Vail travel feature: Favorable exchange rate makes travel to Quebec a no-brainer | VailDaily.com

Vail travel feature: Favorable exchange rate makes travel to Quebec a no-brainer

Connie Knight
Special to the Daily

It's a province in a foreign country, yet it's safe, close by and politically stable and the exchange rate is 80 cents to the U.S. dollar. What's not to like?

Like the British who vanquished the French, Quebec, Canada — or Kebec, as it is pronounced from its Algonquin origins — has enticed North Americans since Revolutionaries attempted to lure volunteers, then Prohibition revelers came in search of good times, followed four decades later by Vietnam draft evaders.

Montreal

Montreal is a vibrant, young, energetic city. It is home to four universities. At the entrance to McGill University, with an enrollment of 36,000 students, is an impressive-looking sculpture titled "The Illuminated Crowd," depicting 65 people symbolizing the fragility of humans. It is worth seeing and touching.

Montreal's Old World architecture, with homes of gray limestone and Scottish redstone that front onto cobblestone streets, meshes with the urban look of gleaming skyscrapers. The city prides itself as a mini-Europe, where 85 ethnic groups feature their culinary specialties, such as Schwartz's, which opened in 1912. Its wood-burning stoves, which are still allowed in the city, emit mouth-watering smells.

It is a far cry from the sleek, upscale Les 400 Coups, with gourmet entrees such as leg of rabbit, which I tried. I did not, however, try one of Quebec's comfort foods, poutine (French fries, gravy and cheese curds). With more than 300 restaurants, you will be hard-pressed to find a bad one. In the summer, food trucks abound, but not with cheap junk food, as only the owners of top-notch restaurants are allowed to participate.

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Terraces with gardens are big things in Montreal, and it seems everyone has one, from the modest alleyway home to the glitziest rooftop.

At the Botanical Gardens, you will walk quickly along curved paths at night to view the Arboretum Sea of Lights. Nights often are brisk, so head for the Japanese Teahouse for a cup of hot tea and a pastry called mochi.

You can rent a bicycle, called Bixis, or jump on one of 21 swings alongside a bus stop. A former red-light district during the fur-trading days now touts red lights atop cranes. Real estate is popping and with it a plethora of high-rise condominiums commanding sky-high prices. Wisely, Montreal has put the brakes on blocking view corridors. No new construction can exceed the iconic landmark, Mont Royal, at 764 feet, and 1 percent of construction costs must be spent on art in public places.

With its 375-year anniversary coming up next year, Montreal is sprucing up. Its 1880 water mains are being replaced, sidewalks widened and parks added. Even its port is being renovated at a cost of $78 million (Canadian) to accommodate the influx of cruise business, which jumped 25 percent in 2015, and another 10 percent increase is anticipated this year.

Museums abound, and first-rate upcoming exhibits such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Robert Mapplethorpe are slated for the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Montreal. We were fortunate to be in the city when a Rodin exhibit was on view. It was terrific, and we were loath to leave, but we had a ship to catch and a cruise to take on the St. Lawrence River, so we grabbed a cab back to our hotel to gather our luggage and dash to the Port.

We wisely had stayed at the well-positioned Hotel Intercontinental, with easy access to a 16-mile underground pedestrian network showcasing 1,700 shops and 200 restaurants. Not unlike Vail's streets in the summertime, Montreal's wide pedestrian walkways feature enormous pots brimming with spikes of tall grasses and profuse cascading flowers.

Quebec City

Not to be outdone, Quebec City, 158 miles away, was our first port, and it certainly holds its own superlatives, such as North America's oldest hospital, oldest newspaper and the only walled city north of Mexico.

Climbing the cobblestone street from the Port, a formidable-looking row of black cannons commands attention. It is easy to transport yourself back to the days when they stood at the ready to fend off English warships in the 18th century. In 1760, an envoy was sent to demand surrender from Gen. Louis de Buade de Frontenac. His rebuff: "I have no reply to make to your general other than from the mouth of my cannons and muskets." Le Chateau Frontenac, built in 1893, is named in his honor and is purportedly the world's most photographed chateau.

Nearby at the Parc Montmorency, a child turned cartwheels on the tree-shaded lawn and melodious church bells tolled for several minutes from the awe-inspiring Notre Dame Cathedral. It is the only church where I have fallen off the kneeler. They are not attached to the front pew.

Back at Port, we boarded Holland America's Maasdam, chosen because it is one of the smallest ships in its fleet at 1,258 passengers, a crew of 550 rather than mega-ships carrying more than 6,000. I didn't expect to like cruising, only promising Lynne, my daughter, that I would treat her to a cruise. I was sure everything I had heard would come to fruition: weight gain, seasickness, intestinal issues and boredom.

Instead, I was delighted. Hand sanitizers were everywhere, the crew wore rubber gloves and there was never any double dipping. The food, while plentiful, was healthy for the most part and portions not obscene, but surprisingly a 36-ounce rib eye steak called WOW Tommy-Hawk was added to the menu in November to satisfy some passengers' requests. It's served with balsamic glazed cipollini onions and surely is meant to be shared — one hopes.

We were hard-pressed to fit everything into a day. Each evening, a map with information was left at our cabin door describing shore excursions and not just bus tours but physical choices such as biking and hiking, as well. Lectures were given each day preceding our next port about the history, places to visit and what to do there.

Classes were available in everything from computers to dancing, along with seminars in cooking, art history, flower arranging, digital photography and bar mixology. You could even get your footprint analyzed. You could attend Catholic Mass, Shabbat services and Friends of Bill meetings. At the fitness center morning stretch, body conditioning, abs and Pilates classes were available, along with free weights and machines, or you could get pampered at the spa.

The ship also housed a library complete with books to borrow, computers, Wi-Fi and even a coffee bar just like Starbucks, with lattes, cafe au laits and hot tea. A daily eight-page printout of the New York Times was at the ready, but the views from plush, comfy easy chairs seem to take precedence. Just above the water, a flock of white birds could be seen catching the thermal air that the Maasdam generated. All the while, the vista kept changing, as we cruised along Quebec's shore heading to Prince Edward Island, where who else but a Canadian Royal Mounty greeted us at the dock. The following days we berthed at Nova Scotia and Halifax.

At night, sunsets from the crow's nest in the bow of the ship made for the ideal spot to sip a cocktail while a pianist played soft background music. Rowdier music, dancing and even gala-costumed shows with Los Angeles entertainers performed nightly.

After our ports of call in Canada, we disembarked seven days later at Boston, where ironically we were reluctant to leave the ship. For we now are far better informed: No longer does Lynne call the ship a boat nor do I call the gangway a gangplank.

IF YOU GO …

The choice of accommodations is as diverse as the province from cozy and quaint to glossy high-tech sleek to an actual ice hotel. Prices quoted are in Canadian dollars.

MONTREAL

Lodging

• Hotel Gault, a historic boutique hotel (866-904-1616, from $220).

• The Ritz-Carlton has marble fireplaces and heated toilet seats (800-363-0366, from $445).

• Parc Suites offers one-bedroom suites with kitchens (800-949-8630, from $149).

Dining

• Hoogan & Beaufort

• Joe Beef

• Les 400 Coups

QUEBEC CITY

Lodging

• Fairmont Chateau le Frontenac, a 618-room hotel, is a landmark (800-257-7544, from $360).

• Hotel de Glace is an actual icehouse open only in winter (877-505-0423, from $259).

• La Marquise de Bassano is a family-owned Victorian bed and breakfast with five rooms (877-692-0316, from $125).

Dining

• Aux Anciens Candiens

• Le Lapin Saute

• Toast!

• iX pour Bistro