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Quebec City Overview
Sidewalk cafes by the dozen, baguettes in bicycle baskets, the classic French shoulder shrug, charming pedestrian-friendly plazas and squares, and residents with a special Gallic grace and beauty. Am I in Avignon? Lyon? St. Tropez? Non, mon ami, just a bit north of the U.S.
Quebec City offers a savory taste of Europe right here in North America. Think of it as France without the attitude. Friendly locals convey that sense of romance and Old World charm found across the Atlantic, making Quebec City a wonderfully distinctive port of call on Canada/New England cruises.
The city is located within the St. Lawrence River Valley, framed to the north by the majestic Laurentian Mountains and to the south by the Appalachian foothills and mountains leading to New England. The St. Lawrence River, flowing beneath the cliffs of Upper Town (dominated by the regal Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, one of the world's great hotels) swirls into the Atlantic and explains the colonization of this part of the world.
Settlement occurred in four phases: Native Amerindians, the French, the British and finally, the Canadian Confederation in 1867. Chosen as a site for a permanent trading post in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, Quebec's name comes from an Algonquin word for "where the river narrows." The year 1608 marked the beginning of a continual French presence in the area. In the 17th and 18th centuries, several historic battles were fought there among the French, British, Americans and native peoples. Rusted cannon balls still can be seen lodged in trees and buildings in the Old City. It remains the only walled city in the U.S. and Canada.
Quebec City is delightful for fall foliage and impressive with its boughs of green and remarkable light in spring and summer -- all seasons that find cruise ships in town. Summer temperatures average in the 70s, but on spring and autumn cruises, a jacket will be a necessity.
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Other Canada & New England Cruise Ports:
Bar Harbor • Bayonne (Cape Liberty) • Boston • Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island) • Corner Brook • Halifax • Montreal • New York (Manhattan) • Newport • Portland (Maine) • Quebec City • Saint John (New Brunswick) • St. John's (Newfoundland) • Sydney (Nova Scotia)
French is the official language. While English is spoken at almost all visitor destinations including restaurants and shops, some taxi drivers know only fragments.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Canadian dollar is the currency of the country. Most stores take American dollars but return Canadian bills and coins in change. ATMs and banks are located throughout the city. For updated currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
Caribou is a sweet Quebecois alcoholic beverage quaffed fall and winter to take the chill off. Served hot, it's made of red wine, hard liquor (usually whisky) and maple syrup, of course.
At Quebec City Farmer's Market, a half-mile walk from the port, shop for all things made with maple sugar -- biscuits, syrup, candies -- and Quebec's famous ice wines. In fall, don't leave without a crisp apple to munch on the walk back to the cruise ship.
Watch Out For
Leave high heels on the ship when headed for the historic parts of town crisscrossed by stairways and cobblestone streets. The suggested route to Upper Town is via the Old Quebec Funicular; a ride is $2.25.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at Le Vieux Port or La Basse-Ville (the Old Port or the Old City), where the Saint Charles River enters the St. Lawrence. The Old City is situated on two levels, Lower Town, at the Port, and Upper Town, both a quick walk from the terminal (although Upper Town is obviously uphill). On some days, when four or five cruise ships enter the port, some will be docked farther down river making for a long hike to the city center. Often those ships offer shuttles to the old port and into town. In the terminal, cruisers will find free Wi-Fi and a visitor's information booth staffed every day a ship is in port.
Le Vieux Port offers easy access to shopping. Just a few blocks away is Place Royale -- the 400-year-old plaza regarded as the birthplace of French civilization in Canada where Samuel de Champlain chose to build his Habitation when he arrived in the New World in 1608. The replica buildings house restaurants, galleries, shops and museums. Head North on Rue Notre Dame to find bustling Rue du Petit-Champlain, considered the oldest commercial street in North America. Art galleries, clothing stores, souvenir shops and quite a few cafes line the pedestrian street.
For a touch of culture, head to the Musee de la Civilization just across the street from the port. Here you'll find a mixed bag of exhibits, including a model of Champlain's early dwelling on the shores of the St. Lawrence; a longboat, the transportation of choice by the early Amerindians; and the Olympic Torch.
Don't want to tour? Go right next door to Le Cafe du Monde (418-692-4455) for mussels you won't soon forget, then climb back aboard ship. Diners get a delightful taste of Paris, lunching on a terrace overlooking the St. Lawrence.
On Foot: It's one of the easiest cities to negotiate. So much is within walking distance of the port. Unless you really want a workout, use the Old Quebec Funicular to get to Upper Town.
By Bus: A "green" way to get around the city – other than walking -- is via Ecolobus, small, non-polluting electric buses that stop every 20 minutes at or near almost all Old City attractions and neighborhoods. Cost is $2 each time you board. It's a great way to get an overview of the city by hopping on at the port and traveling the entire route, a 35-minute ride. Then, return to the places of most interest.
By Taxi: Quebec City has many cabs and reasonable fares between the port and the Old Quebec neighborhood. Negotiate with drivers for tours around the city; rates vary depending on the number of passengers.
