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Once Upon a Time, There was a Teenage Girl
It’s 1992 and we’re kilometers from Ville de Québec, Quebec City, Canada. The kids were in the back seat, and my 14-year-old daughter was moping, about separation from the love of her life back home for two excruciating weeks.
Chemin du Roy (Québec Route 138), the king’s road, took us along the scenic route on the edge of the St. Lawrence River, or Seaway, between Montréal and Québec City, about a two-hour drive we stretched into nearly four hours stopping at ancient graveyards in the shadow of stunning churches. We stopped at a marché (market) for ice cream and made the kids parrot, “s’il vous plaît, donnez-moi une barre de crème glacée.” Loosely translated it means “Please give me 1 ice cream bar.”
Seeing the Castle Rise
Coming over a rise coming out of Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures, the tall castle-like tower of Fairmont Chateau Frontenac poked its green roof and reddish brick into the sky.
“That’s where we’re staying,” I said, hoping it would end the incessant moping of a teenager in love.
“No way!” was the immediate response. At least the moping was gone.
“Yes, indeed, you just wait and see.”
“It looks like a castle, Dad,” said my eight-year-old son. “Are we really staying there?”
“Yes, Queen Elizabeth II stayed there, why shouldn’t we? It is a castle,” I reply. “’Le Chateau Frontenac’ means ‘the castle Frontenac.’”
“What does Frontenac mean?” asks the ex-moper.
I didn’t know the answer to that one but later learned that Louis de Buade Comte de Frontenac was the first governor of Ville de Québec.
Are We There Yet?
We meandered from wide city streets to narrow historic ones towards the Porte Saint-Louis gate. Ville de Québec is the only walled city in North America. Entering the old town is like driving into a European city. The signs are in French (“Arreté” on the stop sign), so thank goodness for the universality of road sign colors and shapes shared by the United States and Canada. Speeds are in kilometers-per-hour, which turns 60+mph into 100km/h (“We’re going 100, kids.”). And the grey stones, colorful awnings and metal roofs give the feeling of living in history.
In the shadows of ancient stone buildings in Old Québec, the Frontenac is unseen as we drive down Rue Saint-Louis. When it looks like we’re about to drive through the throngs and into the Saint Lawrence Seaway, we turn under the ancient stone arch and into the porte-cochère of the then 100-year-old hotel.
Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac is an AAA-rated four-diamond hotel dominating the historic Québec City, capital of Québec province. It’s the only French-speaking dominion in North America. In urban Québec, most people speak both French and English, so my high school recollection of the language did not have to unnerve too many of the locals.
Upon leaving the car for valet parking, we walk through the brass-jacketed doors into l’accueil, the reception area, with its rich area rugs covering stone floors, wood-paneled walls and a blue-tin vaulted ceiling.
Welcoming Courtesy, Exceptional Professional Standards
Walking to the front desk, the reception was very professional and welcoming. I try out my French to check-in. The clerk is young, friendly, and professional. They suggest in an inviting way, in perfect English, “If you’re more comfortable in English, I am fluent.”
Le Chateau 2020
Fast forward 28 years, it’s February 2020. Now one of the Fairmont Hotels, Le Chateau Frontenac has just completed more than 75 million Canadian dollars in restoration, bringing the hotel its original cachet from the glory days of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The renovation started in 2014 and was completed late in 2019. A few flourishes were being wrapped up during the February 2020 visit.
Visitors, lodging professionals, and media have bestowed nearly a half-page list of awards and excellence recognition on the hotel since 2017. The hotel entwines its historic patina with contemporary luxuries.
The Rooms Radiate Comfort
I stayed in a guest room in one of the hotel “turrets,” with a trio of river-view windows overlooking the Flueve Saint-Laurent (St. Lawrence Seaway) and the Terrasse Dufferin walkway at the edge of the cliff above the seaway. In February, it was clogged with large ice flows breaking up along the way downstream from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Chateau offers several different room options from standard rooms through executive suites with private dining. When restoring the hotel, one change was a reduction in the number of rooms to increase room size, even for standard rooms.
My room is warm, and the bed is extremely comfortable. There’s plenty of drawer space for two weeks worth of clothing – it’s winter, so the bulkiest clothes, now falling out of the suitcase are the ten pairs of Knocker long underwear. There are microfiber shirts from REI and wind-resistant cargo pants. I’ve also brought my collection of Buff headware.
The group of writers at the hotel were all settled into Fairmont Gold rooms, which are spacious, comfortable and luxurious. I didn’t avail myself of the opportunity, but the room service menu is complete with multiple pages of options. The heating system kept the room warm against the wind and -20C (-4F) temperatures, dropping as low as -40C, which, coincidentally is also -40F. In the summer, the rooms have thermostat-controlled air conditioning. The deluxe rooms are priced accordingly. Mine had a king bed with a well-stocked minibar.
I texted a photo to my daughter, now a mother in San Francisco and not with her 1990s heart-throb; “Guess where I am?”
“Oh, Dad, that is my favorite hotel, even now,” she texts back. “I want to be there!”
