Window on Quebec, Canada

Canada's largest province offers much to inspire - and surprise...

Poutine, an unlikely local dish that has become Quebec's must-try while in Canada ~

~ vibrant street art like this, in Montreal ~

~ the magnificent St Lawrence River, stretching 1200 kilometres from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic  ~ 

~ and of course its creatures. This one is harmless, but make sure to steer clear of bears and moose!


Originally, the plan was to begin our trip in Vancouver on Canada's west coast, and self-drive 7000 kilometres or so across this huge country.

Some simple maths soon showed us that this could take weeks if we wanted to properly appreciate the various provinces. So we replanned and started at the Great Lakes, crossing the border at Detroit and (because we were returning our rental car in the US) thereby, not needing a Canadian visa.



Our abbreviated adventure now followed a vaguely west-to-east connect-the-dots route, and after our short stay in Ottawa, we turned south towards Montreal - dubbed by Mark Twain as the 'City of a Hundred Steeples'.  

Montreal's name is generally thought to be derived from 'Mount Royal', the title given to the mountain by French-Breton explorer, Jacques Cartier, in 1535. Of course we zigzagged up to the lookout that gives a wide and, you could say 'regal', position for a panoramic shot of the city. 

There were not any steeples that we could find on the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, often simply referred to as The Plateau, a lively cafe and bar area. It began a century ago as a bourgeois French-style community that quickly attracted actors, artists and writers and, more recently, students and food-lovers to its fashionable boutiques and theatres. 

The atmosphere is hip, relaxed, trendy and fun, and it appears many artists still hang here.

Someone had told us about these bagels. Although there are several St-Viateur Bagel bakeries in Montreal, the original one, named for the street on which it is located, is on The Plateau. Of course we could not resist buying a bag of bagels, but before that we stood watching, mesmerised, as the baker rapidly flipped and twisted each piece of dough by hand. 

When we asked where we could find the best coffee on The Plateau, the baker also recommended this cafe. It's that kind of place - villagey, friendly and full of surprises.

While the bagel bakery is now Italian-owned (see the history) when you step into Cafe Olimpico, it feels like you have entered a classical European cafe-bar. We asked for double-shot flat whites, and were brought something that was more like a macchiato, but it was excellent. Just what we needed.

If you speak (or even read) French, Montreal will come alive for you, especially where signs are concerned. Around sixty percent of residents of Montreal speak both French and English, even though the only official language of Quebec province is French.

It's interesting to see how so much of Montreal's appeal has to do with food, but the fact is, the locals (and all their visitors) just love to eat - proving, yet again, that the language of food and wine is universal. This upmarket very-French deli-cafe is located on the edge of the Place d'Armes - see below.

Read more here....

This Place, in the Old city near the Port, dates from the 17th century, and that dashing fellow on the monument is Paul de Chomedey, the founder of Montreal. Behind him is the Bank of MontrealOn the southern edge of this square, facing the statue, we also finally found two steeples, on the stately Gothic-Revival Notre-Dame Basilica with an awe-inspiring interior that is well worth seeing.

Our motel in Repentigny was located on the banks of the St Lawrence River, and our riverfront room offered front-row views of the river traffic and wildlife.

This mighty river has been captivating the interest of people for centuries. The local Iroquoians were here long before Norse and European mariners began to investigate the river. Then, during three voyages in the early sixteenth century, over eight years, Jacques Cartier, explored the mighty St Lawrence River, charting its waters and surroundings, then claiming this north-eastern part of the continent for France.



Wandering in the hinterland

It's so easy to gravitate to cities when travelling, but Canada's provinces offer so much more than only high-rise and hype.

After a day or so in Montreal we headed inland, east of the city, to Terrebonne and Mascouche, then Lanaudiere. Both areas are worth exploring and we could have spent several days in each. 

Terrebonne with its old centre and river park (where we met our squirrel friend, shown at the top of this page) is especially attractive. Scenic Mill Island has an old mill built in 1850, confusingly called New Mill, now housing a relaxed yet upmarket restaurant, Batiment B. Nearby, the Moulin-Neuf dam is best seen from the pedestrian walkway. See the video (above) ...

In the country town of Rawdon, a sign like this is sure to capture most people's interest.

Inside the small shop, we met Patricia, the owner, and of course we could not resist tasting (and buying) some of her handmade chocolates.

If you are in the vicinity, this is a must-visit. See more...

Joliette is the largest town in the Lanaudiere region and this brasserie was as proud of its coffees as the beers.

Here, we enjoyed a superior coffee that made it on to our list of Best Coffees that we enjoyed in Canada.

Throughout Quebec and Ontario we came across churches with tin-clad steeples that sparkled in the sunshine. This material was chosen, not so much for economy, but rather because it was durable, even in Quebec's ultra-cold winters (think -40C!). Tin was also fireproof, especially important as many churches had timber interiors.

