We all know plenty of people who spend the winter hibernating, and while I'm always down for a good reading-next-to-the-fire session (see below), winter isn't best enjoyed by ignoring it. Embracing the season is easily done with some smart layering and an appreciation of what can only be enjoyed this time of year — like ice, snow and super-crisp air stinging your cheeks.
On a recent visit to Quebec, the Canadian province that includes the cosmopolitan city of Montreal, as well as vast rural areas north of the city, I learned exactly how city dwellers and country Quebecois take full advantage of winter — long after the New Year has been rung in.
Montrealers are used to plenty of cold and snow. It doesn't keep them indoors, judging by the hundreds of people I saw walking to work and in the shopping districts, as well as throughout Chinatown, in minus 4 degree Fahrenheit (minus 20 Celsius) temperatures. So lesson one is simply: Get out there.
Of course, key to enjoying any northern city is smart dressing. A good pair of waterproof boots (they can be stylish, too, if you like), a high-quality jacket with a hood, and gloves that cover your fingers were on every Montrealer I saw when I set out for a half-hour walk to a cool vintage clothing store and vegan cafe, Eva B. I was similarly attired, so I was perfectly comfortable walking around the city like a local.
There are lots of great coffee spots in Montreal — like Cafe Parvis, pictured here — and many are decorated with all kinds of plants, a wonderful contrast to the snowy outdoors. (Photo: Starre Vartan)
Every eatery and store has winter vestibules, too, so you can step inside, unzip and shake off the cold before you enter a venue — and you don't freeze the place out when you open the door. These vestibules are one of the many small ways to handle the cold weather and make it less of an inconvenience and more a way of life. And I noticed a plethora of plant life used in the decor in this city, which lent both life, moisture and comfort to interior spaces in wintertime.
Montreal has a world-famous food culture and while I'm not a foodie, I couldn't help but be impressed by the freshness and variety of restaurants and cafes, even in my niche of eating vegetarian (and vegan whenever I can manage it). I had an incredible dinner at LOV, a vegan restaurant, which included just-for-me mixed cocktails, a hearty but healthy soup, and crunchy-fried veggie potstickers with a stick-to-your-ribs nut-butter dipping sauce. It's hardly the only such eatery — name your favorite food type and specialty and you can find it in Montreal. Especially, of course, French food, since this French-speaking city is an outpost of French culture. (The only large city where people speak French at a higher rate is Paris!)
But walking from one place to another is hardly a celebration of winter — for Montrealers, the true festivities are part of Montreal en Lumière, which runs the last two weeks of February each year. This festival began as a way to showcase the city's incredible chefs and food scene (and it still includes plenty of events for foodies), but has also expanded into a huge funscape of light, including rides, music, fires both large and small, and a host of activities that make the trip downtown at night more than worth it.
Spending the night outside in the depths of winter may not sound appealing, but it's strangely even more fun than a balmy summer night at a festival, probably because it's so unexpected.
The geniuses behind Montreal en Lumière scattered the site with fireplaces to accommodate groups of friends and larger ensembles, and people eagerly gathered around them to enjoy the light and warmth in between zip lining, an urban sledding track — which was much faster than expected! — a Ferris wheel, and a live DJ spinning tunes in a tent that provided snacks and hot drinks.
It was an impressive celebration of the season, never negating the fact it was winter. The impressive light display reflecting off the white snow all around only created a more magical feel than if it had been midsummer. And except for certain rides, all of this was free: a true urban winter celebration open to all.
Outside the city limits
There's plenty more to discover outside Montreal. I headed up north to the city of Saguenay, which sits on one of the longest fjords in the world at 146 miles (235 kilometers) long. It's all navigable by boat, with lovely small towns on both sides along its winding route. If you didn't know there were fjords in Canada, don't worry — I didn't either until I saw one in all its glory.
A fjord is defined by its depth, paired with high, narrow sides, and they are usually formed by glaciers that create valleys leading to the sea. Saguenay Fjord runs inland from near where the St. Lawrence River's mouth feeds into the Atlantic Ocean.
The area surrounding the fjord is a collection of regional and national parks, which are incredibly green, scenic and hikeable in the summer — and snow-covered and snowshoeable in the winter. Surrounded by the boreal forest, the region is a rural home to classic Canadian living with a French twist.
At the Cap Au Lest lodge, you can come as you are and they'll suit you up to enjoy almost any winter sport you can think of, from snowmobiling (electric-powered snowmobiles for a quieter ride are coming soon) to alpine skiing to nature hikes on snowshoes. When you're wearing the right gear, zipping along country roads or alongside city streets is a fun adventure, and the cold is one of the last things on your mind.
At the end of the day (or it could make up your whole day!), there are a host of Nordic-style spas to enjoy throughout the region. Or you might just like to curl up in front of a fire like the one at the homey cabins available in the Parc Nacional de Monts-Valin, like I did.
A snowstorm hardly kept me from exploring beyond the fireside, though, and I headed out into the park on a snowshoeing adventure through the woods and up to a lake. The nearby Valley of the Phantoms is a more hardcore hiking or snowshoeing spot that involves a special van with snowmobile "tires" to get you up into the the deep mountain areas.
Or how about ice fishing? While I didn't want to catch and kill any fish myself, it was still really interesting to see (and "try out") ice fishing, which is a popular local pastime. Out on the frozen fjord, entire villages of ice-fishing huts are set up for six weeks each winter, and some people who live in the area will spend weekends or full weeks out on the ice, truly getting "away from it all" in these seasonal villages (complete with street signs!).
Strangely enough, during my time in Quebec, I spent more time outside than I had in months — even though I live in a far balmier climate than Quebec's in the winter. There's something about a culture that really embraces winter that gets you outside. And once you're there, you remember how beautiful cold weather, snow, ice and the darkest season can really be.