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QUEBEC CITY WITH OUR GRANDCHILDREN

by Pam Hobbs

Photos by Michael Algar

The clatter of our train speeding through the southern Ontario night halted so convulsively it woke me up. Then came an urgent knock on our bedroom door. I opened it a crack to find our two granddaughters, fully dressed in the corridor. It is one in the morning for heaven's sakeI thought they were sound asleep in the bedroom next door. "We're very sorry, but we think we stopped the train" 12 years old Hayley told me earnestly. "We accidentally knocked our telephone off its cradle, and the train stopped. Now we're afraid the railway man will come after us" added her l0 years old sister Madelaine.

After explaining that they haven't been responsible for any of the train's erratic starting and stopping since our 11.30 departure from Toronto, I eventually returned to my bed but not to sleep. My mind simply wouldn't turn off. Were Hayley and Maddie alright ? Is this trip really such a good idea ? Will they be bored ? Will I sleep ever again? Next thing I knew my husband, Michael, was down from his upper bunk telling me he hadn't heard a thing since midnight, and the girls were back ready to go for breakfast. Looking at my bloodshot eyes Maddie suggested I should have worn the earplugs provided (ah, that's what those little yellow things are) and then I'd have had a good night's sleep like the rest of us.

So begins our vacation to Quebec City. Our first trip with our granddaughters, and one in which we laugh a lot, learn a little, get to know each other better - and have the time of our lives.

Our destination proves to be an excellent choice for several reasons. Getting there by rail is an adventure in itself, especially for the girls who had never travelled on a long-distance train. We can stay in the fabled Chateau Frontenac, one of our favourite hotels and unlike anything they have ever experienced. Entertainment, museums, shops and restaurants are within a short walk of each other. The city is visually different from all others, in that its Upper and Lower Towns are separated by a 67m cliff. Icing on the cake is that we can try out our French.

In Montreal we settled into VIA Rail's Panorama Lounge to wait for our connection to Quebec City. From time to time the girls and I visit station souvenir shops displaying baubles so appealing to pre-teens, and soon we are on another train hurtling through Quebec's lush countryside. I find myself smiling when I hear Hayley and Maddie order from the lunch menus with the aplomb of world travelers, adding a few "merci beaucoups" and a shy "s'il vous plait monsieur" for good measure.

Their excitement is contagious as we approach the majestic chateau perched high above the river. It is said that to know Le Chateau is to know Old Quebec and vice versa. Truly the two are as inextricably intertwined as vines from a single root planted in the rich soil of New France some 400 years ago. For us it is the fairy-tale castle I have described to my granddaughters many times over the past few days.

In the sumptuous lobby I tell them how Canada's first ball was held here, in what was then the Chateau St Louis - a glittering, glamorous affair reminiscent of festivities at Louis XlV's court, yet this was Quebec in 1667. We speak of royalty, movie stars and world leaders who have met or stayed here, and turn-of-the-century Europeans who would arrive by ship to stay for a while before continuing on the trains across Canada to similarly grand hotels and resorts in magnificent settings.

Le Chateau's entrance is via a secluded courtyard in the rear, designed to keep traffic from the Dufferin Terrace out front. On a clear day this boardwalk offers fine views of the original settlement below, and beyond it the river. Often we rest on seats overlooking the brilliant red roofs and pale stone buildings of this Lower Town, and I tell my granddaughters about the city. How it is the only walled city north of Mexico, boasts the continent's largest aggregation of l7th and l8th century buildings, and its French culture and language have survived 400 years. History, as colorful as any in popular fiction, is skillfully preserved in those buildings down there. In fact the entire area within these walls is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Treasure.

I tell them the river below is the all-important St Lawrence which enabled 17th century explorers and fur traders and priests to reach Canada's interior wilderness. How it brought l9th century pioneers, and immigrants from Europe filled with hope for a better life in the 20th. How James Wolfe and his men paddled silently along this river early one September morning in 1759 to change the face of Canada. They say they know. They've learned about it in school.

On our second morning, long before tourists and entertainers crowd the boardwalk, Maddie and I seek out the site where Britain's General Wolfe and France's Marquis de Montcalm met in battle that autumn day. Beyond the terrace, along the Promenade des Gouveneurs and past the citadel's outer walls, we come to the Plains of Abraham in a dew-soaked Battlefield Park. Markers on the ground trace events of the decisive battle that lasted only twenty minutes, ended in a British victory and saw both leaders mortally wounded.

