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Affordable winter fun in Quebec’s countryside

When grey skies and flurries roll in during the dead of winter, many people flee to warmer destinations down south. However, in some places, winter is such a reality there’s nothing to do but embrace the weather. In the Eastern Townships of Quebec, the countryside nestled between Montreal and Quebec City, snow and associated winter activities are the main attraction. And with winter considered the off-season, the prices are sure to brighten anyone’s day.

Because snow covers the ground from January through much of April, the area has good reason to create a sturdy infrastructure for winter tourism. Resorts offer ski packages, parks groom trails, and towns host festivals and attractions. Visitors don’t have to look too hard to find opportunities for snow sports like skiing and snowshoeing, adventures such as dog sledding, and many other activities for children and adults alike. While people can fill their days outdoors, there’s plenty of opportunity to warm up and even luxuriate at night as the area owns comfortable lodging, gourmet dining, and heart-warming spas.

Many of the region’s offerings are cost-effective. Although the U.S./Canadian exchange rate is not as favorable to Americans as it used to be, travelers can still save about 10 percent. Plus, foreign visitors can still receive a tax refund on hotel stays and certain purchases. Some things such as hotels, downhill skiing, and even wine just come cheaper across the border. Also, total vacation costs are comparatively lower than those in other popular winter destinations like Colorado and Europe, and the area is easily accessible from most of the U.S. Layer the idea of off-peak pricing on top of these savings, and the Eastern Townships become one of the most affordable and satisfying winter destinations around.

Outdoor winter activities

Quebec’s Eastern Townships encompass lakes, woods, national parklands, and mountains that serve as the foothills of the Appalachians. This topography makes the area very conducive to a variety of outdoor activities. Some are cheaper than others, but all come with a high standard of quality and local flavor and authenticity.

With ski resorts in nearby Vermont charging around $60 to $80 for a full-day adult lift ticket, the Eastern Townships’ slopes are a bargain in comparison. One of the area’s best-kept secrets is the family-focused Owl’s Head, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary and remains privately run by the same owner since its humble beginnings. Here, adults will pay no more than $36 CAD for a full day of skiing. Mind-boggling promotions such as $15 CAD tickets on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and “Carte Blanche,” where skiers ride the lifts for $28 CAD and get their fifth visit free, bring the cost down further. Other area mountains, including Mont Orford, Bromont, and Mont Sutton also remain affordable, with lift tickets in the $40 CAD range. The Eastern Townships have some of the biggest mountains in Quebec, which means small prices don’t necessarily mean small skiing.

Recently, dog sledding as a recreational activity has been gaining popularity in winter destinations, and Quebec is no exception. However, as outfitters are cropping up to meet tourism interest, not all canine adventures are the same. Massawippi Aventures in East Hereford is the real thing. Musher, Jean-Phillippe Bourssa, owns 40 dogs, mostly Siberian huskies, that are well cared for and more than excited to run. Excursions last a minimum of a half-day and start at $95 CAD. Although the price might seem a little steep, the overall value of the experience makes it worthwhile. Jean-Phillippe and his companion, Joannie, welcome guests into their home and offer a complete experience on the ride, which includes a camp fire stop with hot chocolate and native bread cooked fireside. Also, visitors don’t just ride in the sled; they get to drive, but only after receiving a thorough lesson on how to mush and keep the dogs safe en route.

Some of the best winter activities in the Eastern Townships are also the least expensive, especially if you already own the right equipment. Snowshoeing has become very popular, and there are many places throughout Quebec to go—basically anywhere there is snow-covered land, even in urban areas like Montreal and Quebec City. For those who don’t own shoes, it’s best to go to recreational areas that supply rentals such as Mont-Orford National Park, part of Quebec’s SÉPAQ park network, near the town of Magog. The area is centrally located and offers upwards of 14 miles of marked trails, making it a pleasurable option for beginners and experts alike. Visit the SÉPAQ website for details on Mont-Orford and other Quebec National Parks. Most charge a nominal entrance fee, and day passes for winter activities like snow shoeing or cross-country skiing cost less than $10 CAD per person.

Like the national parks, Parc de la Gorge in Coaticook provides snowshoe rentals, as well as various other winter activities including cross-country skiing, tube sledding, snowmobiling, and sleigh riding. This recreational area has nearly 19 miles of trails, stunning country scenery with a covered bridge, and the longest suspension footbridge in the world crossing its famed gorge. Park admission costs $7 CAD.

Ice Skating is another activity that’s pretty universal in the region. Many of Quebec’s cities, small towns, and resorts have outdoor rinks for anyone wanting to attempt a Michelle Kwan inspired change-of-edge spiral. The town of Magog offers something different in the form of a 1.5 mile ice path that allows you to skate continuously alongside Lake Memphrémagog free of charge. Everyone comes out, including couples, grandmothers, and even infants resting in strollers being pushed by their parents. If possible, it’s a good idea to keep a pair of blades in the trunk because you never know when an opportunity to stake might come. In Magog, skate rentals are available at Club Multiforme (819-868-0444), located about a mile away from the skating path, for $8 per hour plus taxes.

