If you’re looking for a relaxing break packed with natural wonders and historic sights, without compromising on culture, Canada is hard to beat – as Director discovered on a laid-back trip between two distinctive Quebec hotels
If you’re looking for an escape that brings you some inner peace, suite 1742 of Fairmont’s The Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal is a pretty good place to start. Some 46 years ago this month, John Lennon and Yoko Ono checked in here for their famous ‘Bed-In for Peace’. It was May 1969 and, in the face of the still-raging Vietnam War, the star couple delivered a sit-down (or rather lie-in) protest message of peace and love. A few days later, on 1 June, they recorded the hit record Give Peace a Chance in this very room.
Today, this smart executive suite is available to book and – comprising 60sqm of bedroom and living room – features touches of memorabilia including a framed gold disc and photographs of the couple. Ask nicely and staff will let you see the guestbook from the time, full of fascinating scribbles about the to-ing and fro-ing at the hotel during their stay. If ever there was a room in which to contemplate the madness of the outside world, then this is surely it.
Indeed, The Queen Elizabeth – with its location above Montreal’s downtown train station, and within a leisurely stroll of many of the city’s main attractions – is an ideal location from which to dip a non-committal toe into the largest settlement in Quebec province, but remain within scurrying distance of sanctuary, or a train ride somewhere less bustling, should it all get a bit too much. Director enjoyed breakfast in the Fairmont Gold lounge, a private haven for travelling execs on the 19th floor with views over the metropolis.
Toronto may be Canada’s financial powerhouse, but when it comes to culture, laid-back Montreal, founded by French colonists in May 1642, tops the list. The immediate downtown neighbourhood is one where Victorian brownstones meet shimmering skyscrapers – tempting you to take a blissfully aimless wander around the streets before soaking up culture at the Museum of Fine Arts or snapping up a last-minute ticket for a play at La Vitrine. This is also the part of town to sample an eclectic mix of cuisines from the city’s famous food trucks (find out where they’re parked at streetfoodmontreal.com).
For a little less bustle, head to the nearby Outremont district, where broad tree-lined streets and beautiful parks are punctuated by rows of high-end boutiques and hidden culinary gems – wind your way to rue Saint-Viateur and enjoy bagels that locals claim are better than any you’ll find anywhere in New York (stviateurbagel.com). And no visitor should miss the chance to amble through Old Montreal, where sipping a café au lait while street entertainers perform in the shadow of Notre-Dame basilica is the order of the day.
Relaxed and culturally enriching as Montreal can be, it’s undeniably still a very busy city. So, when the tourist jostling gets too much, it’s time to descend the Queen Elizabeth’s escalator to Central Station and take a three-and-a-half hour train ride to the calmer surrounds of Quebec City. Cocooned in the elevated, wing-backed seat of VIA Rail’s slick business-class carriage, you can watch the fields and rivers of the Quebec countryside roll by over a complimentary glass of wine and ponder why the morning commute is never this relaxing back home.
On arrival, it wasn’t hard to find our next bolthole, the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac – its vertiginous turrets are visible from just about everywhere in Quebec City. This imposing 19th-century chateau-style construction claims to be the world’s most photographed hotel and – as you take a breezy stroll along the pretty boardwalk that runs between the building and the mighty St Lawrence River – it’s easy to see why. Alfred Hitchcock was so impressed, he made this the location for his 1953 thriller I Confess, starring Montgomery Clift.
Fairmont has completed a £50m refurbishment and restoration of the building, melding the traditional and the contemporary impressively to make this a place that feels genuinely luxurious, but never stuffy.
The best place to chill out here is undoubtedly Bistro Le Sam, an Art Deco-inspired space where the mixologist will sit you down and ask you how you’re feeling – rather than what you fancy drinking – and mix a cocktail to match your mood. Little wonder that some reviewers have mused that these are possibly the finest cocktails in Canada.
But while the Fairmont’s luxury and Quebec City’s cobbled, chain store-free streets make this an ideal place to unwind, the main attraction arguably isn’t on dry land at all. From mid-May until October you can make the scenic three-hour drive to Tadoussac – the departure point for whale-watching tours in the St Lawrence estuary. The waters are rich in krill – luring humpbacks, minkes and blue whales. And, as you watch a mighty tail slap the water, sending up a wall of spray, before the surface returns to calm – you can wonder at just how many ways there are in this beautiful country to find peace.
Air Canada flies daily to Montreal from Heathrow. Visit aircanada.com for latest prices, or book through WEXAS Travel: iod.com/traveloffers
Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth’s John Lennon and Yoko Ono suite cannot be booked online – for enquiries and prices, call the hotel directly on +1 (514) 861-3511.
For summer Fairmont Gold rates at Quebec City’s Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, visit fairmont.com/frontenac-quebec
Watch the Give Peace a Chance video below