Quebec is an easy weekend getaway for Torontonians looking for a gastronomic adventure within driving distance. Boasting some of the country's best restaurants, quality ingredients and emphasis on local sourcing, it is a food-lover's playground. Pair that with one of the largest winter festivals in North America and you're in for a true Canadian experience! For those reasons, I decided to host my first ever culinary food tour for Flights n Bites in Canada's French capital.
I have to admit, it was quite nerve-wracking as I have never done anything like this before. As a travel planner by trade, of course I was used to designing and customizing trips for my clients - but it's a whole different ball game when you become personally responsible for the safety and enjoyment of a group, some of whom I've only met for the first time the morning of the trip! Managing the different dynamics, interests and personalities of those I've never spent time with before was probably the scariest part. However, I'm a big believer that throwing yourself in new (and sometimes uncomfortable) situations is the best way to grow and almost always end up being the most rewarding. That was definitely the case with this endeavor!
Our weekend started nice and early (notice I didn't use the word bright, as it was so early it wasn't even bright yet!), a 5 AM start made sure we would have enough time to get all the way to Quebec City before dinner with some time to spare. Not to mention the sweet views on the highway when there are no other cars on the road.
First Stop: Marche Jean Talon (Little Italy, Montreal)
One of the best things you can do as a food lover, is getting to know the people who grow and produce what you're eating. That's why I love visiting farmers' markets in every destination I travel to! Supporting small businesses is such a great way to connect with the local community and make a difference in where you spend your hard-earned dollars.
Marche Jean Talon is one such place - the largest open-air market in the city with over 50 vendors ranging from bakers, butchers, cheese mongers, produce growers to florists, beekeepers, horticulturists and restaurant owners. It gets transformed in the cooler months with sturdy walls erected to keep shoppers warm from winter's chill. It's a nice place to get an introduction to the Quebecois food scene in a warm and unassuming venue.
We stopped here for lunch - some of the group opted for artisanal homemade pizza, others for a soup and salad combo, a few went for sausage on a bun and I stopped at a shop that specialized in grilled cheese sandwiches. I mean, how does one say no to cheesy goodness pressed between two olive loaves? Yes please!
I loved that many of the shoppers looked like veteran farmers' market goers; complete with containers they brought from home to fill up on fruits and produce, reusable grocery bags hanging from their shoulders and some even with a personal grocery cart on wheels! Now that's what I strive to be like one day!
Second Stop: Hotel Royal William (Saint-Roch, Quebec City)
With a full belly, the remaining two and a half hour drive to Quebec City seems that much shorter. Because the winter carnival (also known as Carnaval de Quebec) is such a big event, hotels tend to sell early so you'll want to book your accommodations as soon as possible.
I highly recommend the small but quaint Hotel Royal William in the trendy Saint-Roch district. About a seven minute drive from Old Quebec (or a 25 minute uphill walk), it's known as the hipster area in town, complete with a retro video game cafe, lively arts scene and some of the city's best restaurants and coffee shops.
The small hotel manages to accommodate groups of all sizes and unique needs in a very charming way. If more sleeping space is needed, murphy beds - yes I said murphy beds, the ones that pull down from the walls - are equipped in most rooms to take in larger groups. And I never thought murphy beds to be classy but Hotel Royal William really pulled it off flawlessly! I was super impressed in the versatility of the rooms, not to mention the hotel has been recently renovated so it is looking absolutely fab with its contemporary design!
What really stood out to me was the amazing hospitality from all the staff on-site. It has been such a long time since I've been to a hotel and received such patient, genuine and excellent service from every employee I encountered. They really went above and beyond and out of their way to ensure we were well taken care of. Of course I had my worries as each element of the trip is a reflection of me as a planner but needless to say, Hotel Royal William made me look like a rock star. Big kudos to them!
Third Stop: Cooking Class with Madame Germaine (Levis, Quebec City)
After a long drive, some time to recollect and freshen up is much needed. But don't get too comfortable as one of the highlights of the trip is soon to follow! It just so happened that I stumbled upon the website of Madame Germaine when I was looking for a unique culinary experience in QC and I am forever grateful that I did!
I cannot recommend a cooking class with Chef Anne Rouleau enough! It is a MUST for any foodie traveller. Our group opted for the 'Our Grandmother's Recipes' class - making traditional Quebecois fare passed down from Anne's grandmother (affectionately known as Madame Germaine) for dinner. It was an evening filled with lots of cooking and LOTS of eating, sprinkled with some history and education about the foods we prepared.
What I loved most about the class was how intimate the whole experience was. The workshop was hosted in Anne's own home - a beautiful bicentennial house that has been retrofitted with the complementary mix of a modern kitchen yet still paying homage to the historic accents of its original construction. While waiting for some of our dishes to cook, we were invited to her second floor living space where we dined on regional cheeses and bread and sampled the different maple syrups that came from a family-owned farm. It doesn't get more local than this!
