A Weekend in Quebec City

Type of Post: 
Beyond New England
Looking down upon Quebec City

We had not been to Quebec City in 15 years, so a return trip was way overdue. We did it over Columbus Day 2016, adding Friday to make it a four-day weekend. That was enough time for a fun little expedition with plenty of sightseeing. 

The Canadian dollar was worth about $0.75, so some things looked more expensive than they were. Overall it was easy to stay on budget. Gas is expensive there, but if you fill up in Fort Kent then you won't need to buy much or any gas until you get back over the border.

Mount Katahdin from Rte 11

We spent Friday driving north through the length of Maine, departing I-95 at Sherman to take lonely Rte 11 past Mount Katahdin due north to Fort Kent, and then on to Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec, on the mighty Saint Lawrence. There was no foodie excellence that day, but we love that drive up Route 11 and the scenery was excellent. We spent the night at the Auberge de la Point in Riviere du Loup, a sprawling complex not far from the ferry terminal. 

Baie-Saint-Paul, in Charlevoix

The next morning we took the 8am ferry to Saint-Simeon and headed southwest along the river through the pretty Charlevoix region to Baie-Saint-Paul, a charming little town with plenty of artsy shopping and public sculptures about halfway to Quebec, but our lunch was a terrible disappointment. The dining options seemd to be limited to 5-star and 1-star options. The fancier places had a lot of game on the menu, which revolts Lorna, so I ended up settling for a ham sandwich at a one-star joint.

The Mighty St. Lawrence at Riviere-du-Loup, QC

The drive along the river to the city restored our spirits despite a sporadic light rain and gray sky. We passed through tiny riverside villages and farmland, and we were pretty close to the city before the charm faded into suburban sameness.

We arrived in Quebec City at about 2pm. There was a light drizzle, light enough to walk in without discomfort. 

The Celebrity Summit can carry 2500 passengers

After finding our lodging and parking the car, we set out exploring, accompanied by about 2000 tourists from the enormous Celebrity Summit cruise ship, then in port.

Quebec's Old City is in two parts, a small port area down on the river, and then a larger area on the hill above, dominated by the majestic and celebrated Chateau Frontenac. I had looked into staying there, but at $450/night I decided I had better ways to spend those dollars!

Tableside Prep at Le Continental

Saturday night's dinner was a special one. Le Continental is a ritzy place in the shadow of the Chateau Frontenac. You get something of a show with your dinner because many of the meals are prepared tableside with great flair. They are very old-school, known for their steaks (sauteed tableside and flambeed with copious quantities of brandy) and for the impeccable  service. For the tableside service, the waiter brings a small table on wheels, topped with two braziers and a salad bowl. The salad and dressing are prepared as you watch, and then the steaks are cooked while you enjoy the salad. The whole experience evokes the thrill of dining on a grand transatlantic liner in the 1920s.

Snow Crab at Le Continental, Quebec

Lorna is not a steak-eater and their vegetarian options were unappealing, so she went the crustacean route. She got a very generous serving of snow crab, perfectly prepared and served with fresh pea shoots and a delicate carrot-parsnip puree.

For dessert we were pleased to see our very own Maple Cream Pie. That humble delight seemed to be on every menu in Quebec City!

(Now here's an odd side-note: every restaurant, of whatever quality, also had Salmon Tartare on the menu. Everything else on the menu might be different, but the Salmon Tartare was absolutely ubiquitous!)

Tourists from the Cruise Ship

Sunday was sunny and beautiful. The fall colors were even more spectacular than they had been in Maine, and not as far advanced, perhaps due to the moderating influence of the mighty Saint Lawrence River. The tourists were out in force, taking photos of everything in sight. Selfie-sticks were a constant hazard in the crowded cobbled streets.

Shopping in Quebec

We shopped and explored all day. The day was sunny and comfortable, there was magnificent foliage and numerous street sculptures and historical plaques. We saw some huge outdoor murals and plenty of outdoor and indoor eating. 

We did not see much street food, no pushcarts and few kiosks. 

The season, I was told, slows down a little after our Columbus Day/Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, but it stays pretty active right up through Christmas. Certainly whenever  one of those immense cruise ships comes into port, there are Quebecois shopkeepers ready to sell them whatever they need.

The range of merchandise was broad, from cheap tchotchkes to multi-thousand dollar original paintings and sculptures.

Artists Alley in Quebec City

There was a lot of fur, far more than we see in the USA. Quebec was built on the fur trade, and it figures prominently in their heritage.

