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Quebec City: A Learning Vacation for Kids

One could argue that just being in Quebec City is a learning vacation for families. Not only is the historic walled city the continent’s ultimate French-speaking city—95 percent of the population speaks French every day—but it is also filled with exciting stories from the past. Just walking the streets of the Upper Town, where the colonists of New France battled the attacking English, or strolling the cobbled, narrow avenues of the Lower Town, site of Benedict Arnold’s siege for American control, kids time travel through 400 years of history.

The location is also superb. Many who visit this settlement perched on the high cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence River declare the city to be among the most beautiful in the world. Other superlatives surface easily—the only walled city north of Mexico, the oldest shopping street in America, the largest fortifications still in use on the continent, the first urban centre to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the oldest institute set up to educate young women and so on. Kids may not completely understand the social and historic implications of the politics of the past or even the present. That’s O.K. Many adult Quebeçois don’t either. But young people will definitely soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the city’s joie de vivre. It’s also the next best thing to vacationing in Paris. And a whole lot cheaper.

Yes, it can sometimes be frustrating when your high school French is lacking, or you cannot understand a street sign (Quebec law makes sure that French language signs predominate), but in general, the citizens of Quebec are proud of their city and are eager to help the English-speaking visitor.

  • Start your visit with the Quebec Experience a 3D multimedia show (open seven days a week) just off the quaint Rue du Trésor in the Upper Town. Giant figures loom up in the dark to tell the history of the city, battles begin and crescendo. Little kids may be scared, especially when cannons sound or a bridge collapses but older ones will love the holographic effects of historic characters appearing on screens or the “real” waterfall sprinkling on stage. Afterward, stroll Rue du Trésor, the tiny alley where artists display their work.

  • For a more thorough history, visit National Battlefields Park where kids can don headphones at the Interpretation Centre and wander through a series of rooms offering sound and light presentations. Every schoolkid in Canada learns about the famous battle that took place on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 between the French and the British. Both leaders, the French General Montcalm and the British General Wolfe died that night, sealing the fate of North America. If Montcalm had pushed back the English troops and moved on to conquer parts of New England for France, then some Americans could be speaking French today.

    Even just strolling the 240-acre urban park will let kids experience history in a fun way. During the summer, Wolfe and Montcalm wander the grounds to interact with visitors. At the Discovery Pavilion, 835 Wilfrid Laurier Ave., families can sign up for a ride on Abraham’s Bus with private guide Abraham Martin, the legendary farmer who lent his name to the Plains part of the park. Kids will enjoy climbing on the collection of old cannons on the grounds or hiking the nature trails. On summertime evenings, sit on the grass for a free concert; in wintertime, when Quebec is illuminated with hundreds of twinkling lights, rent cross-country skis to traverse the five family trails. Or, enjoy a sleigh ride around the acres of snow. For ski rentals, call the Friends of the Plains, 418/ 648-4050.

  • At the Citadel, the large star-shaped but almost hidden fortress bordering National Battlefields Park, pipe music and drums accompany the Changing of the Guard each morning (June-Aug. 10 a.m.) and the Beating of the Retreat (Tues.,Thurs., Sat., Sun., July-Aug. 7 p.m.). So does Batisse, the shaggy goat mascot belonging to the Van Doos, Canada’s Royal 22e Regiment. Because this fortification is still an active military base for this French-speaking regiment of the Canadian Forces—soldiers walk about on daily business—families must tour with a guide. Tours leave every 15 minutes. Kids will love the old prison cell and the collection of military medals and guns while adults will appreciate the photos of President Reagan and President Roosevelt and wife Eleanor during visits. The small Museum offers intriquing if dated-looking objects such as wood carvings and wartime costumes; be sure to point out to the kids General Wolfe’s letter to his mother written on the eve of the famous battle. He signed it, “Your affectionate and obedient son.” Open daily mid-March to mid-October. In winter, reservations needed.

  • Located in the west corner of the old walled city, Artillery Park served as military quarters for French soldiers as well as the British garrison after the Conquest. Costumed figures invite kids to tour and share their lives. See the hard dormitory beds where the soldiers slept or take tea and scones in the elegant Dauphine Redoubt with the officers. On some days, kids can dress up too in period costumes. If you’re visiting on Sunday, you may be lucky enough to sample hot bread baked in the outdoor ovens. Young girls may want to visit Le Dames de Soie, a doll workshop and museum on the grounds where . Open mid-June to Labor Day.

