Fairmont Le Château Frontenac has Quebec City’s best-recognized historic profile, overlooking the Old Port. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts
Québec is a four-season travel treat for visitors attracted by a deeply-rooted cultural, historic and artistic tapestry unique in North America. Travel with a Challenge editor, Alison Gardner, highlights her favorite reasons to stop and stay in La Belle Province, by guiding readers through three of her favorite destinations: Old Montréal, the Eastern Townships and Old Québec City. Whether low budget-friendly or fit for royalty (and rock stars!), large and small accommodations are today’s theme, each one sampled and selected because they have a uniquely historic story to share with guests. Prices mentioned are approximate and quoted in Canadian dollars.
Language Tip: Auberge = “Inn” or small hotel in French!
Quaintly nicknamed the Paris of the West, Montréal is nobody’s clone even though it is the second largest French-speaking city in the world. The destination for most visitors is the heart of the city, a 68 square mile island in the St. Lawrence River, first settled by colonists in 1642. Surprising to many, this makes Montréal one of North America’s oldest cities. The island’s extensive, enticingly walkable “Old Quarter”, Vieux-Montréal, is a relatively recent revival that includes the historic port area along the St Lawrence River shoreline. Staying in Vieux- Montréal makes it possible to capture the essence of this exciting area.
Huge effort and expense have been focused on preserving and representing the city’s secular and religious past in an authentic, lively manner. Museums are seldom static, often the backdrop for creative, colorful entertainments. Actors in period costume frequently bring history alive while street musicians offer up toe-tapping traditional music, and tour guides dress the part for historic walking expeditions. Truly, new life has been breathed into the long-neglected cobbled streets with art galleries, stylish boutiques, restaurants, lively markets and a host of activities and festivals await the visitor. Montréal Tourism: www.tourism-montreal.org.
Le Bonaparte, www.bonaparte.com, was first opened as an award-winning restaurant in 1984 then, in 1999, as the historic Auberge Bonaparte with 30 rooms that have carried on the first-class reputation of the restaurant. Right in the heart of the Old Quarter, yet typically signed with such subtlety that my taxi driver failed to find it, some rooms overlook the inspiring architecture of Notre-Dame Basilica just around the corner, and other rooms retain original structural features of the authentically-restored structure. Prices range from $145 to $215 single or double occupancy, including a gourmet breakfast in the restaurant, depending on season.
Just round the corner from the Auberge Bonaparte, Notre-Dame Basilica is one of the world’s awe-inspiring religious visitor centers in Vieux-Montreal. Alison Gardner
Like most historic accommodations and eateries, Auberge Bonaparte’s entrance is very discreetly signed. Always carry an address of where you want to go, or you will soon be lost! Alison Gardner
Hotel Le St-James, www.hotellestjames.com, is a major landmark of Vieux-Montréal. Originally a prestigious merchant bank established in 1844, its transformation to an elegant hotel of 61 rooms and suites has a “money is no object” aura from the first step through the front door. Fine art and one-of-a-kind furniture, spectacular chandeliers, even the elevator art and elevator doors have stories to tell, having been handpicked and shipped from five continents. Room rates start at $400 and suites start at $575 in this member of The Leading Small Hotels of the World.
The elegant Grand Salon of Hotel Le St-James hosts splendid high teas as well as full meal service. Hotel Le St-James
Les Passants du Sans Soucy, with nine ensuite rooms on three floors was the first historic inn to open in Vieux-Montréal only 15 years ago. Proudly testifying to this 1723 fur warehouse’s venerable age, the present owner re-design left exposed accent walls of mortared stone used in colonial construction long before brick became an option. Its narrow steep staircases and no elevator make this historic treasure an impossibility for guests with physical challenges. The inn also doubles as a colorful gallery for showcasing contemporary Québecois artists throughout the public areas as well as some fine antiques. Depending on season and room choice, prices vary from $120 to $190, including a hot breakfast, depending on season.
