A STICKY SIT­U­A­TION

The right shore ex­cur­sion gets this trav­eller into the (maple) spirit of ad­ven­ture

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - CRUISING QUEBEC CITY - MARINA KAY

No mat­ter which way I turned the cam­era, I just couldn’t frame Chateau Fron­tenac. Ei­ther the tur­rets got chopped off or its roof spliced in half. Cap­tur­ing the world’s most pho­tographed ho­tel from its base was not a grand plan.

In fact, noth­ing about my visit to Que­bec City was planned, ex­cept for it be­ing my first stop on a seven-day cruise through Canada and New Eng­land aboard MS Maas­dam,a smaller ship (pas­sen­ger ca­pac­ity 1258) of Hol­land Amer­ica Line (HAL).

Days be­fore de­par­ture, I threw cau­tion to the wind and de­cided not to book any ex­cur­sions un­til I boarded the ship. Frankly, the ship’s Jour­neys Ashore brochure over­whelmed me; from walk­ing tours to wine tast­ings, there were 12 op­tions just for Que­bec City. All I knew about this port – the cruise line’s most pop­u­lar, by the way – is that it is the cap­i­tal of the prov­ince of Que­bec, and a UN­ESCO World Her­itage site.

And thanks to my sweet tooth, I was also en­am­oured of it be­ing a maple syrup pro­ducer.

June 24: All Aboard. The shore ex­cur­sions staff were ex­cel­lent, and pa­tiently talked me through my op­tions. We de­cided I’d best en­joy a mix of ru­ral and ur­ban Que­bec. And so I re­served a seat on a half-day bus tour of Ile-d’Or­leans, a bu­colic is­land on the St Lawrence River, Mont­morency Falls – “they’re higher than Ni­a­gara” – and a maple sugar shack, all with enough time left to ex­plore Que­bec on my own (4 hours, $US99.95 or about $A130).

June 25: Que­bec City, 8am to 4.30pm. Old Que­bec, or VieuxQue­bec, is sto­ry­book beau­ti­ful, ro­man­tic, fran­co­phone, and so ac­ces­si­ble, with the cruise ter­mi­nal lo­cated lit­er­ally steps from the city cen­tre and a VIA Rail train sta­tion right around the cor­ner. Our group of 25 left the ter­mi­nal’s doorstep at 8.15am (an un­godly hour for some; we were three pas­sen­gers down at de­par­ture) but the bus tour guide, San­drine – “You can call me sar­dine” – en­ter­tained with not only her quirky hu­mour but his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive.

For the 45-minute ride, she shared broad strokes about the 1759 war that re­lieved Canada of French colo­nial rule, as well as Que­be­cois trivia: Did you know that the city’s name is de­rived from the Al­go­nquin In­dian “Ke­bec”? It means “where the river nar­rows”, which re­lates to the city’s lo­ca­tion on the cinched waist of St Lawrence River. In the late morn­ing, you can see parts of the grassy river bed ex­posed for the low tide. But when the tide is too high, it can cause prob­lems with ships sail­ing in and out be­cause of the height re­stric­tions to clear Que­bec Bridge. Su­per-size ships are too big to visit here.

Greener Pas­tures: Ile-d’Or­leans is the size of Man­hat­tan but with a pop­u­la­tion of just 7000. It is beau­ti­fully ver­dant and pro­duces a bounty of fresh pro­duce: wine grapes, straw­ber­ries, ap­ples and pears. At our first stop, a cos­tumed guide toured us through an 18th-cen­tury landowner’s house, all shut­ters, low ceil­ings, and mini fur­ni­ture (folks weren’t taller than 5 foot 2 inches or 157cm in those days). Strict zon­ing laws ap­plied then still hold true to­day, which is likely how the is­land has re­tained its re­served ru­ral charm.

Later, a drive through a for­est of maples led to a sugar shack, where we were shown how maple trees are tapped with metal spouts to re­lease their sap. This ex­trac­tion process takes place in spring, when trunks have thawed af­ter a harsh win­ter.

Ev­ery sea­son, one tree yields about 40 litres of sap which, when con­densed, makes one litre of maple syrup. Heated fur­ther, the syrup turns to taffy, then but­ter, and fi­nally, when there’s no more wa­ter to evap­o­rate, sugar. We de­voured taffy spun on pop­si­cle sticks and, like kids in a candy store, shopped for maple tea, nougat, cook­ies, maple ev­ery­thing, un­til our eyes could no longer de­ceive our stomachs or wal­lets.

The joy of a ca­ble car ride was re­alised at the 83m Mont­morency Falls. Tow­er­ing 30m over Ni­a­gara, dare­dev­ils zip-lined over the spec­tac­u­lar cas­cade, but feel­ing their roar un­der the sus­pen­sion bridge was enough for me.

Old Town: Around 1pm, I took to old Que­bec. This Sun­day in late June was pleas­antly warm and sunny. Souvenir shops, buskers, and restau­rants shaded by red Stella Ar­tois um­brel­las coloured the nar­row cob­ble­stoned streets, thick with tourists who stopped and started, pho­tograph­ing this and that – as well as them­selves.

His­tory buffs head to Musee du Fort and La Ci­tadelle, the largest for­ti­fied base in North Amer­ica. But af­ter a stroll with the crowds along the city’s old­est street, Rue du Petit-Cham­plain, then up to Chateau Fron­tenac – an 1893-built ho­tel now run by Fair­mont – and past the statue of French ex­plorer Jac­ques Cartier, I de­toured to gallery-fringed Rue St-Paul.

Pop­ping in for a cap­puc­cino at Les Café du Soleil, I asked where I might find the best crois­sant. “Cro­quem­bouche, about a 25-minute walk away, where the lo­cals go,” said the barista, scrib­bling “Rue StJoseph” on a piece of pa­per and point­ing me in the di­rec­tion of Saint-Roch. Thanks to my mo­bile phone GPS, amid trendy bars, ter­races, theatres, gal­leries and bou­tiques, I eas­ily found the bak­ery, laden with de­li­cious-smelling French pas­tries, hand­made choco­lates, and baguettes. I overex­erted my daily caloric in­take, but fast walked back to the ship in­stead of catch­ing a cab.

Be­cause I was short on time, I didn’t risk stop­ping into Marche du Vieux-Port (a large farmer’s mar­ket) by the marina, or peek­ing into Le Café du Monde, a din­ing spot by the cruise ter­mi­nal, ap­par­ently sought out by both tourists and lo­cals.

I just scraped back on board with enough time to bid the city adieu from the nav­i­ga­tion deck. And what did I see? The most per­fect view of Chateau Fron­tenac, poised proudly on her perch over­look­ing the city. How ironic, I thought to my­self, that the best spot to snap this land­mark had been right un­der my nose.

PIC­TURES: SUP­PLIED, HOL­LAND AMER­ICA LINE

MONT­MORENCY Mont­morency Falls in­cludes an ex­hil­a­rat­ing walk over the sus­pen­sion bridge. Que­bec is MS Maas­dam’s most pop­u­lar port.

OLD QUE­BEC CITY

SPA STATE ROOM

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