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Kid-Friendly Zones: quebec city, canada
As can be expected from a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Quebec City is history class and eye candy rolled into one. During the colder months, it emerges as a winter wonderland. Take your cue from the locals – they know how to have fun in the snow!
Where to stay The Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac is said to be the most photographed hotel in the world, a play of turrets and towers perched atop a hill and lording over the city and the St. Lawrence River. The lobby bustles day and night, as hotel guests and travelers in general stop by to inspect the intricate wood paneling, purchase souvenirs, and gawk at the oil of Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac and an early settler in these parts. Much of the hotel, including its 611 rooms, are in the midst of a multi-million dollar renovation, and you would be wise to request a renovated room, especially one at the top of a tower (we were enchanted by the angles of, and views from, room 9123). Expect a palette of gold and silver tones, signature ultra-luxe Fairmont bedding, and modern conveniences including end tables with plentiful outlets for laptops and smartphones. The family will cheer if you order a platter of Canadian cheeses into your room, and if you photograph the exterior of the hotel at night, when its copper roof is invariably dotted with mist and clouds. At the heart of the action (and the top of the Funiculaire, oui!), it's a terrific choice.http://www.fairmont.com/frontenac-quebec/ Doubles from $189 CAD.
Upstairs, downstairs Quebec City is divided into an Upper Town and Lower Town, and much of what you'll want to see is walkable. Set aside a couple half-days to take in the highlights of each, starting with Upper Town. Step onto the Terrasse Dufferin at the back of Le Chateau Frontenac first, the better to take in the views of the St. Lawrence River and the mountains in the distance (take note of the Quebec-Levis ferry plying the waters and pop on for a round trip near sunset, the better to soak up the view of Quebec City's twinkling lights). Your first stop on bustling Rue St. Louis, the main artery into Upper Town, is Maison Kent, said to be the city's oldest building and dating to 1648. Standing upright and creamy white with blue trim, this is where the French conceded to British forces. Today, the building is home to France's consul general. Kitty-corner to Maison Kent is Aux Anciens Canadiens, a restaurant serving traditional fare by staff in period garb. The better story belongs to the building, which dates to 1677 and is one of the oldest in the province. Close by is the Place d'Armes, a plaza which celebrates the armed forces and has a glorious fountain at its center. A statue of Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec, is nearby.
Saunter down the Rue de Tresor and enjoy the small paintings and artwork for sale by local artists. Sure, they're trying to ensnare tourists, but the quality of the work is surprisingly good. A left on Rue de Buade leads you to the Notre Dame Basilica-Cathedral, seat of the oldest Roman Catholic archdiocese in Canada and the U.S., dating to 1647. The basilica, survivor of two major fires over the centuries, is a stunner, a lacy golden dome near its altar mimicking a crown. It's a cozy building that exudes warmth, and it's not just from the many candles waiting for a patron and a promise. http://notredamedequebec.org/en/feasts-of-the-350th As you exit the church and across a small park is the Hotel de Ville, or City Hall. The grand stone structure cries out for a photograph and you should oblige. Head to your right as you face City Hall and turn left on Rue St. Jean, a corridor filled with smart shops, restaurants and cafes. As you exit its “gates,” you'll come face to face with a seasonal ice rink that's small and inviting. If you don't take a spin, retrace your steps to Rue St. Louis for a couple more stops. La Citadelle is a star-shaped fort that's an active military base and home to the 22nd regiment's 100 soldiers, give or take a few. Kids will love the changing of the guard. http://www.lacitadelle.qc.ca/en.html The National Assembly is known to locals as the “baby Louvre” and possessed of 24 statues that speak to the activities of the Quebecois including fishing and hunting. Some of the statues are a tip of the cap to favorite sons including Champlain, Cartier and Maisonneuve, that last one the founder of Montreal. The on-site cafe is a great choice for lunch. http://www.assnat.qc.ca/en/visiteurs/.html
You can approach Lower Town from Le Chateau Frontenac in one of two ways: You can take the funicular, a cable car that hugs the steep hillside, or walk down “breakneck stairs.” Consider the former and save the latter for the way back. The funicular deposits you inside the Maison Louis Jolliet, a souvenir shop in a building that dates to 1683. Make for the door and turn right onto Rue de Petit-Champlain, arguably the prettiest street in the city and said to be the oldest in North America. The many merchants go all out during the winter holidays to decorate their shops and the result would make Martha Stewart swoon. Take pictures (everyone does) as you poke your head into this shop and that. If hunger strikes, the definitive stop is Le Lapin Saute at #52 for French country cooking. More shops can be found along Boulevard Champlain, at the end of its Petit brethren. Pop along until you get to Maison Chevalier, a stone gem with red roof and shutters that dates to 1752 and is characterized by its many windows. The Royal Battery is close by (look for the cannons).
As you make your way to Rue Notre Dame, you'll run into the Place-Royale, a small square that's European in feel and screams photo opp. The houses on the square are uniform and architecturally appealing but the most significant building is Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church, which dates to 1688. What you'll want to view is outdoors, where images ranging from barren winter trees to snowy scenes are projected onto the church's facade after dark. The buildings really are much of the story in Lower Town, and nearby streets that show them at their best include Rue Sault-au-Matelot and Rue St. Pierre. Take one of the other down to Rue St. Paul, a larger and more commercial thoroughfare that's still good for strolling and popping into the occasional gallery. Eventually you'll want to retrace your steps and, if the kids haven't wilted, take the breakneck stairs back to Le Chateau Frontenac.
