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The huge province of Quebec occupies the eastern part of Canada. It is fringed by coasts on the North Atlantic, Hudson and James Bays, as well as the Lawrence Seaway, the major shipping channel of the east coast that cuts through the south of the province. The main cities of Montreal and Quebec City are both situated in the more populated south on the banks of the St Lawrence River.
The province has a wide variety of landscapes, climatic regions and vegetation, and therefore a vast variety of tourist attractions, scenic routes and holiday getaways to offer travellers. The wilderness prevails in the most northerly reaches, with thick forests and clear lakes dominating the landscape.
This in turn gives way to the snowy mountains of the Laurentians, which is popular resort country, while down south lies the urban sprawl of Canada's French-speaking cities and the rolling pastures of the farmlands. Quebec has 22 national parks and a variety of stunningly beautiful natural landmarks, including Montmorency Falls outside of Quebec City and the Gaspé Peninsula on the St Lawrence River.
Quebec has a uniquely French flavour, remaining the only North American region to preserve its Francophone identity. In Quebec, French is the official language and is spoken by more than 80 percent of the population.
For decades the province has been dogged by political battles regarding secession, but moves to turn Quebec into a sovereign state have been put on the back burner in favour of concentrating on economic development.
Exploring the historic fortifications and cobbled streets of Quebec City and the Vieux Port de Montreal will be a delight for history buffs. Keen travellers will be entranced by the rich, European feel of the province of Quebec and its distinctly French flavour.
Top urban attractions in Quebec's prime cities of Montreal and Quebec City include the Basilique Notre-Dame, a favourite landmark of Old Montreal; Quebec City's La Citadelle, the star-shaped fort looming above the St Lawrence River; Montreal's controversial Parc Olympique, which looks like a spaceship; and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Quebec also lures travellers with a lovely variety of wilderness areas. There are four Canadian national parks in Quebec: Forillon National Park, La Mauricie National Park, Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve and Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park.
There are even more protected areas outside of these conservation hubs. Known simply as provincial parks, they include such drawcards as the Laurentian Mountains in southern Quebec, which are a particularly popular playground for those in search of natural beauty and outdoor recreation.
Built for the 1976 Olympics, the futuristic Olympic Park is now a district in Montreal. It was designed by French architect Roger Tallibert, and is impressive in both size and shape, able to accommodate up to 80,000 spectators for concerts and baseball games. Standing at 575 feet (175m), its landmark tower is the world's tallest inclined tower, providing spectacular views over Montreal from its observation floors. Visitors may even be tempted to visit the lush Botanical Gardens across the street, one of the largest of its kind in the world and boasting a wide, celebrated collection.
St Joseph's Oratory is a regal Montreal landmark, its imposing dome on the flank of Mount Royal visible for miles. Attracting over two million visitors each year, the chapel is a famous pilgrimage site, despite only being built in 1967. Work began on the basilica in 1937 after the death of a beloved monk renowned for his miraculous healing abilities, with the dome eventually reaching an impressive 318 feet (97m) high. Its carillon is made up of 46 bells that were originally cast for the Eiffel Tower, but were acquired by the Oratory in 1956. Visitors can climb the 283 steps from street level to the basilica's portico for beautiful vistas of Montreal.
During the past 140 years, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has assembled one of North America's finest encyclopaedic collections, totalling more than 30,000 objects. The collections include Canadian art, contemporary art, Inuit and Amerindian Art, European Masters, prints, drawings and decorative arts. The museum also regularly features special exhibitions and activity programmes for adults, students and children. Indeed, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is one of the best of its kind in Canada and a treat for lovers of arts and culture.
Just outside the old city walls stands the imposing 19th-century Parliament Building, inspired by the Louvre in Paris and designed by the architect, Eugène Étienne Taché. Although it is the working home of the 125-strong National Assembly, the buildings are open to visitors for free guided tours, which are offered in English or French, and highlight the historic value of the unique building as well as inform visitors about the organisation and proceedings of the Québec National Assembly. Tours should be booked in advance for groups of 10 or more. There is a restaurant and a gift shop at the Parliament Building.
