Take to the skies in Quebec | Travel
IIt’s a terribly long descent from the crest of Montmorency Falls, but as I’m standing there in the deafening spray, I’m not at all scared. Instead, my reaction is one of awe – because I just climbed the sheer 300ft cliff and now I can finally enjoy the view.
From there, at the crest of a torrent higher than Niagara Falls, you can see for miles on a sunny morning like this – along the sparkling St. Lawrence River and down to Quebec City, glistening like Oz on the horizon.
There is a certain magic to Quebec, a place that is equal parts Edinburgh, Avignon and Carcassonne, and is often voted one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Founded in the early 17th century, it was the original capital of New France, and its wonderfully preserved old town – all the noble ramparts, cobbled lanes and fine houses – is now a World Heritage Site.
But all is not still here. The big news (and the reason for my visit) is that Quebec City — nicknamed “the Paris of North America” for its accent and appearance — is about to welcome its first direct flights from London. From Thursday, Air Transat’s service from Gatwick will cut back on the laborious transatlantic route via Toronto or Montreal (the airline’s home), opening up this fascinating French-speaking city to Brits like never before.
I flew expecting to discover a delicate, fairy-tale town – and I was not disappointed. But what I didn’t expect was also a sturdy, outer edge.
Yes, there are large market squares and winding historic streets to explore – especially rue du Petit Champlain in the Basse Ville (“lower town”) district, with its parade of shops selling everything from moccasins decadent fudges. But there are also adventure sports, from via ferrata climbing along the falls to whitewater kayaking, hiking and mountain biking. (Fortunately, the town is also home to Strom Nordic Spa, one of the country’s top wellness centres, with its heated riverside infinity pool perfect for any sore limbs.)
The Lower Town district of Quebec
As in all good fairy tales, there is a castle at the center of the action — Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, which dominates the proceedings like a The beauty and the Beast background. Among the most photographed hotels in the world, its ornate lobby sets the tone; all the chandeliers, deep mahogany woodwork and marble staircases. But its location is the real highlight – overlooking a dramatic natural cliff, with the historic quarter crumbling down its flanks and Basse Ville sprawling below. The hotel with its towers and turrets makes a great base for exploring, with a funicular that takes you to the shopping streets in less than two minutes for less than £3.
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After spending my first day in the city climbing and kayaking on the river, I take the funicular the following afternoon to wander around the fortified colonial core, before walking to St Roch, a suburb connected outside the city walls. Cafes and craft breweries abound here; I settle on Noctem for a crisp lager and lively people watching on its sunny terrace (noctem.ca).
The city’s food scene is dominated by poutine, Quebec’s provincial dish. Three basic ingredients – crispy chips, cheese curds and gravy – make up this Frankenstein culinary monster, born in the early 1950s before spreading across Canada like a grease fire.
Jonathan kayaking on the St. Lawrence River
The famous comfort food retains its popularity and seemingly limitless ability to cure ailments (including the fiercest of hangovers). But many local restaurants have also taken it to the next level — “poutine reinventedare fashionable reinventions of the trifecta, using smoked brisket, venison chili or pickled vegetables. The Chic Shack in Old Town prides itself on its “poutines 2.0,” and I can’t quibble, enjoying a concoction of braised beef and horseradish, plus a more vegetarian number featuring shallots and a stew of wild mushrooms (dishes from £4; lechicshack.ca).
However, the food scene isn’t all about fries and gooey sauce. In recent years, Quebec City has become a foodie hub, with food critics hailing from New York City (less than a two-hour plane ride) endorsing establishments such as the high-concept experimental restaurant Taniere3 (menu 15-course gourmet tasting from £108; den3.com) and the refined French restaurant Le Saint-Amour, run by celebrity chef Jean-Luc Boulay (dishes from £34; saint-amour.com).
On my last day, I switch gears again, renting an electric bike and crossing a suspension bridge to Île d’Orléans, a bucolic island in the St. Lawrence River that has inspired painters and poets for centuries. Originally known as Île de Bascuz (from Bacchus) for the wild grapes that grow here, this idyllic island is only about three miles from downtown Quebec City, but feels 100 times more , with half a dozen coastal villages strung together like a chain of Acadian pearls. along its 40-mile ring road.
The Algonquin natives called this island Minigo — “the bewitched place”. Today it is an enchanting mix of orchards, meadows, windmills, workshops and cellars. And the ideal way to explore it is on two wheels, at a languid pace, with regular stops – perhaps at Cassis Monna & Filles near the village of St Pierre, with its wine cellar, terrace restaurant and milk bar (cassimonna.com); or the picturesque Chocolaterie de l’Île d’Orléans in St Pétronille, where I enjoy scoops of silky, indulgent chocolate ice cream, grateful that my bike has a discreet motor (chocolaterieorleans.com).
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac dominates the city which stands on the St. Lawrence River
Before my visit to Quebec, I had heard friends in Toronto rave about this fortified fairy tale of a French-Canadian city. None did him justice. I have traveled extensively across Canada and in all 50 US states, and I sincerely believe this is the prettiest city on the continent.
Whisper it, but for enthusiastic French speakers after the peak of Covid, the richly charismatic Paris of North America may well, may be, to be a better vacation option than rusty Paris, unlike Northern Europe. Personally, I would take New France over the old any day of the week.
Jonathan Thompson was the guest of the Quebec Tourism Office (quebec-cite.com) and the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, which offers double rooms from £179 (fairmont.com). Air Transat offers direct London-Quebec flights from £353 return (Thursday to September; airtransat.com). Jonathan is the host of the new Discovery Channel travel show Adventure Cities (discovery.com)
Three more fabulous urban getaways in Canada
The Toronto Skyline
Canada’s multicultural megacity boasts an exceptional selection of museums, theaters and galleries, as well as one of the best food scenes in North America. Explore the neighborhoods of Kensington Market, Cabbagetown and West Queen West, but don’t miss the Toronto Islands, with their beaches and lakeside pubs. Ace Hotel Toronto opens in the Garment Quarter next month, with a rooftop bar and signature restaurant by award-winning chef Patrick Kriss (double rooms only from £291; acehotel.com; more at destinationtoronto.com).
Once derided as “the city the fun forgets,” Ottawa has quietly evolved into one of Canada’s top city break destinations. Much of the activity centers around its trio of major rivers. Interzip Rogers, the world’s first inter-provincial zipline, flies over the Ottawa River between Ontario and Quebec (under £15 £19, other £25; interzip.ca). Also visit the ByWard Market, with its artisan shops and specialty grocery stores (byward-market.com) and the Canadian War Museum (children £7, adults £11; war museum.ca). The waterfront Fairmont Chateau Laurier at the foot of Parliament Hill is the undisputed grande dame of the city (B&B doubles from £218; fairmont.com; More than tourismottawa.ca).
A mix of joie de vivre and cosmopolitan vibrancy, Montreal’s population has swelled in recent years to more than four million, largely thanks to an influx of tech-savvy and creative young people. With this millennial tide came thriving arts and dining scenes, and a glut of boutique hotels. The pick of these is the William Gray Hotel, a lavish property in a former merchant’s house in the heart of the cobbled lanes of the Old Port district (double room from £185; hotelwilliamgray. com; After on mtl.org).