The dishes we made were simple recipes, reminiscent of the kinds of meals made by mothers and grandmothers of the older generation where feeding large families was the norm. Despite our group size of 11 hungry adults, we had more than enough food to go around. Each of us left the dinner filled to the brim - with great food and even better memories.
First Stop: Traipsing Down Rue Saint-Joseph (Saint-Roch, Quebec City)
After breakfast (complimentary at Hotel Royal William), just one street over is Rue Saint-Joseph - a great walking street filled with amazing cafes, bakeries and quirky shops where you'll find unique gifts and souvenirs.
If you're lucky and pass by La Boite a Pain at the right time, you'll be able to smell the delicious aroma of fresh baked bread steaming out of the metal dragon sculpture's mouth hanging above one of their entrances. Just one of the many artsy things you can find while walking down this eclectic street.
Second Stop: Lunch at Restaurant Tournebroche (Old Quebec, Quebec City)
I don't know about you but after any kind of activity, my appetite gets worked up and I am ready for lunch. What I've learned about the Quebecois is that they are proud of their regional homegrown products and produce - and for good reason! There are a multitude of restaurants that source their ingredients locally and garner great relationships with the area's farmers.
Restaurant Tournebroche takes this to the next level by not only highlighting local sources for their farm-to-table menu, but also supports sustainable and organic farming and fishing. Tournebroche truly lives this mantra by growing their own herb garden along with their very own rooftop apiary where honey gets harvested and then used as a star ingredient in many of their menu items. Each dish is complete with amazing presentation, you can really tell they truly care about their food from start to finish.
Third Stop: Free Walking Tour with Sam Dubois
You had me at free. Sam is a born and raised Quebecois who knows all the off-the-beaten-path secrets of his city. His tours are awesome because he'll take you to places that most tour bus companies won't and you'll get to see the beauty of the region through the eyes of a local. He brings history to life with his humorous and fun-filled guided tours. At absolutely no charge (a tip is encouraged), you have absolutely nothing to lose!
Fourth Stop: Carnaval de Quebec (Old Quebec, Quebec City)
And then there is the biggest winter event of the year - Carnaval de Quebec! The city comes alive with tourists visiting from all over the world to take part in this iconic Canadian tradition. The two-week long festival sees the world's snow capital turn into a giant playground filled with ice sculptures, canoe races on the St. Lawrence River, slides down Bonhomme's Ice Palace, music and dance, not to mention the coveted night parades. It'll make you feel like a little kid again!
Also, make sure to dress warm! I can't stress enough to get proper boots for cold weather as the group's toes were suffering the most from being in the outdoors most of the evening. Learn from our mistakes!
First Stop: Brunch at Le Clocher Penche (Saint-Roch, Quebec City)
Just a five minute walk from the Hotel Royal William is one of QC's most talked about brunch spots. Literally translated to 'the bell tower leans' - Le Clocher Penche is hard to miss as it is located across from the district's literal leaning bell tower. All dishes at the restaurant's creative menu are served with a daily rotating gourmet verrine along with two espressos or latte's - and all at a very reasonable price! It's no surprise lineups start even before the restaurant opens on a Sunday morning. Be sure to make your reservations in advance!
About a half an hour drive from downtown Quebec City is the Valcartier Village: a one-stop shop for family vacations. Known as the largest winter playground in North America, you'll find snow slides, snow rafts, snow forts... pretty much snow everything! One of the most unique features is the grand Ice Hotel. The only one of its kind on this side of the continent, it's much larger inside than what one perceives from the entrance.
Built from the ground up every winter season, it is open to visitors for 3 months out of the year and it is definitely worth the detour! The detail in the ice sculptures, intricate designs along the walls and unique themes for the bedrooms where everything is made of ice is absolutely breathtaking.
It is like a maze once you are inside with something new around every corner. Sit along the pews in the hotel's Chapel, then sip on a cocktail served in a glass made of ice from the Ice Bar, go down the slide made of ice in the activity area, or find yourself on the dance floor by the iced DJ station. For a splurge, you can stay overnight at the Ice Hotel for a starting rate of $350 per night where you'll get to rest under the stars in your very own arctic sleeping bag on a bed of ice along with access to outdoor spas and sauna. That's not something you get to do every day!
Third Stop: Schwartz's Deli (Montreal)
Alas, the short road trip is coming close to an end as you make your way back to Toronto, but not before making a pit-stop at the famous Schwartz's Deli for one of their smoked meat sandwiches. You can order by the pound (or half pound) and preference on how fatty you'd like the cut to be (medium-fat being the most popular). It's the perfect little road trip fuel for the long drive back!
Where are some of your must hit-up stops for a road trip through Quebec? Would love to hear your thoughts!