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By Colleen Friesen

Every time we travel to Quebec, I always end up wondering why anyone would bother going the extra distance to France? Don't get me wrong. J'adore France but Quebec is just so close.

Our autumn trip started in Montreal. We had a week and wanted to do it up right, so naturally we began at the Opus Hotel. Like its sister hotel in Vancouver, it's hip and gorgeous and a quick cab ride to the train station in the morning.

VIA rail to Quebec is a clicking-clacking three-and-a-half-hour ride through endless cornfields. We pass simple two-storey houses with their requisite iron spiral staircases linking the outside second story patio to the street below.

Checking in to the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac is where I feel my old life slide away to be replaced by the amber and oh-so-plushly appointed luxe life.

The Chateau is an institution. The citizens of this city do not care who's listed on its ownership documents. As far as they're concerned it's theirs. It features in almost every postcard and is captured by every tourist that enters this UNESCO designated city.

It's hard to leave our turreted room but the narrow streets invite exploration. We wander away from the crowds and the more touristy-looking restaurants. We're determined to find where Quebeckers eat. Down another darkened street and we see the gold light of the restaurant spilling onto the cobbles. We follow the smell of bread or is it garlic? Doesn't matter, it's drawing us in. The rhythm of French conversations rises and falls in waves around us. We have discovered L'Echaude Restaurant. And it is good. Really, really good.

Our days in Quebec take on the lovely pattern of long walks down streets stuffed with shops, galleries, cafes and petit hotels. We refresh our history at the Plains of Abraham, the Citadel, the endless historical plaques and the great museums. We find out that the city is named from an Amerindian word that means, "There, where the river narrows."

Outside the walls is even more interesting. The requisite trinket shops come to an end and the grocers and shoe shops vie for customers. At 463 rue St-Jean we meet Pierre Bernier in front of a storefront called Muse o Velo. Pierre listens patiently to my bastardized French as I try to ask where a good café au lait might be served. "So," replies Pierre in perfect English and with a crinkly-eyed smile, "it sounds like you want something that locals would frequent?"

Pierre runs a bicycle shop/bicycle museum/political office. The last addition is a new incarnation. Quebec's mayor had died in the middle of her term and Pierre decided he was the man for the job. Determined to raise environmental issues, Pierre is a man on a mission. We poke through his little shop festooned with bicycles. His museum cases are cluttered with bicycle paraphernalia from every era and the old safe is filled with bicycle stamps and books.

We bid Pierre bonne chance and au revoir and leave him chatting with his future constituents.

The train takes us back to Montreal and to our waiting rental car. We pick up our friends at their hotel and head north into the Laurentians towards Mont Tremblant. The trees seem lit from within as they glow scarlet, gold and amber with shocks of lingering lime-green foliage determined not to quit. The autumnal woodsy theme continues in the Fairmont Tremblant hotel lobby. I follow the wood rail directly down to the Amerispa salon, slipping onto a table in time for my appointment for a delicious apple-scented massage.

Mont Tremblant is a jumble of toy box coloured buildings in the village and wonderfully endless trails through wood and stream. The designer golf courses do their impersonations of emeralds and the lake throws in a few diamond glitters for good measure.

That night the four of us sit around the yellowish glow of our table at Aux Truffes restaurant. Our friend raises his glass in a toast, "I have eaten in a lot of good restaurants but this has just been the best meal of my life." I want to speak but am still wiping the foie gras shine from my chin. We nod in unison.

Save on airfare and don't worry about exchange rates. La belle province awaits your arrival.


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Photographs by Kevin Redl:

1. Aux Truffles restaurant
2. Montreal street
3. Outside the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac
4. Quebec Skyline

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