By Car: Major car rental agencies can be found in the city and some (including Enterprise) will pick up and drop off at the port.
Dufferin Terrace above the Old Town and the River offers a one-stop experience blending history, showbiz and commerce: It's close to great restaurants, charming shops, the Old Town and street performers -- mimes, jugglers and the like. Pull up a bench and enjoy!
Stroll through the Plains of Abraham -- also called Battlefields Park -- where the British and French fought in 1759. Today, it's Quebec City's equivalent of Manhattan's Central Park, home to concerts in summer and cross-country skiing and sledding in winter. Enjoy the tranquil gardens and river vistas while envisioning the hard-fought battles there. There's a multimedia show and more than 30 regimental uniforms in the Discover Pavilion (418-648-4071).
Learn more about the battles at the Plains of Abraham and Benedict Arnold's march to Quebec at Musee du Fort, a historic recreation of the six sieges of Quebec. It's conveniently located near Chateau Frontenac and open daily during the spring-fall cruise season.
Join in the hustle and flow around the Place Royale, a centerpiece of Old Town. The young crowd clusters and older folks stop to rest near the regal statue of Louis XIV or at one of the many cafes.
Check out the artists exhibiting along Rue de Tresor (literally Treasure Street) and take a sample home. Choose from watercolors of the Citadel, oil paintings of the Chateau Frontenac, splendid street scenes in varied media and a variety of handicrafts. This daily art show is there through rain and snow and is especially wonderful on a bright sunny day.
Been There, Done That
The Ile d'Orleans, just 25 minutes from the Le Vieux Port, is a rustic and beautiful island where time almost seems to stand still. Its wondrous farms, churches, produce stands and quaint shops offer a wonderful respite from the urban port. In spring, sample strawberries; in fall, pick apples off heavily laden trees in the orchards of apple cider makers. (Remember, cider there, as in Europe, is an alcoholic beverage.) Many of the wineries offer samples in tasting rooms overlooking vineyards. Combine a gourmet lunch with wine tasting at Vignoble de Sainte-Petronille vineyard, permanent home to a "food truck" run by hotel Auberge Saint-Antoine's top-rated restaurant Panache.
Have more time and a rental car? Drive to the Parc de la Chute-Montmorency, where the cascading falls are one and-a-half times higher than Niagara. Stunning mountain and river views accompany a cable car ride to the top of the cliff where walking trails and a suspension bridge take you to lookout points. Before heading back, stop in the elegant Manoir Montmorency where you'll find a gift shop and interpretation center.
Travel just 15 minutes from Quebec City to enter the fascinating world of the Huron-Wendat Indians, the first peoples to live in this part of Canada. The Huron traditional site, located on the reservation, features guided tours that visit long houses and a museum to explain tribal life in the 17th century. Interactive activities, native food sampling and dance presentations provide a glimpse into their culture and traditional know-how. A short walk through scenic natural surroundings leads to Kabir Kouba Falls by the Saint-Charles River. The center includes a hotel, gift shop and restaurant. (575 Rue Chef Stanislas Koska, Wendake; open year-round; hours and shows vary by season)
Quebec City is a fine destination for foodies who can enjoy culinary experiences ranging from simple bistro fare to sublime fine dining. The narrow streets of the Old City are lined with charming outdoor cafes with menus and prices to suit every cruiser's taste and budget. Although this is a French-speaking province, almost all servers speak excellent English. Don't be surprised if you taste a bit of maple syrup during your meals; it's used to flavor everything from cocktails to stews and desserts. For a low-brow bar snack, give poutine a try. The fast-food dish covers french fries with brown gravy and cheese curds.
