Bon Hiver, Vieux Québec
Perched on a rocky promontory above the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City was settled in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain and built up over the years into a perfect simulacrum of old France. It’s all here: cobbled streets, slate-roofed stone houses, a 95-percent French-speaking population, patisseries, vin rouge, and fresh baguettes. North America’s only walled city, Vieux Québec (Old Quebec) is divided into the Haute-Ville and Basse-Ville (upper and lower cities), designations that are now simply geographic, but were once economic and strategic – the lower city filled with warehouses and other necessities of the river trade, the upper with homes built on the heights as protection against the English. As it turned out, the altitude wasn’t much of a help: In 1759, British general James Wolfe took the city after a two-month siege, losing his own life in the process but ensuring England’s hegemony on the continent. The Québécois still haven’t gotten over the shock, and the more nationalistic among them harbor dreams of partition from Canada and the establishment of an independent country.
To get the full flavor of the place, go in February for the seventeen-day Carnaval de Québec, when the Québécois make peace with their climate. Once a sort of northerly Mardi Gras where a drink called caribou (a mixture of brandy, vodka, sherry, and port) laid many a strong man low’, Carnaval is now a family-friendly event.
At the famous Dufferin Terrace, a pedestrian-only rampart that offers the city’s best views, adults and children sail down icy chutes on toboggans, while on the Plains of Abraham – the fields where the French and British fought it out – horse-drawn sleighs transport all comers back to a simpler time. Elsewhere, teams from around the world compete in snow-sculpting events, and brave souls participate in canoe races across the ice-choked St. Lawrence. At log-cabin “sugar shacks,” revelers looking like the Michelin Man in their layers of down and fleece line up for maple taffy, while others strip down to their Speedos for a quick dip in the Snow Bath.
To warm up less bravely at the end of the day, nothing is more Quebec than a stay at the Château Frontenac, the very symbol of the city, dominating the skyline from the top of Cap Diamard, the highest point in town. Designed in the style of a Loire Valley château and looking as if it’s stood here forever, it is, in fact, only a little over a century old, built in 1893 by Canadian Pacific railroad baron William Van Horne, who hoped to lure tourists with the promise of hotel luxury. Outside, it’s all stone-and-brick turrets, green copper roofs, and dormered windows, while inside, its labyrinthine corridors lead through various wings built over a hundred-year span with total stylistic consistency. Book an odd-numbered room in the main tower for a view of the St. Lawrence, or an even-numbered room for a panorama of the city’s rooftops – probably the most European vista this side of Paris. Various suites and the eighteenth-floor “honeymoon rooms” help relieve the Carnaval chill with Jacuzzi tubs. To dispel the chill in a different way, try a martini in front of the fireplace at the hotel’s Bar St.-Laurent, overlooking the Terrasse Dufferin.