Posts tagged ‘quebec city’

January 2, 2014

Best of Canadian travel for 2013

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Sonora Resort in the Discovery Islands is surrounded by pristine Pacific scenery. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This is my look back at 2013 travels across Canada, as first published in Vacay.ca on December 30, 2013.]

When I think back to my 2013 travels, one day will dominate my reminiscences — September 21. The last day of summer, the first full day of my return to British Columbia as a resident, and the single most stunning photographic experience of my life. I wasn’t alone in that assessment. On a journey with a half-dozen well-travelled journalists and photographers, I witnessed grizzly bears snatching and chewing salmon within a few strides of where I stood, a school of 150 dolphins propelling through the north Pacific with a pair of full-span rainbows as a backdrop, and an inter-species dance between sea lions and some of those same dolphins in the gloaming of the night.

This experience that was fit for a cinema took place in the Discovery Islands, a place all travellers should endeavour to find themselves one day. That morning and afternoon were captured in an article and photo slideshow published this fall.

Except for a couple of sojourns to the Caribbean, I spent the entire year’s travels within Canada, exploring its abundance of wonders. Although my trip to Sonora Resort stands at the top, it was far from a singular highlight.

DINING

Best dinner: I can never name just one, so here are three: Le Laurie Raphaël in Quebec City presented a happy mix of elegance, playfulness and culinary creativity; Araxi in Whistler showcased chef James Walt’s brilliance and passion for local food; at Sonora Resort, a Relais & Chateaux property, chef Terry Pichor treats diners to a course called “pre-dessert” — one reason why its tasting menu is a must for culinary travellers.

Best dinner enjoyed at a bar: I pulled up a stool at Bar Isabel in Toronto and was wowed by a handful of zesty Spanish dishes that would fit suitably in Iberia. Oh, and the drinks are great, too.

Best dinner enjoyed with a sabre: At Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, the Champagne sabering ritual is something you have to do — read why.

Best lunch: At Annie’s Table in Prince Edward Island, chef Norm Zeledon taught me to shuck oysters (and how to douse them with a shot of the province’s moonshine) and introduced me to the wonders of black garlic. He then cooked up some delicious mussels that we enjoyed in the lovely property that is a converted church. (Runner-up: The Lobster Pound in Sydney, Nova Scotia, where chef Richard Moore isn’t stingy with the portion sizes.)

Best liquid lunch: I had a few of those at Chase, which has one of the premier patios in Toronto and a terrific rum selection.

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September 12, 2013

A stroll along Canada’s No. 1 street

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Visitors enjoy the atmosphere of Old Quebec on Rue du Petit-Champlain. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[This article was originally published in Vacay.ca and the Huffington Post.]

QUEBEC CITY, QUEBEC — Eric Vezina can trace his roots to this spot, a cobblestone street that is 12 metres wide and 500 metres long, with a history older than the nation and a devotion to culture that is as fierce as it is endearing. Walking along Rue du Petit-Champlain, Vezina says, “My family goes back 11 generations in Quebec, to 1659. They helped build this street.”

A maintenance worker for the businesses in the area, Vezina speaks proudly of the heritage his ancestors played in establishing this section of Quebec City that dates more than 400 years and of where the street stands today, which is at the head of the nation. Vacay.ca has spent months visiting Canada’s urban centres to determine which streets are the best places for you to spend your time and dollars when touring the country. Rue du Petit-Champlain, lined with shops that belong to an artists’ cooperative, ranks No. 1 among the Top 20 Streets to Visit in Canada (full list to be published on September 17).

The street has boutique shops, artisan galleries, and restaurants, as well as a 200-seat theatre within centuries-old stone walls, a mural that depicts different stages of the city’s history, and a touching memorial to the 20 victims of an 1841 landslide that saw shale from the hill above  tumble down 300 feet. Look up beyond the cross that honours those lost and you will see the city’s greatest landmark, the Château Frontenac, rising tall from atop the Dufferin Terrace. The famed hotel was built in 1893, however, making it relatively modern when compared to the street and district beneath it.

Rue du Petit-Champlain is the oldest commercial street in North America. The Breakneck Stairs that lead down to it from Côte de la Montagne — a winding route that doubles in winter as the course for the annual Red Bull Crashed Ice races — are steep and dramatic. Built in 1635, the staircase has 59 steps that take you to Rue Petit-Champlain and the adjoining streets that make up the Quartier Champlain district.

Beyond the eye-catching scenery, what distinguishes Petit-Champlain from every other street in the nation is its emphasis on local culture in a tourist-heavy location. The street receives one million visitors a year, yet you will not find a Starbucks or McDonald’s here.

“We just say no,” notes Pascale Moisan, director of the Quartier Champlain cooperative. She mentions that Subway recently wanted to open a franchise location on the street but was refused.

