THEt is an awfully long way down from the crest of Montmorency Falls, but as I hang there amid the deafening spray I’m not afraid at all. Instead, my reaction is one of wonderment – because I’ve just come up the sheer 300ft cliff face and now I get to finally enjoy the view.
From here, at the crest of a torrent taller than Niagara Falls, you can see for miles on a sunny morning like this – down the sparkling St Lawrence River and on to Quebec City, glimmering Oz-like on the horizon.
There is a certain wizardry to Quebec City, a place that is equal parts EdinburghAvignon and Carcassonne, and is frequently voted among the most beautiful cities in the world. Founded in the early 17th century, it was the original capital of New France, and its wonderfully preserved old town – all noble ramparts, cobblestoned lanes and handsome houses – is now a world heritage site.
But not everything stands still here. The big news (and the reason for my visit) is that Quebec City – nicknamed “the Paris of North America ”for its accent and appearance – is about to welcome its first direct flights from London. Starting on Thursday, the Air Transat service from Gatwick will shave hours off the laborious transatlantic route via Toronto or Montreal (the airline’s home), opening up this intriguing French-speaking city to Brits like never before.
I flew out expecting to discover a dainty, fairytale-esque city – and I was not disappointed. But what I didn’t expect was a rugged, outdoorsy edge too.
Yes, there are grand market squares and winding historic streets to explore – particularly Rue du Petit Champlain in the Basse Ville (“lower town”) district, with its parade of boutiques selling everything from handcrafted moccasins to decadent fudges. But there are also adventure sports, from that via ferrata climb up the side of the falls to whitewater kayaking, hiking and mountain biking. (Thankfully, the city is also home to the Strom Nordic Spa, one of the nation’s finest wellness retreats, with its heated riverfront infinity pool ideal for any aching limbs.)
The Basse Ville district of Quebec City
Like all good fairytales there’s a castle at the center of the action – Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, which looms over proceedings like a Beauty and the Beast backdrop. Among the most photographed hotels in the world, its ornate lobby sets the tone; all chandeliers, deep mahogany paneling and marble staircases. But its location is the real showstopper – jutting from a dramatic natural bluff, with the historic quarter tumbling down its flanks and Basse Ville fanning out below. The towered and turreted hotel makes a superb base for exploring, with a funicular shuttling you down to the shopping streets in under two minutes for less than £ 3.
After spending my first day in the city climbing and kayaking on the river, I ride the funicular the following afternoon for a stroll around the fortified colonial core, before walking on to St Roch, a hipster-friendly faubourg outside the city walls. Cafés and craft breweries abound here; I settle on Noctem for a crisp lager and some lively people-watching on its sunny patio (noctem.ca).
The city’s food scene is dominated by poutine, the Quebec provincial dish. Three basic ingredients – crispy chips, cheese curds and gravy – make up this culinary Frankenstein’s monster, which originated in the early 1950s before spreading across Canada like a grease fire.
Jonathan kayaking on the St Lawrence River
The celebrated comfort food maintains its popularity and seemingly limitless capacity to cure ills (including the most ferocious of hangovers). But many local restaurants have taken it to the next level too – “the poutine réinventée“Are trendy reimaginings of the trifecta, utilizing smoked brisket, venison chilli or pickled vegetables. Le Chic Shack, in the old town, prides itself on its “2.0 poutines”, and I can’t quibble, enjoying a braised beef and horseradish concoction, plus a moreish vegetarian number containing shallots and wild mushroom ragout (mains from £ 4; lechicshack.ca).
The food scene is not all gooey chips and gravy, though. In recent years Quebec City has become a gastronomic hub, with food critics flying in from New York (less than two hours away by plane) to endorse establishments such as the high-concept experimental restaurant Taniere3 (15-course gastronomic tasting menu from £ 108 ; taniere3.com) and the refined French eaterie Le Saint-Amour, run by the celebrity chef Jean-Luc Boulay (mains from £ 34; saint-amour.com).
On my final day I change gears yet again, hiring an e-bike and heading across a suspension bridge to Île d’Orléans, a bucolic island in the St Lawrence River that has inspired painters and poets for centuries. Originally known as Île de Bascuz (from Bacchus) for the wild grapes growing here, this idyllic island is only about three miles from downtown Quebec City, but feels 100 times that, with half a dozen coastal villages strung together like a chain of Acadian pearls along its 40-mile perimeter road.
The indigenous Algonquins called this island Minigo – “the bewitched place”. Today it’s an enchanting mix of orchards, meadows, windmills, workshops and wineries. And the perfect means to explore it is on two wheels, at a languid pace, with regular pitstops – perhaps at Cassis Monna & Filles near the village of St Pierre, with its wine cellar, terrace restaurant and dairy bar (cassismonna.com); or the quaint Chocolaterie de Île d’Orléans in St Pétronille, where I enjoy scoops of silky, indulgent chocolate ice cream, thankful that my bike has a discreet motor (chocolaterieorleans.com).
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac towers over the city, which stands on the St Lawrence River
Before my visit to Quebec City I’d heard friends in Toronto raving about this fortified fairytale of a French-Canadian city. None did it justice. I’ve traveled extensively across Canada and to all 50 American states, and I honestly believe that this is the prettiest city on the continent.
Whisper it, but for keen post-Covid-peak Francophones, the richly charismatic Paris of North America might just, peut-être, be a better holiday option than the rusty, contrary Paris of northern Europe. Personally, I’d take New France over the old any day of the week.
Jonathan Thompson was a guest of Quebec City Tourism (quebec-cite.com) and the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, which has room-only doubles from £ 179 (fairmont.com). Air Transat has direct London-Quebec flights from £ 353 return (from Thursday until September; airtransat.com). Jonathan is the host of the new Discovery Channel travel show Adventure Cities (discovery.com)
Three more fabulous Canadian city breaks
The Toronto skyline
Canada’s multicultural megacity has an outstanding selection of museums, theaters and galleries, as well as one of the best food scenes in North America. Explore the Kensington Market, Cabbagetown and West Queen West neighborhoods, but don’t miss the Toronto Islands, with their lakeside beaches and pubs. Ace Hotel Toronto opens in the Garment district next month, with a rooftop bar and signature restaurant from the award-winning chef Patrick Kriss (room-only doubles from £ 291; acehotel.com; more at destination toronto.com).
Once derided as “the city that fun forgot”, Ottawa has quietly evolved into one of the best city-break destinations in Canada. Much of the activity centers on its trio of large rivers. Interzip Rogers, the first interprovincial zip line in the world, soars above the Ottawa River between Ontario and Quebec (under-15s £ 19, others £ 25; interzip.ca). Also visit Byward Market, with its artisan stores and specialist food shops (byward-market.com), and the Canadian War Museum (children £ 7, adults £ 11; war museum.ca). The Fairmont Château Laurier, on the riverfront at the foot of Parliament Hill, is the city’s undisputed grande dame (B&B doubles from £ 218; fairmont.com; more at ottawatourism.ca).
A blend of joie de vivre and cosmopolitan dynamism, the population of Montreal has swelled in recent years to more than four million, largely thanks to an influx of young techies and creatives. With this millennial tide has come flourishing arts and culinary scenes, and a glut of boutique hotels. The pick of them is Hotel William Gray, a lavish property in an old merchant’s house at the heart of the cobblestoned lanes of Old Port district (room-only doubles from £ 185; hotelwilliamgray. com; blackberries at mtl.org).