Story and photography by Sharon King Hoge
Destination, Quebec City
Without crossing the Atlantic, Francophiles can practice their "parlez-vous Francais,” dine on Continental cuisine, and revel in old world charm, partaking of the many French-flavored attractions found right up north in the UNESCO World Heritage capital city of Quebec. What's more, flights to YQB don't require overnight passage, there's no jet lag, the city has the lowest crime rate for its size, and with the US dollar slightly stronger than Canada's "loonie," the exchange rate is around one-third less costly than the euro overseas.
Established in 1608 by adventurous Samuel de Champlain, the St. Lawrence waterfront city is built on two levels. Now trendy shops and hotels line the wharfs and cruise ships are berthed where clippers used to dock. Steps and a gondola lead up the cliffs to the walled upper city where originally only nobles and clergy were allowed to reside. Its contemporary promenades provide spectacular views of the harbor and Levis, the city across the St. Lawrence.
Governors Walk follows the cliff top ending at the vast Plains of Abraham, the ninth largest park in the world and the site where British General Wolfe defeated the French forces under Montcalm converting the colony to British rule. Nearby an equestrian statue is central to the Joan of Arc Garden with flower beds designed to bloom all summer.
The whole municipality, including the funkier neighborhood outside the wall on St.Jean Street, has been upgraded and revived but not overly "cute-ified." Charming shops selling souvenirs, local fashions, furs, art, and antiques line cobble-stone streets. Diners can sip coffee, dip fondue, order up-to-date dishes under awnings at storefront cafes.
Around 96%-98% of Quebec City's people speak French and they revere their history. Dotted throughout the city, museums chronicle archaeology, fine arts, beaux-arts, civilization. On the upper promenade strollers look down through glass "skylights" at visitors browsing through the excavated remains of what was the governor's palace before it burned and was bulldozed over in the 1800's. Every summer citizens dress up in vintage costumes for the four-day celebration La Fete de la Nouvelles France commemorating the city's 150 years as a French colony. Managed by the same organization that organizes the renowned Winter Carnival the Fete embraces parades, food stands, street concerts, and exhibits illustrating the city's French heritage.
Overnight guests have their choice of 12,000 (!) hotels of which the undisputed queen is the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac, the unofficial symbol of the city and the world's most photographed hotel. Recently refurbished, it's interiors have been "lightened and brightened," with graphic floral carpets and soothing room decor. A few blocks away, the city's oldest hotel, the Art Nouveau Clarendon has been updated with a comfortable lobby lounge. The historic 95-room Auberge Saint-Antoine exhibits artifacts excavated when the hotel was built. Just outside the ancient city walls, the contemporary Hilton and Marriott are situated near the stately Parliament building.
Among dozens of popular local restaurants, Le Cochon Dingue and its offshoot Le Petit are riverside institutions for local staples. Le Cafe du Monde serves Parisian bistro dishes dockside overlooking the St. Lawrence. At Echaude classic dishes are updated -- chicken liver fondant, mozzarella served with olives and sun dried tomatoes. At the Frontenac, dining venues include the wine and cheese bar 1860, Le Sam Bistrot serving tapas with delicious bespoke gluten free Glutenberg beer, and Champlain, the stately formal dining room where the central marble "King's Table" offers molecular cuisine concocted by chef Stephane Modat.
Nearby side trips might be an excursion to Montmorency Falls, 30% higher than Niagara, where the resident Lady in White tells how she tossed herself over the falls when her fiance was lost in battle. Just below, lies the only bridge to L'Isle d'Orleans, "the garden of Quebec." This agricultural marvel is the city's source for fresh corn, tomatoes. strawberries, potatoes. Local berries are cooked into jams and liqueurs at Tigidou Confiturerie. Originally called L'Isle de Bacchus, the island is lined with vineyards and tourists travel from vineyard to vineyard tasting local wines, including the famous local ice wine. Black current liqueur and port are specialties at Cassis Mona et Filles.
Especially in the autumn, traffic is bumper to bumper with visitors sampling local fare.
If the city's offerings of gastronomy, culture, shopping, nature aren't sufficient, travelers can time a visit to coincide with one of the annual festivals of the "Ville Festive!" Themed around fireworks, gardens, jazz, comedy, African nights, blues, snowboarding, powwow, sacred music, city lights, -- and of course the Winter Carnival -- celebrations are practically non-stop. Vive Quebec.
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