FIRST STOP: PORTSMOUTH, NEW HAMPSHIRE
The perfect stopover to break up the long (6 to 8 hours) drive from Boston to Quebec is the majestic Wentworth By the Sea in New Castle, New Hampshire, just outside Portsmouth and one hour north from Boston.
This 142-year-old Grande Dame, the only giant seaside resort left standing on the New Hampshire coast, where the well-off first used the word “summer” as a verb and settled in for the whole season, survived a fire in the 1980’s and abandonment in 1982. Raccoons lived inside the building, children broke in to scare each other on Halloween, and a murder mystery film, “In Dreams” was filmed here before the old gal was left to die.
Thankfully, Ocean Properties took over the once beloved building in 1997 and spent $30 million “refreshing” it. When it reopened in 2003,it was better than ever, with fewer rooms — 161 of them — but the original smaller ones had been opened up to make larger rooms, and beautifully furnished. Its bathrooms are now sized for the 21st Century, a new wing and ballroom has been added along with a stunning indoor pool to join the outdoor one, an award-winning spa with signature treatments using ingredients from the ocean nearby, and a fine restaurant – “Salt” – in which the creative menu (“Aquacotta” soup, “Sizzling Olives” appetizers, “Bee Hives” truffle honey dessert,) lives up to each clever menu listing for a gourmand’s delight.
Salt’s Chef Bar is a thoughtful arrangement of seats surrounding an open kitchen serving small plates, pizza and the like. It’s especially good for business travelers who, rather than having to eat alone, now sit together in a comfortable family-type setting while watching the chef at work.
A lot of history has been part of Wentworth. In 1905, for just one example, delegates from Japan and Russia were invited to the hotel after the Russo-Japanese War, to sign the peace treaty. To this day, the Japanese people consider the Wentworth a shrine. A member of Historic Hotels of America, and now also part of the Marriott chain, the hotel was named to the National Trust’s 2008 list of Dozen Distinctive Destinations.
It’s also a good family place now, with guest privileges at the nearby golf club and marina, its own beach, and a group of bi-level suites on the waterfront, from the balconies of which players from the Boston Symphony Orchestra used to come and play impromptu concerts for guests. It has even had a “major refreshing” in the last six months, with soft, calming decorative colors of gray in the lobby and guest rooms.
While it used to open only in summer, the Wentworth is now a warm and cozy year-round resort at the edge of the Atlantic.
SECOND STOP: QUEBEC CITY AND THE FRONTENAC
Note to those driving from Boston to Quebec: If you use a GPS, be sure you program it to drive into a foreign country. When we got to the border of Canada, our GPS had, for some reason, capability only for Ontario. Quebec City is not in Ontario, so we had to use old-fashioned paper maps, which are a little disconcerting when you’re facing a myriad of highways heading into the city. As nerve-wracking as that experience was, it was just as comforting to arrive in the middle of Old Quebec in busy high tourist season, pull up at the stone entrance gate, and find the valets of Fairmont’s Le Chalet Frontenac eager to whisk the car off to their garage so that we could thoroughly enjoy one of the best walking cities in the world.
If you’ve ever played King of the Castle as a kid, here’s your chance to do it as an adult. Called a real-life castle, Le Chalet Frontenac rules Old Quebec with its imposing 611 rooms sitting high on Quebec City’s highest promontory, Cap Diamont, from which you can gaze out on all of Quebec and beyond. A gorgeous copy of the chateaux of France, it boasts so much history within its walls (it was named after Louis de Buade, Count of Frontenac who guided the destiny of New France from 1672 to 1698) that it offers a 1½-hour guided tour that barely begins to touch on its story.
The majestic structure is said to be the most photographed hotel in the world and now, since the 2008 celebration of Quebec City’s 400th anniversary, when more lights than ever before were trained on the Frontenac so successfully that residents decided to keep them on permanently, visitors can take more dramatic nighttime shots.
She’s not a stuffy dowager, though, and has continuously uplifted and renovated with the times; in 2014 the hotel invested $75 million in revitalizing and modernizing her. There’s a contemporary spa and health club, the Fairmont Gold floors up to the 17th floor, a sort of luxury boutique VIP hotel-within-a-hotel, with nearly 360-degree views from the windows. The Frontenac is also as green as the newest eco hotels, with its unique program whereby if a guest of 2 or more nights foregoes maid service for one day, the Frontenac plants one tree in his/her name in Montmorency, the research and teaching forest of Laval University, 45 minutes north of the hotel. The executive chef’s private garden atop the roof contains not only herbs, but four bee hives as well, that produce about 650 pounds of honey annually.
You can walk to everything in Old Quebec from your Frontenac castle, including taking the 174 steps down (and maybe the funicular back up) to streets filled with bistros, cafes, shops and art galleries. Everything feels, looks, smells and sounds like Paris.
THIRD STOP: GAMBLING, GOLF, AND ANOTHER CASTLE
A roller-coaster ride into the Laurentian Mountains for three hours through deep dark forests touched lightly at the top with pre-autumn red and gold, in the manner of a slight hint of naturally light color showing through on a head of dark dyed hair, takes us in the Charlevoix region of Quebec, sometimes called the Newport of Canada. There, perched on a cliff overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence River, is another Fairmont, Le Manoir Richelieu, chosen as, among other awards, the 7th best golf resort in the world by Conde Nast Traveler. Summer and winter play land of the well-off, the stunning Norman-style stone and marble structure features 405 newly renovated guest rooms and spa, an awesome golf course, and across the driveway, a state-of-the-art casino with, among other games, “Volcan,” one of the hottest slots on the planet, all bells and lights in the center of the largest of the gaming rooms.
