"Père Noël is for the big malls," Filteau said.
But even if there were no Québec Fête Noël, there would be reasons aplenty to visit Quebec City — for its antiquity, its fine restaurants and accommodations, its foreign flavor.
I first checked into the family-owned Hotel Dominion 1912 in the Vieux-Port. It occupies the former Dominion Fish and Fruit building and the adjacent onetime 1901 stock exchange. It is cozy, comfortable and chic. You'll find a small lobby bar with fireplace, lots of dark wood and big, plump easy chairs slipcovered in white. The rooms are generous, with plentiful amenities.
Later, I relocated to the nearby Auberge Saint-Antoine, which I also loved. It's less intimate, with a sophisticated, whimsical contemporary décor in neutral colors dashed with crimson. The two-level lobby has three fireplaces and two reading nooks. During the expansion of the auberge in 2001, numerous centuries-old household artifacts were uncovered and are now exhibited throughout the hotel.
Eating appears to be a Quebec pastime. There are more than 100 restaurants in Old Quebec alone, some offering regional fare such as crepes and meat pies. The most sophisticated palate will be satisfied at one of the newer upscale restaurants, where dinner invariably begins with an amuse bouche, a taste-teaser. Top restaurants are expensive, as the U.S. dollar has slipped and now hovers around $1.23 to $1 Canadian.
One day, fete executive Daniel Gross introduced me to Buffets de l'Antiquaire on antiques row, Rue Saint-Paul. Nothing fancy, just Formica-topped tables and a counter, but locals flock there for inexpensive, filling fare — burgers and hot dogs, cheese fondue and onion soup.
My dinner splurges were at Toast!, an intimate room in the Vieux-Port, and at L'Utopie, which opened in April in the newly chic Saint-Roch district. Both were terrific. L'Utopie is a work of art, with aspen tree trunks reaching toward its black ceiling. The food also is art but not at the expense of taste.
My sightseeing took me to Musée de la Civilisation, in a stunning contemporary building that blends in beautifully with its Vieux-Port neighbors. I was fascinated by its permanent exhibit, "People of Québec Then and Now," with a range of objects, including a 17th century French bishop's miter and the late, great Maurice Richard's hockey stick.
One snowy afternoon I took a city tour with Nicole Bergeron from the tourism office. She explained such things as why some trees were wrapped in white fabric (to protect them from cold until their roots grow strong). She told me the story of the Louis XIV bust in Place-Royale: It seems early merchants thought the original, erected in 1686, took up too much space. "It disappeared one night, so France had to give another one," she said. It's a copy of a Bernini at Versailles.
We went off the tourist track to Saint-Roch, a traditionally blue-collar residential area undergoing gentrification, and to Faubourg Saint-Jean-Baptiste, stopping in at Maison Jean-Alfred Moisan, one of North America's oldest grocery stores, founded in 1871. It's part-market, part-museum, with many original fixtures, and it's a treat.
Bergeron showed me Avenue Cartier in the chic Montcalm district, a good shopping and dining destination, and then we drove down the Grand Allée, hub of nightlife. "We call it our Champs-Elysées," she said.
One day I went to the Musée d'Art Inuit Brousseau, a splendid museum of Canadian Eskimo art, where visitors can trace the evolution of these self-taught artists, who sculpt in media such as walrus tusk, stone and caribou antlers. It's not just bears anymore; some of it has become playful and abstract. The art sold in the adjoining shop is the real thing — not always the case elsewhere in the city.
The good old days?
An 18th century building, Maison Chevalier, offers visitors a glimpse of life in Quebec 300 years ago. In one of its re-created rooms, I chatted with costumed members of the Societe d'Histoire, local history buffs. And I learned from an exhibit a bit about the 18th century diet: "People consumed bread in enormous quantities accompanied by cabbage, turnip or onion soup flavored with a lump of lard or of eel." Gulp. Our guide, Geneviève, spoke as though she'd been around in those days, which was charming. "We were afraid of water. Doctors prescribed less than five baths a year."
Railroad buffs might want to peek at the restored Gare du Palais, a 1915 château-style station with stained-glass ceiling. It houses the popular Aviatic Club, where I lunched one day to the music of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. The theme, vintage aviation, seemed odd given the locale, but the ambience was good, with rattan ceiling fans and potted palms.
Quebec is a great city for walking, and a safe one. If you get lost, you're sure to find someone who speaks English. It's a heart-pumping hike from the Lower Town to the Upper Town on the escalier de casse-cou (breakneck stairway), but the funicular that leaves from Place-Royale is an option.
Locals repeatedly told me to beware of snow and icicles falling from the steeply slanted rooftops; street signs warn: "Danger: Chute de glace" (falling ice).