  • Be sure to walk along Dufferin Terrasse, the wide wooden boardwalk that stretches along the upper cliff overlooking the river. Day or night, there seems to be impromptu performances and a lively atmosphere. Taste a buttery waffle while you’re watching a mime artist, have your face painted and top it off with a giraffe-shaped hat, dance to the sounds of a fiddle and harmonica. It’s a place for ice cream and music and people. Afterward, wander in to the castle-like Château Frontenac, whose hotel rooms lodge families, honeymooners and famous guests. In August 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill planned the Normandy invasion here. More recent guests have included rock star Bryan Adams and the Harlem Globetrotters. Many kids won’t believe that they can stay in this castle but they can. Kids 18 and under are free. Call 418/ 692-3861.

  • Musée de la Civilisation. If your kids want to dress up, don’t miss the costume room at the family-friendly Museum of Civilization across from the port in the Lower Town. In the best traditions of the Quebec-based Cirque de Soleil, even adults can dress up like clowns, jugglers or lion tamers and play the part. This architectural space also offers interactive exhibits on space as well as an impressive collection of First Nations artifacts such as exquisitely beaded wampum belts or a 2800-year-old becklace made of copper from Lake Superior. A video near an enormous birchbark rabaska shows master builder Cesar Newasnish expertly crafting a canoe from a large tree. On weekends, kids can attend workshops, in French only, where staff pass around native and Inuit objects such as a cradle board holding a baby, sealskin gloves or leather fringed gloves embroidered with a modern hockey crest.

    Afterward, wander through the Lower Town where nearby wall plaques remember the unsuccessful American invasion of the city led by General Montgomery and Benedict Arnold (at the corner of Rue de la Barricade and Rue Sault-au-Matelot), and have a time-out and a picnic at the small, leafy Unesco Park, where small kids can play on a rope climber or stick their faces through an 18th-century historic cut-out.

  • For a breather from all the history, head to the Jardin zoologique du Québec (the Zoo) in Charlesbourg (418/ 622-0312) or the Aquarium du Québec in Sainte-Foy (418/ 659-5264), both about a 20 minute drive away in different directions. At the zoo, kids can help to feed some of the 200 species of animals or attend one of the special events from cricket tasting to the wolves at twilight evenings. The small aquarium offers seal shows, fish tanks and films about life under the sea as well as hiking trails and a picnic area.

  • Each July, during the Quebec City Summer Festival, some 250 performing artists, clowns, mimes and musicians take over the streets for spontaneous fun — over 600 performances from as many as 25 different countries on stages, street corners and in the parks. Special children’s activities include a circus camp on the Plains of Abraham where kids can fly on a trapeze or learn to juggle. If you want to attend the evening performances, everything from Cajun zydeco music to African drumming or Argentinian reggae, buy a flashing button that gives access. At only $8 per person, with children 12 and under free, it’s a true family bargain.Call 418/ 692-4540; FAX 418/692-4384 or www.festival-ete-quebec.qc.ca.

  • Québec Winter Carnival is the largest winter festival in the world, a way of coping with an annual 135 inches of snow that seems to be in full drift by January. For three weekends, from end of January to mid February, the large jolly Bonhomme (Snowman) leads the parades of floats and music. Kids will enjoy the ice palace, the International Snow Sculpture Show, an Igloo Village and Children’s Place, where they can glide down an ice slide. Tel. 418/ 626-3716 or www.carnaval.qc.ca.

    Tips: The Upper Town with its Citadel and impressive castle-like hotel, Chateau Frontenac, is linked to the historic Lower Town by some 11 fairly steep staircases. Names like Break-your-neck Stairs (Casse-Cou Escalier) and Sailor’s Leap (du Sault-au-Matelot) indicate the kind of split level terrain you’re dealing with. The uneven sidewalks and cobbled streets also make it difficult for strollers. It’s easier to travel between the two by funicular cable car, only $1 for a ride. The main entrance is in the Louis-Jolliet House (discoverer of the Mississippi) in the heart of Old Quebec near Place Royale. The upper entrance is on the Dufferin Terrasse boardwalk.

    Getting There: Quebec City is about a two and a half hour drive east of Montreal, built on the cliffs along the St. Lawrence River. More and more cruise ships are choosing to dock at Quebec City, especially during the autumn color season in late September and early October. It’s a dramatic way to arrive from the American East Coast cities. Greater Québec Area Tourism and Convention Bureau, 60, rue D’Auteuil, Québec, Canada G1R 4C4, 800/ 363-7777 or 418/ 649-2608, FAX 418/ 692-1481 or visit www.quebecregion.com.




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