Every September, grade four students across Ontario, PEI and Nova Scotia start learning French as a second language at school. Not only is a weekend visit to Quebec City an ingenious way to expose children to the richness and relevance of French culture, it can also help pre-empt the inevitable: ‘Why do I have to learn French, Mom?’
For our gang of four (which includes Anton, 9 and Siena, 2), Quebec City, with its winding cobblestone streets speckled with bistros and patisseries and its vast, monument-filled green spaces, was a cultural immersion that played brilliantly to our strengths as a family: walking and eating. Here’s how we put the education in vacation.
Le Château: The most photographed hotel in the world, Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac is an obvious point of intrigue. Its vast boardwalk, lined with the cannons once used to ward off invading armies, provides gorgeous views of the river and Old Quebec. For those curious about chateau life in the 19th century, the hotel offers guided tours by costumed chambermaids. Much to the delight of the children, tiptoeing was often required so as not to disturb the gentry.
Le Bateau: At Pirates, Privateers and Freebooters, an interactive exhibit tracing the little known history of piracy along the North Atlantic, we climbed aboard a full-scale reproduction of a pirate ship (complete with a chatty crew) to experience the life and living conditions of these ruthless scoundrels.
Le Menu: Le Lapin Sauté, an intimate bistro in the Petit Champlain district, was unfazed by our chunky stroller and welcomed Siena with crayons, colouring books, and a ‘bunny basket’ of goodies. While my husband, Pat and I feasted on various preparations of rabbit and duck, the kids dug into a thoughtful, three-course children’s menu – welcomingly priced at $5.95. Our experience in Quebec was that even the tiniest and/or trendiest restaurants catered to families. Rule of thumb: the hipper-looking the eatery, the cooler-looking the high chair.
Le Mille-feuille: At Café Boulangerie Paillard, Siena bee-lined for the gelato bar but suffered buyer`s remorse when Pat`s mille-feuille arrived. This classic French dessert, with its infinite layers of delicate pastry and fresh cream, was made even more ambrosial with a ripple of whipped raspberry.
La Guerre: Intrigued by Quebec City’s strategically placed cannons and war memorials, Anton led the charge to Musée du Fort for its popular sound and light show re-enacting the Battle of the Plains of Abraham on a 400 square foot diorama of Quebec City.
Les Jouets: In addition to mountains of original and educational toys from France, Germany and Quebec, Benjo features a giant electric train that chauffeured Siena around the first floor. A favourite of Celine Dion, the 25,000 foot store once opened just for her son.
Le Plein Air: The Plains of Abraham, the storied site of bloody battles between the French and British Empires, has mellowed into Quebec City’s biggest playground – with over 5,000 trees for shade. For yet more fresh air, the breezy, waterfront trails of Promenade Samuel de Champlain are ideal for walking, biking and rollerblading.
Le Pay-Off: The best measure of the trip's success was how often Anton would ask me to translate words and phrases. Not only was he keen to interact with the approachable cast of waiters, shopkeepers and costumed characters who populated our trip, but he wanted to do it in French. How do you say…worth it!?