Bonjour Quebec! : Sampling the international flavor of Canada — Corvette style
(Photography by Charter Weeks)
On a sunny morning in late May, I climbed into the 1990 red Corvette convertible that would be mine — thanks to the Boston branch of General Motors Corporation — for a few days. I eased into its leather lap and studied the dash as if it were the cockpit of a plane. Along with the usual switches, there were buttons to program climate control, fine-tune the sound system and adjust the seats. A lever below the gearshift allowed me to select a ride and handling for any road condition. I experienced a satisfying burst of speed as I accelerated onto the highway.
Sailing north on 1-89 through Vermont toward the Canadian border, the car was a spot of red in a landscape shimmering with the green tones of spring and the insistent yellows of dandelions and wild mustard. It was the long Memorial Day weekend and my husband and I were setting out for a mini tour of Quebec province: Echoes of Europe within driving distance.
As we passed through customs, I touched a button on the dash that changed the speedometer from miles per hour to kilo¬meters and we headed for Montreal. Unfortunately, the Corvette had no dashboard switch that transformed our English into French, but a pocket Berlitz guide and a few conversations with a tape recorder are usually enough to allow us to decipher road signs and exchange pleasantries. Though most Quebecers speak perfect English, they welcome our thoughtfulness in acknowledging that French is the first language here.
We had decided to fashion our trip to include the excitement of Quebec’s elegant cities as well as the pleasures afforded by back roads following the rolls and curves of the St. Lawrence River. We crossed the Champlain Bridge and bore right onto Bonaventure into the old section of Montreal, piloting the Corvette through the quarter’s narrow streets with their tall stone buildings and old warehouses. We parked and spent an hour wandering where prosperous fur merchants and bankers once conducted their business.
Montreal offers some of the continent’s most elegant hotels. If you’re feeling particularly patrician, you might choose the Ritz. You’ll have doormen and chandeliers to your heart’s content, a choice of several restaurants and a luxurious bar where, at teatime, you may linger over a glass of sherry. If you should be so crass as to arrive without a jacket, you may even borrow one, as my husband did when we dropped in for a beer.
However, if you enjoy a unique experience at a more reasonable price, reserve a room at the Auberge de la Fontaine. This charming inn overlooks the Parc de la Fontaine, near the heart of the city. We entered the airy little lobby and were shown to our room: a beautiful suite decorated in art deco aqua and salmon, with a whirlpool in the spacious bedroom. The Auberge de la Fontaine is one of almost a dozen Canadian inns in a French hotel chain called Les Relais du Silence, the Silence Hotels. Judging by this establishment, we’ll go out of our way to stay in others in the chain on our next excursion.
With a few hours left in the afternoon, we hopped back into our Corvette and threaded traffic down Sherbrooke to the Botanical Gardens near the Olympic Stadium. Here we discovered acres of brilliant tulips, alleys of flowering fruit trees and lilacs heavy with scent. We walked through the Alpine Garden with its tiny rock flowers and miniature waterfalls; then on to the Japanese Garden where multicolored goldfish swam under bridges among exotic trees and shrubs. People strolled in the tranquil park or stretched out on the grass by the lake, chatting and reading. And, in a corner of the garden, a bride in pale pink with grains of rice clinging to her dark hair stood next to her new husband, waiting to be photographed.
A free shuttle service ferries visitors between the garden and Olympic Park from mid-May to mid-September, but this time we passed up the chance to ride up the world’s highest inclined tower. At sunset we returned to the Auberge to change for dinner and the evening’s entertainment.
There are dozens of excellent restaurants within walking distance of the hotel. Les Mauvais Garcons specializes in shrimp prepared in an array of styles. L’Exotic features the cuisine of Madagascar where diners watch their meals broiling on hot stones. Natural food enthusiasts have A Novo which features award-winning organic wines. We ate a wonderful meal at a small restaurant called Yo Yo that included the house pate, a velvety carrot soup, a white fish embellished with two sauces, crusty bread, the freshest salad, and a chocolate marquise in black and white that was almost too beautiful to eat. The waiters were attentive and happy to translate the menu when our French failed US.
After dinner we proceeded to the city’s waterfront. There, under billowy, bright blue tents, we would see what is perhaps Quebec’s most spectacular event: The Cirque de Soleil. The Circus of the Sun. This is no ordinary circus. It is a stunning combination of theater and dance, live music interwoven with electronic sounds, comedy, heart-stopping acrobatics, breath¬taking aerial ballet. There are lithe contortionists who bend their bodies into impossible alphabets; trapeze artists who hurl themselves through the pink and blue air; tumblers leaping; jugglers, balancers, and a man who has surely learned to fly. The ringmaster, in her orange wig and satin britches, keeps order in this glittering, enchanting chaos. The Cirque de Soleil is not to be missed — here in its home city or on tour. Tickets are, of course, in great demand and should be ordered well in advance.
