Quebec City – A Lovely Vacation Option

This year we debated about going abroad for vacation. I was pushing Scotland, Mike was pushing a beach in Michigan. After some debate and research and perhaps my declaration that we HAVE to do something different, we decided to take the kids to Canada.

We thought it would be a way to get the kids out of America and into a new culture (I realize Canadian culture is not the major shift to the senses that, say, Chinese culture would be), but without the cost and travel pains of Europe or beyond. [Note: The area is French speaking and, as you can imagine, signs and menus are in French and English. Locals speak French first and switch to English when needed. We don’t speak a word of French and it wasn’t a huge problem, but dusting off your high school French would be helpful.]

So the plan was to treat this trip as a true traveling vacation rather than plunking down at a beach or resort (though that is also wonderful). We structured it to include four days in Quebec City and then travel by train to Montreal for another four days. I won’t lie, it was also a bit of a test to see what our kids (and we) could handle.

We booked two AirBnb apartments for the trip (more on that later) and planned to cook ourselves a few meals and do our laundry in the apartments.

The outcome? I think we all agree the trip was a success. It was exhausting and there were difficult moments (quite a few of them), but we learned a lot from this experience. That’s a post in and of itself, friends.

But back to Quebec City.

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If you’re like me, you want to know tips and recommendations from other parents who have been to the places I am researching, particularly when traveling with kids. It just helps to see what you’re heading into. We used a Lonely Planet guidebook, as well as blog and Pinterest research.

I put together a list of what we did and would recommend. Of course, this list is just one perspective from one family during one summer. So if you have other recommendations, please add them into the comments. I’d love to be a resource for others who are contemplating this trip.

Quebec City Highlights:

Montmorency Falls. As soon as I announced we were heading to QC, I started hearing that we needed to head to “the waterfall.” So I made a note that we HAD to do this. Indeed, Montmorency Falls (located outside QC) was the highlight of our time there. It’s a gorgeous waterfall (a bit taller than Niagara) located in a suburb about 30 minutes from Quebec City. To get there, hop on the 800 bus outside the Metrobus station (kids ride free) and take it all the way to the last stop. Our bus driver pointed out how to get into the park.

We took rain jackets because it was rainy and overcast when we left our apartment that morning; however, they’re a good idea even if it’s sunny. You can walk across the waterfall via bridge and trek down to the base (several hundred steps) via wooden stairs. Once you get to the base, prepare to get drenched as the mist and wind swirl around you. It’s a lot of steps, but when are you going to get this chance again? We used the tram to get back up to the top of the waterfall and had a nice lunch at the hotel there. The kids are still talking about the waterfall.IMGP6231
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Citadelle – Changing of the Guard

We took the opportunity to visit the Citadelle and witness the changing of the guard. This occurs every morning at 10 am. It’s a very popular tourist activity, but we didn’t enjoy it as much as we thought we would. After paying to enter, we were guided to an open area where the transfer takes place. The military band and soldiers were impressive. However, it was extremely hot and sunny (no shade) that day and we were so tired from all our walking at the Montmorency Falls. We could have pushed it, but our instincts said to cut bait. Rather than stay for the guided English tour around the Citadelle, we chose to leave and head out for snacks and some resting at the Boardwalk. However, if you’re into military history, this could be a great. And, had it not been so hot that day, we probably would have stayed.

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Fort Saint Louis- Interactive exhibit under boardwalk

This quick and interactive exhibit of the archeological remains of Fort Saint Louis and the Chateau was a lot of fun. It was less than $10 for our entire family and lasted 30 minutes. The Canadian Parks department has done a great job with this exhibit, providing explorer notebooks for kids to fill out as they walk underground. A mini archeological site is provided for kids to dig out “artifacts” – mostly old ceramic plate pieces. A few dress up clothes are also available and interactive screens hang from the ceiling in each corner for further exploration. Tickets can be purchased on the boardwalk (Terrasse Dufferin boardwalk).


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Funicular

The funicular is a little tram that takes people between the Upper and Lower Town areas. The Lower Town is where you head to be close to the river, and walk through cozy streets filled with restaurants and shops. The boardwalk area of the Upper Town boasts beautiful river views and fun street performers (my son thought they were fantastic). When I say take the Funicular, it’s sort of a general phrase for exploring the shops and restaurants down in the Lower Town area, as well as touring the boardwalk. The steps and hills are STEEP here. It’s nice to take this little tram up or down when your knees get weak. And also it’s cool to say the word funicular.

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Notre Dame de Quebec Cathedral

A beautiful catholic church sits in the middle of the Old Town. Free admission. This is a quick stop if you’ve got little ones who aren’t so excited about a big church visit. It was impressive to our children, who don’t have much exposure to cathedrals. And we could easily pop in, take some pictures, and then pop out. Perhaps some of you have children who like to stay for long time periods in super quiet places… also maybe you don’t. This was an easy stop for our family.

