It may not be a real Christmas unless there's snow, but we hadn't asked for wind, too. In Quebec City last Dec. 24, the evening air was frigid and the gusts were ferocious. Sometimes the blasts appeared to be plunging down on a special pipeline from the Hudson Bay, and sometimes they seemed to have sprung from the St. Lawrence River, which narrows dramatically here and creates a funnel effect.
Most of all, as we slipped and slid along the icy streets of the old walled town in a numb search for Notre-Dame de Quebec and its midnight mass, the wind seemed a chilling reminder that we could have gone to Jamaica or Barbados for the holidays -- islands where ice is safely contained in glasses, and snow happens only when the television set is out of whack.
Eventually, we found the basilica. It wasn't that far away but, in the darkness, it was easy to miss. Notre-Dame was torched in the siege of 1759, and burned down again in 1922, and on this particular night it still looked like a charred hulk. Only the faintest glimmer through the windows signified that there was anything happening.
Yet while the outside led you to expect a church of crumbling stone and guttering candles, to enter was to move from a black-and-white world to a universe of color. On the street, all was wind and gloom; inside were radiance, stillness -- and a packed house that included a multitude of complaisant children nestled sleepily against their parents.
"Pouvez-vous voir?" asked the amiable youth sitting next to me, and while I assured him I could see fine, in truth I felt a little dazed. The pale yellow walls of the basilica rose to a sky blue ceiling scudded with clouds. Even the arches were golden.
Neither was the mass what a couple of lapsed Unitarians might have anticipated. This was no 10-minute, pass-around-the-eggnog sort of midnight service. The program booklet was 22 pages long, and there were readings from the Book of Isaiah and the letters of the Apostle Paul, interspersed with songs, prayers, psalms and repeated admonitions that "the good news belongs to us." In the parish of Notre-Dame de Quebec -- which, visitors are informed, "is the oldest in North America, not counting Mexico and the other Spanish territories" -- faith is still taken very seriously.
Afterward the priest, with a buoyant smile and a solid handshake, insisted on greeting personally all the hundreds of parishioners. It was nearly 2 a.m. before they had made it back to their homes and we were again in our hotel room. Later that night, the sleet began again. By dawn, the windows were encased in an inch of ice, and you had to chip it off with a spoon.
The notion was urgent but simple: to go somewhere different for Christmas. Three of us -- my mother, my eldest sister and I -- found ourselves without holiday plans last year, so we decided to link forces and seek out an amiable site for a three-day celebration.
Our sole requirement was that there be snow. After a lifetime of Connecticut Christmases -- where the weather is chilly even if the precipitation is infrequent -- the idea of spending the holiday baking on some Caribbean island was rejected as heretical.
There wasn't, in fact, much discussion about where to go. Quebec is an agreeable city at any time of the year, but at Christmas -- when the old town closes in on itself, the St. Lawrence River turns the color of cafe' au lait, and visitors and inhabitants alike spend much of their time feasting on onion soup, meat pies and baked custard with maple syrup -- it's an excellent refuge for the world-weary.
Neither was there any argument about where to stay. More than any other hotel in the world, the Cha~teau Frontenac defines the city it inhabits. Cut it out of the Quebec skyline and you only have a collection of high-rise monstrosities and anonymous boxes. The Frontenac gives the city an anchor, and a splendid Victorian hotel besides.
The pleasures of the Frontenac aside, Quebec is the closest you can get to France without leaving North America. The vast majority of the population speaks French as their first language, and they're thrilled when you try to speak it too -- no matter how limited your vocabulary or pathetic your accent. Trained by generations of English-speaking Canadians, the Quebecois are adept at figuring out what you're really trying to say. On the other hand, if you fall back on English, nearly everyone understands that, too. It's like going to France with training wheels.
The sole problem -- and the major expense of the whole trip -- was getting there. There were no direct flights to Quebec from Washington. There weren't even any direct flights from New York. So last Dec. 24, we flew on Air Canada from La Guardia to Montreal, where we switched to a Nordair plane. This, a small propeller craft that resembled a refurbished World War II bomber, was hidden all the way at the end of the airport. Perhaps they didn't want us to know it was coming.
