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New World, French chic

ISSUE 6
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Kathy Arnold maps the perfect drive through Québec, La Belle Province


Put simply, there is nowhere else like it. Canada's largest province, it's seven times the size of the UK and boasts unspoiled wilderness, sophisticated cities, rugged mountains, rolling countryside and wildlife galore. Its heritage looks to both France and Britain, with its auberges and tea rooms, and a passion for good food and gardening. Yet, this is definitely North America, with well maintained roads that make driving a real pleasure.

 

The best way to spend a week-long, relaxed 800km self-drive tour around Québec is to fly into the lively international city of Montréal. Then follow the St Lawrence river, as you head north-east into the untamed Laurentian mountains. Spend time in 400-year-old Québec City, before crossing in to head north-east into the untamed Laurentian mountains. Spend time in 400-year-old Québec City before crossing in to the the lesser-known but just as attractive countryside east of the river, with its 19th-century villages, before looping back to the airport.

 

To get the lie of the land once you are in Montréal, climb the 69 steps up the tower of the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours. To the east lies the mighty St Lawrence river and the Île Notre-Dame, home of the annual Formula One Grand Prix. Mont-Royal, the hill that gives the city its name, rears up to the west. Below are the narrow streets of Montréal's historic heart, where old-fashioned shops mix with boutiques run by hip local designers.

 

To learn more about the story of the city, do visit the nearby Pointe-à-Callière, an archaeological site as well as a museum, with stone walls in the basement dating back to the 17th century. Then, on the Place Jacques-Cartier, relax with a café au lait served the traditional way in a bol (bowl).The Musée des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) is another must, especially the impressive Québec and Canadian art collections, with its Inuit and First Nations works.

 

Plant lovers shouldn't miss the botanical garden, whose 30 themed areas range from a Québec Corner, showcasing collections from regional trees and flowers, to Japanese and Chinese-style gardens.

 

regional bounty

 

Back in the Old Port area is the Rue St-Paul, the city's oldest street, still paved with cobblestones. Here, start the evening with a cocktail in the courtyard of the stylish Le St Sulpice Hotel Montréal, before going out for dinner. Montréal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world (though most speak English too), so it is no surprise that everyone eats out. Typical of the mix of French tradition and New World pizazz is Le Local. Think industrial cool with bare brick walls and dishes such as Québec duck confit and hazelnut-crusted salmon. Also near the hotel is the Garde Manger. Small and convivially-boisterous, it also features regional bounty: from an impressive seafood platter, loaded with oysters and shrimp, to lobster poutine, a modern take on a Québécois favourite.

 

At weekends, it is fun to combine a little history with a lot of food on one of the new Local Montréal Tours that focuses on the huge Jean-Talon farmers' market. Munch artisan sausages or a smoked salmon and goat's cheese crêpe. Alternatively, join a Montréal On Wheels four-hour guided bicycle tour that stops at St-Viateur Bagel. This 55-year old institution is famous for another gustatory tradition: Montréal-style smoked meat in a bagel.

 

Then do as Montréalers do and head for the hills – or rather, the glorious Laurentian mountains. Only a couple of hours' drive away is the village of Saint-Alexis-des-Monts. You could stay awhile at the Hotel Sacacomie: timber-built, this comfortable lodge feels very Canadian and is the perfect base for fans of the great outdoors. Horse ride or bike through the forest or fish for brook and rainbow trout. Sign up for one of the hotel's dusk excursions to watch a beaver swimming lazily around a pond, tempted by a leafy branch held out by a guide. Climb into a seaplane and swoop over the vast wilderness of the Mauricie National Park, where autumn turns the foliage of maples, birch and beech to red, gold and bronze. Join the guide in a wooden cabin and spot black bears foraging in their natural habitat.

 

The contrast with Québec City, only two and a half hours away, could not be greater. Settled in 1608 and still ringed by impressive ramparts, Québec City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on two levels: the Upper Town on top of the bluff; and the Lower Town by the river. Dominating both is the 120-year old Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, one of Canada's grandest hotels and full of history. In the Bar St-Laurent, for example, you can enjoy the same vista that Churchill and Roosevelt shared during a top-secret military conference in 1943 (they even have Martinis named after them).

 

city views

 

Leave the car, as this city is best explored on foot. Right outside the Frontenac, the funicular reveals fabulous views of the city and river below during its minute-long descent. Down in the Old Port district are boutiques, cafes and the Musée de la Civilisation. Plan to spend time here, particularly at the exhibition People of Québec... Then and Now. This tells the story of the First Nations and the Europeans – the French, British and more – who created the province.

 

As in Montréal, good food is part of everyday life. On a Tours Voir Québec guided walk, sample locally-made chocolates, bread and cheeses; step back in time at JA Moisan, North America's oldest grocery store. As for restaurants, everyone has a favourite. Panache is in a chic, converted warehouse, where chef Julien Dumas gives grandmère's recipes a 21st-century twist with regional produce, such as scallops, duck, venison, cranberries and maple syrup.

 

foodie paradise

 

There's lots to see around the city, including Battlefields Park and the Plains of Abraham, scene of the 1759 battle that changed the history of North America. Only minutes from Québec is the 34km-long Île d'Orléans: an artisan foodie paradise including handmade chocolates (Chocolaterie de l'Île d'Orléans, Sainte-Pétronille), blackcurrant liqueurs (Cassis Monna & Filles, Saint-Pierre) and cider at Domaine Steinbach (Saint-Pierre), with its cheerful outdoor bistro. Alternatively, if you have never seen whales up close and personal, follow the St Lawrence north to the Saguenay Fjord, an easy day trip from Québec City. Minke, fin and beluga whales regularly gather to feast here, and they are easy to spot on a three-hour cruise out of Tadoussac.

 

dazzling colours

 

Next up is the fertile countryside of the Cantons de l'Est (Eastern Townships). To get there, take the towering Pont de Québec bridge over the St Lawrence. Continue on for two and a half hours to the Relais & Châteaux Manoir Hovey in the far south-eastern corner of Québec, near the border with the United States, sitting on lovely Lake Massawippi.

 

Tempting though it is to stay and enjoy the views, that would mean missing out on a variety of experiences. North Hatley has antiques shops and crafts galleries; at the century-old Abbey of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, the monks make an excellent blue cheese.

 

In Coaticook, test your nerve crossing the 169m suspension bridge across the Coaticook river, looking down into the 50m-deep gorge below. Autumn is the best time to take a cruise across Lake Memphrémagog to enjoy the dazzling couleurs d'automne, the foliage that blazes across the hillsides. Even the final leg of the itinerary is easy on the eye: a two-hour drive through the countryside back to Montréal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau International airport. There's plenty more to discover and it's easy to see why Québec is nicknamed la Belle Province.

WAY TO GO

Frontier Canada Frontier Canada

Tel. 020 8776 8709 / www.frontier-canada.co.uk

Offers imaginative tailor-made holidays all over Canada, including Québec.


Adventure Canada

Tel. +1 800 363 7566 / www.adventurecanada.com

Featuring the Mighty St. Lawrence in 2015. The unique wildlife, scenery and Québec culture make this the perfect destination for expedition cruising, calling at seldom-visited islands, stunning national parks and picturesque communities.


Cox & Kings

Tel. 020 7873 5000 / www.coxandkings.co.uk

Offers small-group tours, tailor-made holidays and short breaks all over Canada, including Québec.


Canadian Affair

Tel. 020 7616 9184 / www.canadianaffair.com

Features a wide range of Canada holidays, from city breaks to fly-drive.

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