A bartender at Quebec City’s fashionable L’EChaude restaurant expresses mock indignation when a visitor asks how Quebec’s capital compares with the province’s largest city, Montreal. “They are not truly French,” the bartender says, conveniently overlooking the fact that as a Canadian, neither is he. “In Montreal, people speak French 50, maybe 55, percent of the time.” He steps back from the bar and folds his arms to proclaim, “Here, we speak French 95 percent of the time.”
Welcome to Quebec, the only Canadian province whose sole official language is French, only a short hop from the U.S. border, yet culturally worlds way. Indeed, the language and the lifestyle in this Eastern Canadian province are reminiscent of the motherland across the Atlantic. There is an authenticity of experience here that fools travelers into thinking they’re traveling not in Canada but in France itself.
It’s no faux French either. English does not even rank as an official language in Quebec, and though English is spoken with fluency in the big cities, things can get more challenging in the province’s hinterlands. A waiter in the village of La Bai apparently must have owned a French-English dictionary too heavy for him to heft, because each time we asked the English equivalent of a menu item, he trotted off to the kitchen and returned with the translation. The fact that he did so gladly was a clear indication that we were not in France.
Snobbery (that unfortunate French attribute) is conspicuously absent in Quebec; friendly people and genuine hospitality are not. Even locals who struggle with English are happy to give directions and advice. Extending the spirit of generosity to their bottom lines, many Montreal restaurants even invite patrons to ‘apportez votre vin,’ or ‘bring your own bottle of wine,’ making the cost of meals with wine ridiculously inexpensive when compared to what you would pay for similar meals with wine elsewhere.
Nearly 400 years after the French explorer Champlain sailed along the St. Lawrence River to pitch camp at what would become Quebec City, French Canadians still hold France in high esteem. Today, 82 percent of the population speaks French in this North American crossroads between America and Europe.
Like Champlain, a growing number of visitors are arriving via the St. Lawrence. May through October, cruise ships run regular itineraries between Quebec and East Coast ports in the United States, primarily Boston and New York. Cruises often begin or end in Montreal, stop for the day in Quebec City, cruise up beautiful Saguenay Fjord, and make their way along the Atlantic coast.
Cruise ‘turn arounds’ in Montreal provide a great opportunity to spend time in the area before or after your cruise. Combine Montreal with a three-hour train journey to Quebec City, then rent a car to drive to Saguenay. Return to the United States from international airports in Montreal and Quebec City. Seldom will U.S. travelers have the opportunity of being so close to a place that seems so far. It’s like having France in the backyard.
This week, we’ll begin posting reports on Montreal, Quebec City and Saguenay, providing you with all you need to know about how to make the most of your time pre- or post-cruise in this fascinating region of the world.