Those who get a thrill -- nervous or otherwise -- out of flying on relatively tiny aircraft will find this voyage more than satisfactory. "They still use wood when they build these planes?" my sister mused as the plane took off and began to bump and grind its way northeast.
Directly below, islands dotted the St. Lawrence like so many ice cubes. To the north, the snowy plains melted into the pasty sky, making the horizon resemble a blank stage set. As the plane banked and turned, glimpses of Quebec became distantly visible. The city where the waters narrow, crowned by a fortress on a hill: We felt we were on our way to Oz.
The best rooms at the Frontenac are those with river views, which could be why they won't guarantee you one. Their argument is that if the previous inhabitant of your intended room stays longer than expected, they might have to break their promise anyway. The most they would do for us is say they'd do everything in their power to work something out.
They worked something out. We ended up in a long, wide room with two twin beds in one section and a third bed set off in an alcove. There were three windows, with a good view of the lower town and the St. Lawrence. It was not a terribly cozy place to stay, but it was roomy and functional and not too expensive -- $139 Canadian a day, which at the time was about $100.
The Frontenac itself is not overwhelmingly large (about 550 rooms) but since it's modeled after the Victorian idea of a castle, there are numerous turrets, gables, viewing windows and maze-like corridors. It feels bigger than it is. And especially in December -- when the lobby is decorated with Christmas trees and wreaths, and the halls take on an amber tint -- it's a hotel with a soothing, festive mood.
Soothing, that is, unless you should want room service on Christmas morning -- and who would rather get dressed and go out to a coffee shop? We didn't realize you needed to order the night before, and were bleakly informed that it would take "several hours" to get any food delivered, so busy were the kitchen and the waiters. Coffee and tea, however, could be brought up immediately, and we made do with those.
Later, caffeinated to the gills, we went out for a walk. Easier said than done: It was a mild December, which meant that it would snow, warm up to slush, and then freeze. Ice skates would have been a handier means of locomotion, or perhaps tobogganing -- but the toboggan slide on the Dufferin Terrace next to the Frontenac was disappointingly out of operation.
The old town is harmonious and attractive, which makes it ideal for a stroll. Most of it is set on top of a 350-foot cliff named Cape Diamond; a small portion is at the bottom of the cliff, next to the river. The two areas are linked by the ascenseur (sort of a cross between a cable car and an elevator) and one steep street. A leisurely circuit of the whole thing takes about two hours.
While there's recently been a good deal of restoration, Quebec has not been excessively prettified. People still live in 17th- and 18th-century townhouses in the tightly packed old town, interspersed among the souvenir shops, restaurants, parks, hospital, city hall, university, basilica and, guarding the ocean approach, numerous cannons. The walls -- Quebec is the only remaining walled city in either the United States or Canada -- ring the city center, giving it unity and a European atmosphere.
South of here the St. Lawrence contracts; to the north it expands, breaking in two around the Ile d'Orle'ans and giving a hint, for the first time, of its ultimate destination. The river is no longer entirely fresh here; on the Ile d'Orle'ans, tides have hit 19 feet. It's 650 miles to the Atlantic, but Quebec is an ocean port, with a tang to the air and a cosmopolitan buzz to its wharves.
The St. Lawrence used to freeze over completely in December, and there would be skating, sleigh-riding and other forms of excitement on the ice. Since 1924, ice breakers have been used to keep the river open, and the only kick now lies in taking the ferry across. On the southern shore, travelers are unceremoniously deposited in Le'vis, a suburb with all the charm of a suburb. The view back at the city is stunning, though, and you can spend the rest of the time thinking about dinner.
Now that the river is off-limits, the capstone for a Quebec holiday is Christmas dinner at the Frontenac. This happens in Le Champlain, the hotel's most extravagant restaurant, for a cost of $50 Canadian per person. Since you pay ahead of time, you don't have to worry about the bill adding up; it already has. The only obstacle is getting in. Seating is limited, which could be why the dinner is not heavily promoted. A number of the diners were from the community, which makes sense: If I lived here, this is the place I would go Christmas night.
