Happy Birthday Château Frontenac

By Liz Campbell

It has the distinction of being the most photographed hotel in the world. Indeed, it’s the only hotel in the world that has a stamp as well as a coin bearing its image. It’s probably unique too, in having its image on a page of its country’s passport. And this year, this Grand Dame of Canadian hotels is 125 years old.

In preparation for her birthday, the Château Frontenac in Québec City has had an $80 million renovation and refurbishment, which began in 2013. It was important, Robert Mercure, general manager of the hotel explains, that “while we included modern design elements, we had to respect the heritage of the hotel.” After all, he adds, some very important historic events have occurred on this site.

Here, 410 years ago, stood Fort St. Louis, the founding site and capital of New France. Later, Château St. Louis was built on the same spot (the excavated foundations can be visited from the Dufferin Terrace just outside the Château Frontenac).

In the late 19th century, William Cornelius Van Horne, then General Manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, began building a hotel here, as an elegant stopover for train travellers. Named after Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac, the flamboyant governor of the colony of New France 200 years earlier, the Château Frontenac, opened in 1893.

During World War II, the Québec Conferences of 1943 and 1944 were held here. These meetings enabled Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and William Lyon Mackenzie King to determine the course of the Normandy Landings and the final stages of World War II.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was founded here in 1945. And Québec Premier Maurice Duplessis (1936 -1939; 1944-1959) lived at the Château Frontenac during his mandates. His office is now an elegant library.

The Nouveau Château, as it has been dubbed since the renovation, remains elegant and beautiful, its historic details preserved. The copper roof has been replaced; but it will be a few years before the 36,000 kg of new copper is once again the distinctive verdigris green so familiar on older postcards. Beautiful works of art and souvenirs have been created from the salvaged copper; some of these are for sale in the Galerie d’Art in the hotel lobby.

Eight newly-created, elegant suites in the Château Frontenac honour some of the famous people who have stayed here, or who have had connections with the hotel: Winston Churchill, Pierre and Justin Trudeau (Justin stayed here as a child), Alfred Hitchcock (who filmed some scenes here for his film, “I Confess”), Queen Elizabeth II, Grace Kelly, Celine Dion (who was actually discovered by an executive from Sony Music while performing here), Theodore Roosevelt, and of course, William Cornelius Van Horne.

Over the years, the guest list has included the glitterati − Charles Lindbergh, Charles De Gaulle and many members of royalty. But no less important are the many other guests who have passed through the historic building. Most of their stories, like that of a young American couple spending their honeymoon here, are happy ones. But one possibly sad one came to light when the hotel was being renovated.

A postcard was found, trapped between floors in the mail chute, which normally drops letters directly into the elegant brass mail box in the lobby. It was apparently posted more than 70 years earlier during World War II, from a soldier asking his sweetheart to wait for him as he went off to fight. Did the pair spend their last night together in the most magnificent hotel in the city? Was the pair reunited after the war?

Staff at the Frontenac tried to locate the soldier or his girl, but sadly, they were unsuccessful. And we will never know the end of the story.

The Château Frontenac dominates the skyline of Québec City, which was actually the first capital of Canada. The decisive 1759 battle on the Plains of Abraham gave Canada to the British, but this city remains French to its core. It’s often said that here one can enjoy the best of French culture and food without leaving the North American continent. And where better to enjoy this hospitality than in the city’s most distinctive hotel?

And this is the year to do it. As the hotel marks its 125th birthday, Québec City is celebrating its 410th. At the Château, a host of events have been designed to mark both milestones. The full list is on the website but here’s a small sample.

Celebrity chefs from across Canada will be visiting, though frankly, the new Québecois cuisine of Executive Chef Stéphane Modat is hard to beat.

Staff are encouraged to bring souvenirs, objects and anecdotes to share as part of a display along with furniture, silver, and ceremonial tableware belonging to the hotel.

Spring and harvest festivals, gourmet experiences, remembrances to mark the end of World War I and the historic Québec conferences during World War II – the list of events is long.

For details visit www.fairmont.com/frontenac-quebec/ and click on the 125th birthday celebration link. Specially priced packages are available.

For more travel and food, visit forkonthemove.com and follow Liz Campbell on Twitter and Instagram: forkonthemove.