QUÉBEC CITY — Every time I push open the polished bronzed doors of one of Fairmont’s legendary heritage hotels, like this city’s fabulous Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, I’m imbued with a sense of history. These landmark properties, you see, are much more than hotels. They’re time capsules where you go back to the future. Examples:
• At London’s iconic Savoy, which Fairmont manages, I swear a hint of cigar smoke still lingers in the Savoy Grill restaurant where Sir Winston Churchill dined calmly with his wartime cabinet while Nazi bombs rained down on 1940s London.
• When I arrive at Fairmont’s Art Deco masterpiece, The Peace Hotel, in Shanghai, I’m reminded of the last days of British colonial rule in China’s largest city, when women dressed like princesses danced until dawn with Japanese forces advancing.
• Every time I enter Fairmont’s celebrated Plaza Hotel on New York’s fashionable Fifth Ave., I imagine seeing dapper Cary Grant sipping a martini in the hotel’s Oak Bar, as he did in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North By Northwest, just one of many movies that used the Plaza as a set; others include The Way We Were (1973), Home Alone 2 (1992), Bride Wars (2009) and The Great Gatsby (2013).
Above: Le Château Frontenac occupies a special place in old Quebec - perched overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence River.
Every one of Fairmont’s legendary hotels has a story to tell — luxurious storehouses of history, all.
However, none can match the history of Québec City’s fabled Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, which in 2018 celebrates its 125th anniversary.
It literally sits on the foundation of Canada.
“Le Château is 125 but its history goes back 410 years,” Robert Mercure, the hotel’s general manager, tells me during a recent visit. “Le Château sits on the exact spot where the first capital of New France, which later became Canada, was built.”
Mercure puffs out his chest like a proud papa when talking about Le Château’s amazing history and the “nouveau Château” people will see during the 2018 anniversary celebrations.“Even at 125, she’s still turning heads,” smiles Mercure, who oversaw a $80 million modernization of the Grand Dame of Canadian hotels, which first opened in 1893.
While Mercure talks excitedly about the anniversary celebrations and the hotel’s future — “we had our best year ever for bookings in 2017 and we expect even better results in 2018” — he’s most proud of Le Château Frontenac’s glorious past. And why not? The hotel’s history could fill an entire book, and does — the one written by France Gagnon Pratte and Eric Etter entitled The Château Frontenac. It’s published by Editions Continuite and is available in bookstores or Kindle. Fascinating read.
“Such a rich history,” beams Mercure as he begins to list Le Château’s many accomplishments and recognitions.
“Did you know Le Château Frontenac is the only hotel in the world that has a stamp commemorated in its honour,” boasts the GM. “Le Château has also been featured on Canadian currency and it’s the most photographed hotel in the world.
“And if you look on your Canadian passport (page 24) you’ll find a picture of Le Château Frontenac,” he says.
While Le Château is celebrating 125 years as a hotel, the recent renovations and upgrades have turned back the clock on this beauty and the property looks younger and better than ever.
“Every part of the hotel — rooms, restaurants, function rooms, public spaces — was upgraded,” says Mercure, who also points out that a new spa and fitness centre were also added.
Above: During a massive renovation at Le Château Frontenac, public spaces and guest rooms were given a total makeover.
So Le Château Frontenac has much to celebrate in 2018 and Fairmont kicked off the festivities in late January, on the eve of Le Carnaval de Québec, the largest winter festival in the world, which attracts over one million visitors annually.
Le Château, the first brick chateau in Canada, was originally built by Canadian Pacific Railways — you got to stay at the hotel in the 1800s for free if you purchased a train ticket — and is designed after the great chateaus of France’s wine-rich Loire Valley. It’s named after the flamboyant Count of Frontenac, Louis de Buade, a former governor of New France, and because it sits within the walls of Québec’s UNESCO-designated Old Town, Le Château gets a well deserved heritage status.
Of all the events that have taken place at Le Château Frontenac over its 125-year history, none were more important than the two “war conferences” held by Allied leaders here in the 1940s. At the first (1943), the leaders of Great Britain (Sir Winston Churchill), the U.S. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and Canada (Mackenzie King) drafted D-Day plans; at the second (1944), the three drew up plans for what Europe would look like after World War II.
Le Château was commissioned by the Canadian government and closed for two weeks during those conferences, which shaped the world for years to come.
That event, and many more, will be celebrated throughout 2018, says Mercure.
“We’ll have many exhibitions throughout the year,” says the general manager, who informs me Steve Barakatt has written an anthem for the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac and it will be performed on April 14 by the Québec Symphony Orchestra.
Operas, art exhibitions, events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, culinary galas featuring some of Canada’s best-known celebrity chefs, and many other events, with lots of international participation, are also on the menu for Le Château’s Frontenac’s 125th birthday celebrations.
The festivities will conclude with a “blowout party on December 18th (2018), which is the official date of Le Château’s opening,” says Mercure.
Left: The giants of world history have walked through Le Château's elegant lobby. Right: Dated photo of hotel's earliest days.
“We’re also asking former guests to bring back some of the memorabilia taken from the hotel over the years so they can be displayed in an Antique Roadshow kind of event.”
As part of the renovations, the hotel’s executive Gold Floor was turned into a “mini boutique hotel” and suites once occupied by famed guests — Churchill, The Queen, Charles de Gaulle, Roosevelt, William Cornelius Van Horne (the founder of Canadian Pacific who ordered Le Château built), Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Princess Grace of Monaco and Céline Dion — were also refurbished and now can be occupied by those who want to sleep with history.
“Justin Trudeau (Canada’s current prime minister and Pierre’s oldest son) was here a few days ago and he’s so excited about the renovations we’ve done and the way the suite has been updated,” Mercure says.
“Justin has fond memories of staying in that suite with his father and now as prime minister.”
Interestingly, Mercure reminds me that Dion, the Québec songbird who’s become an international mega star, was discovered at Le Château.
“René Angélil (Dion’s late husband who served as her long-time manager) heard Sony executives were staying at Le Château and arranged for her to sing in front of them. She was signed to a contract on the spot and the rest is history,” winks Mercure.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of Princess Grace’s visit to Le Château. That’s especially important to Mercure, who was manager of the Fairmont Monte Carlo for two years.
“My friends in Monaco are gathering some Princess Grace memorabilia and they’ll be showcased at Le Château in 2018,” he says.
Fairmont’s Le Château Frontenac is a living history that just keeps getting better with age.
• For more on what’s planned for Fairmont Le Château Frontenac’s 125th birthday, please go to http://www.chateaufrontenac125.com
• Air Canada, WestJet and Porter Airlines offer multiple daily flights to Québec City from various cities across Canada.
• For more on Fairmont’s other historic properties, go to http://www.fairmont.com
About the Author
Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former Travel Editor of the Toronto Star, Canada's largest newspaper, and now Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world. Japan is one of his favorite destinations and he's been there on numerous occasions.