From my perch, high in a castle turret, I watch snowflakes tumble below in the glow of street lanterns as horse-drawn carriages clip-clop along Rue Saint-Louis.
Nestled on a circular sofa and gazing through tall, leaded glass windows, my view from Canada’s grande dame of hotels is of a winter scene from another century.
Old Quebec City, a 400-year-old square kilometre fortress of vintage European ambience brimming with more than 3,000 historic buildings and encircled by towering stone ramparts, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the continent’s only walled city north of Mexico.
It’s an enchanting maze of steep, snow-carpeted cobblestone streets — home to stone merchants’ houses, monasteries and silver church spires — located on the promontory of Cap Diamant.
And crowning the fairy-tale town like an ornament atop a wedding cake is the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, a castle hotel bristling with copper-roofed turrets and towers.
“Bonjour madame,” a doorman, clad in a heavy winter coat, fur hat and white gloves, announces when I first arrive. He points me towards the revolving oak doors and I swing from a dark, raging blizzard outside into a dazzling lobby of polished brass, marble, candelabras and dark wood panelling adorned with coats of arms.
I am struck speechless, just as visitors have been since 1893.
Buzzing with French chatter, the lobby bustles with guests clad in parkas and boots along with families carrying skis and snowshoes; it’s the epicentre of a lively carnival that lasts all winter.
Throughout 2018, Le Chateau Frontenac is celebrating 125 years of overwhelming and pampering guests in five-star Quebecois fashion from the moment they push through those oak doors.
The majestic hotel, built by Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s, was one of a national string of railway hotels designed to entice visitors to ride the company’s newly completed rail line in style.
As a kid, I fell in love with the towers and turrets, arched stone ceilings and copper roofs echoing Loire Valley French châteaux that have become the signature style of Canada’s majestic “chateau hotels”: icons like the Chateau Laurier, Chateau Lake Louise, Victoria’s Empress Hotel and the Scottish Baronial-styled Banff Springs Hotel.
During this recent visit, I’m like a child again as I set out to explore, following the steps of a curved staircase that sweeps up from the lobby to the Palm Room with its frescoed ceiling (once an elegant tea room and now a venue for special events).
Next door, in the Grand Ballroom, I imagine a thousand dancers twirling in the glow of 10 massive crystal chandeliers.
While the vast salons are impressive, my true passion is poking around the chateau’s 12-kilometre labyrinth of passageways.
I discover hidden staircases, secluded turret retreats, stained glass windows telling stories of historic Canadian moments and nooks featuring antique furniture and portraits of bishops, kings and Louis de Buade, Count of Frontenac (Le Chateau Frontenac’s namesake and the man who governed the colony of New France during the 1600s).
Was it he who sipped from one of the antique champagne bottles — on display for public viewing in an archaeological display — unearthed from the site where Le Chateau Frontenac was built?
I peek back into history in the lavish Salon Rose where two top-secret Québec Conferences were held in 1943 and 1944 as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King planned the Invasion of Normandy and Europe’s post-war reconstruction.
Since her earliest days, the chateau has played hostess to famous guests whose vintage photos line one hallway — guests like Alfred Hitchcock who filmed I Confess here in 1953, and Celine Dion when, in 1990, she scored her first international break from record label executives who promptly signed her on after hearing her sing in the hotel ballroom.
One morning before my departure, I pause for a croissant and café au lait at a table perched alongside thick stone castle walls in a sunroom off Bistro Le Sam. Outside a nearby window, morning sun glistens off icicles fringing railings and roofs, and ice pans swirl down the St. Lawrence River.
With a charming French accent, my waiter points out that the space where I’m sitting was a curling rink in the 1930s, and that the toboggan run being enjoyed by children and adults alike on the Dufferin Terrace promenade below pre-dates the present hotel.
Even over breakfast there is no escaping history in the remarkable Chateau Frontenac, an enchanting enclave that is every bit as much museum and cultural centre as hotel.
Editor’s note: This story was not reviewed or edited by Toque & Canoe’s partners in tourism. Check out our profile featuring the author of this post — Arctic Junkie Margo Pfeiff: Dazzled, enchanted and hooked on the north — as well as other Toque & Canoe stories written by this celebrated Canadian travel writer, including a look at the unique architecture of Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights, By the light of the Candlefish, Surviving Canada’s Coldest Season, and Skwachays Lodge, Vancouver.
Founded by two Canucks on the loose in a big country, Toque & Canoe is an award-winning Canadian travel blog.