It’s a province in a foreign country, yet it’s close by, politically stable and the exchange rate is about 70 cents to the U.S. dollar. What’s not to like?
Welcome to Quebec or “Kebec” as it is pronounced from its Algonquin origins and still by many today who flock to South Florida, as innumerable license plates attest.
Quebec has enticed Americans throughout our history – Revolutionaries who attempted to lure volunteers, Prohibition revelers in search of good times, Vietnam draft evaders. There are many ways to discover Canada’s unique, French-speaking province. We followed one of the oldest known routes – up the St. Lawrence River towards the ocean and the Maritime provinces. It’s a well-worn, historical path thanks to First Nations peoples, trappers, and explorers – but we traveled in somewhat different conditions, thanks to Holland America cruise line.
Before the nautical portion of the trip, however, we began in Quebec’s great metropolis. Montreal is a vibrant, young, energetic city, home to four universities. At the entrance to McGill University stands an impressive-looking sculpture called “The Illuminated Crowd” depicting 65 people and symbolizing the fragility of humans. It is worth seeing and touching.
In Montreal, Old World architecture - homes of gray limestone and Scottish redstone that front onto cobblestone streets - mesh with the urban look of gleaming skyscrapers. The city prides itself on being a kind of mini-Europe where 85 ethnic groups feature their specialties. Schwartz’s, which opened in 1912, sells smoked meats and other traditional Jewish deli dishes that Americans might associate more with New York. Its wood-burning stoves, which are still allowed in the city, emit mouthwatering smells. It is a far cry from the sleek upscale Les 400 Coups with gourmet entrees such as leg of rabbit, which I tried because Easter was months away. I did not, however, try one of Quebec’s comfort foods, poutine (French fries, gravy and cheese curds). With more than 300 restaurants, you will be hard-pressed to find a bad one. In the summer, food trucks abound, but not with cheap junk food as only the owners of top-notch restaurants are allowed to participate.
At the Botanical Gardens, we walked quickly along curved paths at night to view the Arboretum Sea of Lights. The night was brisk and we headed for the Japanese Teahouse for a cup of hot tea and a pastry called Mochi.
You can rent a bicycle or jump on one of 21 musical swings near a city bus stop. (Each swing plays a different note when it moves; get enough people working together and you can pick out a tune.) Real estate is booming - a former red-light district during the fur trading days now touts red lights atop cranes. With the boom comes a plethora of high-rise condominiums commanding sky-high prices. Wisely, Montreal has put the brakes on blocking view corridors, and one percent of construction costs must be spent on art in public places.
With its 375-year anniversary next year, Montreal is sprucing up. Its 1880 water mains are being replaced, sidewalks widened and parks added. Even its port is being renovated at a cost of $78 million Canadian to accommodate the influx of cruise business, which jumped 25 percent in 2015 with another ten-percent increase anticipated this year.
Museums abound, and we were lucky enough to be in the city during the Rodin Exhibit at the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Montreal. It was terrific and we were loath to leave, but we had a ship to catch and a cruise to take on the St. Lawrence River so we grabbed a cab back to our hotel to gather our luggage and dash to the port.
We wisely had stayed at the well-positioned Hotel Intercontinental with easy access to Old Montreal and its boutique shops, restaurants and the Metro. Wide pedestrian walkways featured enormous pots brimming with spikes of tall grasses and profuse cascading flowers.
Not to be outdone, Quebec City, only 158 miles away, was our first port and it certainly holds its own superlatives such as North America’s oldest hospital, oldest newspaper and the only walled city north of Mexico.
Climbing the cobblestone street from the port, a formidable-looking row of black cannons commands attention. It is easy to transport yourself back to the days when they stood at the ready to fend off English warships in the 18th century. In 1760, an envoy was sent to demand surrender from General Louis de Buade de Frontenac. His rebuff: “I have no reply to make to your general other than from the mouth of my cannons and muskets.” Le Chateau Frontenac, built in 1893, is named in his honor.
Nearby at the Parc
Montmorency, a child turned cartwheels on the tree-shaded lawn and melodious church bells tolled for several minutes from the awe-inspiring Notre Dame Cathedral. It is the only church where I have fallen off the kneeler. They are not attached to the front pew.
Back onboard Holland America’s Maasdam, a crew of 550 greeted us rather than the mega-ships carrying more than 6,000. I didn’t expect to like cruising, only promising Lynne, my daughter, that I would treat her to a cruise. I was sure everything I had heard would come to fruition: weight gain, seasickness, intestinal issues and boredom. Instead, I was delighted. The food, while plentiful, was healthy for the most part and portions not obscene - but surprisingly a 36-ounce ribeye
steak called “WOW Tommy-Hawk” was added to the menu in November to satisfy some passengers’ requests. It’s served with balsamic glazed Cipollini onions and surely is meant to be shared. One hopes.
We were hard-pressed to fit everything into a day. Each evening a map with information was left at our cabin door describing shore excursions and not just bus tours but physical choices like biking and hiking as well. Lectures were given each day preceding our next port about the history, places to visit and what to do.
Classes were available in everything from computers to dancing along with seminars in cooking, art history, flower arranging, digital cameras and bar mixology. You could even get your footprint analyzed. You could attend Catholic Mass, Shabbat services and Friends of Bill meetings. At the fitness center morning stretch, body conditioning, abs and Pilates classes were available along with free weights and machines. Or you just could get pampered at the spa.
A library offered books to borrow, computers, Wi-Fi and even a coffee bar just like Starbucks with lattes, café au laits and hot tea. A daily eight-page printout of the New York Times was at the ready but the views from plush, comfy easy chairs seemed to take precedence. Just above the water, a flock of white birds could be seen catching the thermal air that the Maasdam generated. All the while the vista kept changing as we cruised along Quebec’s shore heading to Prince Edward Island where a Canadian Royal Mounty greeted us at the dock. The following days we berthed at Nova Scotia and Halifax.
At sunset, the crow’s nest in the bow of the ship made for the ideal spot to sip a cocktail. A pianist played soft background music and a unique place, so close to our country yet in many ways so far away, drifted slowly by.