The surrounding countryside of I'ile d'Orleans and Charlevoix are pastoral counterpoints to Quebec City's old-world charms, Rebecca Lo finds.
'You'll have to speak French in Quebec!" I was warned time and again about the lack of English in the provincial capital of Quebec. But despite my virtually non-existent high school French, I was unflappable. Quebec City has long been regarded as a slice of Europe in North America. While cruising along Boulevard Champlain as follows the sweeping St. Lawrence River, it is easy to see why.
Rugged Canadian Shield cliffs and brightly colored clapboard houses fly past us as we attempt to find our bed and breakfast, Hayden's Wexford House along Rue Champlain.
A tousled gray-haired man in his 50s, dressed casually in worn jeans and a T-shirt, greets us with a hearty handshake as he opens the door.
"Salut," says Jacques Brouard, proprietor of the 1832 gray stone house with a pretty garden to the side.
We are shown upstairs to our St. Lawrence River-facing room, one of four in the home. Though small, its sloping ceilings and vintage wallpaper made us immediately feel like we were settled in a quaint cottage.
Any Canadian primary school student can easily rattle off why Quebec City is so important to the country's history.
The cradle of French Lower Canada, it is the only city north of Mexico that has retained its original fortified walls.
The citadel that encompasses the historic center of old Quebec was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.
And it was on the Plains of Abraham, today a rolling park enjoyed by picnicking day trippers, where British soldiers defeated the French in 1759, allowing them to eventually take the rest of Canada.
However, Quebec City has famously kept much of the windy paths, stone buildings and old-world charm that makes its historic center the most European-looking town in North America.
To stretch our legs, we walk to nearby Quartier Petit Champlain. North America's oldest continuously operating commercial area, the fur trading posts dating back to 1608 have yielded to artisan boutiques, bistros with alfresco terraces and street artists who strut their creative stuff during warmer months.
Its red brick buildings, cobblestone streets and wrought-iron balconies are so European that if it weren't for the ubiquitous Tim Horton's coffee shop, we would have been fooled.
After a brief wait, we are escorted outside to a glass topped wrought iron table beside a patch of orange tulips and daisies at Le Lapin Saute. We dive into fresh pasta and sandwiches, regretfully declining the restaurant's namesake dish of rabbit.
Refreshed and ready for adventure, we head to nearby L'ile d'Orleans, about a dozen kilometers east of the city's limits.
A teardrop-shaped island that serves as a bedroom community for Quebec City, it is a haven for craftsmen and one-of-a-kind businesses that prefer a slower pace of life in a beautiful setting.
We stop at Vignoble Saint-Petronille on L'ile d'Orleans, a family-run boutique winery where grapes for whites, reds, ice and champagne-style wine are harvested from vineyards next to the winery.
Its grounds offer a splendid view of Chute Montmorency, a mighty waterfall nestled in green pines.
At the cellar door offering complimentary tastings, we were introduced to mistrelle, a blend of brandy, sugar and grape juice that tastes like ice wine with a kick. There are also picnic tables for wine fans that must try out their new purchases immediately.
After all that driving around in pastoral splendor, a feast was in order.
We decide upon Restaurant Les Ancetres in Saint-Pierre and were delighted to be treated to a view of the falls by twilight from our table.
Equally exciting was the news that mussels in white wine and blue cheese sauce was the day's special, served the Belgian way with a heaping side of fries. A dessert of authentic Quebecois sugar pie with rich cream had me sighing in contentment.
Continuing back on the northern shore of the St. Lawrence on Route 360, we wander around the basilica in Saint-Anne-de-Beaupre.
There has been a chapel in the same location since 1658, while the current Neo-Classical version with its rose window modeled after Notre Dame in Paris was built in 1923.
We loved the sleepy town dominated by this basilica, with its traditional barrel vault ceilings highlighted by detailed frescoes.
Poutine is a Quebec must and its savory blend of fries, meat flavored gravy and cheese is best enjoyed in the province's small towns.
But we were nonplussed to discover an advertisement for poutine glacee in Baie-Saint-Paul in Charlevoix.
Ice cream with cheese? Meat flavored wafers? Although tempting in a Heston Blumenthal science experiment way, we decided to forego the delicacy and instead have some smoked meat at Joe Smoked Meat.
The mix of delicately spiced tender morsels rivaled the best delis in Montreal, and I cleared my plate of smoked pastrami salad in no time.
The St. Lawrence has widened substantially by the time we arrive in the tiny town of Saint Simeon and we can no longer see the opposite shoreline.
We stroll around Poterie Port-au-Persil to admire the two dozen or so artists' works along with the view of the river from the rear coffee shop.
The late Pierre Legault was an innovator in glaze and clay-based pottery, and he founded the studio in a bright yellow barn in 1974.
Today, it is run by Helene Garon, who continues the tradition of handcrafted pottery and runs a workshop teaching Legault's technique to a new legion of ceramic enthusiasts.
After much deliberating, I decide on a Serge Robert-designed water jug that resembles a smart handbag, and managed to transport it safely home without a scratch.
When we head back into Quebec City, we enjoy a traditional dinner at Aux Anciens Canadien, a red roof house that dishes up hearty fare like tourtiere and game dishes.
On our way back to the car, a couple stops us to spout a string of advice in Quebecois French - which we understood not a single word of.
After driving about a block, we encountered the same experience with a neighboring driver who stopped at the same red light.
When we looked at him in confusion, he switched to English and said that our rear tire was dangerously low and verging on a flat.
Maybe it does help to understand some French in Quebec after all.