By Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press (TNS)
QUEBEC CITY — Shop windows are dominated by winter parkas. A cool, bitter wind blows off the St. Lawrence River. The trees are turning quickly now.
On Fabrique Street, I hurry past a fur store with my inadequate raincoat and fleece, wishing I had a hood. Or gloves. Or both. In this brief season, fall, North America’s most European city glows with brisk vitality. It has broad shoulders and French-Canadian sturdiness. City hall is decorated with giant pumpkins. Spindly geraniums are on their last legs in the flower pots. Cruise ships on color tours of Canada dock at the port, and visitors pour into the winding streets of the lower town.
Most Americans have been to Toronto, or maybe Vancouver or even Montreal. But Quebec City is far different than those large metropolises.
Here, everything is about New France, North America’s French ties, both the past and present. And that sensibility is why Quebec City is also regularly named one of the most romantic cities in the world.
This time of year, it gets dark earlier each day. Already at 2:45 in the afternoon, I feel the hint of winter to come, and how Quebec fights the darkness.
I walk uphill toward the windswept river. I cut through a small alley that doubles as a market. There, artists sell touristy images in oil, acrylic and watercolor, all reds and greens and bright blues. There is a gay feeling of warm color and light in this tiny alley. Nearby, St. Louis Street also is full of bright colors — on the shutters, awnings, and in shop window displays — that soften forbidding gray stone and chilly blue skies.
Inside the luxurious Fairmont Chateau Frontenac hotel, the tradition of afternoon tea is another good insulator against the clutches of winter-in-waiting. There, a waiter serves a gleaming silver pot of steaming tea along with precise little appetizers. The room is hushed, it is warm in here. Couples linger. Nothing is rushed. It feels like a warm blanket, sitting in this room with its wide windows.
One thing about Quebec City. Yes, the language is all French. But this place feels curiously familiar to Americans. Many places in the United States, including Detroit, were once part of Quebec and New France, right up until the French lost their vast holdings to the British in 1763.
Even today, freighters you see on the St. Lawrence River likely have come from the Great Lakes, connected by a ribbon of water. Many names in Michigan (including Detroit, “the straits”) still resonate of French Canada. Quebec City still lives amid history. Madame Cadillac herself could walk down the street and feel at home.
A heavy defensive stone wall still marches around the old town, black canons lining the ramparts. (Actually, at this moment they appear to be trained directly on the white Caribbean Princess cruise ship docked below, so watch out, cruise passengers.)
Even the stone house that belonged to 16th century explorer Louis Joliet is pragmatically used as the ticket booth for the funicular hillside tram that connects the upper town to the lower town.
Last winter saw record-breaking cold in Quebec City, with an average daytime high of 17.8 degrees Fahrenheit in February. Still, people came to the Christmas markets and Winter Carnival.
This year, the Christmas markets will run from late November through early January.
The big Quebec New Year’s Eve festival will feature outdoor shows, lights and a Ferris wheel (Dec. 31).
Winter Carnival, Quebec’s most famous event, runs Jan. 29-Feb. 14.
Other romantic things to do? Rent a car and drive just north of town to Montmorency Falls, a huge waterfall taller than Niagara. Keep going on to Sainte Anne cathedral in the town of Sainte Anne de Beaupre, North America’s biggest Catholic shrine. You also can travel 2½ hours south from Quebec City to visit its big sister, Montreal.
But in my opinion, couples seeking a getaway should just come here, stay put, wander the streets, eat lots of terribly rich food, and find a cozy place to stay.
Bring a winter coat, yes. But I am also sure you will think of other ways to keep warm.
IF YOU GO
Stay: Major hotel brands such as Hilton and Marriott are near the old town, or try a more unique stay in a local hotel or interesting inn, such as the new Le Monastere des Augustines. For a list of accommodations see www.quebecregion.com or call 877-783-1608.
Do: Most tourists focus on the old section of the city (which has an upper and lower town), plus visit the Montmorency Falls. Most just walk around, shop, eat and visit museums. Quebec City also has a more modern section of high-rises and the provincial capitol building.
Shopping: Excellent, especially for clothing, art and fur. Beware, however, that certain fur products sold in Quebec are illegal to import to the U.S., such as sealskin jackets or certain pelts.
Exchange rate: Fantastic. Americans essentially get a 25 percent discount; it costs about 75 cents to buy $1 Canadian. Withdraw money from ATMs when you arrive for best exchange rate.
For more: www.quebecregion.com
©2015 Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: In the Upper Town of Quebec City, fall visitors enjoy the brisk days. (Ellen Creager/Detroit Free Press/TNS)