We retired long after midnight and woke to a buffet breakfast of croissants and fruit, juices, coffee, and cretons, a Quebecois pork pate, served in the Auberge’s sunny parlor.
Every visit to Montreal should include a few hours at the Museum of Fine Arts. Our visit coincided with a stunning Salvador Da exhibition. The museum’s permanent collection is excellent and also affords an opportunity to see a wide selection of early and contemporary Canadian art.
We spent the warm spring afternoon in the streets, visiting galleries and boutiques, stopping to listen to sidewalk musicians, lingering at open air markets. Montrealers are friendly hosts; we chatted happily with storekeepers and strollers. Of the endless choices of places to eat, specializing in international cuisines, we settled on an Indian lunch at The Curry Center, sharing spicy vegetable-stuffed pastries and bits of lamb curry.
Our last night in the city included dinner at Le Petit Extra, a cozy French bistro, and an hour on the Jacques Cartier Bridge where, with thousands of enchanted companions, we witnessed opening night of the international fireworks competition.
Just as the Cirque de Soleil was more than a circus, these fireworks were nothing like the Fourth of July displays we’re used to. As we leaned over the railings above the river, flowers bloomed over our heads and rained petals in the dark. Fountains, cascades, ribbons of watery light filled the sky. Below, in Ile Ste-Helene, orchestral music rose in waves.
Montrealers would be treated to nights and nights of pyrotechnical sky-painting as eight countries competed, but we had miles to go and so, on Sunday morning, turned east on the Boulevard Metropolitain, followed it to an exit just outside the city, and swung onto Route 138, The King’s Way. It was time to slow the pace. The Corvette adapted nicely to the gentle curves in the road as it hugged the shore of the St. Lawrence. Curious about the car’s performance, my husband pushed the button that digitally displayed the current average miles-per-gallon figure. Surprisingly, the car was most efficient at lower speeds.
In the little town of LavaItrie we stopped at an art gallery housed in a 160-year-old building. Gallerie Archambault has a collection of contemporary Quebec art that is unique. Among the works are the wildlife paintings by Monique Benoit and her daughter Gisele, discovered and promoted by gallery owner Denis Archambault. The day we were there, Monsieur Archambault was hanging a new exhibit of watercolors, but he graciously took time to show us his collection and answer our questions.
With the St. Lawrence on our right and newly turned fields to the left, we drove through the villages on the old highway, enjoying the Corvette’s smooth ride and effortless handling. We felt as if we were driving a futuristic machine through the landscape of another time. But, by way of a reminder that Quebec embraces the past and the present, we found another museum at Bertierville. Here were two floors of rooms devoted entirely to the exploits and triumphs of Gilles Villeneuve, renowned race car driver, hero of the Grand Prix. His Formula I cars were displayed downstairs; his trophies, photos and other memorabilia crowded the upstairs rooms. And, while we were folding ourselves into the one-man race cars, passersby were stopping to admire General Motors’ version of the automaker’s art!
We ate Greek sandwiches at Restaurant Metaxa in Louiseville and continued on to Trois Rivieres for a quick look around. The tourist brochure made us aware of the variety of possibilities — the Gothic style cathedral, historical monuments and buildings, mills and chapels and squares — available to us. This city, in “the heart of Quebec,” had been home to great explorers and merited a longer stay than we could manage on this trip. We chose to tour the unusual and fascinating Pulp and Paper Industry Exhibition Center and planned to visit the side of North America’s second oldest forge the next morning.
Backtracking a few miles, we checked in at L’Auberge du Lac Saint-Pierre as the evening shadows deepened. Our third-floor suite afforded a stunning view of the St. Lawrence and offered us the luxuries of a grand hotel: a beautifully appointed sitting room, bedroom and a bath with whirlpool. And within the wood and glass walls of the establishment, we found one of the best restaurants we’d encountered thus far.
The dining room shone in subdued light. We feasted on pate presented on artfully decorated plates. My husband ordered the duck and quail entree, while I savored salmon and scallops in a delicate sauce. The wine list was extensive, the desserts airy. Candles that flickered in a light breeze had burned low before we reluctantly retired. We opened our windows to the warm wind and woke to the sounds of swallows and the river’s gentle lapping. After breakfast we asked directions to the Forges-du-Saint-Maurice. We arrived as it opened.
