One summer, in another lifetime, I spent two months in a French-immersion program in one of Canada’s oldest cities. When I wasn’t conjugating verbs or massacring le subjonctif, I was busily exploring this historic French-speaking city founded in 1608. I’ve had several recent opportunities to revisit some of my old haunts and discover new ones.
Then: Lower Town. The historic district at the foot of Cap Diamant in Old Quebec, where Samuel de Champlain built his first settlement, was my go-to hood on earlier visits. It’s marked by cobblestone streets, small cafés, bistros and boutique hotels.
Now: St-Jean Quarter. While Lower Town will figure into any visit, I now gravitate toward this hipster district, particularly along rue St-Jean, rue Grande Allée and avenue Cartier. It’s a lively mix of bohemian and trendy shops and restaurants.
Then: Dining at Le Cochon Dingue (translation: “the crazy pig”) has been a tourists’ rite of passage for the past 35 years. Thumbs-up to the duck confit poutine. The restaurant now has four locations in Quebec.
Now: My taste leans toward L’Initiale, headed by chef Yves Lebrun, where a tasting menu can include sweetbreads, seared foie gras and lobster enoki.
Then: Fairmont Le Château Frontenac
Now: Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. This impressive historic hotel, inside the walls of Old Quebec, has just undergone a $75-million lobby-to-roof makeover. The lobby is particularly stunning: rose grand staircase, Italian blue onyx backlit panels, and five-metre chandelier. Much sought after are the Gold Floor guest rooms overlooking Quebec City and the St. Lawrence River. Former guests include Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Then: Île d’Orléans, the small island outside Quebec City, somehow fits six rural villages on a 34-kilometre stretch of land. After three visits, I guess I’m ready for a change.
Now: Whale-watching excursions to Tadoussac (three to four hours from Quebec City) are popular—but book your outing in a Zodiac, rather than a larger boat or vessel. Benefits: smaller groups, better opportunity to get up close (and comfortable) with the whales and other marine mammals, and a more intimate way to cruise into the Saguenay Fjord.
Then: The Plains of Abraham, also known as Battlefields Park, is the site of the famous battle of 1759, in which the British were victorious over the French and both famous generals, Montcalm and Wolfe, died from their wounds. The 100-plus hectares of grassy knolls and rolling meadows make it a popular spot for a run in summer and cross-country skiing in winter.
Now: I prefer the less-frequented Cartier-Brébeuf National Historic Site, along the banks of the St. Charles River. It’s a Parks Canada venue that offers history (much of it commemorating French explorer Jacques Cartier, of course) and 13 kilometres of hiking and biking trails.
Best vantage point
Then: Terrasse Dufferin
Now: Terrasse Dufferin. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The popular walkway along the edge of the cliff overlooks the St. Lawrence River, stretching from the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac to the Plains of Abraham. You can see Lévis on the opposite shore, Île d’Orléans, the Laurentian Mountains to the north and the Appalachians to the south.
Then: Back in the day, any joint open at 3 a.m. did the trick for me.
Now: My tastes (and vacation behaviour) have matured dramatically. There’s only one place for me: Chez Ashton for its Dulton, poutine topped with sautéed seasoned ground beef.