Not a cold, but cold. Like Quebec City in the winter. Quebec City is never considered an exotic destination, and I can never understand why. It’s the only true quaint, French city in the Americas (Montreal is less French and it ain’t quaint IMHO), but because it’s so close to home, few people consider it a real travel destination. Too bad. If you have a kid or two—and I won’t even mention your inner child—you all will have a blast in Quebec City. This is so much fun, it shouldn’t be legal. And you can travel there for free, too. Later about that.
I love visiting Quebec at any time of the year, but February is very special. Quebecans bill their Carnival as “the biggest winter celebration in the world.” I have no idea how accurate that is, but yeah, it’s big indeed. The fun begins with purchasing a small figure of Bonhomme—that’s French Santa—that will serve you as a pass to all sorts of activities on the Plains of Abraham. There are dog sled rides, there are sleigh rides, there are ice and tube slides; there are all kinds of crazy games for kids that I had never even known existed. There is even an open air spa—yes, a spa and there are enough crazies—or brave souls, depending on whose side you’re on:-)—who will strip down to their swimsuits in 5 degrees and partake. And yes, it’s 5 degrees Fahrenheit, even though you’re in a Celsius country. Bundle up good, you’ve been warned!
All that fun is very non hi-tech, but your kids will be elated. I promise you that much.
Then, there are ice sculptures that are lit up at night, there are dances with DJ music, and of course there are the parades. Day parades and night parades. The floats are beautifully built and are very inventive, and some of them rival the best New Orleans krews; think Mardi Gras without the beads and the debauchery of the French Quarter, and you’ll get the picture.
Then there is an Ice Hotel. I know it may sound totally like a tourist trap, but it isn’t. It’s beautiful and unique and well-worth a visit. They build it every January and it stands until the end of March, I believe. It even has an indoor ice slide for kids! You can drive or take a city bus, or pay a little more and opt for a hotel organized bus trip that doubles as a city tour. The Quebec Hotel de Glace was built for the first time in 2001; there are only five of them in the world (as far as I know), with the rest, not surprisingly, located in Europe.
Have I mentioned the food? No I haven’t. Did I have to? Don’t think so. I have never had a bad meal in Quebec City, and the prices for that French cuisine are maybe half of what you’ll pay back home for a similar meal. Worth coming just for the food with a Carnival on the side. Seriously!
Getting there on miles is easy, at least for me from NYC and some other locales. United flies directly out of EWR (also from Chicago), and I have never had much trouble finding availability (revenue flights are costly at around $600 for 1.5 hour flight). US Airways flies out of Philadelphia, and Delta begins a new connection out of JFK in summer 2013. For all other cities, there is an easy Montreal connection, or you can take a scenic train ride also from Montreal that takes about 3.5 hours. A bus ride is about the same.
Hotels in Quebec City are represented by several loyalty programs, but only two of them are viable options for the Carnival festivities IMHO, with one being a clear winner. I’ll go as far as to say that Fairmont Le Château Frontenac is itself a reason enough to visit Quebec City. Gorgeous architecture, and it stands smack dab where you want to be: on the border between the Upper and Lower towns. The hotel rooms are unique: do try to get an upgrade to one of their studios; there are no two alike (or so I’ve been told). Our corner studio included three windows with three different views, one of which was St. Laurence River. Not too shabby!
If you want a direct flight, the credit cards that will take you there are those that have something to do with United (Chicago and NYC) or US Airways (Philadelphia). That means you have a lot of options, from Chase United, Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus and Ink Bold, to Barclays US Airways (or two if you’re lucky). With new summer routes by Delta, you may want to consider Amex Delta Platinum with its current 45,000 miles bonus. If you don’t mind flying via Montreal, then every carrier will pretty much take you there including American Airlines. I personally wouldn’t spend 25,000 AAdvantage miles on this simple and inexpensive route, but 9,000 Avios to Montreal (from my neck of the woods, at least) are just begging to be used in this manner.
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac can be yours with a new Chase Fairmont card. If you and your partner both apply, then you will have four free nights with a free breakfast, an upgrade and other goodies (I don’t think that there are exceptions for Frontenac, but I might be wrong, so check their policy language). A viable alternative would be Hilton, which is right outside the walls. That’s a longer walk to the Plains of Abraham, but not too terrible. After March 28th, the Quebec Hilton is about to be “promoted” into Category 8 hotel with a new price tag of 40,000 a night. Quebec Hilton is an OK hotel, but it’s nothing special. If anything, I would only consider Hilton if a 4-night stay was not enough and you needed more; or if you didn’t have access to Chase for whatever reason.
Time to start planning, don’t you think? Nah, just kidding. You’ve got plenty of time:-).