By: Nicole Pensiero, Special To Follow South Jersey
I like to think of it as “France without the jetlag” – the way it was first described to me by a local on my first visit to Quebec City.
Indeed, it’s a bit magical to feel like you’ve landed in a charming French village, while still in North American – less than 1.5 hours from Philadelphia, in fact. The capital of the province of Quebec, Canada – and the region’s second biggest city (after much larger Montreal) — Quebec City, we soon discovered, continually enchants with its mix of fun, culture, and cuisine.
Safe, walkable, and home to about 550,000 residents, Quebec City is one of the oldest European cities in North America. The ramparts surrounding what is known as Old Quebec (Vieux-Québec) are the only fortified city walls remaining in the Americas, north of Mexico. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Old Quebec comprises both city’s Upper Town and Lower Town (and yes, they are on two levels).
The Lower Town, founded in the early 1600’s by explorer Samuel de Champlain, houses countless cafés and boutiques in buildings dating back to the 17th and 18th century, as well as some of the city’s most famed attractions. The Upper Town houses what is undoubtedly Quebec City’s most famous landmark, the 600-plus room Chateau Frontenac, a castle-like hotel built by the Canadian Pacific Railway company, and opened in 1893. The frozen-in-time Chateau Frontenac stands sentinel over the city and draws hundreds of tourists each day, who wander down its halls and along the nearby riverfront boardwalk.
Our charming boutique hotel, the C3 Hôtel Art De Vivre, was in the Upper Tower, and perfectly located for all of our sightseeing. With only 24 rooms in a restored historic home, we were surprised at how spacious our accommodations were. There was also included a lovely continental breakfast (with waiter service) and a seasonal rooftop terrace, where you could enjoy roasting your own marshmallows (provided by the front desk staff). The C3 is located almost directly across the street from an acclaimed art museum, Le Musée national des beaux-arts.
During our first stroll to the Lower Town, we spotted Chocolats Favoris, which had a line outside the door. This place takes the concept of dipping an ice cream cone in chocolate to a whole new level; there is more than one location in the city.
Our first “proper” meal, however, was at the popular Le Chic Shack, where we savored terrific burgers and got our first taste of the region’s famed poutine – a concoction of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy.
To get down to the Lower Town, we took the city’s popular Funicular, which, since 1879, has transported visitors between the Lower and Upper towns. It runs seven-days-a week, from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., and costs about $3 U.S. each way. You can also take one of the nearly 30 sets of stairs that link the Upper and Lower Towns; the oldest and best-known are the very steep Breakneck Stairs, built in 1635.
Once of the nicest things bout Quebec City is how close it is to the countryside. You can drive yourself or hop on a tour bus, in fact, and (for about $35 U.S.) arrive at the verdant Île d’Orléans (Isle of Orleans) in about 15 minutes. Known as the “bread basket” of the Quebec region, this a primarily agricultural island, home to about 10,000 residents, known for its many wineries, maple farms (i.e., “Sugar Shacks”) and casual restaurants. We especially enjoyed a visit to the Cidrerie Verger Bilodeau, where we enjoyed samples of – and ultimately purchased – freshly made maple butter, apple butter and cider jelly.
On your way back to the city, stop at the famed Montmorency Falls, which, at 276 feet, taller than Niagara Falls. (The adventurous ones may want to try zip-lining across the falls).
Perhaps the most unique experience of our trip – and one we are still talking about – was an hours-long visit to the Strom Spa Nordique. Nestled along the St. Lawrence River, this multi-million dollar spa (open to the public) was the perfect way to wind down our trip. For a flat rate, you can enjoy a full day there (from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., if you like) and enjoy what is called the “Thermal Experience,” comprised of visits to several thermal pools of varying temperatures. There was even a steam room and an area where you could scrub yourself down with sea salt before rinsing off. It was nothing like your typical U.S. spa; more similar in look and spirt to spacious indoor-outdoor spas commonly found in Europe.
The basic entrance fee includes the use of a locker, towels and a terry bathrobe, which you can even wear to enjoy a bite at their onsite café. They open the spa one morning each month for families, and there are various add-on packages available so visitors can enjoy bodywork or facials. We were totally transported during what ended up being a four-hour visit (because we lost track of time). Relaxing in the spa’s infinity pool, which overlooks the river, all I could think was “another magical experience in a magical city.”
For more information on Quebec City, visit www.quebec-cite.com.
Nicole Pensiero is a South Jersey-based freelance writer and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association. Follow her @NicoleWrytr.
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