A STICKY SITUATION
The right shore excursion gets this traveller into the (maple) spirit of adventure
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.
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