Quebec City, the capital of the province and considered the heartland of French Canada, is one of North America’s oldest cities, having celebrated its 4th century back in 2008 and its only walled city. Much is made of its European, ‘old world’ feel and indeed it has a greater claim to this than Montreal. It has to be said that it lacks Montreal’s vibrancy.
Admittedly we arrived if not in the dead of winter then certainly during its death throes, but while undeniably quaint and attractive it felt a little buttoned down and parochial. We did enjoy the fact that the city retains a festive air long past Christmas. The decorations and tress stay up until the snow has melted in March or April.
Quebec City knows how to do winter. Their winter Canival from late January to mid February is one of the country’s best and there is a lively programme of winter sports outside of it. We were there to witness the Quebecoise enthusiastically marching across the snowy wastes of the Plains of Abraham (above) for a winter pentathlon, and would have had the best seats in town for the Red Bull Crashed Ice Tournament were we there a week later, as the knuckle whitening ramps for this crazily precarious-looking sport were being erected right outside the Hotel.
During the day, a short trip on a virtually vertical furnicular transports you from the castle esplanade to one of the city’s most charming, narrow streets, Petit Champlain Street, or you can wander down what the locals affectionately call the Breakneck Steps, taking extra care during the icier months.
During the summer it’s also worth poking about down Rue de Tresor (literally street of treasures), a steep pedestrianised ‘art alley’ running down onto the main hill where Canada has itself a little piece of Montmartre as portrait artists and arts and craft galleries vie for tourist trade.
Despite its predominantly Gallic atmosphere, the city has its fair share of Scots and Irish history, with the Morrin Centre being something of a cultural hub for Anglophones. The centre, housed in the former city jail, hosts regular literary, music and arts events. The library is worth a look, as are the jail cells, which despite undergoing modernisation when I visited still hold some traces of its chilling past.
Fairmont Hotel Frontenac
The Hotel Frontenac was our first Fairmont experience and it certainly gave us a grand overture, with its acres of polished brass, plush carpets and cistrusy musk. It even has its own canine mascot. The hotel is apparently the world’s most photographed.
It’s a remarkably ostentatious piece of architecture which undoubtedly divides opinion, but I was grateful for its imposing spires’ dominance once when wandering lost outside the city walls.
We mostly stayed within the Old Town and in general found the restaurants a little overpriced. We found two places worth recommending. Le Cochon Dingue is, an unpretentious, family orientated place on Petit Champlain with good quality meaty fayre and a good place to sample Sugar Pie. Italian restaurant La Petie Italie, just a short walk from Frontenac, offered fresh, tasty Italian food with a smart, but cosy, interior and genuinely warm service.
Here’s a good QI question for you. What’s Canada’s highest waterfall? Nope, not Niagara, and it’s not Montmorency Falls either, which sits about 12km outside the city. It’s actually Della Falls in British Coluimbia.
While it’s not as wide as Niagara, Montmorency is higher. Quebec’s equivalent remains a popular draw with tourists and ice climbers. A cable car whisks you back and forth for a closer view. Sadly it had just stopped for the day when we arrived!
Possibly the area’s biggest attraction, the Ice Hotel, a 30 minute drive away is one of only two in the world. It’s designed and built from scratch each year for its short two month season. Each year a different theme is chosen and university students compete to design the rooms, this year’s theme was biosystem.
One of the surprising things about the hotel is that the ice is almost dry to touch. Some of the suites even have fires, there purely for aesthetic and psychologically warming effects as a consistent temperature of -5 is maintained.
Alongside the 36 uniquely designed rooms, there is a lobby where many of the statement ice sculptures are placed – and this year a floor to ceiling ice slide, popular with yelping nippers when I visited – two ice bars, a refectory and changing room for a quick ‘heat break’, outdoor spas and sauna rooms and a true fairytale wedding chapel.
It’s one of the region’s most popular event spaces so of course you can take a guided tour without having to stay the night. (Interestingly, they also have access to the nearby Sheraton where guests who chicken out at the eleventh hour can escape to!)
The intricate carvings and ingenious artistry that’s gone into designing the entire space is undeniably impressive. Staying there is no doubt one of those travel experiences that will delight families with young children, but as impressive as it was, it was not quite enough to tempt me to stay!
Getting to Quebec City by Train
Quebec City is just 3 hours from Montreal by train. The elegant station is a $10 taxi ride from the Old Town. Prices in standard class are around $50 return. You can get to Canada with Air Canada Flights along with other airlines.