Revelling Like Royalty at Quebec City’s Castle on the Hill

Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac may be 125 years old, but she still knows how to kick up her heels.

Beloved by locals, and sought out by visitors from around the globe, Quebec City’s Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac reigns supreme in Canada’s oldest incorporated city. According to Trip Advisor, it is the most photographed hotel in the world. Flip open a Canadian passport and you’ll see it gracing a page, buy something with a loonie and you might notice it on the face of the ubiquitous $1 coin. Mailing a letter? The hotel even has its own postage stamp.

Celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, Chateau Frontenac threw the party of all parties in February and invited international press and local dignitaries to show off its freshly spruced up interior. Quaffing my bubbly and downing endless oysters, I could see the old girl was ready for another century of celebrities and champagne. Robert Mercure, the property’s general manager, informed us there had been an $80 million renovation in 2014 that included a major overhaul of guest rooms, restaurants, banquet areas and ballrooms.

Looking around at the exquisite Rose Room and deep indigo lobby, I saw that the décor was tastefully true to its roots, but the new touches of rich colour, gleaming marble and plush upholstery brought a zingy vitality to the vintage property. “We respect the heritage but we like the contrast of original and modern as you often see in European properties. We are one of the few places to do that in Canada,” explained Mercure.

The hotel is named after flamboyant French governor Louis de Buade, Count of Frontenac who ruled New France from 1672 to 1698. On the Dufferin Terrace level, on my way to breakfast in Place Dufferin, I spied a number of exhibits displaying historic artifacts, such as tea cups and plates from various time periods that were excavated from an area in front of the hotel. This is the spot where the governors’ residences and Saint-Louis Forts once stood, first built by famed French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1620.

“Thousands of articles have been uncovered. More than 400 years of amazing history have occurred on this site,” explained Mercure, adding, “This was the capital of New France and the first capital of Canada.” Walking along the cobbled streets, gazing at the fortified city walls (the only ones remaining in North America) I found it easy to understand why the area was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is the only place in Canada where I have experience such a distinctly historic, European atmosphere, and I have been to most of the country’s major cities.

Leafing through a newly reprinted special edition of The Chateau Frontenac by architecture historian France Gagnon Pratte, I saw that the Chateau had undergone a variety of expansions throughout its life. These included the Citadelle construction in 1899, Mont-Carmel construction in 1908 and the Saint-Louis and Tour Centrale in 1920 and 1924. In 1993 the Claude-Pratte Wing with indoor pool, gym and outdoor terrace was completed. Not far from the pool area was Moment Spa, that offered a full menu of beauty treatments.

Taking a tour, I learned that originally, the rooms at the top of the hotel were reserved for female staff for safety and security purposes. Peeking in, I saw the dormer ceilings were still there, but most rooms had been enlarged. I also learned that due to the numerous expansions few of the 611 guest rooms were identical. A good thing, in my view, adding to the property’s quirky charm.

Recent unique additions included eight executive suites honouring a host of personalities with significant ties to the hotel: William Van Horne was a railroad tycoon who built the Chateau; Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip stayed there on one of their royal tours; Sir Winston Churchill attended the secret Conferences of Quebec in 1943-44 to plan the invasion of Normandy that led to the eventual end of the Second World War; President Franklin D. Roosevelt also attended these conferences; Charles de Gaulle stayed on his infamous visit in 1967; Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 film I Confess was shot on location; Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and son Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stayed there numerous times; and Celine Dion was signed to her first contract there after performing for a gathering of music company executives. The list of celebrities and political/military leaders who have laid their heads under the Chateau’s magnificent roof also includes Princess Grace of Monaco, Montgomery Clift, Chiang-Kai Shek, Steven Spielberg and Paul McCartney.

Along with the glorious décor, Le Chateau Frontenac is known for sumptuous dining. Place Dufferin offered an elegant buffet and a la carte breakfast where I noshed on eggs, smoked salmon and croissants and sipped coffee while overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence River far below. Le Sam Bistro served up lunch, creative cocktails and tantalizing canapés including delicious cheese boards featuring artisanal Quebec products. I was told the hotel even had its own cheese room where rounds are carefully stored in temperature-controlled cabinets. In the Champlain restaurant, Chef Stephane Modat delivered creative, modern cuisine, paying homage to local Quebecois producers. The menu changes with the season, but while I was there appetizers included red deer tartar from St-Jean de Brebeuf, sturgeon from St-Jean River in New Brunswick, and snow crab from St-Therese-de-Gaspé. Mouth watering mains included scallops from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, duck from Saint-Apollinaire and beef filet from Sainte-Croix. Desserts were over the top…Chocolate in All Forms, anyone? Or how about maple pudding with Coureur des Bois ice cream? It was difficult to decide, so my friend and I ordered the dessert tasting board for two. No FOMO (fear of missing out) for me.

I’m a dog lover and I especially appreciated hotel’s resident canine ambassador, Daphnie. A gentle St-Pierre (cross of Bernese Mountain Dog and Labernese), she was trained by the Mira Foundation to become a guide dog, but the bellman told me her outgoing nature and social skills led her to switch careers. Now she spends her days in the front lobby, wagging her tail, taking a snooze, keeping on eye on luggage and generally making guests feel welcome.

The verdict? By the end of my stay I felt ready to rule a kingdom. Known fondly as the Castle on the Hill, the majestic Chateau Frontenac made me, and likely every other guest, feel like royalty.

Celebrating 125 Years 

Throughout the year, the Chateau will host numerous events to mark its big birthday.
They include…

  • Summer 2018 Mendel and Lane Conference, History of the Chateau Frontenac
  • July 26-31st Birth of an Icon, Construction of Chateau Frontenac
  • Aus. 17-24th 75th Anniversary, Quebec Conferences
  • Fall 2018 Harvest Festival 125th Edition, Winemaker Events and Celebrity Chefs
  • Nov. 3-4 Souvenirs of the Chateau Exposition, 125 Years of History in Images and Objects
  • Nov. 11 Christmas in November 125th Edition, 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day
  • Nov. 5th Anniversary of the Grace of Monaco Exhibition
  • Dec. 18th The 125th Celebration, Mega Party and Cake

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