The Place Royale is part of the Pointe-à-Callière Museum complex, along with Pointe-à-Callière and 214 Place d'Youville. Used for trading in ancient times by the First Nations, the site of the historical Place Royale became a fortified trading post in 1608 under French colonist Samuel de Champlain. Known as the market square, the site thrived until the end of the 19th century when its importance began to decline. But it was given a new lease on life under a government restoration programme, ensuring the site known as the 'birthplace of French America' turned into one of the city's main attractions.
The funicular which travels from the heart of the Old City to Dufferin Terrace provides a panoramic bird's eye view of historic Quebec City. Leaving from Louis Jolliet House, the funicular has been an attraction since the original steam version was built in 1879. Claustrophobic visitors may not enjoy the trip up in the little compartments, but most will relish the views and novel mode of transport. The walk down from the Old City is pleasant and easy, but the hike up can be rather difficult. Many visitors choose to take the funicular up and walk back down.
Guided walking tours of the three mile (5km) wall surrounding the Old City of Quebec trace the evolution of the city's defence system across three centuries. The walls were built between 1608 and 1871 as part of the fortifications in the area, which was the region's main colonial stronghold. The walls are set with interpretation panels and can be explored independently. Following the walls is a wonderful way to explore the old city and visitors will pass many interesting sights in the historic centre along the way, including the Esplanade Powder Magazine. Quebec is the only surviving fortified city in North America and has been designated a World Heritage City.
The Old Port of Montreal along the Saint Lawrence River is actually fairly new, having undergone a big facelift to make it the most popular tourist spot in the city. A major 19th-century trade port, its wharves now mostly consist of tour boats, ferries and amphibious buses handling its roughly five million visitors each year. Ferries cross to the Parc Jean-Drapeau, site of the Expo 67 World's Fair, which lies on the Saint Lawrence and offers facilities for picnicking, swimming, and skating and skiing in winter.
The Old Port is a thriving arts and entertainment venue where there's always something happening. It also offers a huge open-air skating rink, IMAX cinema, vibrant cafes and a Science and Technology Center. The clock tower offers excellent views, while the original 17th-century city fortifications still stand. Characters in period costume conduct guided tours through the streets and alleys, pointing out points of historic significance.
Once the setting for bloody battles between the British and the French, the Plains of Abraham today serve as Quebec City's primary 'green lung'. A playground and peaceful arboreal retreat, it's a venue for a variety of festivals, fairs and events. The park is to Quebec what Central Park is to New York, covering 108 hectares and containing 6,000 trees, monuments and interpretive centres. In winter, both locals and visitors enjoy a giant skating rink and a few fun ski tracks in the park. Summertime is ideal for jogging, rollerblading or strolling in the fragrant gardens, or picnicking in its leafy shade.
Just to the east of Quebec City lies the spectacular Montmorency Falls which plunges 272 feet (83m) â€' one and a half times higher than Niagara Falls. Besides a beautiful setting, the park also boasts historic buildings and a variety of fun activities. A cable car runs up to the historic Manoir Montmorency manor, which was built in 1781, and which contains a restaurant, viewing terrace, interpretation centre, reception rooms and boutiques. A suspension bridge hangs directly across the falls, providing a breathtaking vista, while a second bridge gives access to the east side of the falls where there are numerous viewpoints and trails.
The little island in the Saint Lawrence River, just 15 minutes from downtown Quebec City, is a historical treasure trove containing 600 heritage buildings. Algonquin natives called the island Windigo, meaning 'bewitched corner', before French colonists arrived in 1535 and named it for the Duke of Orleans. The island is the ancestral home of more than 300 Quebecois families and still has more than 7,000 inhabitants. A perimeter road called the Royal Way connects all the six villages on the island, extending across the Taschereau Bridge to the mainland. Visitors enjoy cycling or driving around the island to marvel at panoramic views of the river and explore sites such as the oldest church in New France.
