It wasn’t until after an 11-hour drive, when our little Subaru finally passed the Canadian Border Patrol post, that I allowed myself to believe that this trip was actually taking place.
Travel during a pandemic is unpredictable: any trip can derail for any reason, at any time. And the driving seemed to make it even more so. At least when you travel you have something tangible – a ticket, a baggage claim stub – to make sure that yes, you go on vacation. But when you drive to Canada just days after the land border reopens to tourists in August, all you have is your vaccination record and your hopes of nothing wasted.
Because: There is a process for entering the country by car. You must be at least two weeks away from the last dose of your coronavirus vaccine (check) and be free of all symptoms of the coronavirus (check). You must enter your passport and vaccination documents into the ArriveCAN system, including a quarantine plan that is not necessarily a hotel. (This is in case your hotel is full beyond your reservation. We write down the address of a friend we had planned to see.) You must also present a negative coronavirus test less than 72 hours before your border crossing. Rapid antigenic tests are not allowed. (There is no requirement for US citizens to re-enter the United States.)
Three days before we left, my husband and I had taken a free drive-through coronavirus test at CVS. Two days ago, reading the fine print in the CVS document, we realized that our results might not be delivered in time for our scheduled entry. So we panicked and paid way too much at a travel clinic for 30-minute coronavirus test results. Of course, our CVS results were delivered two hours later.
Doubly negative for the coronavirus, we started the roughly nine hour drive from Washington, DC – for us, 12 hours with traffic and stops – to the Champlain / Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle entry point on the Interstate 87, looking at the signs turning to the French north of Plattsburgh, New York. Yes, we could have stolen. But with one member of our group mildly immunocompromised and the creeping delta variant, we still weren’t comfortable being in a crowded airport. Plus, having our car would give us the flexibility to bounce back and forth between Montreal and Quebec City and take day trips.
It turned out that we had nothing to fear. The crossing was easy: a wacky Canadian border guard inspected our papers and asked if we were carrying marijuana. (“It’s legal there and legal here but not here,” he says, pointing to his station.) Thirty minutes later, the Montreal skyline, with its massive cross atop Mount Royal, was in sight.
Which introduced our next uncertainty: How do you spend a vacation in a big city when you’re not yet comfortable being indoors with other people for an extended period of time? We always avoided the crowds, always eating outside. It was our first vacation since January 2020.
This too was not a problem in the two cities. Respect for the mask is much, much higher in Quebec cities than in some of the more liberal regions of the United States. Masks are mandatory indoors across the province, and many stores also require you to sanitize your hands upon entering. A vaccination passport, introduced after our trip, is now required to enter many bars and entertainment venues.
We shouldn’t have worried. In a city where the winters are long and brutal, the pleasant climate is even more appreciated. All of Quebec also wanted to be outside. We filled the week – five days in Montreal and two in Quebec – with marches. We drove through the historic Old Port and the Montreal Botanical Garden, which features impressive displays of plants important to the nation’s First Nations people and a display of boreal foliage from around the world. We huffed up Mount Royal blowing and pushing the steep stairs to the top of the mountain, with its panoramic view of the skyline (and a well-placed ice cream stand). We drove through Mile End and the Plateau, Montreal’s historic Jewish quarter, for a captivating tour of the region’s history, led by a guide from the Museum of Jewish Montreal.
Both towns take their streaters – the terraces, here – seriously, and there was an abundance of outdoor seating. Schwartz’s – the famous Jewish grocery store known for its smoked meat sandwiches served with cherry soda – had a covered tent up front, and the historic Cafe Olimpico has an awning with built-in seating. The classic 24-hour poutinerie La Banquise has a corner patio (although it’s just as easy to take your order and eat it at La Fontaine Park, across the street). Bagels at St. Viateur and Fairmount – better than New York style, in my opinion blasphemous – have always been a take-out business, and the lox and schmear are a DIY project to assemble in Jeanne-Mance Park. (Choose the French brand of cream cheese, not the Philadelphia.)
Montreal has some great Caribbean food too, so for dinner we grabbed takeout from Mile End’s Jardin du Cari, ripping up a massive goat and pumpkin roast and peanut punch on a nearby bench. Another afternoon, we walked through the open-air Jean-Talon Market, stopping for berry and buckwheat pancakes filled with ham and eggs and maple syrup to take home.
A three-hour drive from Quebec City later, we were fully installed in the French charm of the city, in the shadow of Château Frontenac, the imposing historic hotel perched in the middle of the old town like a fairy tale. More walking – a self-guided Lonely Planet tour of the Old Town headlands, including the Plains of Abraham, site of the battle that led to British control of Canada – and more meals, this time at traditional French restaurants and Canadian with terrace seating.
There was snail and wine at the Chez Jules brasserie, with its perfect people-watching spot next to the Frontenac. Garden lunch at Lapin Saute, a rabbit-themed restaurant with hearty dishes such as pie and cassoulet. And a mind-blowing dinner at Chez Boulay, a restaurant serving contemporary versions of “boreal cuisine” – local fish and game from northern Quebec (bison, seal, arctic char) but with a French bistro touch. The French onion soup – served ‘cappuccino style’, with frothy cream on top – was the best we have ever had. On our way out of town the next day, we popped in to Épicerie JA Moisan, a delicatessen founded in 1871, for edible Quebec souvenirs and imported French treats, like maple candy and jars of rillettes. pork.
Just northeast of town, we made our way to Montmorency Falls, crossing a dizzying pedestrian bridge over the 276-foot plunge – nearly 100 feet higher than Niagara Falls. Traveling in the event of a pandemic is a risk and an adventure. But we had passed to the other side, so we took a deep breath.