QUEBEC CITY - Off the beautifully ornate lobby of the famed Fairmont Chateau Frontenac Hotel sits a dimly-lit area with a few chairs, a small chest and a portrait of a man dressed in the robes of a Cardinal. The area is dedicated to Monsigneur Laval, a former Cardinal of this Catholic-dominated city and founder of nearby Laval University.
When the Pope visited Quebec City a few years back he stopped and admired this area of the hotel and then went on to bless the Cardinal's resting place in the L'Eglise Notre-Dame des Victories, one of the city's oldest churches located not far from the Frontenac.
As I continued my walkabout of the castle-style property, I had to keep reminding myself that this is one of Canada's most famous and deluxe hotels and not a museum. Which was hard when we kept bumping into groups of guests and tourists who were being led around the property on guided historic tours - there are several offered daily - by employees dressed in turn-of-the-century costumes.
The Fairmont Chateau Frontenac, I decided, is truly a living history.
The hotel, perched majestically on the rocky cliff overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence River and Quebec City's lower town, started making history when it opened in 1893 to great fanfare as the crown jewel of Canadian Pacific's string of hotels that stretched across the country - the Banff Springs Hotel and Victoria's Empress were the others that opened around the same time.
The Frontenac hasn't stopped making history since.
From the time it opened, the Frontenac has been a place where some of history's most important players have gathered to make some monumental decisions.
A plaque outside the hotel's arched entrance tells of the time World War II leaders Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill bunkered down in the Frontenac with then Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King and planned the battle of Normandy.
The plaque and two suites named in honour of the then U.S. president and British prime minister are reminders of that 1944 summit, which helped change the course of the war and put the Frontenac in the world spotlight.
Left: The charming streets outside the hotel are a joy to wander. Right: In winter the slide next to the hotel is very popular.
Now people come from all over the globe for a chance to stay, or at least tour, this monument to history - in the process making the Frontenac "the most photographed hotel in the world," according to staff.
What they see is one of Canada's most historic structures, which has been updated over the course of time to reflect a more modern world - grand ballrooms now serve as conference centres and the spacious, well-appointed rooms are crammed with the latest technology.
The hotel has undergone two major expansions since its opening, each time making it bigger and better. The hotel has grown to 618 rooms, some grouped on the Fairmont Gold Floors, where you have your own lounge, private check-in service and some of the best tender-loving care a traveller could imagine, and 12 luxury suites, all named after the famous people that have unpacked their bags here.
The Van Horne Suite is named in honour of Cornelius Van Horne, the progressive leader of CP Rail who pioneered much of Canada back in the 19th century. It’s located on the hotel's fourth floor in its original wing and is features rich oak floors and is decorated with antique furniture and comes with stunning views of the St. Lawrence.
"This was (former French president) Jacques Chirac's favourite room," a chamber maid told us. "This is also the room that Ronald Reagan has stayed in and (singer) Celine Dion - the hotel's celebrity spokesperson - likes to stay here as well."
Of course, being a world leader, a member of the Royal Family or at least the queen of pop music helps when it comes to paying for one of these suites, which can run up to $2,000 a night.
The other suites are just as interesting, especially the one named in honour of legendary Hollywood director Alfred Hitchcock. He made one of his many movies at the Frontenac - which is always receiving requests to act as a movie backdrop - and the suite is decorated with a lot of Hitchcock memorabilia. A set of ornate stairs off the main lobby leads to the grand ballroom and an area of the hotel once known as the Palm Room. The Palm Room's beautifully hand-painted ceiling dates back to the hotel's opening. Ten enormous crystal chandeliers hang in the grand ballroom, each one representing a Canadian province.
We reach another floor and stumble upon what’s known as the chef garden.
The garden, which overlooks the charming peaked buildings surrounding the Frontenac - including Quebec's original National Assembly building located across the street, which now houses the province's Ministry of Finance - is where the hotel’s master chef picks the ingredients for the fabulous meals prepared in the Frontenac's many dining halls, the most impressive of which is the Champlain Room. Louis, the long-time matre d' of the Champlain Room, is a charming character who fills guests with wonderful stories about the hotel's past while they dine overlooking the city's famous boardwalk and the beautiful rose garden planted just outside the restaurant's beveled windows.
Each of the rooms at the Frontenac has been updated - most with marbled bathrooms. The in-room marble isn't quite as nice as the kind you will find in the hotel's lobby, however. So much marble was used in the lobby that it had to be imported from the U.S. and Italy.
Despite the many upgrades to the hotel, though, it's still the old charm that keeps people coming back to a place that is as treasured as the rest of this UNESCO World Heritage city.
Le Chateau Frontenac sits adjacent to the Plains of Abraham, a historic site concerning battles between the French and English. The hotel offers a health club, spa, adult and children’s pools, whirlpools and steam rooms, three restaurants, a lounge and complimentary coffee in the lobby and rooms. Gold Floor guests get free continental breakfast and late-day snacks.
- Le Chateau Frontenac is located at 1, rue des Carrieres. Telephone: 418-692-3861 or call toll free, 1-800-441-1414. Or go to Fairmont's Web site, www.Fairmont.com
. for more information on rates.