Monday, October 24, 2005

The Business and Romance of Quebec and Montreal ~ by Tamar Alexia Fleishman

Are you tired of the same old destinations for business travel? Some cities are so played out, you don't feel special for having taken yourself and your company away from the office. If you want to feel like you've been to an exotic locale, but like the convenience of a short flight or even train/car options, then head up to Quebec Province in Canada. I recently explored two very different jewels in their crown: Quebec City (or, "Vielle Quebec") and Montreal.

My trip began out of BWI airport on Air Canada Jazz. The service was very friendly - not phony. The people of Quebec speak French, but do learn English in school; people in the hospitality industry and retail tend to be fluent in both. After arriving in Quebec, I took a short cab ride to the fabled Chateau Frontenac. The Chateau Frontenac is the most visible symbol of Quebec; it is the castle-like hotel built over a hundred years ago by the Canadian Pacific railroad. It overlooks the grand St. Lawrence River. The railroad still owns the hotel to this day, but administration duties are handled by the luxury hotel chain, Fairmont.

The Chateau Frontenac prides itself on having royal service for its guests and is very hospitable to the business traveler. At the Chateau Frontenac, some rooms have dial-up service for the Internet, some high speed, so ask when you make reservations. If you aren't a member of the hotel's Gold Club, Internet use is $13.95 CD. You do get a 24-hour help line with your rental, which I used. The service was excellent. There is wireless access in public areas of the hotel, such as the lobby and in the lounges. If you didn't bring your laptop (or your secretary), the hotel has a business center in the lobby that's open during the day.

For relaxation, the hotel has an indoor pool, complete with hot tub and many chaise lounges. During warmer weather, there's a sun deck to catch some rays.

While the Chateau Frontenac has four restaurants to suit all your dining desires, Le Champlain is one of the most famous restaurants in the world. From the moment you walk in, you know that your dinner will be a special event, not just a meal. The waiters are outfitted in French Renaissance costumes, a Three Musketeers effect. Chef Jean Soulard is in charge of things (his fabulous cookbook is for sale in the gift shop) and he is obsessed by having the best. That means he has his own rooftop garden at the hotel to grow his own herbs, edible flowers and specialty vegetables. He uses local ingredients in both modern and historic ways; lobster, venison and even caribou grace his menus regularly. The wine list includes some of the most venerated, most famous wines in the world.

Of course, outside the hotel are fabulous restaurants, as well. For a fascinating sampling of regional cuisine, you must try Aux Anciens Canadiens. It is housed in the oldest standing home in North America, serving cuisine that has been a favorite for centuries. This is the place to sample wild game, such as partridge, buffalo and caribou, as well as try local wines and beers. Dress is "dressy casual" and reservations are highly suggested. Another enjoyable place that has fine dining without a dress code is Le Continental. Le Continental is like a classic 1950's steak house, complete with salads, steaks and desserts that are prepared table-side. They have an extensive wine list. For late night repasts, I would suggest one of the many creperies that dot the city. If you're more in the mood for drinks, Pub Saint-Alexandre seems to be a favorite haunt of business people.

Through the Quebec Office of Tourism, I had a a fantastic tour guide. I never had a private tour guide before. If you are in town for business, your free time is even more precious -- a private guide becomes indispensable! My guide showed me places and things that I might not have seen on my own; pamphlets don't always do an attraction justice. I was able to learn all kinds of insider things about the city's history and visited off- the-beaten-track places such as Iles d'Orleans.

Quebec is a very athletic and outdoorsy city, regardless of the weather. Locals walk up and down the cliff the city is built upon, but there is a ski-lift type of transportation called the "Funiculaire". It'll set you back $1.50 CD per ride. You can score a free ride if you get a coupon book, called the "Passport", available at the tourist centers, that also includes museum passes and other great discounts.

If you have friends who are members of the Garrison Club, they can host you in one of the oldest private clubs in North America, which used to be the British Officers' Club.

