Visiting Quebec City and Old Montreal
Paris on the St. Lawrence
Quebec City, Canada is certainly most European destination in North America. Its convenient proximity to the much of the US east coast is almost as surprising as the fact that so few Americans are clued in to what a great experience awaits them on the St. Lawrence River. This is a place you don't expect to find in North America. Old Quebec is set out on terraces of land shelved up from the wide, blue river. It has ramparts and stone arches. The streets are cobblestone and redolent of some delicious but vaguely unfamiliar cooking. As you walk through town the air rings with church bells on the hour and the sound is spiced with the vowels of a romance language.
Quebec City is an astounding travel find. Perched one of the most beautiful riverside settings in North America, Quebec is the only walled city in Canada or the United States. It is four centuries old but so beautifully preserved that UNESCO designated Quebec a World Heritage Site in 1985. With great proximity to the US, this dramatic, French-speaking destination offers a quick trip from the US that feels like a European vacation.
Originally, this cloudtravel page was only about Quebec City. But it has been expanded to include Old Montreal for a few good reasons. Montreal is convenient to more US travel routes than Quebec City and more Americans visit Montreal for business. The Old section of Montreal near the port has a similar, old-world, European feel to Quebec. Chances are that if you go to Montreal and explore the old section of town, then you are likely to want to take the next step and see Quebec.
Montreal is the passport to the province of Quebec. It has a sparkling clean subway like Washington D.C, underground, weatherproof shopping like Minneapolis and skiing just outside of town like Denver. Its annual jazz festival and burgeoning film industry are making it better known each year. These few paragraphs will give you a beginner's reference for visiting the old part of town, Viex-Montreal, which is bounded on the south by the river, on the north by St-Jacques and extends roughly east/west between McGill and Berri Streets. While not as dramatic as the ancient walled capital of the province of Quebec, the 17th-century buildings, French restaurants and cobbled streets of Old Montreal will beg the question: why don't you go and visit Quebec City for the full effect?
At this point in time a full guide to Montreal is beyond the scope of this essay. This is unfortunate because Montreal is in need of some good travel guides. Zagat Survey ignores Montreal (Toronto is the only Canadian city covered), this despite Montreal's supply of some of best French cuisine in North America. (Parentheticlly, as a generaly rule the populist guide Zagat doesn't seem to know what to do with indigenous French cuisine - for example, the top ten French restaurants in New York City score a substantially higher combined food score in Zagat than the top ten French restaurants in Paris.)
Somehow, the travel publishers don't seem to view Montreal worth serious effort. The big travel guides often fail to update Montreal each year, treating it like Europe's retarded younger cousin. If you want to dine in Montreal two good internet references are Frommers and the Yahoo! dining guide, the latter with its great map references that can pinpoint a restaurant near your hotel and compute the distance. If you're going to Montreal, the big commercial guides should be cross referenced so you work them against each other to keep your info honest and reasonably up to date. An alternative is that you could strike out straight for Old Montreal and enjoy the benefit of the cloudtravel research and recommendations recounted below.
Monreal is 362 years old. It has more students than any city in North America and is the second-largest French-speaking city in the world. It is a place of old-world characteristics, elegant restaurants and great popular festivals. The long, somewhat exhausting streets of downtown can be summarized with reasonable ease by taxi cab. The downtown section around rue Crescent is good for bars and restuarants. The Latin Quarter is good for a stroll and the Frederick Law Olmsted designed park, Mont-Royal is a must see. For bars and restaurants there is a Ritz-Carlton in the downtown along with a top-rated Loews and Omni. The standard bearer Beaver Club in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel is good for a fancy meal (the Queen Elizabeth is notable for being directly over the Montreal Train Station, plus its suite 1742 hosted the May 1969 John Lennon/Yoko Ono "Bed in for Peace.") The downtown restaurant Caprices de Nicholas is another high flier.
But here you have only a thumbnail of Montreal. For the purposes of a short, introductory visit consider stayng in Old Montreal so you can drink in the essence of this riverside city. Rue St-Paul Ouest is the main thoroughfare of Old Montreal, with the more elegant aspects existing west of rue St-Sulpice and the progressively more commercial aspects to the east. The old river port is 1,000 miles distant from the sea and has been too small for monster modern ships for decades now, but it still offers the views that give the old city its feel. Basilique Notre-Dame-de-Montreal (pictured left) is in the center of the old town, with walnut carved pews, a sky-blue domed ceiling and thousands of 24-karat gold stars.