For more information on outdoor activities, visit the Eastern Townships website.

Other winter activities

Not all rewarding winter activities require down jackets and thermal underclothes. The Eastern Townships have several charming villages worth exploring. Knowlton and Magog are known for their shops, which tend to put just about everything on sale up to 70 percent off in January. Knowlton boasts fine clothing stores, gift shops, and antiques, while the considerably larger Magog displays a fine collection of higher end sporting stores, art galleries, and boutiques.

Perhaps due to its French influence, gourmet dining is one of the region’s biggest sources of pride. Many chefs serve complex, multi-course meals and prefer to use local ingredients from the area’s many farms. One chef, Ginette Breton of L’Iris Bleu in East Bolton, scours the region for the best Quebec ingredients and even travels as far as Montreal. In most restaurants, four- or five-course fixed-price meals (called table d’hote) cost $30 CAD, a good value considering the quality of food and care of preparation. Wines lists offer a good bargain as well with many bottles, imported from all over the world, also in the $30 range.

In late winter and early spring, one of Quebec’s biggest traditions, the sugar shack, comes to life. This is the time to tap the maple trees and extract the syrup. To celebrate the sugar harvest, the Quebecois serve a feast with meats, beans, and even snow all dressed with maple syrup. During the season, most sugar cabins serve several seatings per day accompanied by traditional music and dancing. Haut Bois Normand in Eastman also offers other forms of winter entertainment including tube sledding and a tree climbing adventure to attract visitors. Meals typically cost between $14 and $25 CAD. For more information on sugar shacks, visit the Eastern Townships or Bonjour Quebec websites.

Where to stay

The Eastern Townships offer a variety of accommodations that often exude country elegance. And with winter being off-peak, the prices remain quite affordable, usually around 20 percent less than summer rates. Some of the most popular types are auberges (or country inns) and B&Bs, which dot the entire region. Rates generally cost between $60 and $150 CAD in the wintertime. Some properties such as L’Iris Bleu and Chez la Mère Poule in East Bolton include breakfast and a five- or six-course gourmet meal. Meals are typically cooked by the owner in an intimate setting with only a handful of other diners.

Skiers will have some of the best luck right at the ski resorts where there’s an array of ski-in, ski-out options. Owl’s Head, for instance, offers apartment-like lodging with bedroom(s), kitchen, living room, and bath starting at $167 CAD for two people for two nights, less for more nights or simpler rooms. However, most area accommodations welcome skiers and offer special value-add packages that include lift tickets and even snowshoe or ski equipment rentals.

On the more upscale end, the Eastern Townships offer several spa resorts, which promote healthy gastronomy, outdoor activity, wellness, and comfort. Hotel Chéribourg near Mont Orford has affordable lodging packages that include meals, lift tickets, and treatments from $75 to $225 CAD. The hotel has ample-sized rooms, fitness services, and country lodge-style charm. Spa Eastman, located in the town of Eastman, is the second oldest destination spa in the world and offers the highest standard of excellence focused on well-being. Guests don’t just spend the night and receive treatments; instead, they live at the spa holistically, eating carefully prepared organic foods, attending lectures, and partaking in physical or relaxing activities that promote health. Aside from the spa being around for a long time, it remains on trend by continuously updating its spa menu, and is considered one of the top 100 spas in the world. With all-inclusive packages costing 50 to 60 percent less than comparable destination spas in the U.S, the Spa Eastman experience is a tremendous all-round value.

Along with off-season prices, one of the biggest added benefits of Quebec hotels in winter is they often come with fireplaces, hot tubs, saunas, and whirlpool tubs, making it easy to be warm in the cold. However, it’s best to check in advance with individual properties to guarantee these amenities.

For more information accommodations, visit the Eastern Townships website.

Getting there

The best way to fully explore the Eastern Township’s country roads and scenery is by car. The area is easily accessible to much of the Northeast, particularly New England, and is only about a four hours’ drive from Boston and Hartford. Visitors from other areas can fly into Montreal (1½ hours), Quebec City (2½ hours), or Burlington, VT (1¾ hours), and then rent a car. With the recent arrival of JetBlue, Burlington has become an especially attractive option.

For those driving from the U.S., it’s wise to fill up the tank as much as possible before crossing the border because gas in Canada is much more expensive. Also, be careful when driving in Quebec due to snowy road conditions and unpaved roads. If possible, put snow tires on the car before leaving.

When cold weather hits, it’s easy to fall into gloom. However, very few places put on as cheery a countenance as the Quebec countryside. Friendly locals who welcome tourists combined with stellar activities and good prices surely make the Eastern Townships a top spot for a country winter getaway.

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