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Boat ride at sunset

I should state upfront that we chose to do this at 11:30 a.m. rather than sunset. When traveling with kids you often have to make concessions for temperament and, well, bed times. Ah well. It’s a beautiful 1.5 hour tour of the St. Lawrence River, which takes you by Ile d’Orleans and past the Montmorency Falls. Drinks and snacks are available during the guided architectural tour. It’s a nice non-walking activity for little ones and adults with sore feet! Ferry rides are also available if you want something quicker. Side note: Horse rides are also a very popular (but pricey) way to tour around the old streets. We didn’t take one, but they look wonderful.

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Chateau Frontenac – extremely famous hotel

We chose to stay in an Airbnb while in Quebec City. However, the Chateau Frontenac is a huge, extremely beautiful, and popular hotel that gets high marks. Even though we weren’t staying there, we knew we wanted to stop in and have a look around. We originally planned to grab an afternoon snack and drinks there. However, timing didn’t quite work out. It was mid-morning when we found ourselves in the lobby. We opted to wander downstairs instead and enjoy some Starbucks (I know, I know), which opens out onto the boardwalk. It was still fun!

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Running around the city walls

Exploring the city walls and running around the stone steps is a free and easy way to view the city from above. The kids really responded to the open spaces and the chance to imagine they were under siege!

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Swing by Tim Horton’s

We knew we wanted to stop in at Tim Horton’s before leaving Canada. So we stopped in for coffee, donuts and TimBits early one morning. And, yes, it was delicious. Fine, fine, okay. We stopped by there twice in Quebec City. And also in Montreal. Donuts, people… donuts.

So Is Quebec City good for kids? Would we recommend it?

It’s a beautiful city and feels very quaint and European. There were several things our children loved, including the waterfall, the Fort Saint Louis, the boardwalk area and all the chances to explore the city walls. But Quebec City is not Disney World and if you’re looking for big parks and amusement rides, then it may not be the right fit. We knew all of this going in and we thought it was a great city to explore.

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Total collapse. It was inevitable at some point.

It was a lot of walking. Bring good shoes. No matter how energetic your children are, a trip likes this requires a lot of walking and that can be tiring and frustrating. Combine that with parents who are in unfamiliar neighborhoods and are also trying to figure things out and, well, there are moments.

Our family spent three days there and that felt about right. But you could spend a lot more time here and explore more. Isn’t that always the case? We skipped the museums because a) Chicago offers a lot of museum opportunities already and b) our kids really wanted to be outdoors. However, the museums did look interesting and I’d be curious to hear what others have to say about them. There are lots of restaurants and pretty shops, but our kids cannot stand shopping. We didn’t really even bother to shop. Although we did take the bus to a large toy store called Benjo, which we had read about in our guidebook, and allow the kids to each pick out a small toy.

When our time in beautiful Quebec City was finished, we headed to Montreal next, and we’ll be writing up our experiences on that city soon. In the meantime, feel free to add your thoughts, tips, experiences, and recommendations in the comments. We love hearing what others enjoy!

Quebec City – A Lovely Vacation Option

Homemade Travel Journals

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This weekend I decided that the kids needed travel journals. And I’m the sorta person who gets an idea in her head and then has to jump on it immediately. This is one of my best/worst qualities. Once an idea weasels its way into my brain, I cannot let it go.

Etsy is one of my favorite resources and I headed there first, but I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. Lots of cute items, but I couldn’t find THE THING. The ideal journal in my mind is one that serves as a writing prompt, has room for drawings (for little ones who aren’t writing fluently yet) and fits the nature of the trip (i.e. doesn’t ask about amusement park rides when you’re not taking a trip to Disney).

And there are little pet peeves I have with kid products in general, such as having teensy weensy lines for the kids to write in and cheap spiral bound coils that immediately get crushed and make it hard to turn the pages.

So I decided to create something myself. Now I’m not a crafty McCrafter or a graphic designer. My skills are primitive, at best. However, I know my kids and I think I know the types of things they’ll want to remember and the types of questions I’d like them to think about.

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Using some map/globe/travel-y photos from my computer, I tried to make it colorful and inviting. I brainstormed the questions I want my kids to answer and left plenty of space between lines for large kid handwriting. There are still more components I’d like to add later, including a way to house souvenirs and photos.

One draft later, I printed it out and hole punched the pages. I happened to have a cute 3-ring binder on hand and it worked perfectly. When I showed my daughter she said, from the very bottom of her dear heart, “I think I forgot to brush my teeth.”

Clearly, the sentiment was overwhelming.

But I’m not sweating it. I have a feeling she’d rather do this than practice workbook pages this summer. Plus, this little journal didn’t cost me a dime so I’m not really out anything if it doesn’t work out.

