CANADA: A Quebec Family Vacation
France is Closer Than You Think
At first, you might question my sanity at having exchanged a week in our tropical timeshare in Belize for a Quebec family vacation. But, there is some logic to it.
Our (mostly) sweet nine year old daughter has a penchant for princess-dom. And, at 13, her big bro ranked family vacations just one notch above a mandatory trip to the principal’s office. I just wasn’t ready for them to breach the peace of our peaceful paradise.
And, if I didn’t seem crazy enough…this is only the first half of a almost-too-long two-part summer vacation. After we said au revoir to Quebec, we made our way to New York City for Part 2—another nine (LONG) days of family fun.
Days 1 & 2—Burlington (Vermont) and Old Quebec City
Thanks for the nightmare, Delta. Lesson learned. There is something to worry about when you’re unable to check in online 24 hours before your flight departs…or at curbside a couple of hours before takeoff. Temporary boarding passes are definitely not something you want to be handed at the check-in counter.
Turns out we had been “involuntarily bumped” from our flight to Burlington, Vermont, victims of the insidious practice known as “overbooking.” Just seconds before I lost it, the gate agent gave me just the tranquilizer I needed…four tickets on a flight departing in four hours and $800 in voucher bribes.
It was nearly 1 a.m. by the time we pulled into the gravel driveway of our single night pit stop, thankfully still on West Coast time. Our room at The Lang House Bed & Breakfast Inn provided all the space we needed. We weren’t so grateful for the time difference the next morning, but an amazing breakfast and a tasty tour of the Ben & Jerry’s factory brought us all out of our stupor.
Quebec, which means “where the St. Lawrence river narrows” in Algonquin, is Canada’s largest province in land area and second largest in population. It’s the only province where French is the official language, so it still feels like the “New France” it was intended to be back in the early 1600’s.
Today, most residents reside in and around the cities of Montreal and Quebec City (the capital). The bulk of the population in the northern portion of the province is mostly aboriginal people – a mixture of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis. Quebec has a fiercely independent spirit and has been fighting a long battle to secede from Canada.
We arrived in Old Quebec City just in time for a French-inspired dinner of escargot at 8 p.m. The drive to our four-bedroom chalet in Beaupre at the base of Mont Sainte Anne was a bit further from the city than I preferred. Beaupre is not much of a town in the summer, but with a little imagination one could envision it as a hopping ski destination in winter.
Tadoussac’s welcoming committee greeted us as we arrived to town. We checked belugas off our whale list before we even parked our car! I took this as a good omen for our upcoming two-hour Zodiac whale watching excursion. After convincing the princess that she’d soon be thankful for oversized rubber clothes, I prayed to the Sea Gods for the retention of my lunch [and dignity] and enough whales to score me a high five from my family.
We were swallowed by the enormous St. Lawrence River at 4:30 p.m., just in time for Krill Happy Hour that was purported to attract five species of whales…beluga (✔), humpback, fin, minke and blue. The River Gods were generous. By 6:15 p.m., we had seen all but the blue whale…including a humpback that breeched about 10 feet from our 12-person boat. It was an incredible experience, well worth the five hours of bickering it took to get there and back.
You can’t visit a coastal fishing village in North America and not eat seafood…even if your kids consider it revolting. As we trolled the streets looking for our spot, I fantasized about the melding of France’s culinary expertise, Tadoussac’s freshest lobster, and hot melted butter.
We opted for the one that was louder than our kids. This third time was not a charm. I’m pretty disappointed to conclude that France’s cuisine didn’t make it over to New France. However, the French speaking Quebecois make up for this in friendliness and charm.
Day 4—Sepaq National Forest and Old Quebec City
We are feeling the largeness of the Quebec province…the fun stuff is seriously spread out. It took an hour to get to d’Arbre en Arbre, a tree-based adventure course at the Duchesnay Tourist Station in the Sepaq National Forest. But, there was little doubt it was going to be worth it.
This is not your kiddo’s obstacle course…it’s for both children and adults, in the trees, and has zip lines and suspension bridges. This would explain why it’s so popular…and why you need reservations. The trees were full today, so we reserved a time for two days later (after we recovered from the drive). llowing us a day of recovery from driving). Today we’d be navigating a labyrinth instead.