In close proximity to the Olympic Park, the Montreal Botanical Garden is one of the largest of its kind. Home to more than 22,000 plant species and roughly 30 exquisitely mapped out gardens, it's well worth a visit at any time of year. Begun in 1931 during a financial crisis, it provided jobs for thousands of unemployed workers and has since developed into a popular Montreal tourist attraction, with an astounding array of plants and trees. A slew of interesting sights and sounds await visitors, such as the Tree House, a Chinese Garden, the Quebec Butterfly House, a Medicinal Plant Garden, Planetarium and a First Nations Garden illustrating the interaction of Inuits and Amerindians with nature.
Basse-Ville is Quebec City's charming old quarter, full of narrow winding streets, historical stone buildings and a dizzying array of trendy cafes, bars and boutiques. Also called Lower Town, it's the oldest urban district in Canada and exudes a distinctly European atmosphere. Recent gentrification of more dilapidated areas has resulted in postcard-perfect photo opportunities waiting on every corner. Lower Town is also home to many of the city's most celebrated sights and attractions, including the Place Royale, Petit Champlain and the must-see Funicular. The heart and soul of Old Quebec, Lower Town is a beguiling and enchanting neighbourhood, and visitors should anticipate spending a lot of time walking its streets and soaking up its unique atmosphere.
Covering such a huge area, the climate of Quebec has wide temperature variations. In the south, where most of the population lives, the weather is continental, with four seasons varying from hot summers (June to August) to cold, snowy winters and lots of rain.
The central region has longer, colder winters and shorter, cooler summers, while the far north experiences a severe Arctic climate with a freezing winter and permafrost. Winter can vary from five months in the south to eight months in the north, averaging between 14ºF (-10ºC) and -13ºF (-25ºC).
One of the most highly rated restaurants in Montreal and a multi-award winner with the local press, Le Club Chasse et Peche is a great option for a special occasion. Known as CCP, this eatery has reinvented 'surf 'n turf' with mouth-watering Kobe beef and lobster tail.
The décor enhances the dining experience with low ceilings fostering an intimate atmosphere while the chic décor further suggests that this is a truly special dining experience. The restaurant is open for lunch, Monday to Friday from 11:30 to 2:30pm, and for dinner Tuesday to Saturday from 6pm to 10.30pm.
For a taste of Montreal's rural surrounds, La Chronique is a highly regarded eatery that exclusively uses fresh local ingredients in its modern French cuisine with interesting Mediterranean and Southwestern touches. The décor is centred on dark wood and red hues framed with black and white photographs, and the wine list, exceeding 250 titles, can be ordered by the glass or bottle.
Although a microbrewery, Réservoir is developing a name as the best value restaurant in the city, combining perfectly fresh ingredients with inventive recipes from the fertile imagination of founding Chef Samuel Pinard.
The brunch has been described by one critic as 'the most interesting (and for my money, the best) brunch experience in town'. The evenings are naturally a bit lively but this in no way detracts from the dining experience.
It would be remiss to list Montreal eateries without mentioning the one best known in cinema and literature: L'Express, Montreal's beloved brasserie. The eatery has handwritten menus in the style of Parisian sidewalk cafes with similar décor and serving staff attitude.
The noise reaches epic proportions when the premises is full but the food, decent prices, and all-you-can-eat pickles and baguettes makes this an essential experience for visitors to Montreal. Open weekdays 8am-2am; Saturdays 10am-2am; and Sundays 10am-1am.
Montreal does not have a great reputation for sushi, a sore point for maki-addicted and sashimi-fixated locals. Thank goodness then for Jun I, which flies the flag high for high-quality authentic Japanese sushi. Chef Junichi Ikematsu has developed an interesting menu based on fresh local fish, exotic rolls, and flawless nigiri, all complemented by a fine range of sake.
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