The soul of New France is now a sophisticated city of one million. Head north of the border to discover its charms for yourself
Quebec City is a nesting box of treasures. Round a corner, open a door, or climb one of the city's 60 staircases to the top and you never know what you'll find--a quiet gallery of Inuit art, world-class musicians playing for passersby, a cart selling ice cream made from local wild strawberries. Whether you're a first-time visitor or a resident, Quebec City has the ability to charm at every turn. Travelers of all budgets and interests will find something to their liking in this special corner of Canada, whose story is symbolized on building edifices and letterhead everywhere in the form of a sacred regional trinity: a Canadian maple leaf, French fleur-de-lis, and English rose. Its European roots run very deep, back some 1,000 years.
New France, Old France
Many wax poetic about how European French-speaking Quebec City, and for good reason--it's the only walled city north of Mexico and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. The Old City, anchored by the imposing Chateau Frontenac (the most photographed hotel in the world), and historic port that spreads along the mighty, tidal waters of the St. Laurence River, are indeed reminiscent of France, each with enough ghosts and cobbled streets to conjure Old World visions. In fact, nowadays it often stands in as Europe for production companies that don't want to pay the way for crews to cross the pond. Taking Lives starring Angelina Jolie was the most recent movie to be filmed there.
Despite it being a scenic backdrop and riding on its reputation of an historic wonderland, it's winning the fight against "Disneyfication." Quebec City is far from being a theme park. Rather, it's a living breathing city of nearly one million now, working hard to forge a modern identity beyond the ramparts and quaint Vieille Ville. It's succeeding, evidenced by the cosmopolitan cocktail lounges that now dot the fringes of the Old Port, the funky coffee shops of the new Quartier, the world-reknown jazz bars on St. Joseph's Street, and the skateboarding punks that like to hang out in the Place D'Youville.
For centuries, Quebec City was one of the most important cities on the continent, and even went head-to-head against New York City as home of the United Nations. Walking around and speaking to people, however, you get the sense that the city is inching back onto the world stage. Local pride is at an all-time high, and no wonder. The economy is doing well; for many years graduates left for greater opportunities in Montreal or beyond, but now they're staying and building their professional lives closer to home. And, there's virtually no crime in Quebec City. Even during its Quiet Revolution in 1960 not a drop of blood was shed when local French Canadians fought for the same opportunities as their Anglo counterparts. And who wouldn't be proud of a city-wide art democratization mandate that states that one percent of public works' budgets must be used for art?
When it comes to dining, you simply can't go wrong in Quebec City, a town that gave birth to the region's modern day gastronomic revolution in the 1930's. Even a casual, on-the-hoof snack of a street crepe made with local cheese, a slice of "sugar pie," or a crusty sandwich offer unexpected satisfaction. For those who venture beyond the popular pedestrian streets, other treats await. One very special place to eat is the ornate dining hall inside the Parliament Building (three-course lunches $15, dinner $40). Who knows, you may even eat next to the Premier. Another relatively unknown spot is the restaurant tucked inside the Musee National des Beaux Arts du Quebec, or fine art museum of Quebec where a three-course lunch also goes for $15. For drinks, try the simple pleasure of nursing a maple beer purchased at the oldest grocery store in North America, J.A. Moisan, located at 699 rue Saint-Jean. The unusual brew just won the prestigious Prix D'Innovation, or Innovation Prize, in Paris.
L'Echaude Restaurant (http://www.echaude.com/, 73 rue Sault-au-Matelot) a 20-year-old bistro in the Old Port, which offers 10 wines by the glass (and a superb list of bottles), $10 three-course lunches called table d'hote ($16 for dinner), and the best steak tartare in the city, is another sure bet. And just down the street sits one of the city's most unusual hotels, L'Auberge Saint-Antoine, whose outstanding restaurant Panache officially opens this month. Whether you choose to stay at L'Auberge Saint-Antoine or not, a dinner by the artful chef Francoise Blais is mandatory during a visit to Quebec City. Blais's reverence for fresh ingredients and French Canadian cuisine shines through in every dish, creating a memorable festival of local flavors.
A room to call your own in and around the Old City
Summer is considered high season in Quebec City, but here are some good nightly lodging deals currently on offer (all prices are per room, not per person):
Walking into the L'Auberge Saint-Antoine is like walking into a museum, only the reception is much, much warmer. The 83-room hotel, which is located in the Old Port and blessedly just off some of the city's well-tread tourist paths, opened in 1992 in three historic buildings on an archeological site that yielded some 5,000 artifacts. Four-hundred of them are on view in the hotel's common spaces and even in the rooms themselves. Each floor represents a layer of excavation, and each room identified by its own treasure. Etched aperitif glasses used by visiting diplomats in the early 1800's may be embedded in your nightstand, or a Chinese porcelain cup used in the mid-1700's neatly displayed by your room door. Appropriately, Saint Anthony is the patron saint of travelers and lost things.
The hotel is owned, designed, and curated by the Price family, who first landed in Quebec two centuries ago to build a logging and paper business. The familial hands-on approach is part of the hotel's unique, intimate appeal. Airy public spaces reveal whimsical touches, and the newer rooms especially, are a successful marriage history and modern design, with sleek fireplaces, sumptuous fabrics, and bathtubs big enough for three. Rates at L'Auberge Saint-Antoine start at USD $142 (for a Classic room) midweek in mid-August. All prices include a homespun buffet breakfast in the hotel's tea salon-lounge.
The feedback about L'Auberge Saint-Antoine on Tripadvisor.com, a website repository for unbiased reviews of hotels, is nothing short of glowing. One guest from Boston writes, "I loved it. It was the best hotel I ever stayed in." Even a resident of France, a country that overflows with inviting hotels, reported that it was one of the most charming places they've ever stayed.
Flying into the great green north
Getting to Quebec Ctiy is easy and affordable these days--this was not always the case. Here's a short list of the lowest airfares to Quebec City available for travel mid-August:
Given that most flights from the US to Quebec City have to pass through the bigger metropolis of Montreal, on occasion it can be worth your while to price round-trip tickets from your home airport, and then by a ticket on a flight offered by one of Canada's low-cost carriers. For example, Tango, Air Canada's no-frills little sister, has each-way fares as low as US $44 between Montreal and Quebec City. Air Canada itself has 16 flights per day from Montreal to Quebec City, and there are two nonstop flights between Detroit and Quebec City too. (Remember to convert your prices into US dollars when searching for flights on Canadian airlines.)
JetsGo, one of Canada's newest cheap seat flyers, has yet to add Quebec City to its list of international destinations. It does fly between New York City, Las Vegas, Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, and Ft. Myers and Montreal however, with one-way tickets as low as $99.
Border crossing by rail
Another way to go is by train. If you've got the time and enjoy watching the wooded scenery and the world go by, this option may be more your speed. Until Oct. 2, VIA Rail Canada is selling discounted tickets on Saturday travel in the Quebec-Windsor corridor: Windsor (Detroit) - Toronto - Montreal - Quebec City. Economy class fares normally priced between $14 and $70 are reduced by 50 percent. This offer is not limited to students and seniors--everyone can take advantage of the offer. And parents can also take 50 percent regular kid fares. Four trains a day run between Montreal and Quebec City, and the ride lasts about three hours. Fares between the two cities average $25, but with the VIA Rail's sale, you're looking at spending just $12 each way.
Unfortunately, train fares between US cities and Quebec are not so cheap. For example, Amtrak charges $65 each way between New York City and Montreal, where travelers can connect with VIA Rail trains, and $140 round-trip. Expect even more from other cities.