Forty-five stores belong to the cooperative, with most owned by artisans and boutique fashion retailers. There are a couple of restaurants and chocolate shops. Not all the stores in Quartier Champlain are part of the cooperative. The one national chain that has a storefront here is LUSH (102 Rue du Petit-Champlain), but Moisan points out that its cosmetic products are handmade and that helps it complement other shops in the district.

In winter, the street is cleared by the cooperative’s members because Petit-Champlain is too narrow for snowploughs. The community also places 40 trees along the street at Christmas and more than 15,000 lightbulbs are used as decorations. It creates a beautiful scene, a winter wonderland that underscores that the street is as much for residents as it is for visitors.

“We have the best of both worlds. We have shops and things to do for the people of Quebec who enjoy the area, and you have stores that have lots of appeal for tourists,” says Monique Zimmermann, proprietor of Brin de Folie (38 Boulevard Champlain, linked to Petit-Champlain by a staircase), a colourful shop with zany gift items.

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February 11, 2012

Quebec City’s Ice Hotel dazzles

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Quebec City's Ice Hotel is a thing of beauty. (Julia Pelish photo)

[First published on Vacay.ca]

QUEBEC CITY — Even though Tori Woods and Crystal Chisholm are hopping around in skimpy bikinis, their boots are what catch the eye. The two good friends from Uxbridge, Ontario can bear the cold on every part of their bodies except, it seems, for the soles of their feet. Everyone has a limit, and a night in the Hotel de Glace will test it.

Woods arrived at the wonder of a hotel a day removed from a week-long trip to Jamaica. Going from one extreme to another only delights her. She and Chisholm both grin at the thought of doing something most people might only attempt on a dare or during a bout of insanity. The Hotel de Glace, or Ice Hotel, is a 15-minute drive from Quebec’s old city and a world away from normal. It’s made entirely of snow (15,000 tonnes of it) and ice (500 tonnes) and features a 6,000-pound chandelier that glows blue like something out of the Fortress of Solitude.

In its 12th year, the Hotel de Glace is that most unusual of travel destinations. In a country where most of us can’t wait to get away from the cold, this temple to ice draws people fascinated to see how cool life below-zero can be. The beauty of the hotel is astonishing. It’s the kind of thing Tolkien would dream up. Columns of thick, clear ice decorated with First Nations carvings vault from the floor. Snow sculptures, some featuring figures in athletic poses, stick to the walls in a way that seems to defy gravity.

This year, it took six weeks to erect the hotel, which includes a chapel (24 weddings are scheduled) and an ice bar (the Nordique, a drink made of vodka and Blue Curacao, is the most popular). There are 36 rooms and suites, some of which feature fireplaces that are insulated so no heat escapes to threaten the structure of the building — or, sadly, to warm the guests. Those fireplaces are perhaps the cruelest decorations ever invented. Within walls where the temperature averages minus-5 Celsius degrees, any opportunity for heat is coveted after a while.

Even Woods and Chisholm, the two adventuresome women in bathing suits, eventually don toques, scarves and gloves, and soon enough they get out of the cold entirely. After posing for photos in their bikinis and snow boots for 15 minutes, they scoot off to the hot tub; overnight guests are advised to sink into hot water before going to bed.

“It warms up the body,” says Maryline Borgia, a guide who instructs visitors on how to get through the night in the frigid conditions. She says she has seen a 90-year-old woman sleep in the hotel, as well as an expectant mother who was eight months’ pregnant. “We get all kinds of people. The Ice Hotel is one of those things you have to do once in your lifetime.”

Once might be the operative word.

Staying in the Hotel de Glace is not comfortable. Even after you’re curled into a toasty, hotel-issued sleeping bag, your face remains bare to the cold. The night air nips at your cheeks and nose, a constant menace you can’t get rid of unless you bandage your entire face. When sleep does come for me, it’s broken more than once by the need to breathe through the scarf wrapped over my nose and eyes. I tear away the cloth, huff for a while and then cover my nose again so I can escape into a dream.

Your boots and winter outerwear are placed in the waterproof bag from which you remove your sleeping bag. All other belongings are to be left in a storage locker in the adjacent heated building called the Celsius pavilion. If left on a shelf in the bedroom, items such as watches and jewelry can freeze into place overnight. There’s no washroom in the hotel rooms. Anyone who must use the facilities, must go through the arduous routine of getting out of the sleeping bag, getting into their clothes and boots, and scurrying to the Celsius, where breakfast is served, and showers and toilets are available.

“If you have to go to the washroom, you have no choice,” says Borgia, while instructing visitors after demonstrating how to get into a sleeping bag. “You make sure you go before.”

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