When you work from home and have three school-aged kids, March Break is pretty much guaranteed to kill productivity. May as well enjoy the family time and do something. This year we decided to embrace what has been a rather brutish winter and visit Quebec City. It was snowier and colder than what we left behind, but with plenty of opportunity for outdoor activities and the chance to see the sights in one of Canada’s oldest cities. To make sure everyone was comfortable and had room to spread out — and to minimize the time spent driving around — we stayed at the historic Chateau Frontenac hotel, smack in the heart of Old Quebec. It was an awesome trip.
Quebec City is roughly 600 miles from our home in London (Ontario). To keep the pace relatively sedate, we decided to stop in Montreal for a night, then finish off with a leisurely three hour drive into Quebec City the next morning. Yeah, that didn’t go quite as I’d hoped. The first day of driving was constant fog and the second day we immediately ran into a winter storm that saw the highway closed by a wreck. A white-knuckle drive with enough snow to make me thankful I’d sacrificed the fuel economy of the minivan for the bad weather practicality of my 4×4 for the trip.
So when we drove through a stone archway, and finally pulled up to the hotel, we couldn’t have been more ready to unwind.
First, we had to stand and gawk at the building, though, which my kids thought was a castle… The Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac is one of Canada’s most iconic hotels. It’s huge (611 guest rooms), absolutely beautiful and exudes history — in fact, it’s a designated National Historic Site of Canada. It opened in 1893, sits adjacent to the Citadelle fortress and looms over Old Quebec, with a commanding view of the 400 year-old city and the St. Lawrence river.
Inside, the hotel reflected that impressive exterior. The lobby is huge and elegant and the staff were extremely helpful. We opted for a Studio Room, which is very well suited to families with more then two kids. It costs a little more, but you end up with a 550 square foot living space, two double beds and a double sleeper sofa. Plenty of elbow room. Our room had been recently renovated and had a huge, sunny bathroom and I’m pretty sure the beds were queen-sized, not double. The windows (which actually open if you want fresh air) offered views of the ice-clogged St. Lawrence river and the cannons perched on the Citadelle walls.
Of note to parents, there is a pool. The teenager in our party was also thrilled with the fact that there is a full-service Starbucks on site. We splurged on a buffet breakfast one day in the hotel and it more than lived up to expectations, including a beautiful view of the river. We parked the truck at the hotel and with its location, all of Old Quebec was well within walking distance making it an excellent base of operations. In short, it was both luxurious and family-friendly and I highly recommend it.
Stepping out onto the cobblestone streets, we descended the stairs down to the Petit-Champlain district for the first evening. With the snow, and holiday lights still up, it made for a memorable evening stroll. The boutiques were closed, but we made multiple trips back during daytime hours to shop, watch glass being blown and search for souvenirs. Scattered throughout were ice sculptures (including an ice slide) and outdoor fireplaces surrounded by Muskoka chairs where you could sit down and warm up for a bit. Walking down the many stairs wasn’t bad, but we always ended up taking the Funiclar (cable car) the 282 vertical feet back up to the top of the Terrace. It was only a few bucks a pop and the exit was on a terrace steps from the hotel. I could have used the exercise of climbing the stairs on the return trip, but I’m on vacation and the Funiclar can be passed off as a “ride” to entertain the kids…
Language was not a problem. Virtually everyone we met either spoke English or quickly switched to English when they caught an earful of my high school French. The only situation we encountered arose when I tried to order a Shamrock Shake for one of the boys at a McDonalds on St. Patrick’s day. The person at the counter didn’t speak English and I’m not particularly familiar with McDonalds’ menu which didn’t help. We eventually established that the location didn’t serve milkshakes of any kind, let alone green ones. Probably for the better — my “no yellow arches food” streak remains at 14 years.
There was much more to Old Quebec than the hotel and the Petit-Champlain district and that’s one of the things that kept the kids from getting bored. I realize that walking through street full of bistros, galleries, museums and boutiques — no video game stores to be seen — can wear thin when you’re 12 or 15, but the sheer extent of Old Quebec helped to keep things interesting. Fortifications were everywhere with statues and cannons sprinkled throughout. In the evening, decorative lights illuminated everything.
And then there were the activities like snow tubing, ice carting and the Aquarium du Quebec. But I’ll detail those on a follow-up post.