The 27-hole golf course, a beautiful 10-minute ride through the forest on a golf cart, also overlooks the St. Lawrence, and it has more short par-three holes than many other courses. Picturesque holes begin at the tops of massive hills, so that with the blue water on one side and the hole ‘way down below, your drives feel and look longer than you have ever hit, true or not.
The Richelieu also offers every kind of winter sport nearby, from bobsledding to curling to dog sledding, ski jumping and luge. U.S. President William Howard Taft knew a good thing when he discovered Charlevoix for his family. From the time he first visited the region in 1895, before the Richelieu was built, and for the next 40 years, he spent all of his summers in this region of Quebec.
FOURTH STOP: THE MONASTERY OF THE AUGUSTINE NUNS
From Sunday gambling to Monday vespers, our last stop in Old Quebec City took us into a real, working monastery which a little over a year ago built a contemporary hotel/wellness center nestled within its walls.
Hotel-Dieu de Quebec is a teaching hospital and was the first hospital in North America outside of Mexico. Augustine nuns are traditionally trained nurses, and in 1639 the King of France sent three of them to Quebec to set up a hospital here. Le Monastere des Augustines was built at the hospital in 1695 and by the 1950’s there were more than 200 nuns here, all working with either cancer or kidney disease patients. Nine sisters are left, most in their 80’s, but when we heard them sing vespers in the 17th Century cloister, which they do every evening, their soprano voices sounded childlike and clear.
In keeping with the nuns’ purpose at the hospital, the hotel is a wellness center, offering daily activities such as yoga and qigong, body treatments, holistic health discussion groups, even group needlework sessions. You can book a contemporary bedroom with an enormous bed and bath with WiFi capability but no television; most guests are looking to unplug, digitally speaking. You can also choose to book a historic room, with a shared bathroom and single bed that resembles those of the nuns, including handmade quilts and three wood hooks for hanging one’s veil, part of their white habits. A contemporary restaurant offers healthful foods but includes meats and wine – breakfast is taken silently. Surrounding the exercise and activity rooms is a museum of the monastery containing some of the 40,000 artifacts from their rich history. Men are just as welcome as women in this unique monastery/hotel, which costs $110 per day for the basic package or $250 for a contemporary room, full board, and treatments.
Anyone in the caregiving business can book a room at much lower cost than the general public, and all profits from the hotel are re-invested into people working as healthcare givers.
In between our exercise sessions and meals at the monastery, we slipped out to attend a few movies of the annual Quebec Film Festival just a few blocks away. The beauty of the monastery for out-of-town guests is that Old Quebec is right outside the door, so you will not feel cloistered in this lovely place of calm, unless you choose to remain inside for the duration.
LAST STOP: MAINE, AND ART AT THE EDGE OF THE SEA
Our final stopover, breaking up the long drive from Quebec to Boston, was Rockland, Maine, where we almost passed by the “HOTEL” sign that looked like what you might find outside an old-fashioned Western saloon/boarding house.
While that sign might not entice a traveler to enter the building, you should; what you’ll find, instead of the expected little dank dark front lobby, is a huge, open, light-filled ground floor of the brand new boutique hotel 250 Main overlooking Rockland Harbor and filled with fine art by Mainers.
The rhomboidal footprint of the 26-room hotel, built by luxury yacht builders Lyman-Morse, is as quirky and whimsical as the sayings written on each of the stair lifts on the four stairways which you should take instead of the elevators at some point during your stay. One of the quotes, “A wise man. Once said. A smooth sea. Never made a skilled sailor,” reflects on the mariner background, but the steel/oak/tile/glass building never recedes into cutesy Maine seaside touches such as fishnet and lobster buoys. However, you can see the ocean from every guest room by means of either floor to ceiling glass windows or private open decks big enough to fit in them couches and real trees.
Throughout the building are more than 60 pieces of art for sale, from $400 woodcuts to a $22,000 mixed media piece. The public comes gallery hopping on certain nights. The new contemporary gallery/hotel is owned by the Migis Hotel Group taking the Abenaki American word “migis,” which means “a place to steal away to rest,” as its theme.
Another misconception we had, when it was suggested that we have dinner at Natalie’s, a nearby restaurant in the Camden Harbor Inn, was that it would probably serve a good lobster roll, Camden being lobster central here in Midcoast Maine. Turns out that the inn is one of only two Relais & Chateaux properties in the state, and as such, its restaurant lives up to the rigorous standards of that prestigious international label. Yes, we had lobster, but it came in the form of 10 different courses, beginning with two amuse bouches, an intensely delicious lobster bisque made with coconut milk and Japanese mint, butter for our breads that came with six different choices of salt to top the butter including porcini mushroom, garlic and smoked mesquite, a pre-dessert dessert (tarragon ice cream with blackberry preserve, crumbled ginger snap and lemon puree); and for the road, cardamom lollipops. It was a meal that will be remembered forever for its taste, its beauty and its presentation.
You can pack an enormous variety of accommodation, activity, spectacular scenery, art, film, cuisine and history into one week and 558 miles of late summer driving, if you head straight north from Boston and don’t stop at the border of the USA.