Some of the mood of Le Champlain is captured at the front door, where a bottle of 1858 cognac rests on velvet in a glass case. An accompanying card notes that this Le Champlain Bisquit Dubouche' is one of the few remaining bottles of one of the finest vintages ever produced. There is nothing so crude as a price, merely the note: "Our maitre d'hotel will be honored to give you all further information on this exceptional cognac." Just make sure you've brought a couple of statements from your bank.
The atmosphere in Le Champlain is usually muted -- soft lighting, quiet voices and, of course, top-notch food. But this Christmas meal is a little bit of theater, too. Les Petits Chanteurs de la Maitrise de Quebec, a group of two dozen very young children, wander around the hotel during the evening. At various locations (including Le Champlain) they stop and sing. In their white robes with crosses, they look charming, and such overfamiliar songs as "Silent Night" take on a new beauty when done in French. Additionally, there's an appearance by Santa Claus, who distributed presents to the children.
Toward the conclusion of the meal, a trumpet fanfare sounds, the audience starts clapping in rhythm, and a procession of subchefs marches through the dining room with a massive boar's head on a platter, a smoldering plum pudding the size of a filing cabinet, and similar treats. At the end of this parade was the chef himself, for whom the crowd went wild. This also provided a free moment for the Quebecois diners to noisily wave to their friends. As for us, we drank more coffee and looked out the window, where the statue of city founder Samuel de Champlain was again getting sprinkled with snow. Beyond, the river slumbered. You hardly knew it was there at all.
When it comes to haute cuisine, things have improved in Quebec since the Marquis de Montcalm urged the natives to eat more horsemeat in 1757. The defending general in the key event in the community's history -- the 1759 battle on the Plains of Abraham that yielded up not only the city but all of French Canada to England -- Montcalm was only trying to alleviate food shortages. Among the dishes he recommended were horse feet au gratin, little horse pa~te' a l'espagnole and horse a` la mode ... but perhaps you've heard enough.
In this happier era, Quebec is reportedly the home of numerous fine restaurants. We got lucky the first time out, however, and never bothered to expand our repertoire. Aux Anciens Canadiens, set a couple steps away from the Frontenac, is now working on its fourth century, which makes it one of the oldest houses in the province. Such a patina of age gives a boost to the atmosphere in a way that dining at the local Hilton or Holiday Inn never could, and the reasonably priced food, which ranges from pea soup and "nest of snails with garlic" to duckling with maple syrup and several types of goose, is quite good. What more could you want?
Dessert. One guide to Quebec, in its roundup of things to do, was able to list nothing naughtier under the "Sins" category than this restaurant's tarte au sirop d'e'rable. This sounds classier than the English translation, which is maple syrup pie. That might bring to mind a pastry shell with some Aunt Jemima's poured in, but no -- this stuff is light, airy and just sweet enough.
So much for eating. Meanwhile, the city offers the usual range of places to buy things. This is not, unfortunately, especially easy to do on a short holiday stay, because some of the shops close early on Christmas Eve and don't reopen until the 27th or so. Likewise with the Muse'e Marie de l'Incarnation, which is obligatory for those who wish to see Montcalm's skull. We never found it open.
We had to be satisfied with the general's memorial in Le Jardin de Gouverneurs, the most touching site in Quebec. Erected to the memory of Montcalm and the English general James Wolfe -- both of whom perished during the battle on the Plains of Abraham -- the monument's Latin inscription says: "Their courage gave them a common death; history, a common fame; posterity, a common monument." It is one of the few memorials in the world to commemorate both the victor and the vanquished.
While we could have done with another day or week of relaxation -- in sunnier moments, it was therapeutic just to watch the snow slide off the Frontenac's gleaming roof and splatter onto the sidewalk, a process that would invariably inundate an unwary tourist -- but it is the nature of Christmas vacations to be brief.
There were no direct flights home. The Montreal plane was even smaller this time -- a 17-seat Quebecair prop. "We call it The Tube," said the gate attendant. Do they use planes like this to discourage too many visitors?
If so, it didn't work with us. Unless you're turned off by the idea of spending Christmas in a city that gives new meaning to the word "icy," it shouldn't work on you, either