There are two large hotels at the northwest edge of Old Montreal, the stable but aging Intercontinental (360 rue St-Antoine Ouest, 514-987-9900), plus the adjacent, pricey Le St. James. (There is also a bread-and-butter Marriott in Old Montreal that I prefer to ignore, but maybe you've got miles or something.)
On the opposite end of the accomodation specturm are smaller guesthouses that often suffer from eccentric proprietors who can impose on your sense of travel independence (I've approached a few of these to size them up, been jumped on by the household dog and learned the names of the tropical birds in the lobby aviary, etc.). In the comfortable middle range are some boutique hotels that can incorporate the best of both extremes. Of these you might explore three in particular, each of which are treated loftily in the ratings of Tripadvisor's list of top Montreal hotels. These are: Auberge Bonaparte (447 rue St-Froancois-Zavier, 514-844-1448), Auberge du Vieux-Port (97 rue de la Commmune Est, 514-876-8923) and Auberge les Passants du Sans Soucy (171 rue St-Paul Ouest, 514-842-2634).
Bonaparte, with 31 rooms, is half a block off the main drag. It is a crisp, romantic guesthouse in a 19th-century building that is over the top of a really fine local restaurant. Some of the rooms have balconies. The Vieux-Port, with 27 rooms, is also over a restaurant and boasts some unobstructed views of the old port. The exponsed walls of this 1880s sturcture are stone or brick and lend the feel of a provencial French pensione. Sans Soucy is a nine-room guesthouse that is a former warehouse from the early 1800s. It is right on the main drag and has impecably friendly proprietors, but I don't truck with the lavish review Fodor's shovels them (Fodors was silly full of hyperbole about the Sans Soucy in their 2001 Canada but have backed off since). Though well worth considering with the other hotels recommended here, on close inspection you may find Sans Soucy a little chintzy with their fixtures, sheets and other crucial-but-oft-overlooked incidentals (best not to book the un-cozy ground floor room - stick with the upper floors). Take a look at each hotel website, price them out and make an informed choice.
Food in Montreal is a chief delight, but one that can be overlooked by those who don't appreciate French cooking. I adore the craftsmanship and economy of traditional French cuisine, with its strategic use of fresh ingredients and the prudent and respectful utilization of all parts of the slaughtered beast. Alas, some couldn't give a flip about French food with its unorthodox presentations and mystery ingredients. The old town is full of charming restauants that you can often spot on sight (Steak Frites, Claude Postel, Les Ramparts. Good restaurants that you can't see from the main drag include Bonaparte and Bistro Boris.
The real point of this essay is to get you to Quebec City. In 1535 Jacques Cartier discovered the site of Quebec City along the St. Lawrence River. In 1608 Samuel de Champlain founded New France in this area, which remained in French control until the British captured it during a half-hour battle on September 13, 1759. Despite British the victory, and 200 years of subsequent British control, almost the entire half million native Quebec City inhabitants claim French as their native tongue.
Quebec has the feel of a rugged outpost city, and the feel of a civilized city of refuge, a seat of old-world culture, and an epicurean capital. The 19th-century, Louis XIV style Parliament Buildings are the home of the National Assembly of 125 province representatives. Statues adorn the Parliament grounds that are as much a site of sober governmental deliberation as they are the location for regional student demonstration and dissent, mostly regarding the issue of Quebec’s repeatedly proposed succession from the rest of Canada. During a Canada Day demonstration a several years ago students hurling cobblestones broke many of the Parliament Building windows, yet a week later the students were gone, and steady handed artisans replaced the glass panes. The poor Parliament buildings - as recent as January 2004 students paint bombed it with yellow dye. But don't miss your chance - "door three" of the front Parliament entrance admits you during most weekdays to a public restaurant that allows a view of the inside of the building.
Just as the local French speech is skewed with a Canadian influence, the local cuisine is largely French, with a play on indigenous ingredients like maple syrup, wild berries and caribou steak. Like a princely Mediterranean coastal town, Quebec is set out in terraces overlooking the water. Above the city is La Citadelle, a star-shaped fortress inherited from the French and improved by the British to protect the port from re-encroachments by the French. Below the city at the level of the St. Lawrence River is the old trading quarter of Lower Town that has been revitalized into a vibrant arts, hotel, shopping and restaurant district, one main thoroughfare of which is Rue du Petit-Champlain (pictured above). Medium in altitude between La Citadelle and the Lower Town is the Upper Town, surrounded by thick stone walls and crowned by the centerpiece of a romantic and gravity-defying luxury hotel, the Chateau Frontenac (pictured below). The turreted, brick and copper-green Chateau Frontenac is the most memorable landmark in a city with the ingredients for a rich supply of travel memories.
