Explorer Jacques Cartier was seeking the Northwest Passage to China when he set off from France in 1534. After 20 days at sea, he sighted Newfoundland, then proceeded around the Gulf of St Lawrence and into Chaleur Bay, landing on the Gaspe Peninsula and Prince Edward Island. The French navigator declared it "the-most beautiful stretch of land imaginable" and returned the following year to sail up the St Lawrence River as far as the village of Stadacona, which would later become Quebec. Up river, he disembarked to climb the hill behind the village of Hochelaga, naming the high ground Mont Real, or Mount Royal, in honour of his patron, King Francois I.
Today, with its population of 3.4 million, Montreal is the largest city in Quebec which, in turn, is the largest province in Canada. At seven times the size of the UK, this vast region offers some of the most diverse landscapes in an already diverse country. But more than its spectacular topography of lakes, mountains, plains and rolling hills, its eastern location bestows seasons of sharp contrast that drape the land with abundant snow in winter, create a floral explosion in spring and summer and paint the landscape with hues of red, gold and russet in autumn.
Montreal is the first city many visitors to Canada encounter. This vibrant metropolis--home to more than 40 per cent of Quebec's population--has an ancient heart, with a history and culture that predates European colonisation by hundreds of years.
The oldest part of the city visible today was constructed in the 18th century and is dominated by the Notre Dame Basilica, a vast Gothic Revival cathedral built to hold a congregation of 5,000. The surrounding streets, fringed with restored colonial buildings, are narrow, cobbled and have a strong European flavour; cafes and restaurants spill Onto leafy squares, while delicatessens, bakers and grocers provide gourmet takeaways to strolling visitors in true Continental style.
Downtown Montreal has a host of museums, including the McCord Museum of Canadian History, which has fine displays of folk art and the history of Quebec's indigenous people. To the east, the Olympic Park, built for the 1976 games, has been converted into a vast leisure centre with a Biodome containing tour ecosystems and the world's third largest botanical garden. There are fine views extending 80 kilometres across the landscape from the observation deck above the stadium, reached via the Olympic Stadium Funicular--the tallest inclined structure in the world.
Located just 250 kilometres to the northeast, Quebec City can also lay claim to a remarkable history. Granted World Heritage status in 1985, it's the only fortified city on the continent north of Mexico. At a modest 93 square kilometres, Quebec City is small, and is characterised by its dramatic location. The buildings span the cliffs of Cap Diamant, which divides the city between the Upper nod Lower Towns, creating a labyrinth of cobbled streets and steep stairwells.
The city's most imposing structure is the cliff-top Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1893 in the style of a medieval castle, it's said to be the world's most photographed hotel and retains many of its original features. In front of the Chateau, some 60 metres above the river, the Terrace Dufferin provides visitors with a 425-metre walkway from which there are wonderful river views.
To the northwest of Quebec City and Montreal, the Laurentians curve in a gloat smile, following the arc of the St Lawrence and Outaouais rivers. Extending over oil area of 22,000 square kilometres, the mountains provide some excellent skiing. The region also has a host of pretty villages of steep-roofed, brightly painted houses. Summer provides hiking, walking and fishing, as well as simple scenic touring.
To the northeast of the Laurentians, the mountains meet the mighty St Lawrence River creating a landscape considered one of the most beautiful in the province. …