It’s fair to say that Canada’s having a bit of a moment. It’s a nation of interesting people, and is also awash with a wealth of natural landscapes, a cool history and unique culture – plus the spoils of globally-leading, trendy cities. Much of this is found in the province of Quebec alone, where it’s possible to ski in the winter and tan in the summer – and there’s the added benefit of a French-influenced society standing alongside an English speaking one.
We took a trip to Quebec – including its capital of Montréal – to pick out just some of the highlights of La Belle Province. Here are our top recommendations.
1. Head to a sugar shack
First thing’s first – it’s practically obligatory to prise yourself away from the lure of Montréal and explore the maple forests in the countryside. 72% of the world’s maple syrup comes from Quebec, and it’s wonderous to go straight to the source and see how this delicious, delicious syrup is made. Throughout the year, you can amble through the towering forests, and enjoy a maple-drenched meal at a sugar shack. Or in March and April, when it’s maple season and the trees are tapped for their sap, have a sneaky peek at the whole tree-to-pancake production.
2. Soak in the scenes around Mont Orford National Park
Nature-lovers rejoice: there is so much beauty in Quebec it’s difficult to take it all in without feeling overly hashtag-blessed or hashtag-grateful. Mont Orford, a national park with a mass of activities in its 22 square miles, hiking is the most popular activity. I also canoed on one of its three lakes, taking in the mirrory reflections of the tree-lined hills around it and the exotic birds who call the lake their home. For summery days, there’s a well-equipped beach on the lake (perfect for families) and in winter, try torch-lit snowshoeing for something a little different.
3. Feast on a Montréal Old Town food tour
Montréal’s Old Town isn’t old by European standards, so think of it as a compressed maze of hidden gems instead. While it’s brimful of interesting boutiques and home stores (my lawd, their fashion is immense here), it’s the food shops that had me salivating. You can take a guided tour around the best eateries, or just spend a day discovering them for yourself. Be sure to visit the cutesy Le Petit Dep for local gourmet food and pastries, Maison Christian Faure for flavourful, crispy and soft macarons, and Olive et Gourmando for the best brunch in town (it needs booking or queueing). I also loved Crew, in the original Royal Bank of Canada headquarters. For coffee, a quick bite or a working space, the grand, gilded surrounds is a magnificent place to while away time.
4. View the coolest bridge in the world
The iconic Jacques Cartier Bridge is the most futuristic bridge we know of. It illuminates at night, and the rainbow of colours change according to season and Montréal’s mood, as ascertained from temperature, traffic and even Twitter mentions. Neat!
5. Visit a cidrerie in Rougemont
In the Montérégie region of Quebec, Rougemont is known for its apples. Like, renowned. There’s a lot of apple-related activities in la capitale de la pomme, like sampling everything apple-related (pies, compote, sauce, dessert etc) but really, cider is where it’s at. At the Cidrerie Michel Jodoin, you’ll be able to roam around and see the orchards that provides the apples, and the production techniques used to make their range. Michel Jodoin himself went to Champagne to learn the sparkling wine techniques, and now applies this to his cider, making for a light, crispy drink that’s made me rethink my obsession with Prosecco. Save room in your suitcase to take a few bottles home.
6. Try some ice wine
Canada might not have the – fancy word alert – terroir for spectacular wines to complete with Italy, France or Australia, but they sure make a mean ice wine. This tipple is made with frozen grapes, and gives a sweeter taste to the product. L’Orpallieur offer tours and tastings on their idyllic grounds – and if you’re lucky, they’ll give a demo of how to open a Champagne bottle with a sword.
7. Check out another version of the Notre-Dame
In addition to being distinctly Canadian, Montréal is full of European charm, and nowhere is that seen better than the Notre-Dame Basilica. The building, completed in 1829, is inspired by its Parisienne cousin, but a tour around it will reveal a splendour that’s truly unique. For example, the stained glass windows don’t depict scenes from the bible, but scenes from Montréal’s religious history instead. Be prepared to queue to enter – 11 million people come to see it every year, just one mill less than the Notre-Dame in Paris.
8. Take in a Cirque du Soleil
Such is the creativity in Montréal that it’s where the spectacular acrobatic show Cirque du Soleil originated. Favouring their hometown, they’re set to premiere a brand new show in spring 2020. Little is known about the concept for the moment, but you can bet your bottom Canadian dollar that it will be full of imaginative costumes, elaborate sets and some jaw-dropping theatrics from very athletic performers. The new show runs from April 23 to June 21 2020.
9. Catch the World Figure Skating Championships
Canada is the spiritual home of ice hockey, so it’s befitting that its gymnastic-esque cousin, figure skating, comes to Montréal for the World Figure Skating Championships. Plan a visit from 16 to 22 March to see the top-tier inspo for Dancing on Ice.
10. Take in a festival…or several
Montréalers know how to throw a bash – they’re constantly in the midst of festival season, which makes it a buzzing place to visit throughout the year. Spring is an especially good time to go, with the fireworks festival, the world-renowned comedy festival, the circus festival and the jazz festival taking place within an action-packed few weeks. Lots of events are free and the buzz spills all across town, so even the lesser-organised of holidaymakers will be able to partake in the festival fun.
