© Camirand Photo
Discover why the words “hip” and “young” are being used to describe the 404-year-old French capital
As late as the 1980s, the district of Saint-Roch made many Quebecers think of homeless people and prostitutes. Nowadays, it makes them think of artists and 30-something entrepreneurs. Originally a 19th-century shipbuilding and timber-trade neighbourhood that, later in the 1970s, included a covered Saint-Joseph Street or “mall,” this more recent no-man’s land of empty parking lots 20 walking minutes west of Old Quebec has been completely overhauled. $380 million has been invested into the neighbourhood since 2000, converting neglected factories into cool restos and chic boutiques; departments of the Université of Laval and the Université of Québec are now here too, as are heavyweight tech companies like video-game maker Ubisoft. Some say that Nuovo Saint-Roch (quartiersaintroch.com) is poised to become the downtown central business district; reason enough for you to make it your working vacation home base, now.
The Delta and Hilton hotels are next to the Centre des Congrès, just five minutes outside of Old Quebec, but they’ve got nothing on number 22 from Trip Advisor’s 2011 Traveller’s Choice list of the Top 25 Hotels in the World and, no, it’s not Fairmont’s Le Château Frontenac. On the contrary. The Van Gogh-inspired Auberge Le Vincent (tel: 418-523-5000; aubergelevincent.com) consists of 10 rooms in a 100-year-old Saint-Roch building.
The six-year-old Auberge was also voted the number one Traveller’s Choice for Best Service in Canada in 2011 and 2012. Its rooms include high-speed cable Internet, a refrigerator and an espresso machine. Double-occupancy rooms are $199 to $279 during the May-to-October high season, including breakfast served in the dining room daily: fruit, eggs, bagels, pancakes and OJ, aka the breakfast of conferencing champions. The inn is a 15-minute walk to the convention center. Not a problem. The average temp is 19°C in July and August and your commute east will familiarize you with some of Saint-Roch’s most famous residents.
Like Le Clocher Penché (tel: 418-640-0597; clocherpenche.ca). The bistro, too, is popular with Trip Advisor users who’ve rated it 4.5 out of five stars. The “Leaning Steeple,” as the name of the resto translates, has an extensive wine list and a short menu that changes often and can include black pudding to an assortment of venison; January’s menu du soir featured seven mains including a root-vegetable ratatouille with locally made “Jac le Chevrier” goat cheese ($21), and lamb cooked sous vide (vacuum sealed then slow cooked in a water bath for up to 72 hours) with mushrooms and organic veggies from Charlevoix, QC’s Ferme des Monts ($26).
Cirque du Soleil also climbed the Saint-Roch bandwagon in 2009. The company signed a five-year, $30-million deal with Quebec City to provide free (yes f-r-e-e) street shows Tuesdays through Saturdays from June to September until 2013. Les Chemins Invisibles (cirquedusoleil.com) is an hour-long “urban cabaret.” It’s performed rain or shine in Îlot Fleurie, a open-space below the Dufferin Highway overpass, unless the weather is too dangerous for their up-in-the-air antics.
If you’re planning to conference with the kids, keep Benjo (tel: 418-640-0001; benjo.ca) in your back pocket. Modelled after NYC’s FAO Schwaz, the 25,000-square-foot (2300-square-metre) Saint-Roch toy store features 15 departments, a family resto and an arts-and-crafts atelier. The store is so big that robot Monsieur Bidule has to help banjo-strumming Benjo the frog greet guests. There’s even a people-sized train that gives tours. Kids will love the candy department where they can choose their flavours and make their own sweets. And what would summer be without ice cream? A lot I scream, you scream, we all scream… well, you get the idea. Its parlour is open April through September.
At the conference: evenings in the Old Town
Going to Quebec City (quebecregion.com) and not combing its Old Town would be sort of akin to going to New Orleans, say, and paying no mind to the French Quarter; doable, yes, but also dumb. Some of your post-conference evenings should be spent pounding the cobblestone of the Old Upper and Lower Towns, five walking minutes from the convention center, before heading back to Saint-Roch for dinner and downtime. Together a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, the Upper Town sits atop Cap Diamant (or Cape Diamond) and is encased by 17th- and 18th-century fortress walls constructed in case of a coup de main via the Plains of Abraham in Battlefields Park; the Lower Town hugs the Saint Lawrence River. Both are so compact that a plan of attack is hardly necessary.
What is, is a camera and a good pair of walking shoes. Upper Town’s 19th-century, 618-room Le Château Frontenac and the Terrasse Dufferin boardwalk with views of the Saint Lawrence might be one evening, say, and the Lower Town’s shop-lined Quartier du Petit-Champlain and Place-Royale square, home of North America’s first permanent French settlement in 1680, another. A third might include the Musée de la Civilisation (tel: 866-710-8031; mcq.org; adults $13, students $9, kids 12 to 16 $4, under 12 free). Samurai: Masterworks of the Collection of Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller, April 4 to January 27, 2013, will include more than 150 pieces of Japanese warrior armor on view for the first time in Canada. The museum’s closes at 6:30pm in summer; 10pm on Thursdays.
… and after: Charlevoix
The Laurentian region of Charlevoix (tourisme-charlevoix.com), northeast of Quebec City, has a 15-billion-ton meteor to thank for its grand vistas and forested mountains. It crashed into the earth 350 million years ago and carved out a crater 56 kilometers wide making the region, now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest inhabited craters in the world; a truly Star Trek moment if ever there was one. Charlevoix, population 30,000, sits snuggly beside the Saint Lawrence River. Its mountainside villages and pastoral surroundings have inspired musicians, painters and writers since the 19th-century.
It’s inspired Daniel Gauthier, cofounder of Cirque du Soleil, most recently; it’ll inspire you too. Gauthier’s Le Massif de Charlevoix *(tel: 877-536-2774; lemassif.com) recently introduced eight, 1950s, double-decker railcars that’ll explore 140 riverside kilometres between Quebec City and Charlevoix’s Baie-Saint-Paul and Le Malbaie via one-day and overnight getaways (adults $275, kids 6 to 17 $225, under 5 $99). In winter, the train will include a Trail and Rail ski package to Gauthier’s already existing Le Massif ski resort.
The Hôtel La Ferme in Baie-Saint-Paul is next. Scheduled to open later this spring, the five-pavilion, 150-room contemporary hotel will feature a wood-panelled exterior, giant sliding-glass doors, catwalks and terraces, as well as an ornamental grass garden, rock garden and water garden. It’ll include a resto and spa, and a farmer’s market in summer and winter, and will be reachable via the new train, a new shuttle from the ski resort and, of course, by car. Baie-Saint-Paul is 93 kilometres, or about a 1.5-hour drive, from Quebec City.
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