Any tips or tricks for helping kids record travel memories? Let me know!

Homemade Travel Journals

Travel plans underway

I've strategically placed one clue to our destination in this flag, er, photo. Dang it!
I’ve strategically placed one clue to our destination in this flag, er, photo. Dang it!

We’ve finally nailed down our summer vacation plans and I’m excited to report we will be heading to Canada, specifically Quebec City and Montreal, for one week. We debated a lot of locales and narrowed it down to the FINAL THREE: Canada, Scotland, and Michigan. I know, I know, one of those things is not like the other. However, Chicago people know that Michigan makes for one great week at the beach.

After some back and forth, we landed on Quebec. Why Quebec?

I’ve read really good things about Quebec City in passing during the last year and started to casually research it a few months ago. From what I can tell, it’s an incredibly beautiful historic city that feels very European, but cheaper and with a shorter plane ride. We can still tie a bit of history and French culture in with our trip preparations (I’m kinda into that because I feel like connecting the dots between travel and history can be eye-opening).

We’re going to test the waters with this trip to Canada before we head to Europe (potentially next year, right? Mike? Honey? Still with me?). The trip will include three days in Quebec City, travel from Quebec City to Montreal via train (should be beautiful!) and then three days in Montreal. We fly into Quebec and out of Montreal.

So now I’ve got a list of things to get moving on like finding AirBNB apartments and getting Anna’s passport application filed. We have had some frustrations with passport operations at our local post office and still have to get hers submitted.

If you’ve traveled to these locations and have tips or recommendations, please share them! I love, love, love, to hear what others have to say about their favorite attractions and restaurants.

Travel plans underway

Chinon

We know nothing about wine. When I approached mike about trying out some French wines before we head to France next month, he said, “like Merlot?”

Because we seriously only know the names of the most basic and commonplace wines. I’ve always preferred beer and we’re not big drinkers to begin with so wine knowledge was never a high priority.
But I thought it would be fun to try a few things. I googled wine varieties near Normandy (not much wine production going on in Normandy itself). Turns out the Loire region (nearby) is known for its Chinon. My that sounds so… French!
Guess we’ll pour some in our Toby Keith beer mugs. Kidding, kidding… Though we were once given something along these lines.
I recently had a brief discussion with some friends on whether we like or get frustrated by the planning and trip prep. Personally, I enjoy it! And what better way than to drink through this bottle of “research?”
Previously published elsewhere on our family blog on Wednesday, April 09, 2014
Chinon

Paris, oh Paris

We have been home for less than a week. The trip to France was absolutely wonderful. Amazing. Spectacular. Energizing. Fantastic. Stunning.

Is it too soon to go back to France?
I jest. Kinda…
It’s wonderful to be away, but all those little things on your to do list have a way of smacking  you right in the head when you re-enter the real world and this week has been that way.
So today I turn my thoughts to the trip and begin a series of France posts. Our trip began in Normandy in a small town of Bayeaux and then we traveled to Paris. However, I’m going to just take it easy and post about the things we did and forget chronological order. It just seems easier that way and, of course, it doesn’t really matter to the folks who just want to see photos and hear about the experience.
And so I give you… the Eiffel Tower.
I know it will sound funny, but I am actually more impressed with this structure now that I’ve been there than I was before I visited. We both had a curiosity but the Eiffel Tower wasn’t on Mike or my bucket list.
It should have been. It’s really fascinating. First, it looks very sculptural in photos and I couldn’t imagine how exactly you traverse up and down it. I knew there was an elevator, but it just doesn’t seem very people friendly.
And, truthfully, it’s not. I mean, it’s totally fine, but it’s one of those things I don’t think would fly in America because it is truly just a giant piece of metal – rough and sharp and full of screws. Not that there aren’t safety measures in place and railings and guard rails, etc. I truly think it is all perfectly safe. But in America there would be defibrillators and water stations and step pads and grips and all sorts of stuff. And a multi-media presentation every five feet.
We decided to beat the crowds and hike up to the second landing. If we had just taken the elevator like normal people, my impression would be different. Mike climbed it like a champ, but I was heaving and pulling myself up by the end. It’s freakishly difficult. And you’re just surrounded by an endless vision of brown metal corners and joints and bolts.
But then you get to the landing and look out and it’s AMAZING.
And you realize that everyone around you, speaking a zillion different languages and having a zillion different thoughts and worries on their minds, it just temporarily all focused on the beauty of Paris. And the simplicity of the hike up that giant tower actually make the views and experience all the more meaningful.