Family-Friendly Things To Do in Old Quebec
The concierge is a true member of the hospitality royalty. When asked what would be fun to do with the kids, we were offered a long list of sites and activities in close walking distance to the hotel.
The hotel itself has an indoor pool, fitness center and spa. Kids will like the pool with its tiled lane stripes emulating a swim-race setting. A steam room and sauna are also available in the spa and pool area. The hotel offers babysitting services on request. And, as expected, there is a business center at Le Chateau.
Dining options worth experiencing
Le Chateau Frontenac has three restaurants and a comfortable bar. Food and drink are plentiful at Le Chateau.
Le Place Dufferin
With the Terrase Dufferin at its doors, Le Place Dufferin opens onto the broad pedestrian walk. The sidewalk-level bistro offers Le Chateau’s breakfast buffet and summer brunch.
Many hotels offer breakfast buffets. Those free meals need no mention. If paying for the morning meal in a full-service hotel, a more delicious selection is expected, but most still offer a routine buffet.
In Le Place Dufferin, however, the buffet affords such variety that, even across several days, it’s impossible to try everything offered. I can recall eight different options for bread. The cheese bar shines with choices beyond the traditional cheddar, Monterey Jack, Pepper Jack, and American Swiss offered by most hotel buffets. There were 12 options if you include the fig jam.
It’s not cheap eating at Le Place Dufferin, but it is an extraordinary experience that transcends the price on the ticket. Beyond the cheese and fruit board, Le Place has an omelet bar, crisp bacon, waffles, pancakes, and of course, sirop d’érable. Everywhere in Québec, there’s maple syrup for every meal.
Bistro Le Sam
For a casual and creative meal, Le Sam Bistro Evolutif was a lovely dining experience. An open kitchen, comfortable seating, sharable, literal boards of meats and cheeses make Sam’s a meal worth experiencing even if not a guest at the hotel.
Atlantic wild-caught white fish was my choice, a type of fish rarely available in my desert southwest restaurants.
Food in the old city is so exceptional that hotels must really shine to outdo some of the exceptional eateries nearby. Le Sam is one of those, and in a winter visit, it was nice enjoying an outstanding meal without having to bundle up and face a -20C (-4F) temperature with a brisk wind off the seaway. On a sunny day, the windows of the restaurant offer views of the St. Lawrence River.
Drinks at 1608
After dinner, a group of us meandered back to 1608, the hotel’s bar overlooking the Fleuve Saint-Laurent. Nestled in a turret of the hotel’s architecture, the bar is circular, lending itself to conversation. Although crowded, the noise was a comfortable buzz, and it was easy to hear each other in our group of four.
The choice of mixed and neat drinks filled a lengthy menu. There’s something for every taste in the offerings. Service was professional, friendly and fast.
Brunch in Le Restaurante Champlain
The challenge of just three days in Ville de Québec is that there are so many exceptional restaurants, it’s hard to choose. One of my long-time favorites is the Québec traditional dining Aux Anciens Canadiens. Founded in 1675, it has been a neighbor of Le Chateau since before there was a Chateau. After dining there in all my previous Québec visits, I broke my streak and didn’t have a chance this time.
Three decades ago, the Champlain Restaurant was the epitome of exceptional presentation, exquisite service and luxurious dining. Although not enjoying dinner this time, conversations with several guests left the impression that the caliber of the restaurant had gone up since its renovation last year.
Our group of writers sampled the Sunday brunch at Champlain. The offerings are extensive; sampling is the only way to take in all of the options. The choices were arrayed beyond expectations. The brunch is laid out in its own dining room.
The omelet bar and meat carving station are towards the back, and working in that direction takes quite a while. The traditional stations are positioned throughout the room, but the bread station, for example, had more than a dozen different types of bread and rolls. Cereal had its own station, and there were the choices of smoked fish to entice a stop.
No matter what breakfast craving is tickling taste buds, it’s going to be found here in the Champlain Restaurant brunch. Just serving up the memory makes me want to return really soon.
Starbucks, Le Chateau Coffee (Café) Shop
The hotel’s open-early, open-late coffee shop is a Starbucks, with its regular menu of offerings. There are few differences between Starbucks Canada and Starbucks in the U.S.
About Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac
Located at 1 Rue des Carrieres, Quebec G1R 4P5, Le Chateau is the anchor of the Unesco World Heritage Site. It is on the riverview edge of the St. Lawrence River and looks down into Quartier Petit Champlain. The luxury hotel towers over the old city and looks into le citadelle and the Quebec city center.,
The hotel is about 30 minutes from Quebec Jean Lesage International Airport. It has more than 600 rooms, fewer than were offered before the renovation, as rooms were enlarged. The airport shuttle stops on the street in front of the historic hotel.
The hotel is pet-friendly, but there is a surcharge and pets may not be left in the room unattended. There is dry cleaning and laundry service, as would be expected from a full-service hotel of this caliber. The hotel is nonsmoking.
I needed high-speed internet access throughout the trip for uploading my hundreds of daily photos. I took more than 4,000 pictures over ten days in Quebec province. The provided wifi was perfect for the job.
The hotel is known for its weddings, ballroom, and conference center. There are meeting rooms clustered off the lobby area.