg our dogs on faster. It soon became apparent that Daniel was a 'natural' musher (who knew?) He easily maneuvered the sleigh, mastered the braking, pushed when we got stuck (the trail had a few quick dips, so it happened occasionally), and the dogs listened to him! We picked up a few words from the supervisors - the easiest being a quick 'yip yip!' - and we watched them respond by swiveling back their ears, then picking up their pace.
There was one moment where a dog fight broke out - the two closest to our sleigh got in a little tussle, and it stalled our entire team while they worked it out amongst themselves. It was interesting to watch, actually, because the other four dogs just kind of panted and lulled happily while waiting for their peers to sort out their silly argument.
For the rest of the ride, it was just Daniel and I chatting in the wonderland of a forest, yelling encouragement to the happy dogs, and just trying to take in the fact that we were actually dog sledding.
After we returned to the farm, we were allowed to meet and thank our team. My favorite one, the one we 'named' Happy, was actually called Louie and it was his birthday! We gave Louie a few birthday pats, then got to spend as much time as we wanted with the rest of the teams, and in a pen of 5 month old puppies! A.k.a. heaven. At the risk of sounding super cheesy: it was an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Quick notes about dog sledding:
They poop while they run. Fun fact.
If they get thirsty during their run, they'll reach across to the side of the trail and grab some snow!
The dogs know just where to go - there were a few splits in the path and Daniel and I were unsure which direction to go in - but the dogs didn't hesitate when they picked one, so we went with it! And they returned us!
We really, really, really recommend it.
The Old City
The next day was spent exploring Québec City, and somehow that day managed to parallel the magic of the day before. We left our hotel early, and began wandering. First, we stumbled across a giant toboggan slide. So, of course, we jumped on that opportunity right away. (And at $2 a person. Why not?)
Throughout the day, our direction-less wandering brought us by beautiful architecture, artists selling their work, melancholy saxophonists, horse drawn carriages, and lots of hills. But when we descended the (multiple) levels of staircases into the Old City, I kind of just geeked out. It was a literal 'Winter Wonderland.' There were stone houses, sparkling Christmas lights, red ribbons wrapping the doorways, dripping icicles and a deep blanket of snow. Everyone was wrapped in their scarves and hats, bustling through the car-less corridors. We spent our day going in and out of shops, watching glass-blowers, and sampling Québécois foods.
My favorite moment was when we found a courtyard in the heart of the Old City with snow dusted chairs surrounding a giant fireplace. We sat there, our boots propped up against the fire, and listened to a four carolers harmonizing in French behind us. 'The First Noel,' 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer' ... Just watch this clip and take in the real, live magic.
We tried our first real order of poutine (I thought it was delicious!) and helped ourselves to some homemade 'maple candies' that were poured fresh onto a sheet of ice to cool, and then wrapped onto a popsicle stick right in front of our eyes. (Imagine maple syrup in the consistency of melting caramel - aka to die for.)
The last day, we packed up and checked out of our hotel with one last Québécois destination in mind: Montmorcency Falls. The waterfall was an apparent must-see, so - even though we had just visited Niagara a few months prior - we decided to visit. It was beautiful, and I really enjoyed the cable car ride, but it was also colder than expected and we had a 8+ hour drive ahead of us, so we just snapped a few pictures and then left. While riding the cable car, we saw people hiking down at the waterfall's base - maybe we'll do that next time.
Tip: enter at the parking lot at the top of the falls if you don't want to ride (and pay for) the cable car. It was surprisingly expensive - $38 (CAD) for two round-trip rides, plus parking.
Our attempt at discovering true Québécois cuisine led us to sampling, most notably, these delicious meals:
Dessert crepes at Au Petit Coin Breton
Shepherd's Pie (her) and honey mustard ham (him) with a shared plate of 'rabbit wings' at La Buche
Poutine (gravy and sausage covered fries) at Queues De Castor
One Of Our Favorite Travel Destinations
Québec City is beautiful, magical, quaint, creative and content. Even the snow seemed to fall in a floating, dreamy, 'time is slower here' sort of way. The city is rich in culture and history, and boasts some of the sweetest locals, and some of the sweetest treats. We definitely recommend a visit in the winter; along with the experiences highlighted in this blog, there are plenty of other things we wish we could have had the time to do, including the Winter Carnival and the Ice Hotel. We will certainly be back!