Conjuring history and fantasy, it’s a flamboyant neo-French Gothic confection, crowning Cap Diamant, teeming with spiky turrets scratching the sky. Tourism Quebec would have you believe that it’s the most photographed hotel in the world – a lofty call, but there’s no denying its totemic grandeur is instantly recognisable.
No matter where find yourself in Old Quebec, the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, looms large, from every angle. From the Lower Town, it resembles a story-book castle in the sky. I’m a walkover for a good historic hotel and this stirring masterpiece of hospitality is a marquee specimen, spilling forth with proud footnotes from history. In 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth graced Le Château with their presence.
At the height of the World War II, the secret military talks, called the Quebec Conferences, were headquartered at the hotel, involving US President Roosevelt and British PM Winston Churchill, in which they thrashed out their Allied battle plans including invading France. Today, 17 of the hotel’s most prestigious suites have officially been named in honour of famous guests who have stayed at the hotel since its opening in 1893.
In 1953, the hotel was used as the filming location for Alfred Hitchcock's film I Confess, featuring Montgomery Clift and Anne Baxter. Visiting glitterati to have bedded down within its lavish quarters include Princess Grace of Monaco, Chiang-Kai-Shek, Charles de Gaulle, Ronald Reagan, François Mitterrand, Prince Andrew and Charles Lindberg.
Designated a United Nations World Heritage Site and lording over the St. Lawrence River, the backs on to the Dufferin Terrace, built on top of the ruins of the Chateau St. Louis, the official residence of Quebec’s colonial governors. For the French, it was the seat of power for all New France operations in the 1600s, stretching from New Orleans to the Great Lakes.
Coinciding with the dawn of rail’s golden age, the fairy-tale hotel was commissioned by the general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 19th century. Its copper roof, multiple turrets and sloped peaks define the hotel’s architectural splendour, which has been steadily expanded over the decades.
Named after the effervescent French governor Louis de Buade, Count of Frontenac, Fairmont Le Château Frontenac's coat-of-arms is etched onto the wall by the entry arch. A 300-year-old stone bearing the Cross of Malta emblem is among the interior stones located throughout the hotel's vaulted lobby. Entering this spell-binding property beckons like living out a true-life castle dream.
One of the first “staff” I encountered was Daphne, a docile St-Pierre doggie. Resident hotel dogs are a Fairmont trademark, known as Canine Ambassadors, who are impeccably-well behaved, professionally-trained, and always happy to be taken for walkies. I loved taking Daphne for a head-clearing morning walk along the Dufferin Terrace.
It’s just one of the numerous attributes to the hotel that humanises the guest experience, effortlessly. Routinely garlanded in praise, the serial award-winning hotel boasts over 600 elegantly furnished rooms and suites, overlooking the St. Lawrence River and the ornate rooftops of Old Quebec.
I stayed in one of deluxe rooms, freshly renovated, with a sedately coloured interior which was restful and calming. It had been overhauled as part of the hotel’s multi-million renaissance project. Combining the time-honoured character with ultra-modern amenities, a sense of sophistication overlays the historical cachet.
I enjoyed a dazzling view over the old town’s cityscape, fabrics and furniture are carefully-selected, the bedding was cloud comfortable and the big marble bath was indulgently restorative after pounding the cobble streets, taking in the sights. Hotel staff are assiduous without being stuffy, eager to share their own tips on local experiences and unfailingly charming.
The place purrs like a well-fed pussycat and you’ll be well-fed too. My daily buffet breakfast was artfully presented, a celebration of freshness. The pain au chocolat alone were worth getting out of bed for. Fairmont Le Château Frontenac's dining offerings range from classic continental and regional cuisine to fuss-free casual fare.
Local, fresh, and innovative are Executive Chef Baptiste Peupion's pillars upon which he and his talented culinary team create new menus, reflecting the hotel’s heritage while embracing cutting-edge culinary trends.
Inspired by the year of Quebec City’s founding, and situated on the very site of the fledgling settlement, the new 1608 Wine & Cheese Bar showcases one of the largest varieties of top Quebec cheeses, paired with wine. Champlain Restaurant is the hotel’s classic formal dining affair, recently refreshed by one of Quebec’s hottest restaurant chefs, Stephane Modat.
A more informal experience awaits at Bistro Le Sam, inspired by the great French explorer, Samuel de Champlain. Showcasing some of Quebec’s hottest culinary trends, it’s a buzzy and relaxed affair with an open kitchen. This exuberant swirl of a hotel celebrates its 125th anniversary next year.
If you’re planning a trip to Quebec, soak up the sparkling grandeur of Le Chateau Frontenac. It is unreservedly gorgeous and an exemplar in affordable luxury. http://www.fairmont.com/frontenac-quebec/
If you’re tripping between Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City, rail is the way to go. I explored Ontario & Quebec with a Canrail Corridor Base Pass, which entitled me to 7 trips over 21 days. A variety of passes are available. VIA RailCanada trains are efficient, comfy with complimentary on-board wifi and in-seat, on-demand entertainment. Pre-purchase a pass to suit. Contact Rail Plus, the experts in rail for your ticket to ride. www.railplus.co.nz
Canada is clearly hot and Air New Zealand is increasing capacity on its Vancouver route, with onward connections across the country with its Star Alliance partners. With well-timed overnight flight departures from Auckland and Vancouver, I managed to snooze my way across the Pacific. For best fares and seats to suit, head to www.airnewzealand.co.nz
Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.