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I just got back from a family vacation to a place we’d never been before: Quebec City, Quebec, Canada. When I say a family vacation, I don’t just mean my husband, son and I. Oh, no. Every so often my extended family swarms together to go to some exotic place for a celebration. The last one that included my father was in 2005, to Italy, for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Last year, after my dad’s passing, we all went on an odyssey to memorialize his life from East Texas to Tucson, birth to death. This year, my mom’s 80th birthday was the reason for the mass exodus. In spite of a little sadness about my dad not being with us, we bucked up, and planned the vacay. My mom was the one who found the Bed & Breakfast. A B&B owner herself (plug! Hacienda Bougainvillea in Tucson, Arizona) she has a knack for finding the perfect one in other cities. She got in touch with a lovely woman named Isabelle who didn’t speak much English, but my mom determined that Isabelle had two entire stories of her three story home to offer us, complete with five bedrooms and bathrooms, a large living room, fully decked out kitchen, dining room, laundry, and of course, the three balconies for which her place, Trois Balcons, is named. Isabelle was going to be out of town the week we wanted to come, but she said, “You can have the house to yourself! Get the key from the mailbox and leave the money on the kitchen counter!” Can you imagine? Well, we did. We were eight in total. Sadly, my 20 year old son and 24 year old niece had to work, so they couldn’t do the trip. (Hey, at least they have jobs!) Then, it turned out my older sister and her husband had to cancel last minute because their jobs interfered as well. So, in the end, it was me and my husband, my mom, my brother, his two kids, and my younger sister and her boyfriend. They all flew in to New York City, where we live, we rented one car, and drove it and our Honda Civic the nine hours to Quebec City.
Why did we choose QC? Well, we originally were going to go to Montreal, but even four months ahead of time we couldn’t find suitable lodgings; that’s when my mom came upon Trois Balcons online. We all figured QC was close enough to Montreal that we could take a couple of daytrips there (no one bothered to do the research to find out it’s actually, like, 2 and 1/2 hours away.) In other words, Quebec City was our second choice. But when we arrived, after the long and grueling drive, a nine and eleven year old in tow, we were immediately soothed by the loveliness of Trois Balcons. Spacious, beautiful, cool, quiet, every amenity you could want, and ideally located, it turned out to be beyond our wildest expectations. Each couple and each single person had their own bedroom and the kids shared one. Most of us had our own bathroom en suite as well.
The next day had us out and exploring. The first place we visited was Old Quebec (Vieux Québec). We wandered through the enormous Parc des Champs-de-Bataille, one block from our B&B, full of historic remnants from the battle in which England took control of Quebec, until we got to Vieux Québec. Though intensely quaint, this renovated area of the city that is part of the original town, consisting of stone buildings and cobbled streets, exactly like an ancient city in Europe, had definitely been turned into a major tourist attraction. All the shops were pricey and loaded with Quebecois souvenirs, and the restaurants were also rather steep, though there were some cheaper fast food spots, as well as the ubiquitous Starbucks. Yet it was all so pretty, I was ready to forgive it for being a little Disneyland-ish. Old Quebec is where the huge Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac Hotel is located, the grand, 19th century building that dominates the skyline of Quebec City, impressive from every angle. On the plaza just out in front, we caught a performance by two amazing street acrobats, and on the walk home, saw a segment of a move-able dance piece called Je Me Souviens (I Remember). Along the Grand Allée, which led us back to Trois Balcons, we marveled at the beautiful government buildings on Parliament Hill and just beyond, the endless row of outdoor cafes. Regretfully, we never did stop and try one.
However, just around the corner from Trois Balcons is a wonderful shopping street that we frequented every day, called Rue Cartier, where the regular, if not slightly upscale, people of the city seem to go, lined with vegetable markets, boulangeries, gourmet eateries, and specialty stores, as well as the run-of-the-mill pharmacies, grocery stores and banks – there was even a Subway sandwich shop (sigh). A few days later, we discovered that if we kept walking on Rue Cartier, beyond the beaten path, to Rue Saint-Jean and turned right, we ended up in an area as charming as Old Quebec, but much more a real neighborhood full of real people. There were vintage and antique stores, paperies, toy stores, ethnic restaurants etc. All around this area is a residential neighborhood with adorable little homes that have probably been standing for at least two hundred years. I couldn’t stop taking pictures! That entire area, as well as the part of Old Quebec we’d already become familiar with is known as High Town (Haute-Ville) Another day’s foray took us to Low Town (Basse-Ville), the area of QC that was first settled by the French, several hundred steps down the side of a hill, but also reachable by a little elevator/trolley known as the Funiculaire, or from the streets along the St. Lawrence River, the main waterway in QC. Basse-Ville was pretty much just more quaint, touristy streets and shops, yet happily we stumbled upon an exceptional place for dinner there, Cafe Le St. Malo, where we had buckets of buttery-tender mussels and plates of perfect steak-frites for a surprisingly low price.
With so much beauty and charm, it only makes sense that the city is crawling with art and artists. Everywhere you look there’s some interesting wall-art, or museum to visit, or performance going on. As a matter of fact, it’s the home base of Cirque de Soleil, and you can see their free, nearly full-length performances almost every night of the summer under the Dufferin Underpass (standing room only except for parents with kids.) Oh! And DO NOT MISS the free, summer showings of the Moulin a Images: literally, Image Mill. Artist Robert Lepage and a group called Ex Machina took a row of old grain silos that sits at a dock in the middle of the river, the size of 25 Imax movie theaters all in all, and created a projection that shows the history of Quebec from prehistoric times to present. You sit on the boardwalk across the stretch of river, and music is broadcast while you watch one of the most amazing and creative film presentations you will ever see, on this gigantic screen. I promise it will blow your mind.
People in QC are super outdoorsy in the summer, and no wonder with the hard winters they endure, though I’m sure they participate fully in winter sports and activities as well. The Ice Hotel is one of QC’s most famous attractions; but you’re not going to get me to Quebec in the winter. The weather during late July and early August, when we went, was perfect: mid 80s (Farenheit) and fairly dry. Nearby are lakes for kayaking, canoeing and fishing, the Montmorency Falls, higher than Niagara, and lots of places for hiking and biking – all of which we took advantage of. As a matter of fact, you can boat, canoe, and kayak right on the St. Lawrence River, and rent bikes to ride on a 40 mile path that runs along its banks. The Parc des Champs-de-Bataille is a great place for walking and biking too.
Though we did make it to Montreal for a day trip, and it certainly is an interesting and beautiful city, we were glad we’d chosen QC for the main part of our vacation. If you choose to make it your next vacation destination, you may want to book accommodations way in advance. May I suggest Trois Balcons? http://www.troisbalcons.qc.ca/. The price was super reasonable.
Overall, the people in QC are delightful, and generally speak both French and English. I loved hearing the sing-song greeting of Bonjour whenever I walked into a shop or restaurant, and folks generally humored my pitiful French from the one year I took in college, too many years ago to mention. My adorable little niece who’s been attending a French/American school for five years was a huge hit! Anyway, you’ll feel like you’re in France for sure, but the attitude is definitely friendly to foreigners. By the end of our week there, I had completely fallen in love with Quebec City!