We stayed in the Rue Cler neighborhood and it was an easy walk from our hotel. We had dedicated a much larger amount of time to the visit than we needed to because we chose to hike up the stairs rather than the long wait for the elevator. And we decided to forgo the ride to the very tippy top. I don’t always love heights and it was hard imagining the view being so much better (and the crowds being enjoyable). Mike was neutral on going to the very top. So we just made our way back down the stairs again. I tried to smile encouragingly at the folks who were sweating it up the stairs. You can do it… you can do it.

And it was worth it.

So that’s the story of the Eiffel Tower… have you been? what did you think?

Previously published elsewhere on our family blog Thursday, May 22, 2014

Paris, oh Paris

The Bayeux Tapestry

We chose to stay in Bayeux on a whim. When I started researching Normandy I read that Bayeux would make a good spot for day trips to both the D-Day beaches and Mont St-Michel. My main resource for this entire trip was the Rick Steves’ France 2013 book and his Paris book. We are Rick Steves’ fans, having previously used his guidebooks for our trip to Germany and Austria when we got married. I listen to his podcasts while I drive or fold laundry and we even youtube’d his Normandy episode and watched it in the kitchen while cooking dinner one night before we left.

But I digress. Bayeux.
Not knowing what to expect, we bought our train tickets in Paris and hopped aboard the SNCF train. When we arrived, we walked a few blocks to our hotel, when all of a sudden we see THIS:

The Bayeux Cathedral. Large-scale cathedrals like this really shouldn’t surprise us any more. They are all over Europe. However, they always catch us off guard because we are just not used to this kinda stuff being right off the sidewalk.

This picture above really doesn’t do it justice. It’s about twice as large (wide) as the picture shows. Our first day was solidly booked with the D-Day tours, but after returning from Mont St. Michel, we headed over to visit the cathedral and another amazing site – the Bayeux Tapestry.

I don’t always love visiting church after church after church. But the only church we had on our agenda this trip was Notre Dame so this was just a pleasant little surprise.

The church historically held the Bayeaux Tapestry (more on that in a sec) and good Normandy folks were supposed to come visit and relive the epic battle tale it tells. It would wrap around the inside of the cathedral.
As in most churches, there were corners filled with statues and relics and opportunities to light candles (for a donation of a euro or two) and say a prayer. I personally enjoy taking a minute to do this. But this one was actually a bit more meaningful because I noticed a picture of a saint who I actually had read about in the last couple of years.

Saint Therese of Lisieux (pronounced Lee-soh). There is a small town near Bayeux called Lisieux… Duh. It all fell on me like a ton of bricks. I’m so used to France being this hugely faraway place that I sorta forgot that places can be so incredibly close once you get over there. Again, if I’d had all the time in the world, I would have visited her home there.

I’ll spare you all the history about Saint Therese. However, the thing she was a Carmelite nun who died quite young and is most known for encouraging love and humility and living “the little way.” She is also known as the “little flower.” Here’s the wikipedia page if you’re interested!
I have a devotional that I picked up awhile back at a used bookstore with notes from her memoir and scripture for each day, but it has been sitting on my bookshelf. While I was walking through the cathedral, I had a renewed curiosity to to dust it off.
Now the biggest draw for the town of Bayeux is its tapestry. This amazing work of art is a UNESCO world heritage site. A tapestry? Yep, a tapestry.
Essentially, it’s a giant embroidered tapestry that tells, scene by scene, the story of William the Conquerer (heir to the English throne) and how he secured the throne from Lord Harold, who tried to take it in a rather underhanded way.
No photos are allowed of the tapestry, but if you click here, you can see photos and read about it. Now if you’re like me and thinking… really? a narration of a battle? this is interesting?

Oh my gosh! It was so incredible. The audio guide walks you through the story and each section of the tapestry. What a story. The king is about to die. He names a successor (William, Duke of Normandy) and asks Harold (a contender for the throne himself) to carry the message to William.  But Harold gets angry and ends up taking over himself– despite the fact that William saved his life when Harold was captured en route. There’s a scene where men are running through and getting stuck in the quick sand at Mont St. Michel (we had been there that very morning) and all sorts of crazy battle highlights. The saga continues with a final victory — William becomes known as “the conquerer” and history is forever changed.

And then you get through the whole story and the audio tour says… this would be known as the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Oh jeez, yeah, I’ve heard of that. Ashamed to admit I couldn’t have told you anything about it.  But, yes, I probably should have known a little something about this.

This might be the most amazing gob-smacking part of travel. If I can go somewhere and look at the place and read the history, I am infinitely interested and open to everything. To be quite frank – I feel really smart. The ability to see and feel things rather than read a chapter in a book is what makes my head spin and my world explode.

This little visit was yet another reminder that the world is real. These things I’ve read about really happened somewhere and there are lands and buildings and people and families touched by this rich history. I feel so incredibly lucky to have seen this tapestry. Mike and I agreed that we actually felt like we had seen something priceless.

Previously posted elsewhere on our family blog on Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Bayeux Tapestry