Canada celebrated 150 years as a united nation on 1 July last year and nowhere were the celebrations bigger than in the French-speaking province of Quebec. Katie Roberts’ visit fell at exactly this time, so she joined in the party on the streets of Montreal and Quebec City.
Canada is a huge country and worthy of several visits so carefully planning an itinerary to cover its vast distances is essential. We chose to concentrate on Ontario and Quebec provinces this time, leaving the east and west coasts for another trip (we hope!). Known as the birthplace of Canada and controversially for its attempts to secede, Quebec is a must-visit.
After a couple of days wandering Old Quebec, I started to forget I was in Canada. It was only the ubiquitous red-and-white maple-leaf flags that brought me back to reality. From the beautiful historic buildings to the winding cobblestone streets and the French signs and speakers at every turn, it feels like a charming European city. Unique? Yes – and it’s also one of only two North American cities surrounded by fortifications. The old city, located within these 18th century walls, has been meticulously restored, and exploring the streets on foot is rewarding in any season.
Quebec on Foot
A walking or cycling tour is a great way to get to know a city through the eyes of a local guide, and an opportunity, in my case, to ask lots of questions. We took three tours in Quebec! The first, a Ghost Tour of Quebec (90 minutes, from $17, ghosttoursofquebec.com), was led by a theatre student carrying a lantern and dressed in a black cloak with an eerie powdered face. Her tales of hauntings, superstition and folklore captured our imagination as we wound through the 400-year-old streets, getting to know Quebec’s quirky underbelly.
The imposing La Citadelle is an enormous and active military garrison, home to the Royal 22nd Regiment and official residence of the Canadian Governor-General. It was selected for its strategically important location on the ridge above the Saint Lawrence River, and its buildings date from the 17th and 18th centuries. Daily tours ($32 for a family of four) commence with the colourful changing of the guard ceremony at 10am in summertime. A goldenhorned goat plays a part in the proceedings, and there’s a military band to add to the pomp and pageant on the parade ground; the canon is fired at noon. Views over the city, river and surrounds are spectacular. Samuel Dubois is a bearded hipster with a quick wit and a repertoire of anecdotes who runs the two-hour Free Tour of Quebec (afreetourofquebec.com). His tour is a good way to get to know the city and find out things that only a local knows, like the house where the 1953 Alfred Hitchcock film I Confess was filmed, the best spot to take a photo of Le Chateau Frontenac and his tip for the best poutine (hot chips topped with gravy and cheese) in town. You’ll want to give a tip after a fun couple of hours with the likeable Sam.
For lovely views and a different perspective, do the 4.5km walk atop the city walls – this is self-guided, and great at any time of day. Do wear solid shoes, by the way; there are a number of steep hills and lots of steps to climb, and very warm clothing is a must if you visit in winter, when the river turns to ice.
More things to do
• The Plains of Abraham is the site of a pivotal 18th-century military battle between the British and French. It’s now a recreation area with historic buildings, museum and an information centre.
• Find culture and history at the stunning Museum of Civilisation (designed by Moshe Safdie, responsible for Singapore’s landmark Marina Bay Sands).
• Get stuck into fresh seasonal food at March du Vieux-Port, an authentic market where farmers from the region sell their produce.
• Take a $7 return ferry ride across the river to Lévis for wonderful views across to Quebec.
• The 84-metre Montmorency Waterfall (try the zip-line if you dare!) and quaint island of Île d’Orléans are about 15 minutes from the Old City and wonderful to visit on a sunny day
Where to Stay
The streets of Old Quebec are full of boutique hotels and homestays, though, as quaint and homely as they are, they don’t go close to the history, grandeur and sheer out-of-this-world experience of a stay at Fairmont Le Château Frontenac (fairmont.com/ frontenac-quebec). Unsurprisingly, it’s incredibly popular; almost all 611 rooms of the most photographed hotel in the world were full during our visit over a holiday weekend.
Arriving at the Château is a highlight in itself – I recommend hiring a car just for the thrill of driving through the majestic stone archway and pulling up in front of the grand lobby. Our car doors were opened by porters in elaborate uniforms, who greeted us with a friendly “Bonjour!” Passing through revolving doors of polished brass, we entered a lavishly decorated blue-and-gold foyer where we were entertained by an actor dressed as a nobleman while we waited for check-in – a fabulous introduction, and the kids lapped up the attention.