The Aventure Inukshuk Labyrinth supposedly takes two hours to complete…IF you even finish. We seriously doubted it. “There’s no way this could take two hours,” we collectively scoffed as we entered the maze. Two hours later, we gave up and slunk out of a side door…thoroughly defeated and frustrated.
We didn’t find out it was Canada Day until we arrived in Old Quebec City looking for a parking space. Next on the docket was a re-enactment of a Witchcraft Trial inside a tiny chapel. Six actors thrust us back to 1661, to the trial of Daniel Boyle, a French Huguenot accused of bewitching a young Catholic girl. We – both audience and jury – infuriated the power-hungry Bishop who resided over the “trial” when we unanimously declared Daniel to be innocent of all charges. When he screamed that we would all be made to answer for this heretical verdict, my little princess looked at me with wide eyes and said, “But I don’t want to answer for that, Mom.”
Crepes, chocolate fondue and a firework show watched from atop the Citadel were just the distraction she needed.
Day 5—Canyon Sainte-Anne and St. Anne de Beaupre
Today’s light car day began with a 10-minute drive to Canyon Sainte-Anne, where the waterfall is higher than [but not as wide as] Niagara Falls. When we arrived at the suspension bridge, the interest of our bored teenage boy was piqued by the zip line suspended more than 200 feet above the river. The princess’ inner competitor kicked in and she hopped up on the platform refusing to bridge it.
My main goal for the day was to visit an authentic Sugar Shack where pure maple sugar products are made and sold to fellow sweet teeth. To avoid a sugar high, we threw together an impromptu picnic from a local country store…complete with alcoholic blueberry cider for the kids! (It looked, smelled and tasted like soda!!!).
We arrived at Erabliere Sucre d’Art to find the owner, Yolande, sitting on a chair out front([just like the book said!), ready to educate us on the Quebecois way of producing the best maple products. The next hour was spent tasting her incredible creations…maple jelly, maple cranberry jelly, maple caramel, maple butter, maple mustard, and maple vinegar. Pure Grade A Maple Heaven! No matter how much my kids beg me, there will be no more Aunt Jemima for us.
On the way home, we made a brief pilgrimage to Sainte-Anne’s Basilica in Sainte-Anne de Beaupre. The basilica itself, built in the 1600’s, is quite pretty…not so much its surroundings. Encircling the church is a plethora of tacky religious souvenir shops selling plastic pietas and Jesus thimbles that can be blessed by the local priest [for a fee, of course]. And what religious arcade wouldn’t be complete without a Cyclorama de Jerusalem? No, this isn’t an indoor religious cycling track, but a 360 degree painting of Jerusalem on the day Jesus died. Thank goodness we’ll be long gone by the time the annual pilgrimage takes place in late-July! I cannot imagine the hysteria.
Day 6—d’Arbre en Arbre and Vacances Valcartier
Today was dedicated solely to the kids. We spent most of it hanging in the trees back at d’Arbre en Arbre. What an awesome concept…a theme park that physically challenges you and is designed in harmony with nature.
The boys ditched us for the adult course, leaving the height-challenged princess disgruntled and stuck in the course “pour les enfants” with her mommy. It took her a good 30 minutes, but she finally admitted enjoyment. The mama deer and two spotted fawns underneath us definitely helped.
About two hours later, the boys returned, puffed up and pooped out. They reassured the princess that she was indeed too short, so she made peace with this place and counted it amongst her favorite activities.
Next [kid] stop was Vacances Valcartier…the biggest water park in Canada. I opted for a nap in the car while the family slipped and slid. Their conclusion? This place had nothing on Knott’s Soak City near our house.
Day 7—Ile d’Orleans
Our parental desperation hit a high point today causing us to break a five year vow. Today we entered Wal-Mart and purchased a Nintendo DS. Nicknamed “Prozak,” this bought us priceless hours of peace while driving all around the Quebec province. It was particularly good timing since the weather wasn’t conducive to our planned bike ride around Ile D’Orleans and the car was now the location of choice for both kids.
This is where the adults stay…and I longed to lounge on a chairs in front of one of the many bed & breakfast inns we passed by. We drove for awhile on the narrow windy roads until we arrived at La Maison Drouin, a house that was built in the 1730’s.
