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The huge province of Quebec occupies the eastern part of Canada, with coasts on the North Atlantic, Hudson, and James Bays, and the Lawrence Seaway, the major shipping channel of the east coast which 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 numerous different 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 then gives way to the snowy mountains of the Laurentians, popular resort country, while down south is 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 currently 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. Culture vultures 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, the 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 space ship; and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Quebec also lures travellers with varied 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 many other beautiful protected natural areas called national parks in Quebec but these are actually provincial parks. The Laurentian Mountains, in southern Quebec, are a particularly popular playground for those in search of natural beauty and outdoor recreation.
Montreal's futuristic Olympic Park was built for the 1976 Summer Olympic Games and still serves as a showpiece today. Designed by French architect Roger Tallibert, it is impressive in both size and shape and is able to hold up to 80,000 spectators gather for concerts and baseball games.
The landmark tower on the main stadium, standing at 575 feet (175m), is the world's tallest inclined tower. Visitors can enjoy a spectacular view of Montreal and its surroundings from the observation floors, accessible by a funicular-type elevator. Pop over to view the wonderful Botanical Gardens opposite the park, which are the second largest in the world.
St Joseph's Oratory is a landmark in Montreal, its imposing dome on the northwest flank of Mont Royal visible for miles. This oratory is a famous pilgrimage site, despite only being completed in 1967, attracting over two million visitors and pilgrims each year.
It was founded by Brother Andre, a beloved monk who was known as the miracle-worker of Mont Royal because of his healing abilities. Work began on the basilica after his death in 1937. Its dome is the second largest in the world, being 318 feet (97m) high; it is second only to St Peter's in Rome.
The Oratory's carillon is made up of 56 bells that were originally cast for the Eiffel Tower in Paris; the Oratory acquired them in 1956. Visitors can climb the 283 steps from street level to the basilica's portico for beautiful vistas over the city.
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. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is one of the best of its kind in Canada and a treat for art lovers and culture vultures in Montreal.
Just outside the old city walls stands the imposing 19th-century Parliament Building, inspired by the Louvre in Paris and designed by the architect, Eugene Etienne Taché. Although it is the working home of the 125-strong National Assembly, the buildings are open to visitors for free guided tours, offered in English or French, which highlight the historic value of the unique building as well as informing visitors about the organisation and proceedings of the Québec National Assembly. Tours should be organised in advance for groups of 10 or more. There is a restaurant and a gift shop at the Parliament Building.
The site of the historical Place-Royale complex was used in ancient times for trading by the First Nations, until the leader of the first Quebec French settlement, Samuel de Champlain, constructed a formal fortified fur trading post in 1608.
The trading post flourished and grew into a thriving town, constructed largely of wood until it was destroyed by fire in 1682. Reconstruction was in fire-resistant stone, accounting for the buildings that still stand today. Known as the market square, the site once again became a hub of activity, until the end of the 19th century when its importance declined.
By 1950, the Place-Royale was a neglected and decaying area. The Government then initiated a restoration programme that has turned this historic site, known as the 'birthplace of French America', into one of the city's main attractions. It features a clutch of interesting museums, living history demonstrations, and tours of historic buildings.
A panoramic bird's eye view of historic Quebec City can be had from the cabin of the funicular that travels at a 45 degree angle from Louis Jolliet House in the heart of the Old City to Dufferin Terrace. The funicular has been an attraction in the city since the original steam driven version was erected in 1879.
Claustrophobic visitors may not enjoy the trip up in the little compartments, but most will relish the views and novel mode of getting around. The walk down from the Old City is pleasant and easy, but the walk up can be rather painful. Many people 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 this fact contributed to its being named a World Heritage City.
Montreal's Old Port is actually fairly new, having undergone a major facelift to make it the most popular site in the city. Named Vieux Port de Montreal in French, it draws some five million visitors each year to its bustling wharves.
In the 19th century, the port of Quebec on the Saint Lawrence River was one of the most important in the world, with thousands of ships and sailors passing through. There are still plenty of boats in evidence but nowadays they are mainly tour boats, ferries, and amphibious buses, offering trips along the river or around the port. Ferries cross to the Parc des Iles, site of the Expo 67 World's Fair, which lies in the Saint Lawrence and offers facilities for picnicking, swimming, and skating and skiing in winter.
The Old Port itself is a thriving arts and entertainment venue where something is always happening. It also offers a huge open-air skating rink, IMAX cinema, vibrant cafes, and a Science and Technology Center with interactive displays.
The clock tower offers excellent views across the city and contains an exhibition that traces Montreal's history. Around the port are the city's original 17th-century fortifications, while characters in period costume conduct guided tours through the streets and alleys and point out the 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, locals and visitors alike enjoy a giant skating rink and a few fun ski-tracks in the park. Summertime is ideal for strolling the fragrant gardens, jogging or rollerblading, and picnicking.
Just to the east of Quebec City lies the spectacular Montmorency Falls which plunges 272 feet (83m), 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 house, dating from 1781, where there is a restaurant, viewing terrace, interpretation centre, reception rooms, and boutiques. A suspension bridge hangs directly across the falls, providing a breathtaking view, and 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 an 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, which extends across the Taschereau Bridge to the mainland, connects all the six villages on the island. Visitors enjoy cycling or driving around the island to marvel at panoramic views of the river and explore sites like 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 any time of year.
Begun in 1931, in the midst of a financial crisis in the city, the garden provided work for thousands of unemployed Montrealers and has since developed into a popular tourist attraction, with an astounding array of plants and trees.
An array of interesting sights and sounds await the visitor, including the Tree House (highlighting the important role of trees in our lives), a First Nations Garden (illustrating the interaction of Inuit and Amerindians with nature), a Chinese Garden, the Quebec Butterfly House, a Medicinal Plant Garden, Planetarium, and so much more.
Basse-Ville is Quebec City's Lower Town, a charming old quarter full of narrow, winding streets, historical stone buildings, and an overwhelming array of trendy cafes, bars, and boutique stores. The oldest urban district in Canada, Lower Town has a distinctly European feel to it. Recent efforts to gentrify the area have been undertaken with appropriate sensitivity and class, resulting in postcard-perfect photo opportunities lying in wait on every street corner.
Lower Town is also home to many of Quebec 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. All visitors to Quebec City 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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