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(Photograph courtesy Chataeu Mont-Sainte Anne)

Quebec’s Family-Friendly Traditions

In New York, where I live, this is the time of year where everyone either flees for warmer pastures, or heads for the hills…the snow-covered ones that is.

When Old Man Winter arrives, my family basically adopts a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude towards traveling. The only problem is, only half of us like to ski, leaving our weekend getaway options somewhat limited.

For the past three years, we’ve driven north to Quebec, where the locals not only embrace the cold, they celebrate it. We’ve partied at the city’s Winter Carnival, gone dog sledding through winding forest trails, ice-climbed at Montmorency Falls, and even stayed at the famous Hôtel de Glace.

This year I tried, yet again, to convince the holdouts to give skiing a try. After all, it’s one of the best seasons North America’s eastern coast has seen in a long while.

After a bit of digging, I found that Mont-Sainte Anne was promoting special ski vacation packages for kids. Better yet, it was located less than 30 miles from the Historic District of Old Quebec, which meant we could always stroll around Lower Town–and pick up a few legendary fried-dough “beaver tails” from the Queues de Castor Bakery in the process–if we wanted to take a break from the slopes.

The fact is, it’s not necessary to drive eight hours from our home and go through immigration just to find a family-friendly ski resort. After all, there is plenty of top-shelf skiing to be had in Upstate New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts. But that was precisely the point. By using our passports, we could turn an ordinary ski trip into a cultural immersion.

Our home base for the three-day stay at the Chateau Mont-Sainte-Anne would be the Penthouse Nordik, one of several newly renovated one and two-bedroom suites that easily slept our family of four. Its two-floor layout, which included an extra sofa bed, a washer and dryer, full kitchen, plasma TVs, Wi-Fi, and a wood-burning fireplace made it tempting not to stay indoors. (And that’s just what we did on the afternoon when the thermometer hit 6° F.)

Despite the promise of an excellent ski school, miles of beginner trails, and the convenience of being able to put on all your gear in the comfort of your room before heading straight out to the lifts, our two non-skiers still wouldn’t budge. Fortunately, I found an alternative.

Thanks to a tip from the hotel’s concierge, we learned that one of the world’s largest cross-country skiing centers was only a few miles away. Figuring that there was significantly less risk of serious injury, the family hold-outs agreed to give it a shot. It also didn’t hurt that cross-country skiing is an Olympic sport, which motivated our two boys even more.

Once there, Pierre from the Mont-Sainte-Anne Cross-Country Ski Centre give us a quick tutorial on the basics, and graciously joined us around the 2.3-mile beginner loop. As in downhill skiing, cross-country trails are conveniently marked with green, blue, and black–each denoting different difficulty levels. And with more than 130 miles of trails, even the most seasoned of skiers can challenge themselves.

The scenery isn’t too shabby either. Unlike downhill skiing, cross-country is done at a much more leisurely pace. As one of the boys described it, it’s like hiking with skis on your feet. So instead of seeing everything as a blur, you’re able to take in and appreciate the beauty of the surrounding winter wonderland as you pass it by. We even managed to spot a moose after our guide had spotted its tracks!

When my snowboarder son and I finally managed to get on the mountain for some downhill action, we had one more surprise in store. Stefan had never been on a gondola before (this is one of only a small handful in Eastern Canada), which for a young teenager was pretty cool (and “cool” is highest praise at his age). I wish more ski resorts in the Northeastern U.S. offered this kind of relief from frigid temps.

Then there was the “sugar shack,” located mid-mountain along the La Pichard Trail. To cozy up, the Québécois forgo American standbys like hot cocoa and cookies in favor of maple taffy. Made by pouring a ribbon of hot syrup on a bed of clean snow to let it harden until you can wrap it around a wooden stick to form a maple taffy lollipop. Delicious!

Back at the resort, we warmed ourselves in the outdoor spa and hot tub before settling in to watch a little curling on television–another Olympic tie-in–complete with French-speaking commentators. Seeing the kids fully enchanted with the Canadian culture, I suggested that perhaps we try another national tradition during next years visit: ice fishing! Given their reactions, I’m afraid this one might require a bit more convincing…

Rainer Jenss is a featured contributor for Intelligent Travel. Follow him on Twitter @JenssTravels.