Québec City, where the streets are paved with cold

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In this week's Lonely Planet 'Great Escape', the winter wonders of Québec City in Canada are revealed, from French-accented comfort food to urban cross-country skiing

Ahead: glittering grooves sliced into virgin snow; naked trees, shivering in an icy breeze; a sky so blue it should be X-rated. As for you, you're wrapped in as many layers as a pass-the-parcel, with skinny skis on your feet and poles clasped in your mittens. You could be gliding through a winter wilderness, were it not for the thrum of Québec City just a hockey-puck's throw away.

Québec City is a North American anomaly. The continent, north of Mexico at least, doesn't really do old towns. But the capital of Canada's francophone province is the exception, founded in 1608 and bequeathed a comely, European-style mishmash of stone walls and cobbled alleys. To be here is almost to be in Carcassonne, sipping café au lait on terraces amid French voices, lorded over by a château. Yes, just like France – except for the in-city cross- country skiing…

For that is peculiarly Canadian. When most would cower in the nearest heated bar, the Québécois embrace winter. And the best place to do so is the Plains of Abraham. In 1759, this is where General Wolfe's army defeated that of French General Montcalm to claim the place for Britain; now it's the city's premier park, an urban lung of meadows, woodland and – in season – cross-country ski trails.

Fortunately, it's an easy (if energetic) sport to pick up: only the toes of your boots are snapped into skis, so you can step-glide with the help of your poles. The main issue is concentrating on technique when there's so much to look at: the ice-littered St Lawrence river to one side, the city skyline (including the iconic Château Frontenac) to the other. As you schwoop along, you'll near-yelp at the novelty of practising a back-country pastime in a city of 500,000 people.

Better still, when you've finished on the Plains, the city's pleasures await you right there: the boutique hotels, the French-accented eateries and the stands selling stodgy poutine (chips, cheese and gravy) – calorific, yes, but you've earned it.

The Perfect Getaway

No matter the season, your first stop in Québec City must be the hill-tumbling Old Town, still encircled by stone ramparts. This cluster of 17th- and 18th-century houses is where you'll find twisty streets, massive murals and cafés aplenty. Follow the marked, 5km VivaCité walking route for an overview and board the ferry across the St Lawrence to Lévis, just for the joy of looking back.

For the most romantic sleep, book into Auberge Saint-Antoine, a hotel part housed in the port's original wharf buildings. For something more chilled, the Hôtel de Glace (Ice Hotel) is 10 minutes from the city: its artful snowy suites, sculpted afresh each winter, have Arctic sleeping bags to keep you toasty.

Once oriented, it's time to hit the Plains. This green space (magically white come winter) is the Québécois equivalent of Central Park, an urban playground with abandoned cannons, a Joan of Arc garden and a 28-species arboretum. From December to April, 12.6km of cross-country trails – suitable for beginners – are cut. Hire some kit, read the rules (keep left when overtaking) and off you go. There are no huge hills, but ascending any slope on cross-country skis takes effort: try the splayed-herringbone technique and hope you can beat gravity.

After a few hours, you'll be exhausted – but exhilarated. Time to refuel. As cute as Vieux-Québec is, head for the less touristy neighbourhoods of Faubourg Saint-Jean or Nouvo Saint-Roch; try Le Billig (526 Rue Saint-Jean), a crêperie par excellence. If you've timed it right, your visit will coincide with the Winter Carnival. Ice sculptures, parades, skating rinks, snow slides… the city is overcome with glacial gaiety. It's wonderful, kitschy fun – raise a glass of Caribou liqueur and join in.

Plan It

Québec City's Jean Lesage International airport is 16km south-west of the centre. Bus 78 runs from the airport to Les Saules bus terminal, Monday to Friday. The Québec Winter Carnival is held for 17 days every January/February; accommodation must be booked well in advance. The ferry to Lévis runs regularly, daily. Skis, boots and poles can be hired from the Plains of Abraham's Discovery Pavilion.

Detour

If you must leave Québec City, do so aboard Le Train du Massif de Charlevoix. This gastro rail trip launched in 2011 following the renovation of a 19th-century track between the city and La Malbaie, 140km east. Now plush rolling stock, kitted out with mood lights and picture windows, completes this day-long return "rail-cruise" – so called because it hugs the north shore of the St Lawrence; when the tide's in, it feels like you're afloat. The focus is on scenery and gourmet cuisine but the train can get you from A to B: winter itineraries stop at arty Baie-Saint-Paul or Le Massif de Charlevoix's ski slopes.

This is an extract from 'Great Escapes', published by Lonely Planet (£29.99). To order a copy, go to shop.lonelyplanet.com

ESSENTIAL EXPERIENCES

* Tucking into a comforting plate of poutine – the refined, Frenchified version of chips, cheese and gravy

* Hugging Bonhomme, the big, jolly mascot of the Québec Winter Carnival

* Gliding around the Plains of Abraham on skis, looking out over cannons, treetops and the St Lawrence river

* Wrapping up warm for a night in an ice room at the sparkling Hôtel de Glace

* Riding the ferry over to Lévis, for fine, inexpensive views back to the Old City

* Boarding the gastro-train to Le Massif, for gourmet cuisine, panoramic views and a day on the piste

Travel essentials

Location: Québec, Canada

Best time of year: December to March

Ideal time commitment: Four days

Essential tip: Ski in the right direction: the Plains of Abraham's ski trails are one-way

Budget: ££

Pack: Thermals, good gloves, lots of layers

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