Lights, camera, action! The Festival des Lumieres de Quebec is a year-end light festival that signals the arrival of winter. Impromptu light installations are a riot of color and form and can appear as everything from a towering blue “tree” in Lower Town to a Picasso-esque form near the National Assembly. Follow the “boreal path” to arrive at all the lights. http://festivaldeslumieresdequebec.com/en/ The Musee de la Civilisation is an expansive, interactive museum whose block-like gray exterior at the edge of the port belies the wonders indoors. Children will romp through permanent exhibitions including “The Earth Unveiled,” which focuses on science as it presents extreme events including tornados and volcanos (the “earthquake” chamber is a must). Rotating exhibits range from “Game Story,” focused on 40 years of video games – yes, you can play everything from PacMan to “Star Wars” and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” – and “Haiti, in Extremis,” a meditation on the Caribbean country's ability to survive everything from AIDS to earthquakes by the country's leading artists. http://www.mcq.org/en/mcq/ Take it back outdoors at the Plains of Abraham, a 225-acre midtown park that's a haven for winter sports including cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Tops on the list is the outdoor ice rink that opens just after Christmas Day. It's more of an Indy 500-style oval so there's plenty of room for skating pros to leg it out (and ample space for beginners to practice). http://www.ccbn-nbc.gc.ca/en/
Ice ice baby A short ride from the city center is the Parc de la Chute-Montmorency, where the focal point is a waterfall that's taller than Niagara Falls. The falls spill into the St. Lawrence River and appear as a series of ice floes at the base in the winter. A gondola transports you to a walking path that leads to a suspension bridge over the falls and, no matter how chilly out, you should make the trek for stunning vistas. Walk back to the Manor Montmorency, a grand park chalet, for a chocolate chaud. http://www.sepaq.com/ct/pcm/index.dot?language_id=1 Even chiller, yet warm at its heart, is the Hotel de Glace, or Ice Hotel, that's built from the ground up every winter. You can drink or stay in this frozen fantasyland from January-March but kids will probably want to stop by for a visit and not much else (small fee involved). There's a way to divide and conquer: Kids can enjoy an outdoor tube slide, or strap on snowshoes and ply the trails, with one parent while the other enjoys a guided tour or a warm beverage by one of the hotel's many fireplaces. Swap places and enjoy some more. http://www.hoteldeglace-canada.com/
Where to eat Casse Crepe Breton evokes a ski chalet – think mahogany wood and plentiful arches – and its crepes are hearty enough to warm at low or high altitude. Select 2-5 fillings from a range of nearly a dozen savory choices and almost as many sweet. A medley of ham, swiss, spinach and onion will not disappoint, and a dessert crepe of strawberries and maple syrup is a local fave. http://www.cassecrepebreton.com/index_en.html Chez Temporel is popular with students and others who crave the free wifi and linger longer vibe but works just as well for families in search of a cozy lunch spot. The soup du jour is spot on and sandwiches including a Croque Monsieur (grilled ham and cheese, served open-faced here) are sure to please. The upstairs seating area provides more running around room for younger kids. At Cafe Le Saint-Malo on Rue St. Paul, you might think you've wandered into a private home in the French countryside. A low-slung wood ceiling winks at rough-hewn stone walls graced by found objects and pleasing artwork, the whole warmed by a roaring fire. French country cookery is the order of the evening as evidenced by a sublime cassoulet brimming with white beans and succulent meats, and a duck confit that melts in the mouth. http://www.lecafestmalo.com/ Around the corner is Echaude, its minimalist-modern décor the polar opposite of Saint-Malo. Chill out in the nearly white room and enjoy a warm goat cheese salad or the duck confit, a dish that seemingly appears on every Quebec City menu and never disappoints. http://www.echaude.com/?en
In a city with many good food options, the gastronomical tour de force is Le Pied Bleu, the bastion of a creative young chef who turned his small takeout counter into a showcase for charcuterie. Yes, the menu is meat-heavy – and adventurous – but you'd be surprised at how many families are partaking in a circle of spare yet inviting rooms. Cast your fears aside and request a tasting menu selected by the chef. The meal will begin with a round of composed salads that might include a medley of white beans, garbanzo, sundried tomatoes, cheese and olives, and segue into a platter of charcuterie, including everything from chicken and pork sausages to heart and liver. Mains include blood sausage over mashed potatoes, and a seafood quenelle. It's all followed by a dessert buffet – you can choose from 8-10 homemade desserts – and ends with a endless cheese tray. The servers at Pied Bleu view food as a celebration and won't hesitate to stop by and chat at your table, taking great care to explain the food and the restaurant's sensibility. Parents: Don't miss this! http://piedbleu.com/ At the other end of the food spectrum, and beloved by locals, is St. Hubert, a chain of casual restaurants known for rotisserie chicken. If you kids turn up their noses at Pied Bleu, you can always grab to-go at St. Hubert! http://www.st-hubert.com/index.en.html
Elaine Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and twelve-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.