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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Back to the future in Quebec City, Canada

My kind of place: The only fortified North America city isn’t just a preserved-in-aspic historical piece.
The Fairmont Le Château Frontenac is an iconic sight on the Quebec City skyline, as well as being one of the city’s top hotels. iStockphoto.com
The Fairmont Le Château Frontenac is an iconic sight on the Quebec City skyline, as well as being one of the city’s top hotels. iStockphoto.com

Why Quebec City?

After a while, many North American cities can blur into one. But there’s no chance of this in Quebec City, which looks like it has been transplanted from the Old World to the New. It’s the only fortified city in North America, with the city walls harking back to a different era – and continent.

Quebec City has stood on the banks of the St Lawrence River for more than four centuries, originally set up as a fur-trading port by French explorers. It’s the last true bastion of an alternate, French-speaking North America that history didn’t allow to transpire.

On closer inspection, beyond the visual treats of the defences and carefully preserved Lower Town streets, it’s clear that the old-world France stereotype isn’t accurate. There’s a distinctive Quebecois character – best explored in the easy-going cafes and restaurants outside the main tourist areas. Amble down Rue Saint Joseph or Avenue Cartier, and a surprisingly hip, chilled vibe destroys all expectations of a preserved-in-aspic museum piece.

A comfortable bed

The Fairmont Le Château Frontenac (www.fairmont.com; 001 418 692 3861) is more than just a hotel – it’s an icon of the city. Its ludicrous turrets and photogenic main tower make it a tourist-photo staple, while a recent refurbishment has added a lighter, modernising touch. Doubles cost from 330 Canadian dollars (Dh1,112).

For the historic look on a relative budget, the Clarendon (www.hotelclarendon.com; 001 418 692 2480) is the city’s oldest hotel – dating back to 1870. Expect wooden-beamed ceilings, antique-look furniture and art-deco splashes. Doubles from 129 dollars (Dh434).

The Auberge Place d’Armes (www.hotelsduvieuxquebec.com; 001 418 694 9485) is inside an old wax museum. It neatly straddles the line between vintage and playfully young – it’s the most fun choice in the Upper Town. Doubles from 175 dollars (Dh590).

Find your feet

Kick off with a historic oversight in the Upper Town at the Musée de l’Amérique Francophone (www.mcq.org; 001 418 692 2843), which charts the influence of French and French-Canadian explorers on North America. It’s not just this corner of north-eastern Canada – much of the American Midwest was opened up by the French coming down the St Lawrence and up the Mississippi rivers.

From there, head to the city walls – the most comprehensive section runs parallel to the Vauban-inspired Citadelle fortress. The walls merge into the Dufferin Terrace, a wooden boardwalk that struts in front of the Château Frontenac, with prime river views.

A funicular (or lots of steps) will bring you out at the Lower Town, where the beautifully restored Quartier du Petit-Champlain has the atmospherics you’d hope for in the oldest part of the city. Slightly further round is Quebec City’s best museum – the Musée de la Civilisation (www.mcq.org; 001 418 643 2158), which pulls in big-ticket temporary exhibitions but also has engrossing permanent sections on Quebec’s history and Canada’s indigenous people.

Meet the locals

In 1759, the French lost control of Quebec to the British after a bloody battle on the Plains of Abraham. The battlefield is now a huge park, which leans more to dog-walking and Frisbee-throwing locals the farther away you get from the Citadelle end in the Upper Town.

Book a table

Somewhat predictably, Quebec City’s culinary strong suit is fine-dining French cuisine. La Crémaillère (www.cremaillere.qc.ca; 001 418 692 2216) has 50 years of pedigree, and the 48-dollar (Dh162) beef tartare is prepared at the table, to add a sense of theatre.

For something more dressed-down, try Chez Boulay (chezboulay.com; 001 418 380 8166), where you can eat at the bar and the menu concentrates on ingredients from the Boreal northern region of Quebec. The 33-dollar (Dh111) bison cheeks in organic redcurrant vinegar are sensationally tender.

Shopper’s paradise

The Quartier du Petit Champlain is a giant trap for cruise-ship passengers, but remarkably few shops flog generic tat. Most are run by the people making the arts and crafts. Boutique Métiers d’Art du Quebec (www.metiersdart.ca; 001 418 694 0267) has the biggest collection, from silk canvas paintings to hand-carved/painted wooden pepper mills. For glassware, the works at Les Trois Corbeaux (58 Rue Sous-le-Fort) are gorgeous, and you can watch the glass-blowers in action.

What to avoid

Relying solely on English can be an error – venture out of the main tourist areas of the Upper and Lower Town, and English-speakers can be surprisingly hard to find. A few French words and phrases go a long way.

Don’t miss

A 40-minute drive out of the city brings you to the 89-square-kilometre Duchesnay Forest, which is used primarily for forestry research. The lack of hunters and fishermen makes it a perfect habitat for black bears. Aventure Inukshuk (www.aventureinukshuk.qc.ca; 001 418 875 0770) runs knowledgeable bear-spotting tours, from 25 dollars (Dh85), taking visitors to wooden observation towers where they can see the woodland giants feed near a beaver dam.

Getting there

Etihad (www.etihad.com; 02 599 0000) flies from Abu Dhabi to Toronto, from Dh6,755 return. Connections to Quebec City cost from Dh573 with Air Canada (www.aircanada.com; 001 888 247 2262).

weekend@thenational.ae

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