QUÉBEC CITY — Every great hotel has a story. Château Frontenac, towering above the mighty St. Lawrence Seaway, is no exception.
My own story of the fairy tale castle began when, as a child, my family and I would travel from Montreal to Quebec City, my mother’s native city, to visit our relatives. Normally we stayed with family, but one Christmas, when I was about 9, my parents booked a suite at the legendary Château Frontenac. I’d seen the turreted castle with its towers and steeply pitched copper roof many times before, but stepping inside the vast and opulent grand hall, with its marble floors, rich mahogany paneling, coffered ceilings and marble double staircase leading up to the ballroom was like walking into a Walt Disney movie.
Recently I returned to the Frontenac for the first time in 35 years. Throughout the last 120 years there have been additions and minor renovations made to the hotel, but none as complete or as costly as the $75 million facelift it has been undergoing for the past year and a half.
Built in 1892-93, the 620-room Château Frontenac was the first of a series of château-style hotels constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 19th and early 20th century to promote rail travel.
From dignitaries and dictators like Haile Selassie, Chiang Kai-shek, Winston Churchill, the shah of Iran, Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and François Mitterand, politicians of all stripes have visited the iconic château. Some stayed to pen history-making accords, such as those of the Quebec Conference of August 1943 and September 1944 between the Allied commanders-in-chief Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Mackenzie King, the Canadian prime minister.
The hotel has also hosted its fair share of glitterati: Princess Grace of Monaco, Sting, Rod Stewart, Leonardo DiCaprio, Goldie Hawn, and Paul McCartney all have bedded down in the storied castle on the cliff. In 1953, Alfred Hitchcock filmed “I Confess” there, with stars Montgomery Clift and Anne Baxter.
The hotel staff, many of whom have been at the château their entire adult lives, are a welcoming bunch, genuinely happy to be working at the hotel and proudly, and discreetly, proprietary of the château’s reputation. One of the hotel’s longest serving employees, Andy has been working at the Frontenac for 45 years. Seeing his burgundy-and-black bellhop’s uniform and perfectly waxed WWI-era handlebar mustache, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d just entered the Grand Budapest Hotel.
“One time, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell were here with their son who was here for a peewee hockey tournament,” says Andy. “I was off work walking down the street when I bump into the two of them.
“‘Oh, look!’ she says. ‘It’s our bellhop!’ They asked me to come out for a drink with them, but I had to decline. I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“It just wouldn’t be right,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.
Another veteran — of only 35 years — Michel, a waiter in the restaurants and a regular server at important government banquets, recalls how during the 1985 “Shamrock Summit” with President Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, one aide to Reagan was assigned one very specific task: “He had to carry a suitcase that had a phone inside, a direct line to the White House. The man had to be present at all times and couldn’t stand farther away from the president than the doorway. As soon as the phone rang, the man had to answer and head straight for Reagan, arm outstretched, extending the receiver to the president.”
The renovations are nearing completion and the excitement is palpable among hotel staff and contractors as I’m escorted around the still closed-off restaurant and bar area by public relations director Geneviève Parent, the two of us wearing hard hats as contractors saw, hammer, drill, measure, and install everything from flashy new light fixtures and a brash metallic bar counter to velour and leather fauteuils with bronze orbs for legs and gleaming glass and chrome coolers to highlight select regional wines, cheeses, and other products of the terroir.
Some might describe the new furnishings and decor as gaudy, a complete departure from the classic French château style seen here in the past. Yet, nothing has been disturbed. From the carved cornices to the original fireplaces to the brass chandeliers and mahogany paneling, everywhere the architectural integrity of the hotel has been respected and retained.
Perhaps this is all part of the château’s bid to juxtapose old and new, to breathe new life into the brand. And of recently hired French chefs Stéphane Modat and Baptiste Peupion’s mission to revive Québécois cuisine using the foods and ingredients of the terroir.
As important as the historic landmark hotel has been on the world stage, the Frontenac has always played a central role in the lives of the people of Quebec City. In the early 1920s, when my grandfather was courting my grandmother, he would escort her to tea dances, or thés dansants, at the château, always making sure they left before midnight, when the gates of the Old City would lock for the night. As a young woman in the 1950s, my mother used to join her girlfriends for tea, but by then there was no dancing.
“We’re part of the history of Québec” says Parent. “We’re very conscious of the responsibility we have to the people of the city. We want locals to continue to view the hotel as a fairy tale, but we want to get closer to them than before. Not just once or twice a year for Easter brunch or Christmas dinner.”
And the locals are certainly looking forward to reclaiming their landmark.
“We can’t wait to see it renovated,” says Régis Labeaume, Québec City’s popular firebrand mayor. “It’s as if it were our own home, you know. Ours is a world heritage city and the château is our flagship.”
After meeting the chefs, I sip a glass of Perrier and polish off a dish of crunchy, spicy chips in the Salon Place d’Armes, admiring the mahogany-paneled room with leaded-glass windows and wood-carved cornices along the ceiling. It’s the kind of room in which you can picture the Earl of Grantham, just back from a pheasant hunt, with his back to the fireplace, cigar in one hand, whiskey in the other, holding court with a group of his aristocratic hunting peers while Lady Cora and Lady Mary entertain the female contingent in the circular Salon Rose, one floor up.
Michel interrupts my thoughts, puffing with pride as he asks if I’ve seen what the new bar is going to look like yet. “Impressive, isn’t it? It’s going to be so beautiful!”
Others, like Andy, aren’t so sure. “I prefer the classic style.”
While two-thirds of the rooms have been furnished and decorated in a contemporary style, an additional 200 have retained their classic decor, thus providing guests with a choice, depending on their taste. (Doubles start at $189 Canadian.)
To some the new look will be an affront to the cachet of the legendary hotel, but thanks to the foresight of the management to preserve the hotel’s architectural integrity, for most visitors, the Château Frontenac will remain what it has always been: a fairy tale castle in a storybook city.