I remember with startling clarity the first time I (somewhat shyly) entered the grand entrance of the Chateau Frontenac Hotel, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. It was about 25 years ago that I was enrolled in a summer-long French-immersion program at Université Laval in Quebec City. When not conjugating verbs and sweating over le subjonctif, I spent a lot of time walking every inch of the UNESCO world heritage city with (as the French so candidly put it) “pas un sou en poche.” The reality of not having a penny in my pocket, however, didn’t stop me from exploring every nook and cranny of one of the oldest cities in the region.
I wandered in starry-eyed fashion, The Citadel, the historic Plains of Abraham, the alleyways through Vieux-Quebec, the cafes along Grande Allée, and soaked up the bountiful culture. Wherever I wandered in the only remaining fortified city of North America, one iconic landmark constantly captured my gaze: Chateau Frontenac. Looming over the city, above the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, stood the castle-like chateau that was built in 1893 on Cap Diamant, where the governors of New France originally resided during the 1600s. There was something magical about the edifice.
My then-empty pockets (some things haven’t changed!) prevented my youthful dream of spending a night or two in the luxury hotel. But on my second-last night in Quebec, with enough French under my belt, I gelled my hair, put on my best shirt (pastels were in) and with great reverence headed to the Chateau Frontenac, where I perched myself on a stool in the hotel’s Bar-St.-Laurent and told myself, “Je suis arrivé (I’ve arrived!)” (The iconic Bar-St.-Laurent has since metamorphosed into the 1608 Wine & Cheese Bar.)
I remember sitting in the historic Frontenac that night thinking of all the overnight guests who’ve long been part of the Chateau’s history: Queen Elizabeth II, Alfred Hitchcock, Paul McCartney, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sir Winston Churchill as well as William Lyon Mackenzie King, one of a long line of Canadian prime ministers who bedded down for the night in the Chateau Frontenac. When I look back now, as a seasoned traveller and travel writer, I realize that my inaugural visit to the Chateau Frontenac was truly a rite of passage.
Fast-forward a quarter century. I returned to Quebec City in time for the annual Carnaval de Quebec winter festival but also to help celebrate the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac’s 125th birthday. So much has changed at the Frontenac, especially after the stunning $75-million renovation at the end of 2014. (Mind you, earlier updates in the 1990s included the addition of an excellent spa and pool.)
Here’s what you can look forward to on your visit to the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac:
In summer months, the canopied terrace overlooking the Saint-Lawrence is a must for alfresco diners. Otherwise, visitors have their choice of three on-site eateries.
Champlain is the Chateau Frontenac’s anchor restaurant, overseen by chef Stephane Modat, who has helmed various successful kitchens in Quebec since arriving from France. He perfected his culinary skills at the triple Michelin-starred Le Jardin des Sens restaurant in Montpellier, France. Modat stays faithful to Quebecois cuisine but adds his own flourish to such dishes as snow crab from St-Therese-de-Gaspe, hare-stuffed ravioli, red deer tartare from St-Jean-de-Brebeuf, and foie gras from Marieville.
1608 Wine and Cheese Bar (named in honour of the year Quebec was founded) replaced the historic Bar-Saint-Laurent. The 1608 sources award-winning cheeses from around the world, and many from Quebec, such as Médaillons of Chèvre des Alpes from Saint-Hubert, semi-soft Baluchon from Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade, and firm L’Hercule de Charlevoix from aie-Saint-Paul. From the inventive cocktail list, I suggest – especially after a nighttime event like Carnaval de Quebec – a Corpse Reviver, which is based on a 1930s recipe from London, England, calling for The Botanist Gin, Lillet Blanc, Cointreau and lemon juice.
Bistro Le Sam, whose name is a casual reference to founder of New France Samuel de Champlain, offers a more relaxed ambiance and dining fare. For drinks, especially if you’re aiming to include a quintessential Canadian ingredient of maple syrup, ask for a Jam Le Sam, which is a tasty blend of vodka, pink pepper, cranberry jam, lime and the Chateau Frontenac’s very own maple syrup. The “bar food” favours plates to share and small bites. But, if you’re peckish, worry not. Take your pick of mains such as citrus-candied salmon filet, steak or Cornish hen. My favourite finger food at Sam: maple syrup duck wings.
Despite the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac’s castle-like exterior (it’s one of the most Instagrammed images of Quebec if not Canada) the rooms are elegant but not staid. The suites are contemporary, with soothing pastels, lots of butter-coloured walls and comfy leather chairs. Many of the rooms have grand views of the Saint Lawrence River. And just this year the Chateau Frontenac’s director Robert Mercure and team announced eight newly-renovated premium sites dedicated to past guests including Sir Winston Churchill, Alfred Hitchcock, Queen Elizabeth II, Pierre Elliot and Justin Trudeau (yes, a father-and-son themed room), and Quebec-born superstar Céline Dion.
The Health Club
In addition to an indoor pool, steam room and whirlpool and fitness facilities within Club Frontenac, guests can also book a massage or other spa treatment in Moment Spa Le Chateau Frontenac. The Moment of Escape package, for instance, includes a massage, a grapefruit-granite exfoliation followed by a light lunch and pool time.
Come for Chateau Frontenac’s birthday!
Throughout 2018 the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac is hosting numerous activities (including a commissioned symphony) to celebrate its 125th birthday. For a full list, visit: http://www.fairmont.com/frontenac-quebec/promotions/125th-anniversary/
Fairmont Chateau Frontenac
1 Rue des Carrières, Ville de Québec