The first and last port of call on the fiftieth birthday sailabration was Quebec City. This was another of my bucket-list destinations. I was pleased when the Hubs suggested we go a day early and spend a night on our own before the cruise.
He made arrangements at Auberge St. Antoine, a richly historic hotel on the outer edge of the old city and very near the pier. Our itinerary allowed for two more nights in Quebec City on the return. What a gift!
It was a pleasant drive up to Quebec City, through woodlands and farmland, skirting Montreal, traveling the Trans-Canada highway until a scenic riverside boulevard led us to our destination. It could hardly have been easier. Staff at the St. Antoine were quick to greet us and park our car. The room was amazing, with an expansive balcony and both St. Lawrence River and Chateau Frontenac views.
The hotel is one of the finest we’ve enjoyed, with every detail attended — right down to the dental floss! The weather was beautiful, brisk and bright, which made for great walking. We were up and down hundreds of stairs — eschewing the funicular — on several trips from the hotel at sea level to the Chateau Frontenac and beyond, following the boardwalk out to the citadel, the Plains of Abraham, and back again. Just perfect.
On one of our trips up to the Chateau, we came upon small park with canons perched along the edge overlooking great views of the river and old city. It was set up for a nighttime production of some sort that looked worth a return visit. As it turned out, the climb back uphill was welcome after dinner. Being part of the local arts scene was, too. Always a turning point in feeling connected, more than just a tourist.
The next day we had plenty of time to explore the old city. It is a fun place for walking, if you don’t mind the up-and-down. It is just lovely, full to the brim with quaint cobbles and cafés, artisan culture and architectural ambiance. I’ve often heard people refer to Quebecers as French elitists and we certainly recognized their pride of heritage in various conversations. However, we felt entirely welcome throughout our visit. (Which is more than I can say for certain European cities!)
The hotel staff agreed to keep our car at a very good rate and in a much more secure location than pier parking. Then they went the extra mile (or five) and delivered us and our baggage to the pier using our vehicle. As it turned out, our ship was not docked across the street as we’d anticipated. It was definitely not walkable with baggage in tow.
Ten days later, we were back in port. We’d had time enough to explore the old city on our own before the cruise, so I’d booked a tour for our return. It didn’t leave until after lunch. Our driver from the St. Antoine had recommended the large farmer’s market not far from the pier. It is easy to spot by the green roof.
Inside the sprawling building was a bustle of activity. Merchants sold everything you might imagine in a market — from pumpkins to pickles, chocolate to cheese, maple products galore, clothing and kitsch. We loaded up on preserves and condiments for gifts and braced ourselves for a brisk trek back to the ship.
We soon boarded for our one and only bus excursion of the trip. One is usually more than enough but I have to say this one was really nice. Much of that was due to our tour guide who, as it turned out, was a farmer from the region. She and three generations of her family live in the same farmhouse that her family has inhabited for 10 generations. What’s more, her family has been farming in Quebec for 14 generations!
Better yet, she has five brothers, all of whom are actively farming together with her and her family as a cooperative. They are a very diverse operation, with dairy, fruits and vegetables, maple syrup, and also firewood. That’s some teamwork, eh? To top that off (impossible, you say?) the youngest generation — 32 cousins — are mostly farmers! Some are still in school, their career choice perhaps not yet determined, but that is quite an amazing agricultural heritage.
We were worn out from all of the activity of the past ten days and there was a bitter cold wind blowing so it was quite relaxing to sit back and enjoy a cozy ride and our guide’s informative dialogue. We stopped first at Montmorency Falls at sea level on our way to Île d’Orléans. These falls are much taller than Niagara Falls; though not nearly as wide they are impressive. If you look closely in the photo at left, you’ll see two figures walking toward the base of the falls, which looked like a rather adventuresome hike. Our guide noted that the frozen falls form a sugarloaf in the winter and Quebecers come out in droves to play. Apparently this is just what you do for kicks in Quebec City.
I was very much interested in visiting Île d’Orléans, renown as for its agricultural richness. Even though we were well past prime growing season, there was plenty of evidence of the bounty you’d enjoy most of the year. Most of the fields are typical of the region: long and narrow, woodland at the back. Most of the houses face the water, boating being the historical form of transportation. Our guide mentioned that the bridge to the island is closed much of the winter due to blizzard conditions over the St Lawrence River. There is only one gas station and a small grocery store on the island. I guess you’d need to be prepared to hunker down and ride out a storm!
Our tour included a visit to a sugar shanty for maple taffy. There was a long trough filled with crushed ice. Maple syrup, boiled to a soft candy state, was poured out in strips on the ice. We rolled the warm maple sweetness around a flat wooden stick for a yummylicious treat. When we were kids, Mom made a similar confection she called sugar-on-snow. She’d set an aluminum baking pan out when the first snow fell in big flakes. Meanwhile, she’d boil maple syrup on the stove top. Soon enough the pan was overflowing with fresh frosty crystals. She’d trickle hot maple goodness over the snow, where it would harden in golden strands. We’d each grab a fork to pull sweetness into our mouths. It is a favorite childhood memory, one I must remember to make with the grandchids.
We learned how the sugar shanty in Quebec becomes a place of revelry and feasting, especially in the spring during maple syrup season. Quebecers dine out at shanties throughout the region, where they serve traditional dinners of maple ham, pea soup, maple pie, eggs, and other hearty fare. Well, that is quite an idea. Unfortunately, sugar shacks in the North Country do not operate as restaurants. However, I know how much we also welcome spring after the long winter. Quebecers have good form!
When we left the island and crossed back over the bridge to mainland Quebec, I marveled again at how shallow and rocky the water along the shore, how tricky the narrow channel with tides. Our guide noted that the river on the eastern end of the island is freshwater, in the middle it’s brackish and on the western end it is saltwater, as the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Atlantic Ocean are not far from here. On the ship we’d learned from the naturalist about the beluga whales that live in this river — some near Montreal and others not terribly far from here. Their DNA is distinct from belugas anywhere else in the world. Oh, what I would have given to have seen one!
We continued climbing in altitude until we reached Montmorency Falls Manor at the top of the falls. Here we were served afternoon tea with a lovely maple cake. After a bit of fall-gawking, we traveled on, climbing higher still into the Laurentian foothills and Lac Beauport region. It is beautiful country and quite exclusive, too — home to Patrick Roi and friends.
We were tired, the sun was sinking, and I was glad when we headed back to the pier. We’d covered a lot of ground in Quebec City, making the most of the short time that we had. But it is one of those places I sure do hope to return to one day. The next trip should be in summer, I think!
~ Rene Morley