The savvy traveler in me would like to say that it was the history and Old World beauty that first drew me to Quebec City, but I don’t think that’s true. No, I think I succumbed to an age-old travel habit, traveling somewhere just to see the photo in real life. The photo in question is the Chateau Frontenac and according to the Guinness Book of World Records, I don’t think I’m alone.
I first saw the photo of the famed Gilded Age hotel long before I actually know what or where it was located. Then a friend of mine spent her honeymoon there and things began to click and I knew I had to find a way to see this hotel in person.
Originally built in the 1890s for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, the Chateau is just one of many classic Fairmont hotels strewn across Canada like giant Monopoly pieces. The Frontenac is meant to illicit comparisons to a European castle, which isn’t by accident. The present day luxury hotel sits on the site of an older castle, the Chateau Haldimand that was built in the 1780s to serve as the official residence of the colonial government. That chateau was demolished with the construction of the Frontenac.
We were in Canada as the guest of Quebec Tourism, and when we arrived on the late train from Montreal and Quebec City appeared to already be asleep for the night. The quick five-minute car ride revealed quiet streets with only one or two people walking their dogs on the chilly November evening. The Frontenac was different though, just a month before Christmas the hotel was lit up like a firecracker and people were bustling through its stately lobby.
Stately is probably one of the best words to use for the Frontenac. I felt like I should have been wearing dark sunglasses and followed by a valet lugging impressive quantities of bags. I felt like cameras should have been sneaking photos of me from the corner, I felt like I was important. But it was just me and my little roller bag walking through the brass doors, famous only in my own mind but treated like a super star if only for a night.
The hotel is old, there’s no denying that, but constant modernization has kept the inside looking as good as the exterior. The rooms are a little dated, but I was assured that a massive refurbishment is underway that will bring the 618 guest rooms into the 21st century. But that’s not why I wanted to stay there, not really, I wanted to stay at the Chateau because of what it is, an icon.
There are other impressive hotels in the world and even other chateau-style hotels in Canada that look pretty similar to the Frontenac. (Banff Springs for example) So why is this hotel, this one hotel in a medium-sized city in the middle of a frozen Canadian province the most photographed hotel in the world? Well it may have a lot to do with its roof.
In truth the hotel has many roofs and turrets and gables and other fancy architectural things. But it’s the main tower that automatically captures the eye and draws you in. And until last year that tower, along with the others, had a green roof. The roofs are made of copper, and just like Lady Liberty in New York Harbor, they oxidized and turned green. But, as I said, only until last year. That’s when a massive, $7 million transformation took place replacing the old roof of the central tower with a brand new copper roof. A new roof that has not yet oxidized obviously and a new roof that isn’t therefore green, but, well, copper in color.
All of those millions of photos snapped by holiday goers and professionals alike are now officially and totally out of date, representative of an era gone by. Today the central roof shines in the afternoon sun like a beacon calling everyone to visit and experience the luxury for themselves. Personally, I think the roof looks a little strange since all of the other roofs are still green, but that’s just me. Roofs have to be replaced periodically and it was time for the Fairmont to undergo its change. But its shocking beauty is still there and the way it transports guests back to a time of luxury and elegance will never go away.
I took photos of the hotel from every imaginable angle, even on water from the nearby ferryboat. It never got old; I never got tired of seeing it be it day or night. And I’m glad I was obsessed with the Chateau Frontenac for so long, because if I hadn’t been I might not have had a chance to explore one of my new favorite cities, Quebec City.
I’m not sure what locals think of the hotel, but I do know how proud they are of their city and with good reason. It’s unlike any other city in Canada I’ve visited and while it remains rooted in two different continents, both Old World and New, it is an accessible and a fun place to visit. As with many great cities, there isn’t one activity that defines it, but instead it’s the city itself that is the true joy. Walking around the downtown neighborhoods, eating at small bistros and just watching the world go by is my favorite way to spend time in Quebec.
As we left the hotel I wasn’t necessarily sad to leave the hotel, but I was sad to leave the city. Then and there I decided that while another trip to the Frontenac may not necessarily be in my future, a return to the city itself is an absolute necessity.