There are 12 room types; we stayed in a Deluxe Room. Spacious and recently renovated in a contemporary style, these rooms have a twin- or king-size bed, a cute dormer window and a beautiful white bathroom with Rose 31 toiletries. The housekeepers deserve a special mention for the sweet notes they left each day – even a Happy Birthday message for Joe who turned 12 during our stay.
The dining here is fabulous. Sink into an armchair and try a Bramble cocktail at the bustling, atmospheric 1608 Bar that overlooks the river. In Champlain restaurant, look out for the life-size polar bear at the entrance and, on the ceiling, a sculpture interpretation of the Saint Lawrence River, on which the first settlers from France arrived by boat.
The first wing of Le Château Frontenac was built in 1893 as a stopover for rail travellers. Now operated by the Fairmont group, it’s justifiably a tourist magnet in its own right. The Rose Room was the venue for an important World War II meeting between Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and the Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, in which they made pivotal decisions about the war. As our visit coincided with Canada’s 150th anniversary, the building was lit in red and white to celebrate.
As with any hotel of this age, there are many legends and stories told, such as the one about the envelope lost in the hotel’s internal mailing system – for 50 years! The letter, which dated back to the war, is said to have contained a marriage proposal. Efforts to locate the recipient, half a century later, were fruitless; I wonder if the writer suffered a broken heart while waiting for a response that never came.
It would be very easy just to stay in the hotel, enjoy its bars and restaurants, the pool and the views, because Le Château Frontenac is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be savoured.
Montreal is a charming city famous for its cosmopolitan lifestyle, universities, international festivals and world-class attractions. Canada’s second largest city after Toronto, it’s built on a large island and surrounded by fertile agricultural lands. French is commonly spoken, though most people switched quickly to English when our few paltry phrases were exhausted. We visited in summer, just as the International Jazz Festival was kicking off, but there’s plenty to see and do in any season.
Montreal by Bike
It’s a big place, so getting around on two wheels is a great way to cover the many sights. The city is famous for its bicycle-friendly policies; there are dedicated bicycle lanes on major roads, and motorists are polite. We decided on the half-day Vista Architecture Tour run by Montreal on Wheels (caroulemontreal.com, $70 each). It’s suitable for children aged 12 and above who like cycling – stops included the historical Old Port and Lachine Canal, important landmarks in the city’s development that grew around the mighty Saint Lawrence. We tried warm French pastries at Atwater Market, visited a 300-year-old farm and school, and crossed the wide river twice on two different bridges. The pedestrian walkway on the exhilarating Jacques Cartier Bridge is about 50 metres above the water. Other stops took in interesting architecture such as the Biosphere, built for the 1967 World Expo, and the unique apartment complex Habitat 67, designed by Moshe Safdie when he was a student at McGill University. After the tour finished, we kept the bikes for the remainder of the day and spent time in the Old Town. We’d planned to ride 15km to the famous Rapids Park, but rain unfortunately dismissed that idea.
Tip! Montreal’s subway system is efficient, easy to use and puts many of the city’s neighbourhoods in easy reach. A one-day unlimited travel pass is $10.
More things to do
• Take a walk in Montreal’s beautiful park Mount Royal for a city view and peaceful surroundings.
• Stroll around Old Montreal . This beautiful part of the city is meticulously restored and a wonderful place to learn some history. • Visit the stunning Notre-Dame Basilica and take a 20-minute guided tour.
• Catch a Cirque du Soleil performance under the blue-and-white striped Big Top. Did you know this world-famous acrobatic troupe was started in Quebec province in the 1980s?
• See an exhibition at the world-class Museum of Fine Arts.
Where to Stay
The Sofitel Montreal Golden Mile (sofitel.com) is centrally located on the cosmopolitan Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, and conveniently at the foot of Mount Royal park. Sprawling McGill University is around the corner, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and The Ritz-Carlton are just up the road; plus, there are restaurants and bars covering every cuisine within easy walking distance.
Our comfortable and very spacious adjoining rooms had floor-to-ceiling windows with views over the park and skyline. After our day of bike riding, we took full advantage of the baths in the huge marble bathrooms and lathered up in the luxurious Lanvin toiletries. The children enjoyed making us a coffee in bed from the Nespresso machine.
Sofitel is famous for its amazing beds, linen and pillows, and I slept so well that I was tempted to purchase products from the online store, So Boutique. Breakfast each morning was in the Renoir restaurant, and the food had a distinct French flair – the fresh local eggs deserve a special mention, too. We also had a room service breakfast (a first for the children!), featuring a linen-covered table wheeled into the room by friendly housekeeping staff and laden with food; a special treat on the last morning of our stay.
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This article first appeared in the March 2018 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue!