A stay at Quebec City’s most venerated hotel is a return to an era of movie stars and statesmen.
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Photo of the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac hotel
Today, Fairmont Le Château Frontenac claims to be the world's most photographed hotel.
| Credit: Nicolas McComber/Getty Images

It was in December, a few years ago, that I first visited Fairmont Le Château Frontenac (doubles from $230), whose fairy-tale silhouette rises on a promontory above the St. Lawrence River. I was smitten. But what, I wondered, would Samuel de Champlain—who founded Quebec City on this very rock—have thought of the astonishing building that looms where his fort once stood? 

He would certainly have appreciated the wave of warm air that greeted me as I walked into the chandeliered lobby. (Interiors were a lot chillier in this part of the world in 1608.) The snowfall outside wasn't heavy, but it was more than I had seen over the past decade back home in England, and I happily sipped scotch in the 1608 Bar as tobogganers hurtled down the steep triple-lane slide outside. There's nothing so cozy as a comfortable chair, a strong drink, and a view of people cavorting in subzero temperatures—although cozy is an odd word to describe a 610-room hotel built more than a century ago in the style of a Renaissance French château

Historical photo of guests in a hotel salon room
The hotel's salon, photographed in 1924. | Credit: Courtesy of Archives of Canadian Pacific

The hotel was designed by American architect Bruce Price and built in 1893, at the behest of William Cornelius Van Horne, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He wanted to lure the glitterati to Quebec City—by train, of course. He predicted the Château would become "the most talked about hotel on the continent."

Drink done, I went looking for ghosts. Charles Lindbergh, Grace Kelly, and Montgomery Clift once walked the corridors. During Prohibition, Americans came to party with free-flowing booze, and they kept coming long after the ban ended. In 1943, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt met here to plan the Allied campaigns.

Québécois journalist Monique Duval recalled visiting "this magnificent hotel" in 1939 as an awestruck teenager. Part of the Fairmont group since 2001, it is still both glamorously international and, in the words of local newspaper Le Devoir, "so prominent in the city's consciousness that there is even no sign over its entrance." Looking out over the St. Lawrence from my bedroom, I, too, felt like an enthralled adolescent. 

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Historical photo of the Chateau Frontenac
Château Frontenac in 1912. | Credit: Courtesy of Archives of Canadian Pacific

If "le Château," as locals call it, turned out just as Van Horne wished, perhaps it's because Price—like his daughter, the etiquette guru Emily Post—knew just how things should be done. Even the fact that he took inspiration from Old France feels deliberate, a reminder that Quebec and English Canada are very different places. Not that the province was always united in admiration of the new arrival: Montreal was envious, Quebec City triumphant. "If you Montrealers want class and style," the papers crowed, "come spend a few days at Château Frontenac." 

On my way to dinner at Champlain, one of the hotel's restaurants, I peeked into the kitchens, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed a police chase for I Confess. I ate guinea fowl at my table in Champlain beneath glowing wine bottles in a glass display case. The décor has been updated but an old-fashioned formality remains, and I dressed accordingly: Duval wrote of coming to tea in high heels and white gloves. A rich history, a touch of polish, and a dollop of eccentricity: if le Château is the sign over the entrance to this chilly city, it offers the warmest welcome.

A version of this story first appeared in the February 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Queen of All She Surveys.

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