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Quebec City and its Irresistible Beacon: Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac

Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac

It’s not unusual, while passing through the grand lobby of the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, to see Asian visitors snapping photos of the first-floor mail drop. The box was a key plot point in a Korean television production, “Goblin,” based on the real-life discovery a few years ago of a postcard that had been stuck between floors since World War II.

The missive was from a soldier about to ship out, asking his beloved to wait for him until he returned home and they could be married. Unfortunately, whether or not she ever got said letter remains a mystery despite the hotel staff’s best efforts.

The fate of nations, however, was a little clearer after critical meetings at the Frontenac in 1943 and 1944. The various heads of the Allies held the Quebec Conferences at the hotel, formulating plans for the Normandy invasion and the end of WWII. The 850 guests and residents had to be hustled out of the hotel for the occasion, making way for the likes of Winston Churchill, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and Franklin Roosevelt, the first U.S. president to visit Quebec City.

FDR was hardly the last head of state to visit; the Frontenac has long welcomed royalty, counselors, and a host of glittering entertainment personalities. Hitchcock filmed “I Confess” in the city, Steven Spielberg arrived with Leonardo DiCaprio for “Catch Me If You Can,” and Celine Dion launched her career at the Frontenac. Queen Elizabeth II also stayed there.

With its blend of history, elegance and romance, the grande dame hotel is looking pretty good for a 125-year-old, following a $75-million restoration in 2014. It will continue celebrating with anniversary events through the end of the year. Not that celebration ever really stops here. In its glorious aerie overlooking Old Quebec (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the Vieux Port docks where cruise ships deposit wayfarers plying the St. Lawrence River, the Frontenac is a virtual magnet in the province’s capital city.

“It’s the Eiffel Tower of Quebec,” says Maxime Aubin, the hotel’s marketing manager, and the comparison seems apt. How many hotels, after all, offer tours of the building? In the Frontenac’s case, that can mean anywhere from ten to 15 a day. Indeed, the ground floor below the lobby is a virtual museum of the building and the city, the latter founded by explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1608 (1608 is now the name of the Frontenac bar).

The hotel name comes from Louis de Buade, Count of Frontenac, the governor of New France from 1672 to 1698. The chateau-style structure opened with 170 rooms in 1893 and kept growing in an angled, piecemeal fashion over the decades to 18 floors and 611 rooms. “Six hundred and eleven rooms, 611 views. It’s all about the view here,” says Aubin.

Quebec City is a walker’s metropolis to be sure. Many steps down from the Frontenac on the L’Escalier Casse-Cou (the Breakneck Stairs, dating from 1635) is the Lower Town of Old Quebec, often dense with tourists in its many boutiques, galleries, and bistros. It would be semi-criminal not to indulge in a plate of poutine at some point—French fries and cheese curds smothered in gravy, the Canadian national “dish”. But there’s ample fine dining here, too. Try the rabbit at Le Lapin Sauté, or stylish takes on French cuisine at Bistro Sous le Fort.

After wandering Lower Town for hours the trip back up may seem daunting, but there’s always the Funicular railway, which also has great views.

Quebec City is a walker’s metropolis to be sure.

The Funicular deposits one on the Terrasse Dufferin, a boardwalk enveloping the Frontenac which doubles as a toboggan run during the Quebec Winter Carnival. Steps away is the Champlain Monument, where folk singers, fire dancers, and other street performers regularly attract crowds.

Head in the other direction toward the historic La Citadelle. With its splendid views of the river and antique fortifications, it’s well worth a tour. Canada’s first national historic park, the Plains of Abraham in the Parc des Chaps-de-Bataille, is just a bit further on. And from there it’s a brief step to the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, where an exquisite exhibit of French impressionist Berthe Morisot runs through September 23.

L’Affaire Est Ketchup has been called the “grunge band of Quebec cooking,” and good luck trying to secure a table here. Other high-end dining options include iX pour Bistro, Laurie Raphël, and Restaurant Toast!

And here’s a great parlais: stay at the Frontenac, take the incredibly scenic Train de Charlevoix along the St. Lawrence to La Malbaie and stay at the sister Fairmont hotel, Le Manoir Richelieu, to celebrate its 120th anniversary next year.

Host to the recent G7 economic summit, the hotel is a similarly designed luxury outpost in this popular vacation retreat, next door to a casino. The leaders of the conference posed at the hotel’s Club de Golf, even if they didn’t play. The St. Lawrence is a frequent backdrop on wildly elevated holes.

The entire area owes much of its scenic character to a giant meteor that crashed here 350 million years ago. It’s impacted my travel plans, to be sure, and I’ll be back.

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