Plan B

The ad on the travel page of the daily newspaper read "Plan B." The advertisement was a clever way to get you to consider Quebec City as a travel destination this summer. The ad was a candid acknowledgement that Quebec might not be your first choice, but hey, it’s got the old-world charm of Europe without the lengthy travel time and the threat of terrorists, and the exchange rate is in our favor.

So we went to Plan B — and, for the most part, we were happy we did.

Quebec is the oldest city in Canada, established in 1608 by the explorer Samuel de Champlain. The heart of the city sits on the banks of the St. Lawrence River.

Our hotel, Le Chateau Frontenac, looks like a grand castle out of the Middle Ages, towering above the boardwalk and the steep hills below in which are tucked tiny streets teeming with tourists and sidewalk caf�s and boutiques. You may be able to walk down the steep steps that lead you to each level below, but you probably will need the Funiculaire — a combination glass elevator and cable car — to get back.

You may be tempted to call Quebec "Paris Lite," but the French-Canadian city has its own distinct charm, and it doesn’t have the infamous brusque arrogance of some of the Parisians, or its dirt or crime rate. Our tour guide told us that Quebec abandoned capital punishment in 1961 and its crime rate dropped to practically nothing. There are also strict gun-control laws in Quebec, and welfare even for the few criminals who get out of prison and can’t find a job, and national healthcare.

There are no homeless sleeping on the streets of the city. One of the homeless shelters that was pointed out to us was described as a place where you can get decent meals and a safe place to sleep, so long as you are sober. All of this is paid for by high taxes. In other words, you won’t hear Rush Limbaugh extolling the virtues of Quebec.

This is not to say that Quebec is some modern Utopia. Like it or not, Quebec has become famous for its separatist movement rooted in a desire to preserve its French heritage. Our tour guide, though French-Canadian, was vehemently anti-separatist and anti-French (the Parisian French, that is). He proclaimed the separatist movement dead, although the vote has been close enough in each election to believe that this might be so much wishful thinking on his part.

A small area of the city is reserved for those with at least one parent of British heritage. Only in that area can you see street signs and businesses with English names. These people are allowed to send their children to the only public schools where English is taught. In the rest of Quebec, French is the official language and you must send your kids for private tutoring at your own expense if you want them to also learn English.

Despite these distinct lines that seem to be drawn between the French-Canadians and their English counterparts, most of the people we met engaged in tourism were happily bilingual, with the exception of one cabdriver who appeared not to understand a word of English.

The exchange rate of approximately $1.40 Canadian to the American dollar helps to offset the 15-percent federal/province tax that is slapped on food and clothing purchases. Although the bistros and caf�s lack the high standards of Paris, you can never go hungry in Quebec. Many of the menus have a curious combination of French and Italian dishes (i.e. lasagne with brie). Regional dishes emphasize the use of maple in their sauces. Let’s face it, when you produce most of the world’s maple syrup, you’ve got to find uses for it besides hotcakes, and the Quebecois do.

Some of us who remember when Quebec had a hockey team remember when the hockey club refused to play The Star-Spangled Banner before their games. But that bit of boorishness does not portray an accurate picture of the friendliness and courtesy of the Quebecois with whom we dealt. One remembers the charming young woman selling her father’s watercolor sketches in the artists’ alley in Old Quebec, or the young girl eager to help us find our way to the ferry where we watched the lights of the city crossing the St. Lawrence, or the vivacious waitress helping us to say "You are beautiful" in French — her smile lighting up the night.

We could say that about Quebec and its people in our short stay: You are beautiful.