Sans Soucy rooms and public areas include original mortared stone walls dating from 1723. Alison Gardner
Despite its rather unimaginative name, Québec’s Eastern Townships showcase an intriguing mix of United Empire Loyalist and European immigrant history that is unique in the province. They lie just north of the Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine borders and only an hour’s drive from Montreal. Village names like Sutton, Knowlton, Hereford and Hatley make it clear that the region was not settled by its Québecois citizens until recent decades.
Auberge Knowlton, www.aubergeknowlton.ca, was built in 1849 and renovated and re-decorated in 1997. This character hotel in the heart of Knowlton village is the oldest continuously operating hotel in the Eastern Townships, as attested to by the large banner (left) hanging from its streetside wall. Each of the inn’s dozen rooms with ensuite bathrooms has polished planked floors, beamed ceilings and antiques galore. Room-only is $120 double occupancy or with two country-style hot breakfasts, the price is $137. Hotel guests also get a 10-per-cent discount on other meals at its popular restaurant, Le Relais, which features local specialty, Brome Lake duck, on the menu.
Located right on Knowlton’s main street, Auberge Knowlton was completely renovated and re-decorated in 1997. Alison Gardner
Auberge Knowlton proudly declares 150 years of hospitality history.
At the end of the 18th century, British Loyalists chose colonial governance north of the border over American citizenship in the new United States. They laid the foundation for today’s architectural heritage where well-maintained 100 to 150 year old structures are commonplace and sleeping with history is often the only option. Both villages and countryside are popular for exploration in all four seasons with guided and self-guided cycling and walking/hiking tour routes clearly defined, and cross-country or downhill skiing in winter. Post-revolutionary Americans themselves are the most common foreign visitors to these Eastern Townships!
The most flexible way to explore the Eastern Townships is by self-drive car or by public bus. Eastern Townships Tourism: www.easterntownships.org.
ET Bed & Breakfasts and Country Inns, www.inns-bb.com/, will mail out its brochure.
Auberge Lakeview Inn, www.aubergelakeviewinn.com, is another Knowlton gem built by United Empire Loyalists in 1874. It successfully served the “summer people” arriving by the new railway from the booming metropolis of Montréal. Post-WW II, it fell into a period of sad neglect until it was completely restored in 1986. Its rare raised-design tin ceilings, sweeping wood staircases and antique room furnishings have remained faithful to the history of this landmark. Located close to Brome Lake in a prime residential area yet only a few minutes’ pleasant stroll to the village center, it is a treat to stay in this 28-room inn or to visit its historically-authentic restaurant for a meal of fresh, local fare. Room rates vary depending upon season, days of the week and choice of accommodation.
Auberge Lakeview Inn rooms still reflect the mid-Victorian period in which the hotel was built. Alison Gardner
Auberge Lakeview Inn celebrates winter with seasonal decorations inside and out. Alison Gardner
There are only three urban centers in North America that have been designated as UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Sites: San Juan, Puerto Rico; Lunenberg, Nova Scotia; and Québec City which has the further distinction of being the only fortified city north of Mexico. The two levels of its historic quarter create quite a different geographic and visual layout from Old Montréal. The upper plateau was first selected for settlement by the French military in the very early 17th century. High cliffs overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence River provided ideal natural ramparts for fending off enemies.
Following the British takeover of the colony of Québec in 1759, merchants moved in and gradually built warehouses, business headquarters and port facilities right into the early 20th century to support flourishing trade along the river. Today, it is known as Le Vieux-Port (The Old Port) that has largely become a beacon for visitors any season of the year. In 2009, Travel + Leisure magazine readers voted Quebec City as the 3rd best tourist destination in North America.
Québec City Tourism: www.quebecregion.com.