Situated on the west shore of the St. Maurice River, the site covers 125 acres and contains the vestiges of Canada’s first ironworks. We parked near the Master’s House and met our guide. For the next two hours we had a most remarkable experience. Instead of undertaking a traditional restoration, the Canadian Parks Services had chosen to create “symbolic structures” on the site, preserving the remains of archaeological finds in a context which suggested the myriad activities that took place here over a century and a half. Thus the Master’s House contains dioramas that span the long history of the place. The remains of the massive blast furnace are enclosed in an aluminum and concrete structure and surrounded by examples — often one of a kind — of the iron monger’s art. Modern materials blend with vestiges of old buildings to produce an overall panorama of a thriving and evolving community. Scores of exhibits, glassed and equipped with buttons that light each aspect of the complex stories, led us around. We saw huge waterwheels, dams, tools, enormous hearths. We imagined the long, hard days of the inhabitants, the ambitions of the administrators, the rising and falling fortunes of the iron industry in Trois-Rivieres. To encounter a place like the Forges-du-Saint-Maurice further convinces me that the traveler must never resist the temptation to take the detour, explore the unfamiliar. I couldn’t have predicted that this site would be one of the high points of our trip!
The rest of our vacation was devoted to enjoying the charms of Old Quebec. Following The King’s Way to the outskirts, we consulted our city map for the best route to the old city. At the end of Grande-Allee we drove the Corvette through the massive St.-Louis gate and turned down Boulevard Ste-Genevieve. We were warmly welcomed at the Chateau de Pierre and shown to a delightful room with a small balcony overlooking the city and the river. We strolled the length of the Terrace Dufferin, a wide, wooden promenade, and looked back up at the walled city. The Chateau Frontenac dominates the view. Complete with turrets and parapets, it lends a medieval flavor to the picture, flanked by monuments, stone buildings and winding streets. Massive fortifications and a Citadel loom over the river, and the Plains of Abraham Park recalls the struggles between England and France to claim the city.
Below us, accessible by a steep stone stairway or a tiny funicular, was the Petit-Champlain quarter. Restored 17th and 18th century buildings have been converted into restaurants, boutiques and artists’ studios. We chose an outdoor table at le Lapin Saute for a late lunch of rabbit terrine, French bread, and an excellent little-known Canadian beer. Not only is this city steeped in the history and art of four centuries, it is the center of a vital contemporary art community. One little street in particular — Rue de Tresor — is a must. The walls and sidewalks are crowded with prints and paintings and drawings that are beautifully rendered.
The tourist guides and maps and booklets, available everywhere in the city, give you a glimpse of the ways you can happily while away days and days here, among some of the friendliest people in Canada. A short visit will only whet your appetite. And your appetite for French cuisine will never go unsatisfied. On past visits, we’ve spent romantic evenings on the terrace of La Bastille Chez Bahaud sampling delicate veal and peppery steaks. Aux Anciens Canadiens has welcomed us into its thick-walled rooms where, under old beams and intricate wainscoting, we were served French Canadian specialties with the lovely regional flavors of apple, maple syrup, blueberries and sorrel. This is the only restaurant where one can sample so many traditional dishes of the province: meat pies, goose breast and local fish.
On this final night in Quebec, we dined at the Cafe de la Paix, a lively place where the waiters never allowed a wine glass to empty or a request go unheeded. The menu was extensive and imaginative and we were treated like honored guests. We finished the meal with a frothy sabayon, a concoction of light custard and Grand Marnier served in champagne goblets.
We treated ourselves to breakfast in the imposing Chateau Frontenac, then retrieved the Corvette and took it for a spin through the torturous streets, sharing the way with early strollers and horse-drawn caleches.
Reluctantly, we crossed the river and headed south, foregoing the pleasures we knew lay beyond the city toward the Gaspe, and picked a route that took us through rolling farm country to the border crossing at Chartierville and from there through the forests of new Hampshire to Massachusetts where we traded the beautiful Corvette for our everyday car and headed home.
—Freelance writer Marie Harris is a New Hampshire resident. She and her photographer/husband are partners in an industrial advertising agency
Greater Montreal Convention & Tourist Bureau
155, Peel Street, Suite 600 Montreal, Quebec H3A 1X6
Greater Quebec Area Tourist
(Sr Convention Bureau
60, rue d’Auteuil
Montreal, Quebec GI R 4C4
418-692-2471 or 651-2882
Quebec Tourism (for the 19 regions)