Thursday, October 15, 2015
I’m writing this from the cozy confines of the 1608 Bar inside the iconic Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. I’m here in Quebec City, Canada to tour, photograph and write about Silversea Cruises’ ultra-luxurious Silver Whisper, which will be pulling alongside at her berth on the St. Lawrence River just down the hill from the hotel tomorrow morning.
I came for the ship. I had no idea I’d discover one of the loveliest places I’d been in Canada – and one of the most staggeringly romantic hotel properties.
My journey here from Calgary, Alberta took me over seven hours through three airports and two airplanes. I awoke before four a.m. this morning in order to make a seven a.m. flight to Toronto, where I connected on to Quebec City.
While the flight to Toronto was uneventful, a Jerry Springer-esque fight nearly broke out at Pearson’s Gate D7 this afternoon. Turns out all the Quebec City flights are overbooked for the rest of the day after an early morning Air Canada Express flight was cancelled. Our gate agent was looking for volunteers to be bumped to a flight to Quebec departing tomorrow. There were no takers. This didn’t please the throngs of would-be guests who were waiting for standby seating on a small 74-passenger Bombardier Q400 Turboprop.
When I finally did touch down at Quebec City’s Jean Lesage Airport, it reminded me a bit of landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia: the airport is essentially in a farmer’s field in the middle of nowhere. I’ve never been to Quebec before, and I was initially underwhelmed.
That changed when my taxi entered Vieux Quebec – Old Quebec.
There’s an old joke that Quebec is more passionately French than France, and that just might be true here in Quebec City, which is just simply referred to as “Quebec” here, even though the province it resides in bears the same name. In fact, I felt like I was in a different country: signs are almost predominantly in French. Stores are different. Gas stations are different. Everything, aside from the Canadian flag, is different. In the taxi cab, the radio alternates between French and English pop hits; one francophonie song for every Anglais song.
Suddenly, there it was; the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac. At first, its unassuming entryway doesn’t inspire passion. But a quick step through the brass revolving doors that whir quietly as people brush in and out of them reveals a world of romance within La Belle Province.
Refurbished last year at a cost of $75-million dollars, the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac is one of Quebec’s most famous icons, and indeed one of the most-photographed hotels in the world. Originally built for Canadian Pacific Railways in 1893, the Chateau Frontenac is easily the most elaborate Fairmont hotel I’ve ever stayed at. I’m a huge fan of the chain, which was formed after Canadian Pacific divested its hotel operations in 1999. They rarely disappoint me. But the Chateau Frontenac makes quite a few other Fairmont hotels look like Holiday Inns by comparison; the attention to detail is that good.
Take, for example, the inviting lobby. The ceiling is done in super-sexy shades of blue accented with walnut and cherry woods. Floors are marble with attractive blue carpeting interspersed sparingly throughout. With its brass revolving doors and modern check-in counters, the lobby oozes contemporary history, coming off at once historic and modern all at the same time.
Remarking on the renovation, Daniel Fournier, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Ivanhoé Cambridge, the owners of the Chateau Frontenac, remarked that, “This major investment perfectly illustrates our ability to invest in a way that strikes the right balance between preserving a heritage building as prestigious and admired as the Château Frontenac and taking into account the requirements for performance and returns of a hotel asset. The history of this prestigious hotel, which has long been the face of magnificent Quebec City — and in fact of Quebec as a whole — is deeply entwined with that of all Quebecers.”
But the renovation was more than just adding a coat of paint. “Our goal was to renovate this icon while preserving its heritage and adding a contemporary aspect so that we can offer our guests an unprecedented experience and meet their highest expectations,” said Robert Mercure, General Manager of the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, when work was completed in 2014.
After a quick check-in, I was unpacking in my Fairmont Deluxe King City View Room, situated on the 10th floor of the hotel overlooking the central courtyard. Completely redone as part of the recent refit, this room sports all of the expected features. But there are some truly interesting small touches, like the design of the door handles on the French Doors to the bathroom that inspire the imagination and make staying here a bit of an odyssey of discovery.
All of the standard Fairmont touches are here, from complimentary tea and coffee to free internet for those that have signed up to be a part of the Fairmont President’s Club (registration is free). Of course, the most important feature – that comfy Fairmont bed – is here too.
Like most classic hotels, the room isn’t huge; the standard rooms at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport are nearly twice as big. But even with the reduced space, the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac wins for the spectacular refurbishment job done to all guest rooms. It’s all the style of yesterday with the safety of tomorrow.
I remember learning about Quebec and the Chateau Frontenac in Grade 4. In Canada, every school child learns French, as well as the history of Quebec. Fast-forward twenty-some years, and my French is pretty abysmal. It’s passable (Bonjour monsieur! Un vin rouge, si vous plait!), but far from perfect.
Western Canadians also hear horror stories about Quebec; tales of people refusing to speak English and insisting on purely French dialogue. So far, after being on the ground here for seven hours as I write this, not a single soul has refused to speak English to me. In fact, the Quebecers that I have met have been nothing but kind – and their English is a heckuva lot better than my French.
This evening, I took a stroll around the hotel, though the historic cobbled streets of Vieux Quebec. I’ve found a place that feels not like Canada, not like Europe, but like its own, wonderful entity. A place that stands alone upon its own merits. No wonder Quebec kept holding referendums in the 1990’s to separate from Canada; Quebec City could not be more different from cities like Vancouver and Toronto if it tried.
There are stores here I’ve never heard of; restaurant chains I can’t comprehend. I popped into a local department store (Simons) in order to buy myself new gloves, and was shocked by how stylish and affordable the clothing was. I can see this store being bad for my credit card!
As a “Westerner”, I love Quebec precisely because of that difference, I feel Canadians on the whole are better off for having Quebec, and I am glad that we are all part of the same wonderful country. In Quebec City, I have found my favorite Canadian city, bar none. I’ve been from Victoria to Halifax and back, but Quebec City oozes charm and sensuality at every turn.
In many ways, it’s the perfect pairing for a Silversea cruise. I can’t wait to tour Silver Whisper tomorrow when she arrives in port. But even without seeing her, I feel as though I have already had an amazing experience just simply by being here in Quebec, at the beautiful Chateau Frontenac.
I’m a very proud Western Canadian, but to be honest: Quebec, je t’aime.