What's more these shiny silver tips are easily seen across the countryside, serving as a sort of spiritual landmark!


Heading east on the King's Road

After several days, it was time to leave the Montreal area. Locals had advised us that the best, and most scenic route eastwards, was on the Chemin Du Roy (Royal Road). 

Following signs like this, we continued on the north side of the mighty St Lawrence River. Here, on the banner, this town's name is expressed in English...

...but is more often referred to by its French Name - Les Trois Rivieres.

It was in this town, at MG (Maison Griffin Boutique) that we added another favourite coffee to our list. 

Then, rather than taking the Autoroute, in order to get closer to the countryside, we chose to travel nearer the river, even though for most of the time we could not see it. This was rich agricultural land, with fields sometimes flooded and we wondered if wild rice was being raised here. There were farmhouses and many silos, apple trees in blossom as it was June, and an occasional windmill.

By lunchtime, we were ready to stop at this bright and inviting place (above) in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade.

Cafe de la Tour delivers more than just food and coffee. It is also a gite with accommodation upstairs.

The cafe's several rooms have an eclectic mix of old and new memorabilia, enough to keep us happily browsing as our lunch was prepared.

Back on the road again, but not for much longer, we realised, as near Donnacona, the river came into view with its cliffs and banks. Quebec City - just half an hour away - beckoned.

One last stop at a riverside park, and this free book box. Unfortunately all the books were in French!



Quebec City

Quebec very quickly taught us several things. It did indeed live up to the nickname of 'beautiful province', as described on many local numberplates (see above). The city was charming and, in its spring colours, very attractive.

Only a few cities in the world bear the same name as their province or state, choosing to add 'City' to avoid confusion. New York is another one. Is it a North American thing, or can you think of others?

The name Quebec comes from the Algonquin word for 'narrow passage' or 'strait', because at this point the river constricts to a width of less than a kilometre, spanned by the Pont de Quebec bridge. It is the final crossing point for those who, like us, were headed east, and we were very careful not to keep travelling along the northern bank as we would incur a very lengthy return detour to correct the mistake!

Quebec City has a sense of age and pride, with banners and flags hung outside major buildings.

Quebec's flag has four white fleur-de-lis motifs that signify purity, while the blue field symbolizes heaven. The flag is derived from a banner honouring the Virgin Mary, as around 75 percent of Quebecois identify as Roman Catholic. The flags' horizontal symmetry allow both sides to show the same image.


Most people can identify Canada's symbol of the red maple leaf - but do you know why it is red, or how it was chosen? Find out here....

This is the one province in Canada where you really MUST try to use whatever French language you know. Quebec is almost totally French-speaking, and while some people (especially younger ones) can read and often speak English, it is not universal. Think of it as Canada's France - and in the same way you would not attempt to speak in English to a French person in France, then neither should you here.

Apart from anything else, many of the signs will make no sense to you, unless you have a digital translator on your phone, or a dictionary in you backpack! This window is telling you 'It is so good' - and you can see that this is true from the eye-catching window display.

After saying all this, it is a surprise to come across a vibrant traditional Irish pub in the Old Town.

It is a perfect - and relaxing - mix of French and Irish.

While Quebec's human residents are friendly, not all of this province's inhabitants are so welcoming. If hiking in forest, bring some bear repellent and take care to watch for these massive animals.

Most roads in Quebec (and many other parts of Eastern Canada) have signs warning of moose, and these can prove lethal if your vehicle crashes into them. Over 200 Canadians are killed annually, this way. They are also very dangerous if you are on foot, as they can trample a human to death.

Judging by the sign, beavers seem able to drop a tree on you!

Street art is alive and well in Quebec City. Please meet Harlequin located across the road from the St-Patrick.

Look in one direction from the Place d'Armes fountain, and you see the huge Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac in the background.

Turn around, and these gardens overlook a frontage of much smaller hotels and restaurants.

The open area beside the hotel and funiculaire entrance is an ideal place for summer activities, and draws large crowds - especially when they are as death-defying as this!

This eighteen-storey ultra-luxurious hotel, began over a century ago. It now has over 600 rooms and commands a view across the city and river.

The monument in front of it is to 16th-centrury colonist Samuel de Champlain, known as the 'Father of new France'.

Overlooking the St. Lawrence River, this grand, castle-like hotel is a three-minute walk from Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec and eight minutes’ walk from boutiques in Quartier Petit Champlain.

The Funiculaire links the city's old and new towns. 

Echoing Paris, these posters let locals know about coming events.

In the lower town the street art continues, but this time with a high and complex cityscape, the three storeys high Quebec City mural.

Obviously this makes the ideal backdrop for 'walk-on' players and selfies.