One of the joys of Quebec City is the way the inhabitants embrace every season. Springtime comes late to this northern climate. In April is the annual ritual of sugarshacking, the local harvesting of maple syrup. In May comes the return of the wild geese and a bounding natural rebirth from the long, blue-white winter. Tourist high season begins in July, during which Quebec City hosts the musical events of the International Summer Festival, now in its 35th year (www.infofestival.com ).
In September the early autumn brings New-England-like colors to the Quebec region, during which the maples glow in a ghostly yellow contrast to the deep blue sky. By October the wild geese are returning south and the breath of winter trembles the remaining leaves. The long winter in Quebec is livened by the famous annual Quebec Winter Carnival, which has been held for the last 50 years as a celebration of the unique and cherished winter magic of this region (www.carnaval.qc.ca ).
Another pleasure of Quebec City is the European feel of shopping along fashionable, ancient streets among the handsome displays of food, clothing items and gifts. A constant whisper of shopper's joy is the exchange rate, weakend considerably in the last year, but still the source of a great psychological boost at the cash register. The prevailing rate (even at a ten-year high against the US dollar) incorporates an ambient 30% discount off of the Canadian price for every hotel room, every gourmet meal and every purchase along the handsome shops of St. Jean and Rue du Petit-Champlain.
Local goods, including leather goods, shoes and artist crafts, are tempting, particularly when sales are announced in the French language newspaper, Le Soleil. Compact discs are often absurdly cheap in Quebec, although the selection may be colored more with classic titles and local musicians than recent American bands. There is an extra shopping incentive beyond the US dollar exchange rate because the local and national governments offer a tax rebate program applicable to most tourist purchases of goods brought back to the US.
Your trip to Quebec City will probably begin at Jean Lesage International Airport, about 12 miles from downtown and easily managed by car or taxi ride. Northwest, American and Continental fly into Quebec City, as well as Canadian commuter airlines including Air Canada, Air Nova and Canadian Airlines International. You might also enhance the romance of your visit by arriving via train at one of the few truly romantic train stations in North America, the 19th century Gare du Palais. Trains make the trip from Montreal in less than three hours, running four times each weekday, three times on weekends, and arriving within two bocks of Lower Town.
A car is not needed for a brief stay in this old city where walking in the narrow, stone streets is one of the chief delights. Indeed, waking in the morning in Quebec to the toll of cathedral bells, with artists setting up sidewalk canvases and shopkeeps dressing their tall windows, the last thought that will occur to you is anything about gas and fumes and automobiles. The pleasures of Quebec City are personal, antique and exotic.
Here is some practical city travel info: Northwest (800-225-2525) and American Airlines (800-433-7300) fly from Boston to Jean Lesage International Airport in Quebec City. Continental Airlines (800-523-3273) has direct flights from Newark, New Jersey. Air Canada (800-776-3000) routes commuter planes from Montreal to Quebec City. From the airport in Quebec City you can reach the city center via a $22 taxi ride, or via a shuttle bus costing $10 one way (Autobus La Quebecoise Inc. – 418-570-5379). Round trip train tickets from Montreal to Quebec City cost about $100 (VIA Rail – 418-692-3940).
Try Lower Town:
For too long Quebec City hotels and restaurants have been without much sparkle of new ideas, perhaps because of the overpowering shadow of the Hotel Chateau Frontenac (pictured dominating the skyline at left) plus the self-same hotels and restaurants that surround it. But a new age is emerging in Quebec City that is worth enthusing about. If you're after what's fresh in Quebec, take a few steps away from the regular tourist landmarks and land your hotel in Lower Town. There is a spirit of art and food and hotels that is fresh and authentic and literally a frontier away from the pretentiousness in boutique hotels and high-dollar restaurants in many American cities.