11. Take in a cute Canadian town at St Jean sur Richelieu
About an hour’s drive from Canada lies a quiet town called St Jean sur Richelieu and it’s a beaut. It’s peppered with cute shops, craft beer bars and an intimate, hometown feel – and a gorgeous riverfront, and it’s all in Quebecoise, the Quebec version of the French language. It’s worth a detour and an afternoon milling about, or stay longer to take advantage of some spectacular views on a hot air balloon rides offered in the area. Got a couple of days to spare? Then try out some of the watersports, postcard-perfect walks and sugar shacks and microbreweries in the area too.
12. Queue up for a Schwartz’s sandwich
It has to be done. The institution of Schwartz Deli, now part-owned by Celine Dion, has been in operation since 1928, making their smoked meat sandwiches one of the oldest and best-known in Canada. There’s always a queue to sit down and eat, but their annexed takeaway is a good alternative. Their secret? They cure their beef for 10 days, and serve it in heaped on top of soft bread, with lashings of mustard on top. Don’t forget a pickle on the side.
13. Stroll around the Old Port
It’s Montréal’s focal point for tourists, but that doesn’t mean travellers in search of authenticity should stay away. The Old Port is a rejuvenated waterfront area with shops, restaurants, docks for boat tours, people-watching spots (although I don’t think they’re officially known as that), and various pop-ups. You’ll also find La Grande Roue de Montréal here – the big wheel that rivals the London Eye from which you can see Montréal from the top down. It’s worth it to see all the points of interest, especially when accompanied by a pink-purple sunset.
14. Peruse the delights of Atwater Market
Everybody loves a good market when abroad, and that’s where Atwater Market comes in. The canalside part-covered market is a treasure trove of high quality produce, from flowers to fresh, vibrant fruit to artisan groceries to maple syrup cans (it’s the way that people from Quebec buy them). After a couple of hours of shopping, take a load off and get a bite to eat at one of its outdoor stalls, selling globally-inspired dishes that speaks of Montréal’s cosmopolitan DNA.
15. Be enchanted at Forest Lumina
Meanwhile, deep in the woodlands of Quebec, there’s the story of our protagonist Margaret, who gets taken away by evil forces in the forest. An evening hike around the magical Parc de la Gorge in Coatihook uncovers the work of the forest fairies who help retrieve her. Forest Lumina is like walking through an immersive Disney movie, with a suspension bridge that needs crossing, sections that light up as you pass, animations that come to life when you least suspect. And just like a Disney movie, while it’s meant for kids, it’s one for adults to appropriate. Just brilliant.
16. Amble down St Laurent Boulevard
St Laurent Boulevard is the main road that bisects the island city of Montréal, taking in some distinctly Montréalean things along the way. It’s the heart of the Plateau, the hippest neighbourhood in Montréal and where Schwartz Deli is located. Also along the route, you won’t be short of a good coffee shop, there’s vintage shops a-go go, and you’ll also find some incredible (and city-sanctioned) street art that turns the area into an open-air gallery.
17. Indulge in the popular poutine spot, La Banquise
If England’s national dish is fish’n’chips, Quebec’s equivalent is poutine: fried potatoes covered in gravy sauce and paneer-like cheese curds. They’re readily available, but there’s nowhere more famous than the institution of La Banquise. A 24-hour joint since a year after it opened in 1968, it’s a family-run no-frills, cash-only poutine specialist. Its 30 varieties include La Reggae (with ground beef, guacamole, tomatoes and hot pepper) and La Mexicaine (with hot peppers, tomatoes and black olives). La Veganomane, with vegan cheese and sauce, is especially useful as poutine gravy isn’t often vegetarian let alone vegan. Given the time of my visit, I had the breakfast poutine, served with two sunny side up eggs on top. Talk about setting you up for the day.
18. Eat in some seriously cool restaurants
There’s a lot of talk of food in this piece, but it’s only to be expected when Quebec is a region of social foodies. Montréal has the highest ratio of restaurants per capita in North America outside of New York, and eating out is a regional past time. Add in the cosmopolitan nature of the city, and you have some of the world’s best Peruvian food (like the supercool Tiradito) and Italian (the cocktails and pizzas in Moleskine are delicious beyond description). Even their bagels – best bought from St Viateur Bagels in which hundreds of knotted carbs tumble down a shaft as soon as they’re baked – are worthy of a try.
19. Check out the Leonard Cohen mural
Such is the excellent taste in Montréal that their most famous son, Leonard Cohen, is a regional treasure. You’ll hear him and see tributes to him everywhere, but especially on Crescent Street, home of a colossally sized mural of Lenny himself. The Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal is an excellent place to see the touching piece of street art from a height. Or walk down Crescent Street itself to see the Van Gogh-ian swirls and reddish tinge of his heart slowly present themselves.
20. After all this, unwind in a spa
There’s such a wealth of things to do in Quebec that it’s only right to rebalance with some R&R – and that’s where Strøm Spa comes in. Their Mont St Helier location is a Scandi home away from home; the aroma of burning logs mixes in with…expensive spa scents (you know the type) throughout this adult’s playground. Milling around the selection of saunas, plunge pools, toasty hot tubs and ice buckets hidden within manicured gardens did me the world of good before my flight home. What a way to finish.