Spectators from the upstairs windows add even more character to this massive initiative unveiled in 1999.

If you thought the Old (or Upper) Town was busy, the New (Lower) Town has even more buzz to it. Far above, the Fairmont oversees it all.

Expecting rain? Not really. Like many European places, the New World's cities also like to brighten what would otherwise be grim grey laneways.

Descend the 'Breakneck Steps' to see this colourful fresco near the port. The Fresque du Petit-Champlain was unveiled in 2001 and restored in 2016. It illustrates the major stages in the life of the popular district of Cap-Blanc.

As evening came we finished the day at the Tourny Fountain opposite the Parliament buildings. This landmark was donated in 2007 by a local family retail business, to mark the city's 400th anniversary.

With an astounding view and lovely colours by night it was the ideal spot for our final evening in Quebec City.



An (almost overlooked) island getaway

Before a big overseas trip, I always do plenty of research, but there are places that we somehow do not read about or plan to see...and that's OK. I truly love the feeling of 'discovery', and so it was with these two places. 

The first is Montmorency Falls, thirty metres taller than Niagara, and just a few kilometres from where we were staying in the city. 

It was an easy walk from the gate and along beside the lake at the bottom, or we could have gone across by cable car. Either way this dramatic waterfall was well worth seeing.

Islands in a large river are not unusual, and the St Lawrence River has hundreds, scattered throughout its lengthy course. Not all are inhabited or accessible, but the Ile de Orleans is an exception - and exceptionally lovely.

And, you really have to love and island with a chocolatier positioned very close to the bridge that connects the island.

This place is located at the southern tip of the island and is an ideal welcome stop to begin or end your visit. 

Just look at this, and tell me your mouth is not watering!

The island is 33 kilometres long and a circuit of the island takes about 1.5 hours. About a million visitors come here annually, lured by the quietude and rural views.

The houses are immaculately kept and at times we felt as if we were driving through a real-estate brochure.

There are several small communities, and many farms raising grains and stock,

There are places to stay, horses to ride...

... and picnic spots galore. Ass to this a nougaterie, a confiserie, camping grounds, cheeses, farm shops, gardens and art galleries, and you can see how spoiled for choice all those visitors are.

Even their picnic needs are catered for, with roadside stalls selling fresh produce...

...fruit and vegetables...

...even pies and chips and ice cream!

There are many orchards too, mainly cool climate fruit such as stone fruit or apples and pears...

...and of course some vineyards, reminding us of Quebec's French connection!

Good things always come to an end and, too soon, it was time to return from paradise and cross the Orleans Island Bridge back to Quebec City.



Goodbye, mighty river

For the past couple of weeks we had been travelling, with views of the mighty St Lawrence River beside the road, but finally it was now time to cross it and travel eastwards until we would finally leave Quebec and turn south into New Brunswick our next destination.

Our stop for the last night in Quebec Province was, appropriately, right on the shore of the St Lawrence River. Those who have come here on cruise ships will have passed the small collection of house and shops that is Sainte Flavie.

It was on arrival that we realised Ooops! we had made no meal arrangements. Our small family-run motel did not cater for dinners and for a moment we were worried. Sainte Flavie is not large, and even just at sunset most dining places were closed.

However, the motel owner directed us to drive back up the road a few kilometres, and sure enough we found all we needed. Capitaine Homard came to our rescue.

This restaurant, located overlooking the river, offered us everything we needed to eat that evening, as well as a vibrant fun environment.

Specialising in local lobster as well as other seafood, since 1968, it was busy and warm, and just what we needed.



Heading south

Next morning, we finally turned south, leaving the mighty St Lawrence River behind us at last, taking a short detour to see the murals at nearby Mont Joli.

Disappointed to not have enough time left to visit the rich and stunning Gaspesie region to the east, we turned south, vowing to return as soon as we could.

However, we were able to take with us a taste of the Gaspesie region from a cantina on the edge of Mont Joli. Everything sold in this place is from that region, which reminded us of what we had missed.

As we neared the border with New Brunswick, we saw more and more large silos on every farm. After travelling extensively in country Australia, I have one suggestion for Quebecan farmers: Silo Art!

Just when we thought we had seen every last mesmerising thing on offer in Quebec, we came across this at Routhierville....

... a genuine covered bridge, not in Madison County, of course, but right here, just a few kilometres from the border of Quebec and New Brunswick. We were so fascinated by it, that of course, we drove over the river and back (several times).

This, from the St-Patrick Irish pub in Quebec City, sums up our experience in this province.

Beautiful...Au revoir, la belle Quebec.


Text & images: © Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond


Sally and Gordon Hammond travelled independently in Quebec, self-driving and staying in accommodation at their own expense. All opinions are their own.


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