Since been owned by only two families who lived in it until 1985, it is in almost completely original condition. The kitchen consisted of a huge fireplace and a brick oven…that’s all. The bathroom was in the back yard…imagine having to relieve yourself in the middle of a frigid Quebec winter night.
Next door was a fromagerie where the first cheese in America was purported to have been made. (If we wouldn’t have slept in until 11 a.m., we might have had a taste.)
Day 8—Mont St. Anne and Old Quebec City
Today we left Mont St. Anne for the music festival in Old Quebec City. But, first…a gondola ride to the top of the mountain. The fog was thick and the cold was biting…not a worthy endeavor unless you’re a mountain biker wanting to fly down a thawed-out ski slope.
I was relieved when we pulled up to the Manoir de Victoria in Old Quebec City. It was just off Rue St. Jean, a quaint street we had scoped out the other day. Although our room was indeed a singular room [sans kitchen], it was just roomy enough for us to survive for the next three nights…hopefully.
We wandered aimlessly around Old Quebec City, getting our bearings and gawking at some very talented street performers. I coerced the family into a tour (horror or horrors!) of the city’s grand hotel—Château Frontenac.
Designed by American architect, Bruce Price, this masterpiece was built for the Canadian railway company in the late 1800’s in the hopes of attracting wealthy tourists to the region…by train, of course. It was named after the Count of Frontenac, who governed the colony of New France in the late 1600’s. I lost some footing with the kids because of the tour’s lackadaisical presentation—and lack of juicy secrets.
Luckily, Rue St. Jean is one of the best sites of the 40th Annual Quebec City Summer (Music) Festival. In the evening, the street was blocked off and teaming with edgy street performers and fascinated tourists. Our favorites were the four stilted “gargouilles” who would grab or tap any unfortunate who was not paying attention. The screams were both nerve wracking and hysterical. My princess never took her eyes off them as they lumbered down the street.
Days 9 and 10—Old Quebec City
Today was all about exploring the music festival throughout Old Quebec City. As we wandered back down Rue St. Jean, a delicious stop at the Museé de Chocolat was mandatory. The princess was delighted to run into the “gargouilles” again, probably because they rubbed her daddy’s bald head when he wasn’t paying attention.
The activities at the Place de la Famille—face painting, hip hop dancing, etc.—were just too “juvenile” for our two sophisticated ones, so we hung out on top of the ramparts listening to an Irish rock band.
One way to keep a bored teenager’s brain occupied is to give him a guide book and let him lead the family on a walking tour of the city. We were never permanently lost as he took us from the St. Louis Gate, down Rue St. Louis by a tree imbedded with a cannonball and 400 year old houses, through an old “red light” district, into the quaintest of squares—Place de Royale, by the oldest stone church in North America, along the best street in town—Rue Petit Champlain—and through narrow winding streets back to our hotel.
One night we went in search of ghosts with Ghost Tours of Quebec. We met our top hatted lantern swinging tour guide at the end of Rue Petit Champlain and proceeded to leisurely walk through the old city, stopping at points where heads had been chopped off, people had been hanged, ships had sunk, and/or hauntings had been documented. I scored major points with this stimulating tour! We ended up in the oldest Anglican Church outside of Europe, where the organists have been plagued by a bothersome ghost for years.
The ghost’s identity is purported to be either that of a remorseful mother who had killed her baby and brought it to the church to help it get to Heaven or the soul of a woman with narcolepsy who had been buried alive by her neighbors who believed her to have died of cholera. If ghosts have a scent, you can smell it here. This place smelled very, very old…but, strangely pleasant.
We had a France-worthy dinner…without the kids (woo hoo!)…on our last night. Le Lapin Sauté has a perfect spot on Rue Petit Champlain, which is arguably the city’s most gorgeous street. Escargot with chevre and sun-dried tomatoes, warm French cheese topped with honey and almonds, and maple rabbit and pork. It tasted even better than it sounds.
Once inside old Quebec City, you feel as if you’ve made it all the way to France. It’s one of the most walkable cities I’ve wandered in, and is especially thrilling during the annual music festival when a gargouille might just sneak up behind you and steal a scream.
The next time I wander here, I will definitely stay near Rue Petit Champlain or on Ile D’Orleans and limit my driving to one or two excursions (definitely to include an encore of Tadoussac!).
After our Quebec family vacation, we wandered to New York City for Part 2 of this WELL planned summer family vacation!