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North America: Québec and Montréal

United’s regional aircraft are akin to strapping two engines to a HB pencil, yet the vibrations and outside whooshing are mildly soothing even at 32,000 feet. We rattled over to New York, changed, and arrived in Québec City for lunch.

Québec City, Québec

Celebrated for its quaint cobblestone streets and European charm, the UNESCO World Heritage city is a rare historic gem in a continent otherwise founded on Target and Wendy’s. With Europe on our doorstep, it would be interesting to see if this fiercely francophone enclave lived up to the real thing.

We were staying in quite possibly the ugliest hotel in the whole of Canada, the concrete eyesore looming over the picturesque 18th century rooftops. Cunningly however, Hôtel Le Concorde offers the best panoramic views out across the city, the Château Frontenac and the tumultuous St Lawrence River beyond. The Old Town is split into the Haute and Basse Ville, a tiring set of steps or elegant funicular linking the two. Central to all is the aforementioned château – the most photographed hotel in the world, truly resplendent with fairy-tale towers and turrets.

The city is touristy, and thus significantly more expensive than those visited in the US. Its winding streets and boutique shops are charming, yet everything’s so perfectly manicured you begin to wonder if it’s authentically old or an Epcot replica. We grew to appreciate its history during a walking tour (love these), bringing to life explorer Jacques Cartier's 1535 voyage up the St Lawrence tide, to ‘where the river narrows’ and the spot where Québec was ultimately founded. The city's strategic and symbolic significance made it the focus of geographical lust from that moment onward, and if there’s one thing the Québécois do love, it’s a bloody cannon – they’re everywhere, and oddly point in all directions including towards the city centre. The French.

One of the main reasons to visit this eastern province of Canada was to venture out onto the St Lawrence, where plankton rich waters draw 13 species of whale from the open ocean. It’s a beautiful three or so hour drive out into the woodlands and bays of rural Canada, and we took a quick detour to the Fairmont Manoir Richelieu, which a week later hosted the G7. As with mine, the river’s journey begins at the Great Lakes, flowing east towards the Atlantic. Within a few minutes of leaving the harbour we glimpsed a pod of beautifully white Beluga whales – the river’s only permanent cetacean residents. A Minke made an arching appearance too, taking a few long breathes before diving again for minutes at a time, keeping the boat in hushed anticipation for the next blow. Waves and whales look extraordinarily similar.

Three nights were ultimately enough in Québec City, but I can see the attraction if you don’t have Europe’s rich history nearby. Having lugged our suitcases across the cobbles to the Gare du Palais, we embarked on a rather civilised train journey west towards Montréal.

Montréal, Quebec

I highly rated Montréal within ten minutes. Its buzzing streets, communal squares and youthful feel offer a cultural compromise between Chicago and Columbus, and a world away from Québec’s horses and carts. We were staying in the appropriately hip, modern and techy Boxotel, which was awesome, combining a handful of rooms with an art gallery, café and chilled Jacuzzi roof terrace. A short walk away was the Vieux Port de Montréal, or downtown; however, our area, le Quartier des spectacles, was hard to beat, with murals bookending each street and cool bars down the middle.

Never one to miss a panorama, I did force Carly to mount Le Mont Royal, hiking up through the humidity to be rewarded with another amazing city view. Having travelled so much over the previous fortnight, we were otherwise happy to relax along the river and sip beers in hipster board game bars. I’m really pleased to have checked this part of Canada off my list, yet as a standalone trip from the UK it wouldn’t top my recommendations. Overall, from Chicago to here, having made 12 or so visits to North America this was certainly one of my favourites – from the open road to pancake stacks, exhilarating, tiring and tipsy in equal measure.

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