Aside from government business that understandably preoccupies any province’s capital, Québec City is chiefly a destination for the cultural and historical traveler, especially those who welcome the addition of distinctive cuisine to their holiday itinerary. A myriad of festivals, many with deep historic significance, draw visitors from everywhere on the planet to sample the region’s color, taste and joie de vivre. Check out the world’s largest winter-focused festival, Le Carnaval , and discover how much fun winter can be.
Most visitors to Québec City choose to eat, shop, explore and stay in the extensive historical quarters. Pourquoi pas? The city’s upper level has played host to millions of travelers for more than a century, beginning in earnest with the opening of the icon-like Le Château Frontenac in 1893 as a Canadian Pacific Railway hotel. Its signature profile high on the cliff front continues to be an orienting angel for anyone directionally challenged.
A dashing “British drummer” offers lively tours of La Redoute Dauphine in the Artillery Park that has hosted French and British garrisons for 400 years. Alison Gardner
Leaving from in front of Le Chateau Frontenac, a funicular ride down the hill to Le Vieux-Port quarter should not be missed. Alison Gardner
In recent decades, Le Vieux-Port quarter has seen the birth of thematic museums, colorful public markets, singular shopping opportunities, and indoor/outdoor restaurants in the European style. These complement an intriguing range of historic accommodations, some originally designed as inns, some recently transformed from bygone warehouses and business establishments into dynamic family-owned and managed auberges. A maze of winding cobbled streets beckon the reasonably agile stroller from the upper quarter down to the port scene on foot. Alternatively, a glass-wrapped funicular (right), originally designed and opened in 1879, smoothly shunts visitors up and down the steepest part of the embankment day and evening in two minutes flat.
Auberge Place d’Armes, www.aubergeplacedarmes.com, is a four-star accommodation located in a 200-year-old building on one of only two pedestrian streets in the heart of Old Québec. Nestled within the fortifications a short walking distance from museums, markets and the vibrant old city café culture, guests are just steps from the famous St Lawrence river front, historic cathedrals and churches, and the funicular down to Le Vieux-Port. Stay in tastefully renovated rooms with furniture handcrafted by local cabinet makers, rooms that reflect the opulent style of previous residents of the 19th and 20th centuries, while offering every 21st century convenience. Proud owner and designer of this intimate inn, Michelle Doré, boasts authentic ancestral connections: she is 11th generation in Québec tracing ownership of the actual land on which the auberge presently stands back to the first non-military settlers of that site in the 1640s.
The auberge’s restaurant Pain Béni offers cuisine featuring market-fresh ingredients and local products. Specialties of the house change according to what is in season. All are mouth-wateringly delicious dishes presented with flair in an intimate setting which includes a dining terrace giving onto the pedestrian street.
Auberge Place d’Armes pedestrian street entrance and its restaurant Pain Béni. Peter Gardner
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, www.fairmont.com/frontenac, is the ultimate fairy-tale castle where the happy ending is that you have 618 rooms on 18 floors to dream in as well as some of the finest dining opportunities and best views in the city. Some claim this classic example of late 19th century mega-hotel architecture is the “World’s Most Photographed Hotel”. But this accommodation is not just a pretty face. You can also learn about its own illustrious walk with world history and those who have shaped it, as well as the archaeological dig site that is proudly creating an active construction zone on a prominent section of the its grounds. Le Château Frontenac also offers cooking sessions with the hotel’s celebrity executive chef, walking tours of the Old City, wine tasting tours, wildlife observation and many more possibilities in the area.
Le Château Frontenac is a photographic magnet any season of the year. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts
Auberge Saint-Antoine, www.saint-antoine.com, with 94 rooms and luxury suites is thematically unique in that guests get to see exactly what was deep under the floorboards and behind the walls during hundreds of years of settlement. Built on one of Québec City’s richest archaeological sites, the inn is owned and managed by the Price family which has its own impressive merchant association with Québec City proudly spanning 200 years and six generations. Its evolving design and restoration in the last 15 years has integrated three historical buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries, a wharf and military battery from the late 17th century. With a vision of creating an archaeological hotel, the Price family has partnered with the Québec Ministry of Culture and the city government for a decade to expertly excavate each building site and create a visual learning experience with stunning displays of the best artefacts throughout the hotel. Even beyond the public areas, each guest room and suite has its own adopted artefact to sustain the theme.