Then, it was on to Montreal, via Rail Canada, First Class! This is the type of comfortable travel that my dad used to speak of, the kind that I assumed disappeared decades ago. You start your trip in the First Class lounge, where you can help yourself to some soft drinks, coffee or juice and there are plenty of copies of today's paper. When you do board the train, the seats are comparable to First Class airline recliners. Then, you are offered a complimentary cocktail and snacks right away.. "Bloody Ceasars," Bloody Marys with clam juice, are a popular local drink. For lunch, you will be offered a selection of upscale meals, along with wines. Relaxing! And, just like in the finest restaurants, you are offered a hot scented towel and chocolate truffles are passed after your meal. The picture windows give you a complete view of the countryside.

For a completely different feel, I stayed at the Hotel Place D'Armes in Old Montreal. A boutique hotel ensconced in what used to be the Scottish National Life Building, it is hip without being too hard-edged. The ceilings are high and many rooms have pillars and exposed brick. My room had a walk-in double headed shower, electric fireplace, sound system and many other special amenities. Some of these included Frette slippers, Swiss chocolates for turndown service and Essential Elements toiletries. Guests receive a coupon for a free glass of wine at Happy Hour. There was a fitness center right on my floor. The hotel's modern bar that is such a local hot spot at night becomes the breakfast center by light of day; it is quite extensive for a continental breakfast. Along with toast and bagels, there were all kinds of local Canadian cheeses, yogurt, fruit and juices. Many business people were filling up on a substantial morning repast before their workday. No doubt, many were taking advantage of the free shuttle service to the business center, that runs from 7 to 7 on weekdays.

The business center section of town features many buildings with underground tunnels, perfect for some of the fierce winters in that part of the world. I also got a chance to peek at the new W hotel, which is a popular hangout as well as place to lay your head at night.

Old Montreal is easily navigable, with art galleries, museums, restaurants and a mix of old and new architecture. There are also lots of street vendors and performers. I went to the river to check out the area that had been the site of the World's Fair Expo that put the city on the global awareness map.

In Montreal, I again had the luxury (or my new "necessity"?) of a private tour guide. Montreal has many different sections with different vibes, so this was a great way to get the total view, see how things are laid out and see things that I would not normally see. Montreal's natural beauty is stunning; going to the top of the actual mountain for which the city is named is a must. The city also has many ethnic neighborhoods laid out one after another, including a robust Chinatown. Get out your comfy walking shoes and explore. Another site that I was introduced to was the Jean-Talon Farmer's Market. If you are staying in Montreal for any kind of extended time, this is a MUST-SEE! There are rows upon rows of gorgeous fresh produce, meats and products from many cultures: French, Italian, Arabic, etc. The prices are good and you can easily fix yourself a fabulous repast in your hotel room/long term residence. It was so tempting to load up on baby artichokes, fresh figs and other goodies, but you can't bring fresh produce across the border into the U.S.

Another section that is popular is St. Catherine's Street, for some serious shopping. On that street and some of the side streets, you will enjoy a little break from the working grind with such world-famous stores as the Hudson Bay Company, Holt-Renfew and La Senza.

Asking around, I found out that a top restaurant in Montreal was right in my hotel! Aix Cuisine du Terroir prides itself on using local ingredients in a modern ways. It is a quiet, intimate place, perfect for couples or if your are traveling by yourself ... not many restaurants can boast this. As a starter, please try the memorable Fois Gras Terrine, with sun dried cherries. The service was impeccable; the server was able to give a clear description of the "gaminess" factor for each of the meats listed, such as venison, bison and caribou. With your meal or afterwards, enjoy a glass of cider glace', which is a local syrupy apple liqueur that goes so well with game.

For some late night fun, I took an inexpensive cab ride to the Casino de Montreal, located on an island. There is a doorman who opens your car door, for that VIP feeling. The casino is a full casino, with slots, baccarat, several kinds of poker, Keno etc. You can even watch horse races from Hong Kong! I understand that there are some topnotch restaurants on site, as well. The Montreal Casino is a place you can dress up or down and is perfect for night-owls. It's open 24 hours a day, with free parking, coat room and is handicapped-accessible

Special thanks to Air Canada; Genevieve Parent and the Chateau Frontenac; Yves Gentil, Bard Nordby and Bonjour Quebec/Ministere du Tourisme du Quebec; Richard Seguin from Quebec City Tourism and his great staff; Via Rail Canada; Hotel Place D'Armes; Tourisme Montreal and their lovely staff.