Lorna was a bit put off by it, and surprised. At one point she got a lecture from a surprisingly undiplomatic old hat-seller about how synthetic fur comes from oil, which it even worse (in her accounting) for the environment, She finished the lecture triumphantly by declaring that fur in a renewable resource, to which Lorna retorted "not for that fox, it's not!"

Not wheelchair accessible

We really enjoyed exploring the alleys and weird nooks. Quebec is not only one of the oldest cities in North America, but it is also very vertical. Every odd bend in the road or steep slope had occasioned some enterprising builder to make the most of it. Canada is not the USA, so there is no Americans With Disabilities Act in place to ensure that people in wheelchairs or other impediments have easy access. The weird old architecture has lots of charm, but it can be very challenging for some. 

The upper city is about 180 feet above the lower city, so walking is like taking the stairs up an eighteen-story building. But there are sights to see along the way and some routes have shopping. You can take the funicular (a sort of big sloped elevator that disembarks into a gift shop at the bottom) or you can take a taxi, but walking is not so bad because there are many places to stop and admire the view or to go shopping. 

Seafood fondue

We had lunch at Le Petit Chateau, a pleasant little creperie not far from the Chateau Frontenac. Lorna got a savory shrimp, asparagus, and mushroom crepe followed by her favorite Crepes Suzette, while I enjoyed a wonderful fondue of assorted fish and shellfish in a hot aromatic broth, accompanied by a local cider from Ile d'Orleans (about which bucolic paradise I'll say more in a moment). 

In a great stroke of luck, our table was in a corner with an electrical outlet behind my chair, so I was able to charge my cell phone during a restorative and leisurely lunch!

Here are some observations on the food of Quebec City:

Crepes Suzette at Le Petit Chateau

Quebec is not France. Ile d'Orleans is a prime bit of farmland just minutes from the city, but Quebec does not have thousands of square miles of farms and orchard and vineyards competing to send the finest produce and meats to the city. It's very hard to be a dedicated locavore in Quebec. 

Because of Quebec's forest-wealth heritage, the menus have a lot of (farm-raised) venison, caribou, rabbit, duck, and other meats that we find exotic and some find distasteful. Mushrooms are also very common on Quebecois menus. 

Cafe Au Lait

The pastries were not better than we can get at fine bakeries at home, but it's easier to find a good croissant there than it is here, perhaps because they don't have to compete with doughnuts!

Contrary to popular belief, you can indeed get through an entire weekend in Quebec City without eating any poutine. 

The craft beer, cider, and spirits movement is alive and well in Quebec. I counted maybe six small breweries (and brought back samples) and 4 distilleries (I brought back two interesting "terroir" gins).  There are a few cideries, including one in nearby Ile d'Orleans. It is interesting to see the tension between locavor pride and "Frencher than thou" snobbishness in some restaurants.

The next day, Monday, was also glorious. We had a long drive home, but decided to see a few more sights on the outskirts of Quebec City before heading southward.

Montmorency Falls

We started with a quick trip to Montmorency Falls, just 10 minutes from downtown Quebec. We heard about the falls through a tip from a Foodie Pilgrim follower on Facebook! The falls are big and dramatic, and look entirely out of place just off the highway so near to the city. It's also popular with the tour groups, so the visitor center is alternately empty and crowded. I'm glad we saw it in the fall when the foliage was at its peak.

Then we got lost in suburbia for a while trying to find a breakfast place touted on Yelp! We found it - inside a huge supermarket, and closed on Mondays... thanks Yelp!

Ile d'Orleans Foliage

Finally we crossed over to Ile d'Orleans. Unlike Quebec City, Ile d'Orleans is flat and gently rolling farmland in the middle with nice little villages along the shore. The north side, nearer to the left bank of the Saint Lawrence, is apple country. The south side produces berries on southern slopes facing across the broad river. It takes about an hour to circumnavigate the island if you make no stops. Maybe the most amazing thing about this Elysian Field is that there are no McMansions or other garish structures, no t-shirt shops and arcades, it's just riverfront farm country fifteen minutes from bustling downtown Quebec.

Moose Crossing - 33 miles!

My friend Google says the fastest route home would be through Sherbrooke, Vermont and NH on I-91, at about 7 hours to Plymouth. Foir an extra half hour, we took the scenic route through Jackman, Maine to Waterville, and then I-95 from there.  We went through some pretty remote areas, including this stretch where apparently the moose outnumber the cars.

It was a grand trip squeezed into a long weekend. It was enough fun that we decided to plan to do it again next Memorial Day weekend!