The province of Québec is distinct from the rest of the North American continent, with everything from its language to its cuisine setting it apart; the only French speaking society in North America, parts of it are geographically almost as close to the European coast as to Vancouver and in look, taste and feel the province cherry-picks some of the best bits of both continents.
Full of surprising contrasts, the province of Québec is an excellent holiday destination, regardless of the time of year. What’s more, since its two main cities, Montréal and Québec City, are just a couple of hours apart by road or rail, you needn’t choose one over the other but instead can – and indeed should – enjoy both in the course of the same trip.
Much larger and more cosmopolitan, Montréal, Canada’s second city is a melting pot of cultures and lifestyles. Home to a third of all Québécois, the island metropolis celebrates its status as a truly international city. In a weekend you can stroll under gas lamps in the narrow streets of Vieux Montréal and ride on a calèche (horse carriage); chat bilingually in a contemporary bar, eat your way around the world, from Portuguese to Thai to local delicacies, stare up at mirrored skyscrapers competing for space with colony-era cathedrals and watch the dizzying acrobatics of home-grown alumni Cirque du Soleil.
Fashionable and funky it’s home to some superb shops, especially on Rue Ste Catherine, Avenue Laurier and Mile End. You’ll also uncover a number of excellent places to eat and drink dedicated to Kamouraska lamb, Arctic char and of course poutine, a dish made of chips smothered in cheese curds and gravy.
Stroll the squares and narrow streets past the monolithic Basilique Notre-Dame and steepled Chapelle de Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours, or explore the cobblestone streets of the Old Quarter on foot for instance, stopping to enjoy its celebrated café culture, looking out for patisseries, English pubs, old Jewish delis, hipster bars and magnificent food markets.
Alternatively, cycle around the old port, a window on the river, and try exhilarating activities such as jet boating on the Lachine Rapids or surfing on the St Lawrence River. For something more relaxing, work on your tan on the beach instead.
Regular street festivals provide colour and distraction; the annual International Jazz Festival is the headline event in a calendar packed with cultural celebrations; the international Fireworks Festival always goes with a bang although the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Canada in June competes with it for noise and excitement. The culmination of winter features the Montréal en Lumière Festival, which celebrates the city over 10 days and features a succession of live music performances, light shows and free events every February.
Close to the city are the Laurentian Mountains, which offer outdoor activities year-round. In summer try cycling, hiking and horse riding to take in the spectacular views and lush landscapes. The highest peak, Mont Tremblant, is one of the biggest ski resorts in the region, with good-quality skiing, snowboarding and sleigh rides on offer in winter. Thrill seekers can also scoot along rails on a toboggan for close to a mile at Mont Saint Sauveur.
In contrast, to the north, stands Québec City. The undisputed star of this part of the region, the regal provincial capital city stands commandingly above and alongside the narrowing St Lawrence River – the city’s name actually derives from the Algonquin word kebek, meaning ‘where the river narrows’.
With more than 400 years heritage, Québec City is a more compact, romantic, architecturally interesting place to spend your holiday. The only walled city in North America, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site where seventeenth- and eighteenth-century stone houses and churches, graceful parks, squares and countless monuments flank winding cobbled streets. Resolutely francophone, it’s sometimes hard to remember which continent you’re on as you tuck into a croissant and a café au lait in a Parisian style café whilst all around you locals chat in French.
Hip hotels such as the Fairmont Château Frontenac overlook the St Lawrence River or hide in the heart of the old quarter. Every January the remarkable Ice Hotel is remade; the only one in North America, it is fashioned from chunks of ice and stands 5m tall. Inside this extraordinary structure are fireplaces and fur-lined beds as a means of combatting the cold.
To get a flavour of the city, stroll the atmospheric alleyways or walk along the promenade outside the Hotel Château Frontenac and revel in spectacular views over the mighty St Lawrence River and the old lower town. Stop at the Musée National des Beaux Arts du Québec, home to the finest art collection in the province. Explore Le Petit Champlain, a commercial shopping street and discover local Québécois arts, crafts and produce. Visit in July for the Festival d’Été de Québec, which sees the city transformed for a summer festival, with outdoor stages hosting hundreds of performers.
In winter you can cross-country ski through the town or downhill ski on the nearby slopes of Mont Ste Anne. Come from the end of January to mid-February and enjoy Carnival, which celebrates a host of winter activities and includes night parades, fireworks and concerts; the scale of the celebrations is a testament to the locals defiance of the cold.
Outside the cities
Other than its main urban centres, Québec is famous for its landscapes and wildlife, proudly paraded in protected parks, majestic mountain ranges and along the rugged, windswept coastline; the province’s Nature Top Five is a role call of wonderful wildlife, including the blue whale, moose, black bear, grey wolf and snowy owl.
The main cities of Montréal and Québec City are the gateways to the province’s great outdoors, with temperate farmland giving way to Arctic tundra where nature rules supreme. Visit the region’s national parks, including the renowned Jacques Cartier National Park, to spot moose and caribou in their natural habitat or go on day-excursions on the St Lawrence River in search of whales. Wolverines and bears fill the forests and in many places people have barely made any inroads. Base yourself at luxury lodges such as Sacacomie, on the edge of the Mastigouche Wildlife Reserve, to explore these surroundings without sacrificing anything in the way of style and comfort.
Regardless of whether you choose to base yourself in a single city or compare and contrast the urban centres with one another and the wilderness on their doorsteps, you’ll quickly discover that Québec province, with its perfect blend of North American and European cultures, is sumptuous in every season.