Panache in stunning Auberge Saint-Antoine across the street from the cruise port is rightly touted by locals and visitors as the best fine-dining spot in town. A reclaimed 19th century maritime warehouse with stone walls, wood-plank floors and massive wood beams is the rustic setting for intimate dining. It's a great place for a special occasion meal featuring creative, seasonal French-Canadian cuisine with a master chef's twist. Much of the produce is grown at the restaurant's organic garden on Ile d'Orleans. The extensive wine cellar showcases a wide variety of French and local wines, including the mildly maple flavored aperitif Val Ambre. (10 Rue Saint-Antoine; (418) 692-2211; open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day)
Celebrating 50 years in business, Restaurant La Cremaillere is a fine-dining restaurant in Old Quebec that doesn't take itself too seriously. International cuisine is served in two spacious dining rooms, where many dishes, ranging from Caesar salad to crepes suzette, are prepared tableside. The service is expert but unpretentious. Don't be surprised if the owner's son picks up a guitar to serenade guests with popular ballads and a few French folk songs. (Rue Sainte-Anne; (418) 692-2216; open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday for lunch, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. nightly for dinner)
Award-winning Le Pain Beni offers innovative French-Canadian cuisine featuring regional products in a relaxed bistro setting. The comfortable main dining room is inside an old stone house, while street-side outdoor seating is ideal for people watching. The three-course lunch is seasonal and a good value. It's located near the famed Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac and art-lined Rue du Tresor in the heart of Upper Old Quebec City. (24 Rue Sainte-Anne)
French farm-house-charming Lapin Saute is right in the middle of the busiest tourist area in lower Old Quebec, yet it offers a wonderful and affordable dining experience with consistently great French bistro food. As the name suggest, rabbit dishes, including sausages and a lasagna, are specialties. End your meal with a signature maple-syrup creme brulee. On a sunny day, opt for the flowery patio with its view of tiny Felix Leclerc Park. (52 Rue Du Petit-Champlain; (418) 692-5325; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday)
Le Petit Cochon Dingue is a charming family dining spot in the heart of lower Old City. Reasonable prices, rave reviews for its food and indoor and outdoor seating make it an ideal breakfast, lunch or dinner stop. The extensive menu features baked goods, crepes, sandwiches, quiche, soup, salads and pizza. Its staff has a reputation for be very friendly and helpful. (24 Boulevard Champlain; (418) 694-0303; open 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Wednesday and Saturday to Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday to Friday)
Staying in Touch
Nonprofit ZAP Quebec offers a free, reliable, secure and high-bandwidth network available in some 200 hotspots throughout the city. One close to the terminal is at Cafe St.-Malo. Many cafes and hotels in Quebec City offer Wi-Fi; finding them should take little effort. It's customary to buy something while you're surfing the net for free in a restaurant or bar.
Most major mobile phone carriers will work in the city, but roaming charges of $2 or more can add up. Data charges for accessing email and the Internet via your smartphone can get even more expensive, with charges of $20 per megabyte download. If you have any doubt about your plan, turn off the data roaming function on your phone and use Wi-Fi.
For Well-Heeled History Buffs: Be charmed by Quebec's fabled Chateau! Located in the heart of Old Quebec, with the St. Lawrence River as the backdrop, the iconic Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac offers warm service, fine dining and French-Canadian charm. In any one of its 618 lavishly furnished guestrooms and suites, you'll feel an elegant touch of old France. (1 Rue des Carrieres; (800) 441-1414)
Note: Major restorations are under way at the hotel; work is scheduled to be completed by spring 2014.
When Only the Best Will Do: Located in the heart of the Old Port, Auberge Saint-Antoine offers guests historic decor and atmosphere, coupled with outstanding hotel facilities and friendly, professional service. The Relais & Chateaux hotel is built on a major archaeological site and proudly displays artifacts from the French and British colonial regimes in tableaux throughout the building. Panache, the hotel restaurant, is outstanding (see lunching), and the facility features a fitness center and spa treatments. (8 Rue Saint-Antoine; (888) 692-2211)
A Francophile's Retreat: Nestled between the green spaces of the Plains of Abraham and the bustling thoroughfare Grande Allee, the Hotel Chateau Laurier Quebec combines authentic French heritage and four-star comfort. (1220 Place George-V Ouest; (800) 463-4453)
Thoroughly Modern: The Hotel Champlain is a modern, luxurious boutique hotel in Old Quebec. Some of the 50 suites and rooms include fireplaces and hot tubs. A deluxe continental breakfast starts the day out right. (115 Rue Sainte-Anne; (800) 567-2106)
Nice and Cheap: Manoir de la Tour is situated on the beautiful Grande Allee and is only a 10-minute walk to the Old City gate. Rooms are clean and quiet; the staff is friendly and helpful. For a bit over $100 a night (with continental breakfast), it is a very good value in Quebec City. As with many older hotels in the city, there is no elevator. If you can't walk your luggage upstairs, request a ground-floor room. (385 Grande Allee; (418) 525-6276)
Best for First-Timers: Take the Best of Quebec and Countryside tour offered by most cruise lines for an orientation to this interesting part of North America. Highlights include a visit to Old Quebec, a scenic drive through pastoral landscapes and a visit to a sugar shack to see how maple products are made (7 1/2 hours).
Best for Active Types: Go rafting on the Jacques-Cartier River, located in the highlands of the Laurentian Mountains (6 hours). Or go on a half-day bicycle adventure to Montmorency Falls (offered by Cunard). The 15-mile ride on flat paths offers a healthy and fun way to discover the delights of the Quebec countryside. The scenic bike route parallels the St. Lawrence River ending at the 272-foot Montmorency Falls.
Best for Pilgrims: Along the St. Lawrence River about 19 miles east of Quebec City, the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre is a major pilgrimage site for Roman Catholics -- and miracle seekers; legend has it that one of the original builders who suffered from scoliosis was able to walk without assistance once the church was complete (pillars near the entrance contain crutches, braces and canes from people who have said they were cured). The church can get especially busy around July 26, which marks the feast of Saint Anne, the patron saint of Quebec. Most excursions there also stop at Montmorency Falls.
For More Information
On the Web: Quebec City Area or Hello Quebec
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Canada
Independent Traveler.com: Canada Travel Guide
--by Marcia Levin, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Ron and Mary James, Cruise Critic contributors