Picture courtesy Jeff Frenette Photography/Tourism Quebec
JULY 2023 ISSUE
What do you do if you’ve only got a short time to explore a new city? As JON UNDERWOOD discovered, pounding the pavement is sometimes the best way to maximise your time.
IN AN age when the hop on, hop off bus has become de rigueur, it’s great to find a city where the only transport you really need is your own two feet.
Grab a map, get your bearings and off you go. That’s what I did in Quebec City and to be truthful, after about 10 minutes I didn’t really need the map at all.
The explorer Champlain established Quebec City in 1608 and I’d hazard a guess that if he returned now, he’d still find his way around without too much trouble.
It’s easy to see why the city was once ranked the number one tourist destination in Canada, welcoming more than four million tourists from 75 countries in 2019.
The superbly preserved stone walls (it’s the only walled city north of Mexico), the mix of French and British architecture left behind by conquering regimes, the French language still used by its inhabitants.
Rather confusingly, Quebec City is also the capital city of Quebec – the province. It sits above the mighty St. Lawrence River and its historic Old Quarter was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985.
First thing you need to know is how to pronounce the name of the place like a local. It’s “kebec”, which in the language of the local Algonquin people who live in Eastern Canada means “place where the river narrows”.
The city skyline is dominated by the Château Frontenac, a great place to start your walking tour. The imposing building looks like something from Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel but fortunately is dripping with history, not blood.
Originally opened in 1893, it was here that war time leaders Roosevelt and Churchill drew up plans for the D-Day landings.
Beneath the hotel is an historic wooden boardwalk, the Dufferin Terrace, which is reminiscent of promenades in British seaside towns where well-dressed ladies with parasols would promenade up and down. It also features a toboggan slide, which I’m told does a roaring trade in winter.
Passing an imposing statue of Champlain, you’ll find yourself close to the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in the Rue des Jardins. The bells toll on the hour and it’s an enchanting sound as the noise rings out across the city.
Heading towards the river, I made a beeline for the Rue de Petit-Champlain, which holds the honour of being the most photographed street in the old section.
With its colourful signs, cobbled street and range of shops, it’s a charming and absorbing place that seems to be straight out of a French fairytale.
This is also North America’s oldest shopping district, but not everything in Quebec is from a bygone era – there’s plenty of modern stuff, too.
Côte de la Fabrique has been a place of trade since the 19th century and maintains that trend today, offering a range of modern stores, restaurants and bars. You’ll also find some of the best coffee and crêpes (this is ‘little France’, after all!).
All this walking was giving me a thirst so I stopped in for a refreshing adult beverage at the Saint Alexandre Pub in the busy thoroughfare of Rue Saint Jean. It proved to be a real eye-opener into the friendly and welcoming nature of the city’s inhabitants.
Within minutes of sitting at the bar I was in deep discussion with staff member Cloudie about dogs, travel and her decision to turn her back on a successful modelling career to go and live in a trailer in the forest to practice self-sufficiency. It is for such encounters that travel was invented.
Replete and refreshed, I set off once more, heading to the Plains of Abraham, an area of parkland above the city where General Wolfe defeated the French in 1759, thereby leading to British rule in Canada.
My short tour of Quebec City ended with a visit to the Grande Allée, a vibrant and buzzing street packed with dining and drinking establishments at the heart of the city’s nightlife.
They say you can’t find a bad meal in Quebec – and in this tree-lined street I’d say they’re spot on. Whether it’s fine dining or comfort dining, the quality and quantity of food served across the city is tres magnifique, just like the city and its people.
WHAT ELSE TO DO
Less than half an hour’s drive from QC is the Île d’Orléans, described as the garden of the city.
Comprised of six municipalities, the island is home to more than 50 artisanal producers, selling everything from jam to goat’s cheese, potato donuts to vinegar.
I began my tour at Verger Bilodeau, the first cider house on the island and run by three generations of the same family. Here you can try their delicious sparkling or ice ciders, buy some of their apple-related products or have a picnic on site.
One of the prettiest stores on the island is Fromages Ferme Audet, which makes products from goat’s milk. Based in the old rectory of Saint-François, their ice cream was a wonderful surprise and the cheese equally delish. They also produce soaps and cosmetics.
I’ve tried many varieties of donuts in my life – but never one made from potato. It sounds like a bad idea, but if you visit Les Saveurs de l’isle d’Orleans (Flavours of Isle d’Orleans) there’s no mistaking the yummy taste, particularly if dipped into one of their homemade jams or syrups.
Last stop on my whistlestop tour was Du Capitaine Ferme et vinaigrerie Distillerie, an organic farm, traditional vinegar-house and an artisanal distillery. While it’s the vinegar they are probably best know for, make sure you also try their sour cherry liqueur made from organic fruit grown on the farm. A great way to round off a gourmand extravaganza.
WHERE TO STAY
Opened in 1975, the four-star Hôtel Château Laurier is owned by the Girard family, who spent $2.5 million on an upgrade in 2018, taking its room and suite total to 271.
Located on Grande Allée (described rather grandly as Québec’s very own Champs-Élysées), it has a gym, outdoor spa and saltwater indoor pool.
It’s a mere five-to-10-minute walk to all the main attractions, including the Old Quarter, Plains of Abraham and the Château Frontenac.
I arrived late at night and found check-in to be swift and polite. My room was functional and clean, the bed was large and comfortable, but the bathroom was a little tired and in need of a refresh.
The hotel itself is a bit of a maze, being split into several zones and I did get lost a couple of times heading to breakfast. However, there’s a handy shop selling all manner of food and essentials, an indoor saltwater pool, a fitness room and Finnish sauna, and outdoor spas.
I particularly liked the electronic wine bar in the lobby, meaning you could serve yourself a glass at the end of a long day. Other hotels please take note…