Tripadvisor and Frommers alike now credit Quebec's Lower Town with the best of the city's hotels and restaurants. Auberge Saint-Antoine, a lower town veteran for a dozen years, has prospered into the leading "sleeper" hotel in town. With several major capital improvements in recent years, including the opening of a new lobby in late 2003 and a new restaurant due open in mid 2004, Auberge Saint-Antoine has set a Quebec standard for smart, stylish hotel keeping that is locked into the long history of Quebec City.
Boutique hotels are sometimes rendered silly with needless attitude, expense and an unfortunate opting for cheap, pop culture emphasis. There is too often a poor-wearing, un-cozy quality in the trendy apholsteries and furniture that aren't good for much else but flashy pictures in a brochure or website. But Saint-Antoine is refreshingly thoughtful and guest-minded in most of its details (admitedly, I don't get the seemingly random alphabet letters on the corridor carpeting). The lobby ties clean, architectural lines together with exposed walls from the previous structure. Excavational artifacts are shown in viewing cabinets on every wall (and at the entrance to every room). Guestrooms employ an inviting split-level design. There are control heated tile bathrooms, square, art-museum-style sinks and generous, rectangle-cut bathtubs the size of kitchen refrigerators (there's literally room for two side-by-side in the tub). There are thoughtful touches like plush, feather beds, room safes and Bose Wave radio/CD players (with a Bach CD left in the room for good measure). Auberge Saint-Antoine is located in the heart of lower town at10 Rue St.-Antoine, 418-692-1177.
The foil of Auberge Saint-Antoine is Dominion 1912 just down the street. Dominion, the site of a former warehouse, is a boutique hotel with its mind set on overtaking Saint-Antoine. The decor is a little darker than Saint-Antoine, and the lobby ethic is more family style than the hide-away fireplace nooks available in the lobby down the street. But in Dominion's rooms you'll see the same guest-minded features as Saint-Antoine, like the plush feather beds, ample bathrooms and the same Bose Wave stereo (alas, most bathtubs are standard size, but the space-age glass showers open other bathtime possibilities). Dominion doesn't have quite as many tricks up its sleeve as the sleek Saint-Antoine, perhaps owing to architectural limitations (or better designers). But the Dominion staff consistently excells at friendly accomodation and during my stay they clearly outdid the guys at Saint-Antoine. Dominion 1912 is located at 126 Rue St-Pierre, 418-692-2224.
For restaurants in Lower Town it's hard to beat L'Echaude (73 Sault-au-Matelot) or the less expensive string of restaurants (an Asian and two French) just adjacent and spanning around the block. L'Initiale (54 rue du Petit-Champlain) is highly touted, but some find it needlessly stiff and formal for an otherwise clear-eyed kind of town. Similarly, you may find the top rated Laurie Raphael (117 rue Dalhousie) a little too high priced for its own good (or yours).
Upper Town Staples:
Chateau Frontenac, the signature Quebec City landmark visible all over town and popular with many tour groups is located at 1 rue des Carrieres, Quebec City, Canada G1R 4PS, tel. 418-692-3861 or 800-441-4141, fax 418-692-1751 – see www.fairmont.com ). Even if you don't stay at Chateau Frontenac, don't miss a drink at the best all around bar in town, the Frontenac's St. Lawrence Bar over looking the rive (on a more astral plane, the Loews Le Concorde at 1225 Cours du General-de Montcalm has a rotating bar overlooking all of Old Quebec and the Battlefields Park).
L’Hotel du Capitole is located just outside of St. Jean Gate. It has a terrific location inside an old theater (that still has productions). The art deco furnishings have been wearing a little hard in recent visits, but it's a grand place to stay right near the action on rue St. Jean and it generally offers good rates. (972 rue St-Jean, Quebec City, Canada G1R 1R5, tel. 418-694-4040 or 800 363-4040, fax 418-694-1916 – see www.lecapitole.com ) .
Le Saint-Amour is probably the best haute-cuisine Canadian restuarant in town, with grand, nine-course (three hour) tasting menus (48 rue Ste-Ursule, 418-694-0667).
Casse-Crepe Breton is a justly popular creperie on the main shopping strip that offers great, inexpensive fare on the main shopping street (1136 rue St-Jean, 418-692-0438).
Chez Temporel is a popular bohemian coffee house with in-house baking located just behind the main shopping street. The clientelle look right out of Gap comercials. You can read a newspaper here all day with the same bowl of coffee (25 rue Couillard, 418-694-1813).
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© Copyright 2006 Chris Cloud.
Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:32:53 PM.