Whether staying at the auberge or not, stop by for a scheduled Saturday walking tour of the building and a chance to see the museum-quality displays. Neither should you resist lingering there over a meal in either of Saint-Antoine’s two restaurant spaces, each showcasing history in an inspiring manner. In the November 2008 issue of Condé Nast Traveler magazine, Auberge Saint-Antoine was ranked by readers as the 2nd best hotel in Canada, and in the 2009 edition of Expedia Insiders’ Select List travelers rated it 35th best hotel in the world out of 30,000 properties. Congratulations!
Auberge Saint-Antoine combines luxury hotel style and service with visible pride in its own colorful past. Left: In one dining area, the early 17th century flagstone floor is a major feature and the site’s archaeological excavations of military hardware, settlement clothing and tools of daily life are displayed in wall cavities lit like precious art. Right: One of dozens of “windows” on the site’s historic past displayed throughout the hotel. Auberge Saint-Antoine
Auberge du Trésor, www.aubergedutresor.com, offers 21 ensuite rooms with a strategic location just across the gracefully-treed Place d’Armes square from Le Château Frontenac. This three-star inn with the dazzling red roof sits on the earliest location for France’s military encampments there dating from 1640. For the New World, that is seriously old! A charming distinction of this inn is the many first-class historic wall murals decorating the rabbit warren of hallways and polished wood staircases leading to the cosy guestrooms. It is the perfect spot from which to explore both the upper and lower levels of Old Québec City. Depending upon season and choice of room, rates $110 double occupancy; a delicious hot breakfast is $9.50 per person. Whether staying at this auberge or not, you should try the French cuisine menu offered by its street-level indoor/outdoor restaurant.
The colorful three-star Auberge du Trésor has a five-star location. Auberge du Trésor
Auberge International de Québec, http://aubergeinternationaledequebec.com/en/, is a hostel in the lower quarter of Old Québec. Open year round, 280 beds makes this accommodation Canada’s largest travel hostel. It was fully renovated and refurnished in 2003 when the hostel purchased three historic multi-story houses adjacent to its own historic building that had been welcoming (mostly youthful) guests since 1984.
The three additional dwellings, now architecturally integrated into the original hostel, have been designated as private rooms and suites, some with private bathrooms, others with two rooms sharing a bathroom. The additions have made this hostel particularly attractive to older travelers looking for relatively inexpensive accommodation in the heartland of Old Québec. It is the only youth hostel in the province to be granted 4 out of 5 stars for its excellence. Typical of its hostel mandate, the price, starting at $94.50 for private rooms, includes a buffet-style hot breakfast in the dining room, a friendly bar to mingle and compare sightseeing notes with fellow hostellers, and full access to a state-of-the-art stainless steel kitchen for cooking additional meals if guests wish to do so.
The popular hostel bar is where guests relax and compare notes in the evening. Alison Gardner
For other Québec adventures, check out our new feature article about cruising from Montréal out the mouth of the St Lawrence River into the Gulf of St Lawrence and on to the remote Magdalen Islands (Les Iles de la Madeleine). A truly unique experience that visits both Montréal and Québec City! You will also enjoy a richly-illustrated article about the New France Festival in Quebec City with plenty of music, costumes, traditional food, re-enactments and parades that reflect the times of the earliest European settlers 400 years ago.
To explore tourism options throughout the Province of Québec, click on www.quebecoriginal.com/en-ca.
Lonely Planet’s excellent city guide, Montreal & Quebec City (4th edition, December 2015) deserves recommendation as a key reference for planning and carrying out any trip to these two exceptional cities.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com.