QUEBEC’S A GOOD BET
With its snowy cities and mountains, hot air balloon rides and delicious maple syrup, this Canadian region is perfect for a bracing winter break
There are moments we question our own sanity. Mine comes as I clamber into a wicker basket attached to a giant balloon being blasted by a propane flame. It’s 250 years since the French Montgolfier brothers took off in the world’s first ever hot air balloon and, as my modern version of their invention floats off the ground and into the sky, it seems fitting to be doing this in the French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada.
This large region of eastern Canada, which is three times the size of France and stretches all the way from Newfoundland to Ontario, has remained fiercely francophone.
Its people consider themselves Quebecois rather than Canadian, with Celine Dion and Justin Trudeau among its most famous exports.
I’m in southern Quebec and, as my hot air balloon drifts gracefully above orchards and vineyards, the fear of only having a basket between my feet and the ground 3,000ft below evaporates. We glide over fields ripe with corn, squash and pumpkins and the skyline of Montreal is visible in the distance.
Back on the ground the best way to explore is by car, with four-star hotel rooms averaging around £85 a night. Country roads are lined with places to sample local produce, especially cider and wine.
At Le Mas des Patriotes, Quebec’s first female winemaker talks of the challenges of growing grapes in a country where winters are harsh (temperatures can drop to minus 35c) and summers hot.
‘Mine are organic wines for the table, to go with food,’ she says. Then there’s maple syrup — the maple leaf is Canada’s national symbol after all.
The Sucrerie de la Montagne is a sugar shack on a maple farm where farmer Stefan demonstrates how they tap water from the trees and slow boil it into syrup. he almost sells it as a health food. ‘It’s full of minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and, of course, calories,’ he explains. Ignore those calories as you tuck into their lumberjack lunch of homemade meatballs, egg flan, mashed potatoes and sugar pie, topped with a ‘healthy’ drizzle of maple syrup.
Much of southern Quebec borders the U.S. and its topography is similar to that of Vermont — forested mountains and lakes which lend themselves to outdoor pursuits: skiing in winter; hiking and boating all year round. The best way to burn off that syrup is by climbing a mountain (the tallest is only 2,100ft) or by pedalling along Quebec’s long- distance cycle path, the Veloroute Gourmande.
After a few days in southern Quebec I head west to the Laurentian Mountains and the esterel resort, set on the banks of Lake Dupuis. room décor is rustic chic, with voiles draped over beds and faux log fires. The hotel has a beach, pool and hot tubs, but the showstopper is the lake.
Take out a kayak or pontoon boat and you’ll discover discreet mansions kissing its shores round every bend. Some have seaplanes parked in their front gardens alongside a couple of Adirondack chairs. Who owns them? rich people, that’s for sure.
I can’t leave without visiting Quebec’s most popular mountain resort Mont-Tremblant, 80 miles north of Montreal. When it’s snowy this is one of the region’s premier ski areas, but I’m here just before the new season starts and so I ride the gondola up and hike back down. A dense forest trail eventually leads into open pastures where I’m greeted by a vista of autumn foliage at its finest.
I end my stay at Tremblant’s Scandinavian Spa, a series of baths heated to varying temperatures set in the forest. For maximum health benefit guests are encouraged to bathe in cycles; hot soaks followed by cold.
Nicely warmed up I head for the ultimate cooling dip in the freezing mountain river. The water’s so cold that it burns to enter and my nanosecond plunge is followed by an instant scarper. But then the endorphins start to kick in and I find myself returning for a second, longer fix.
And that sums up Quebec. Visit once and you’ll find yourself wanting to go back for more.