Quebec has a hold on Heidi Thomas.
The Seneca Valley Middle School French teacher went to school in the French-speaking Canadian province.
And as a teacher, she's returned to Quebec both to lead eighth-grade students through a tour of all things French and alone to further her own education.
She took a group of 76 students and chaperones to Quebec in February 2020, just before the border between the United States and Canada was closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking of the student tour, Thomas said, “It's a very unique trip. We go for four days. It is to immerse them in French culture and French language.
“It's very unique in that Quebec offers a bilingual atmosphere. Quebec City has extreme dog sledding. And the ice hotel is one of maybe four in the world.
“It's a combination of all those things, and just to be exposed to travel in general,” said Thomas.
Thomas, the students and their chaperones traveled to Quebec by bus, the trip from the middle school to their destination taking anywhere from 16 to 18 hours, depending on the weather and the length of time it takes to cross the border.
“I've probably been to Quebec 17 times,” said Thomas. “We've been doing the trip for 10 years. I go there once a year when I'm not with my students.”
Thomas and her students stayed in old Quebec City at the Château Frontenac hotel.
When her students arrived last February, the weather played havoc with their schedule.
Thomas said, “It was the first snowstorm of the season, we had three feet of snow.
“The experience was so extreme, we had to cancel some of our activities. It was so windy and cold.”
“We had to cancel the dog sledding,” she said.
In the past, she said, her students each got to ride on their own dog sled and with their own team of dogs that take them on courses through the countryside 15 to 20 minutes outside of Quebec City.
“You get to drive the sled,” she said. “It's very exciting. Two people get on a sled pulled by four to six dogs. One person rides and one person drives and then you switch places.”
“The dogs, they are definitely bred to run and to pull, and that's what they do,” she said. “They are hard to keep under control.”
The dog sledding course runs two to three miles through the Quebec countryside. It goes through open fields and pine forests.
Thomas said, “They run and pull you. You have a brake and you can step on that to slow them down.
“You can also run pretty fast. You can also use commands, because the dogs respond, in French,” she said.
“It's definitely intense. It is thrilling. It's not like taking a carriage ride. It is very active,” said Thomas.
With dog sledding off the agenda in the most recent trip, the group had to switch to other activities.
“But we made adjustments. We went to some restaurants,” said Thomas, which meant her students got to sample some Canadian specialties.
Thomas said, “There's poutine, that is french fries, gravy and cheese curds. It's delicious.
“Some of the other unique things to Quebec are their delicious crepes, which you could find in many places,” she said.
Maybe not for her students, Thomas said, but a more adult offering was a drink the Quebecers make in the winter called caribou, which is a mix of red wine, a hard liquor and maple syrup.
“And in the winter you also have to have maple syrup on the snow,” she said. “You pour syrup on snow, wrap it onto a Popsicle stick, and it becomes like taffy. It's really sweet and super fun.”
The group also visited the Hotel De Glace, the ice hotel that is an annual winter tradition in Quebec.
The only ice hotel in North America opens every winter, from January to March. Every room is made of ice.
“We got in the ice hotel, which the students like because it is such a unique experience,” she said.
“The rooms and the furniture, the chandeliers, everything is made of ice. Every year they choose a theme. One year they did the movie “Frozen.” They had different “Frozen” characters throughout the hotel,” she said.
The ice hotel is connected to the Valcartier resort, which features all sorts of winter sports, such as ice skating and snow tubing.
Thomas missed a visit to the ice hotel last year because she stayed at the hotel with an ill student.
Still, it's the whole province and its inhabitants, not any one attraction, that keeps Thomas coming back.
She said of the Quebeckers, “They are so friendly that is one of the appeals of going to Quebec. It is like a little piece of Europe, and it is close to our country.
“They are amazingly passionate about their languages, and being bilingual. It is a really great place to go,” she said.
Still, she said, those speaking only English will find it easy to get around Quebec, since most of the inhabitants speak both languages.
Thomas said, “It is 100% one of the most beautiful little cities I have ever seen, and I've traveled all over the place. It is beautiful in every season. It celebrates the outdoors in every season.
“They have the biggest music festival, Festival d'été de Québec, and there is shopping outdoors. They have boutiques, art galleries, parks and hiking,” she said.
“It's definitely a foodie city, as well with great restaurants and wine,” said Thomas.