Travel

Quebec City offers old-world romance on this side of the pond

In the Upper Town of Quebec City, fall visitors enjoy the brisk days.
In the Upper Town of Quebec City, fall visitors enjoy the brisk days. TNS

Shop windows are dominated by winter parkas. A cool, bitter wind blows off the St. Lawrence River. The trees are turning quickly now.

On Fabrique Street, I hurry past a fur store with my inadequate raincoat and fleece, wishing I had a hood. Or gloves. Or both.

In this brief season, fall, North America’s most European city glows with brisk vitality. It has broad shoulders and French-Canadian sturdiness. City hall is decorated with giant pumpkins. Spindly geraniums are on their last legs in the flowerpots. Cruise ships on color tours of Canada dock at the port, and visitors pour into the winding streets of the lower town.

Most Americans have been to Toronto, or maybe Vancouver or even Montreal. But Quebec City is far different than those large metropolises.

Here, everything is about New France, North America’s French ties, both the past and present. And that sensibility is why Quebec City is also regularly named one of the most romantic cities in the world.

This time of year, it gets dark earlier each day. Already at 2:45 in the afternoon, I feel the hint of winter to come, and how Quebec fights the darkness.

I walk uphill toward the windswept river. I cut through a small alley that doubles as a market. There, artists sell touristy images in oil, acrylic and watercolor, all reds and greens and bright blues. There is a gay feeling of warm color and light in this tiny alley.

Nearby, St. Louis Street also is full of bright colors — on the shutters and awnings and in shop window displays — that soften forbidding gray stone and chilly blue skies.

Inside the luxurious Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac hotel, the tradition of afternoon tea is another good insulator against the clutches of winter-in-waiting. There, a waiter serves a gleaming silver pot of steaming tea along with precise little appetizers. The room is hushed. It is warm in here. Couples linger. Nothing is rushed. It feels like a warm blanket, sitting in this room with its wide windows.

Ties to history

One thing about Quebec City: Yes, the language is all French. But this place feels curiously familiar to Americans. Many places in the United States, including Detroit, were once part of Quebec and New France, right up until the French lost their vast holdings to the British in 1763.

Even today, freighters you see on the St. Lawrence River likely have come from the Great Lakes, connected by a ribbon of water. Many names in Michigan (including Detroit, “the straits”) still resonate of French Canada. Quebec City still lives amid history. Madame Cadillac herself could walk down the street and feel at home.

A heavy defensive stone wall still marches around the old town, black cannons lining the ramparts. (Actually, at this moment they appear to be trained directly on the white Caribbean Princess cruise ship docked below, so watch out, cruise passengers.)

Even the stone house that belonged to 17th-century explorer Louis Joliet is pragmatically used as the ticket booth for the funicular hillside tram that connects the upper town to the lower town.

Last winter saw record-breaking cold in Quebec City, with an average daytime high of 17.8 degrees in February. Still, people came to the Christmas markets and Winter Carnival.

This year, the Christmas markets will run from late November through early January.

The big Quebec New Year’s Eve festival will feature outdoor shows, lights and a Ferris wheel (Dec. 31).

Winter Carnival, Quebec’s most famous event, runs Jan. 29-Feb. 14.

Other romantic things to do? Rent a car and drive just north of town to Montmorency Falls, a huge waterfall taller than Niagara. Keep going on to Sainte Anne cathedral in the town of Sainte Anne de Beaupre, one of North America’s biggest Catholic shrines. You also can travel 2  1/2 hours south from Quebec City to visit its big sister, Montreal.

But in my opinion, couples seeking a getaway should just come here, stay put, wander the streets, eat lots of terribly rich food and find a cozy place to stay.

If you go

Stay: Major hotel brands such as Hilton and Marriott are near the old town, or try a more unique stay in a local hotel or interesting inn, such as the new Le Monastere des Augustines. For a list of accommodations: www.quebecregion.com, 877-783-1608.

Do: Most tourists focus on the old section of the city (which has an upper and lower town), plus visit Montmorency Falls. Most just walk around, shop, eat and visit museums. Quebec City also has a more modern section of high-rises and the provincial capitol building.

Shop: Excellent, especially for clothing, art and fur. Beware, however, that certain fur products sold in Quebec are illegal to import to the U.S., such as sealskin jackets or certain pelts.

Exchange rate: Fantastic. Americans essentially get a 25 percent discount; it costs about 75 cents to buy $1 Canadian. Withdraw money from ATMs when you arrive for the best exchange rate.

Information: www.quebecregion.com

The serene simplicity of Quebec City’s newest hotel

This summer, after a $42 million makeover, a former monastery operated by the Augustinian order of Catholic sisters opened as Quebec City’s newest lodging. The new Le Monastere des Augustines hotel is a unique spot that focuses on a holistic wellness experience.

It has 65 rooms, some modern and some the original nuns’ rooms. There’s an ultra-modern lobby and meeting space, plus an intriguing museum devoted to the history of the Augustinian order in Quebec since the 1600s.

The rooms have no TV. No music. All around are signs urging you to unplug from the Internet (although the property does have free Wi-Fi). The buffet breakfast is to be taken in silence, which is curiously relaxing. The restaurant also serves lunch and dinner.

My room, in the modern fourth-floor wing, had a king-size bed and two end tables — all that fit in the room. It had a window seat and an old arched, double-pane window with shutters that overlooked the entryway to the hotel. The walls were bare and white. The modern bathroom had one small mirror above the sink.

The Augustinian order of nuns are nurses, so now their hotel aims to heal the frazzled people of the world. Guests also can partake of free yoga, meditation, art classes and discussion nights (in French).

The nuns here made the decision a few years ago that they had to do something, with their dwindling numbers, vast real estate and historic artifacts languishing. They didn’t just want to disappear. So they created a partnership that made use of the space and protected their legacy. The hotel is run by a nonprofit but there still are 12 nuns living on the property. Once upon a time there were more than 200.

Located just a couple blocks from a main shopping street of Old Quebec, Le Monastere des Augustines speaks of Quebec City’s religious roots, the sturdy double windows that protect from the cold winds of life, the modern sensibility of the Canadian architecture scene that mixes creative old and new, the bravery of a religious order that did not change for more than 300 years but finally knew it had to, and could.

It is an authentic experience not replicated elsewhere. And that’s something notable in this increasingly monochromatic world. 77 Rue des Remparts, Quebec City, 418-694-1639; www.augustines.ca/en/monastery.

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