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Canadian Snowbirds Find Refuge in Their Mythical Miami

SAINT-AMBROISE, Quebec — In a retirement community north of Quebec City, 30-foot plastic palm trees overlook Miami, Orlando and Cocoa Avenues, cookie-cutter streets where residents glide by some days on snowshoes.

The pool area — complete with straw-covered umbrellas, a candy-colored inflatable children’s slide and a nearby tiki bar — evokes countless oceanside condos in Florida. Except for the snow, and temperatures that dipped this month to minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

This is Domaine de la Florida, a Canadian make-believe Miami, whose 520 residents are so in love with the Sunshine State that they have recreated it here. In the summer, golf carts whisk silver-haired retirees to games of beach volleyball, shuffleboard and Bingo. In the winter, as many as half of them fire up their R.V.’s or hop into their cars or a plane, and head south for the real deal.

Until this year.

Because the pandemic spoiled annual pilgrimages to their beloved tropical refuge, they were stuck in Canada, where they traded in their bathing suits for thermal underwear and have been trying to make the best of it.

“At least we had a white Christmas this year and can pretend we’re in Miami,” mused Gérard Ste-Croix, a 71 year-old resident, while cradling his shivering Yorkshire terrier, Mala. He and his wife have braved a Canadian winter for the first time in 11 years, after the coronavirus forced them to abandon plans to spend six months in their R.V. near Tampa, on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Inside their Quebec home, a sign perched on a shelf said: “Paradise.”

Eager to maintain their Florida state of mind, the couple grill hamburgers on their patio, sheathed in plastic to keep out the cold. Other residents also favor a Miami-inspired aesthetic: pastel-colored garden gnomes in winter replaced by pink flamingoes when the snow melts.

Each year a giant flock of Quebec “snowbirds” migrate for the winter to Florida, where they join retirees from New York and other Americans drawn by Florida’s warmth and its senior-friendly ways. Think early-bird specials, surf and turf, adrenaline-charged Canasta tournaments, and slow-moving vehicles driven by people whose children wonder if they should still have licenses.

The Quebecers are so ubiquitous that they have their own Florida-based French-language newspaper, Le Soleil de la Floride, as well as a local ecosystem of Francophone real estate agents, accountants and dentists.

Even the unofficial Queen of Quebec, the singer Celine Dion, kept a 13-bedroom beachfront estate in Florida, with a private water park, before selling it in 2017 for a reported $28 million.

Before the pandemic, an estimated one million Canadian residents spent their winters in the United States; at least 500,000 of them were Quebec snowbirds who traveled to Florida, according to the Canadian Snowbird Association, a group that advises snowbirds on matters like insurance.

Such is the influence of Quebec culture in parts of the Sunshine State that in South Florida there are more than half a dozen restaurants offering poutine, the zipper-bursting Quebecois delicacy of French fries, cheese curds and gravy.

But this year, the closure of the land border with the United States and fears of catching the virus deterred many of Quebec’s snowbirds from the annual pilgrimage. Florida has had more than 1.96 million cases of Covid-19 compared with 922,848 in all of Canada.

And while it is still possible to take quick flights from Montreal to Miami — a more expensive option than driving — some residents of Domaine de la Florida said they were repelled by rules requiring them to quarantine for 14 days after flying home to Canada. That would include spending three days in a designated hotel at a cost of about $2,000 Canadian dollars, or about $1,600.

Canadian Snowbirds Find Refuge in Their Mythical Miami

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