Maddie's interest is piqued sufficiently to follow these markers, until torrential rain sends us scurrying back to Le Chateau where Hayley and Michael have discovered the hotel's pool. From then on there is no turning back. Our mornings now start with a visit to the pool, hot tub and steam room. In late afternoons we return for another dip, and if the weather's right we relax on its outdoors terrace.

While the pool is a tremendous hit with our girls, I do believe Room Service has priority on their list of trip highlights. (Apparently chicken nuggets from the kids' menu are special when served in such grand style.) Hayley found the in-room menu on our first night here, and bone-weary from our afternoon's touring, we readily agree to try it. The girls were ecstatic. This is just like in the movies. Will the waiter lift the silver lids ? Can they put on the terry robes in the cupboard ? Will there be a single rose on a white cloth like there was in that Richard Gere movie ? Did I know this is how pop stars live ? They are not disappointed. Our good clothes brought along to wear in the hotel's Champlain Dining Room never leave their hangers. Instead, the white terry robes are donned each evening, as we are served with a courteous formality that has the girls believing they are princesses.

Our few days here slide happily by. On a particularly sultry morning we ride a cable-car to the top of the 83m Montmorency Falls, then walk on a pedestrian bridge across them. This would be a lovely place to spend a few hours, perhaps with a picnic or lunch in the historic Manoir Montmerency. Today though we plan to lunch in the Old Town, and have our caricatures drawn by one of the artists on Rue Ste Anne. (Of all their souvenirs, these caricatures are the favorites. Hayley is depicted pushing a shopping cart piled high with packages. Maddie is strumming a guitar.)

Scores of the Old City's historic buildings, many here since the early 1600s, are transformed into restaurants featuring some Quebecois dishes on their menus. When we came this way with our daughters thirty years ago we had a memorable lunch in the steep red-roofed Aux Anciens Canadiens. Now we do so again with our granddaughters and find it has lost none of its Quebec charm to passing time. This is the former Mason Jacquet, built in 1675 where rumor has it that General Montcalm lived and died. Here they serve Quebec meat pies and stews, sea-foods and wild game, and maple syrup desserts the girls tell us are "to die for".

Even at a stretch I couldn't describe myself as a keen shopper, but I must say I enjoy the Old Town's boutiques, well stocked with unique handicrafts, art, clothes and jewellery. In late afternoons when Michael returns to the pool, the girls and I end up here, temporarily lost in its warren of cobbled alleys. We love the Lower Town for its historic buildings in and around Place Royale. Acknowledged as the birthplace of French civilization in North America because Samuel Champlain constructed his "habitation" on this site in 1608, the square is a handsome stage for entertainers and costumed interpreters demonstrating life as it used to be. Virtually a living museum now, its historic dwellings are put into every-day use as shops, restaurants and museums. One even contains the entrance to a funicular which takes us back to the Upper Town.

Aching bones aside, Michael and I agree that we feel ridiculously young travelling with Hayley and Maddie, who remind us so much of our own daughters at their age. We watch them gain enough confidence to speak a little more French each day. And we are impressed by their thoughtfulness, especially towards their grandfather who still walks slowly following surgery last Spring.

Seasoned travelers by the time we board the trains for home, we all sleep like the dead most of the way. As we approach Toronto's Union Station we clink our hot chocolate cups in the breakfast lounge, with a toast to future trips - the four of us together.



VIA RAIL has special fares for seniors, and children traveling with adults. Telephone: 1-888-842-7245 or check out their website (www.viarail.ca) for details.

QUEBEC CITY is an eciting destination in all seasons. Telephone 418-641-6654, or click onto www.quebecregion.com/e

FAIRMONT LE CHATEAU FRONTENAC www.fairmont.com telephone: 1-800-441-7544 has attractive seasonal rates and family packages.

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Tips for a city visit with grandchildren

+ Choose a destination that you can enjoy rain or shine, preferably on foot or by public transit.

+ Select a hotel for its facilities as well as location. A sitting area adjoining your bedroom makes kife easier. Some hotels have electronic games; most have video rentals. Large hotels usually have kids' programs.

+ We opted for five days of first-class travel, rather than two weeks on a budget, to give our granddaughters an experience they wouldn't necessarily have with their parents.

+ When planning your trip, discuss the rules with your grandchildren's parents. We were given only one: "Don't let them out of your sight." Discuss what authority you have in case of accident or illness.

+ If you are taking your grandchildren out of the country, you must carry written permission from both parents.

+ Enjoy! We feel as if we have discovered a whole new mode of travel.