Travel: Winter wonderland dreams come true in Quebec
With an average annual snowfall of more than 10ft, a white Christmas is almost guaranteed in the Canadian province of Quebec. Ed Elliot wraps up warm to experience the sub-zero splendour
WIND-CHILL intensifies the bitter, wintry conditions as the eight dogs ahead of me pound across the ice-cold ground and pick up speed. We quickly reach a peak and then drop suddenly, curving to the left as a blur of white-capped fir trees flies past on either side.
It is minus-10 degrees, and I am dog-sledding during the first morning of a trip to discover the delights of wintertime in Quebec. With my feet perched precariously on a thin wedge of wood at the back of the sleigh, I grip tightly to a crescent-shaped handle in the hope of preventing a swift descent into the deep, powdery snow.
The action takes place in the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains in the south of Canada's largest province. Aside from the intermittent howls of the huskies and the incomprehensible calls of the musher, the crunch of the crisp surface beneath us is the only sound which resonates.
We duck and dodge an abundance of branches, accelerating along the trail until the forest clears and the land opens up beside a shimmering frozen lake.
Covering almost 600,000 square miles, Quebec is the largest French-speaking territory on the planet (it's nearly three times the size of France).
Snow falls for more than four months of the year here, and sledding – traditionally used for transportation and hunting – is just one of the winter pursuits I've come to try.
The topography appears tailor-made for skiing, but there are plenty of adrenaline-fuelled alternatives for those looking to go off-piste. I skip the ski slopes in favour of a thrill requiring considerably less skill, and find myself sliding downhill at speed in a giant rubber ring, as I experience tubing in the nearby resort of Mont-Tremblant.
With its brightly-coloured buildings creating the feel of miniature model village, this lively adventure hub is nestled at the base of the mountain of the same name and packed with restaurants, shops and bars.
The centre is easily seen on foot, but, eager to explore the vast surrounding landscape, I swap the large tubing tyre for two smaller ones to have a go at the increasingly-popular fat biking.
Featuring oversized tyres for extra traction, these off-road bicycles are specifically designed for riding on snow.
Plenty of pedal power is required but the tranquil scenery, concealed by an immaculate white blanket, more than compensates for the physical exertion.
I pass a handful of cross-country skiers before being momentarily distracted by a young deer attempting to navigate through snow so deep, its legs disappear with every step.
The lone fawn's struggles to traverse the tricky terrain mirror my own, but I soon lose sympathy as it breaks free and darts into the distance as the daylight begins to dim.
Much like the clothing required here between November and March, there are multiple layers to this part of the world and perhaps the best way to fully embrace a Quebec winter is to combine the energetic activities of the countryside with the culture of a city break.
Cosmopolitan Montreal, with its multilingual natives, fine dining, and mix of American-style skyscrapers and European colonial architecture, has plenty to offer, but the true heart of French Canada is found in the provincial capital.
Situated around 160 miles north-east of its larger neighbour, quaint Quebec City exudes charm. It is North America's only walled city and gazes down on the mighty St Lawrence river from its lofty perch atop the cliffs of Cap Diamant.
Known to residents simply as Quebec – from the Algonquian word Kebec, meaning 'where the river narrows' – the Unesco World Heritage Site is inextricably linked to its waterway. Numerous species of whale can be spotted further upstream, but it is not necessary to venture so far in search of natural beauty.
Considerably higher than Niagara, Montmorency Falls lies just eight miles outside the city. Water rumbles below my feet and then cascades over the 83-metre drop as I cross the suspension bridge which spans the width of the waterfall.
The aerial views are spectacular, but the attraction is even more breathtaking from the bottom during the coldest months, when a large cone of ice – colloquially called 'the Sugarloaf' – forms due to spray freezing as it rises.
Impressive ice structures are not only confined to the outskirts of the city.
Chiselled frozen sculptures, created for the Carnaval de Quebec - a winter festival held annually since 1955 – adorn city centre pavements during the early weeks of the year.
I wander past them as I venture through narrow cobblestone streets, which link the riverside to the old town and board the 19th century funicular. The cable railway requires little time to complete the 59-metre ascent to the haute ville and leaves me standing on the Terrasse Dufferin.
Offering panoramic views across the river, the elevated promenade stretches for 425 metres and is the perfect place for a stroll. It also runs parallel to the city's piece de resistance.
Reportedly the most photographed hotel in the world, the imposing Le Chateau Frontenac was completed in 1893. Its green copper turrets and slanted roofs dominate the skyline, while nearby ornamental cannons remind of the area's fortified past.
Visitors encounter no hostility as they enter these days, though.
They can join skaters in the rink outside the Palais Montcalm music hall, sink fishing lines into carefully drilled holes in the old port, or hurtle down the historic toboggan track.
Conveniently, the three aisles of ice, first opened in 1884, are located a stone's throw from the chateau and, unable to resist the opportunity of one last thrill, I drag a sleigh to the summit of the wooden structure.
A bracing breeze sweeps in from the frosty river before my momentum builds, and the familiar, intense feeling returns as bright lights illuminate the city. Sliding to a halt, I contemplate my first trip north of the US border.
I arrived confident that swapping the bleak UK weather for somewhere far colder would be more than worthwhile and – thanks to the Quebecois joie de vivre for this time of year – left convinced. Winter here is a season which is enjoyed rather than endured.
:: WOW air (wowair.co.uk) operates low-cost flights from London Gatwick to Montreal (via Reykjavik) daily, and from Bristol and Edinburgh up to five times a week, with prices starting from £139.99.
:: A single Via Rail ticket between Quebec City and Montreal costs from CAD$33 (viarail.ca/en).
:: For more information, visit QuebecOriginal.com