How to Drive to Europe in 3 Easy Steps

Skyline, Quebec City, Canada
Skyline, Quebec City, Canada

How to Drive to Europe In 3 Easy Steps:

1) Enter your vehicle and turn on the engine.
2) Drive Northeast until you pass the Canadian Border. Note: People and signs will begin communicating in French.
3) Locate either Montreal or Quebec City and look for a parking space.

Who says you have to cross an ocean just to experience the charms of Europe? All those boats and planes are so unnecessary when North America has its own version of it without all that pesky transatlantic nonsense. Sure, you’ll still need a passport, but at least you won’t have that unfavorable exchange rate to deal with (assuming of course you are from the US and using US dollars, otherwise none of this will make much sense).

Yes, only a few hours from the US/Canadian border are two of Canada’s showcase cities: Montreal and Quebec City – bastions of European heritage in the fiercely-proud French-speaking province of Quebec. From the New York City area they are a mere 7 to 49 hour drive, depending on traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Though both are nestled against the mighty St. Lawrence River, neither would look out of place on the Loire or the Seine, and such is their draw. The fact that they can be reached by car is just a bonus.

If the two cities were siblings, Quebec City would be the classy, reserved older sister who listens to her parents, while Montreal would be the younger, hipper, wilder little sister who gets the most attention. But despite their differences and the two and a half hours (again, by car) that lies between them, there’s no doubt they’re related as they share a common resemblance – the aforementioned European charm.

Quebec City – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is about as Old World as you can get, and has the distinction of being the only walled city in North America north of Mexico. This is a fact that was apparently overlooked by American soldiers during the Revolutionary War who unsuccessfully tried to capture it. I suppose military theory hadn’t yet stumbled upon the principle of: less walls equals more chance at success. But the threat of an American attack during the War of 1812 prompted the construction of many of the stone fortifications still found on Cap Diamant – a bluff perched along the St. Lawrence River –  that is now regularly invaded by American tourists. So maybe the tactic worked after all . . .

Walking the streets of Haute-Ville, Quebec City
Walking the streets of Haute-Ville, Quebec City

The Old Town can be fittingly divided into two sections; Haute-Ville (Upper Town) which is larger and more functional, and Basse-Ville (Lower Town), which is smaller and more geared toward tourists. Most visitors begin their itinerary at Quebec’s most famous landmark and icon, the Chateau Frontenac—an imposing castle-like hotel built in 1893 for the express purpose of attracting tourists and promoting the Trans-Canadian railway. This magnificent edifice dominates the city’s profile, looming benevolently like a stately, elegant giant. In the shadow of the giant is Place d’Armes, a lovely square teeming with quaint architecture and bustling cafes in a scene right out of Paris. Nearby is tiny Rue de Tresor, an alleyway packed with local artists offering etchings and watercolors primarily depicting city scenes like the one you’re standing in.

After meandering your way through the rest of Haute-Ville with its array of restaurants, shops, and authentic residences, a stop at the city’s former defenses, such as the Citadelle, makes for an interesting diversion. So does a stroll along Terrasse Dufferin—a broad wooden boardwalk that offers expansive vistas of the river. Visitors can then either descend a series of stairways, or for about $3 take a funicular ride down to Basse-Ville. Since you came by car I’d normally suggest you stretch your legs and just take the stairs, but since funiculars are hard to come by in the US, and even harder to pronounce, I recommend you take it in at least one direction.

Nestled between the banks of the St. Lawrence and the Chateau Frontenac, Basse-Ville is a collection of refurbished stone and mortar buildings with more of that distinctive European flair. Nowadays, these buildings house an assortment of souvenir and clothing shops along with several eateries in this pedestrian-friendly part of town (See step #3). All in all, it is a great place to sate your inner Francophile, and perhaps even serve to whet your appetite for the real thing. But now that you’re in the neighborhood, it’s time to hop back in the car and follow the St. Lawrence to lively Montreal.

Situated on an island, Montreal is far more cosmopolitan than its relative to the northeast. This metropolis boasts great ethnic neighborhoods, a lively arts scene, and great views—especially from Mont Royal, the oversized hill from where the city draws its name.

Most of the action and tourists can be found on the waterfront that encompasses the historic district of Vieux-Port—or Old Port. As the name would suggest, this area retains much of its colonial charm and architecture as seen in bustling Place Jacques-Cartier – a spacious pedestrian avenue crowded with restaurants and street performers. Throughout the adjacent streets there are also plenty of shops and boutiques in French Colonial flavor. For those who can’t get to Quebec City, the Old Port is a worthy stand-in.

For those looking for more than just atmosphere, there are some impressive attractions just a few miles to the east. After a comfortable ride on the convenient and easily-navigated Metro, one will find themselves faced with the options of visiting the Biodome, Botanical Gardens, Olympic Stadium, or some combination thereof.

Gateway to the Chinese Garden, Botanical Gardens, Montreal
Gateway to the Chinese Garden, Botanical Gardens, Montreal

The gardens are among North America’s best, with particularly elaborate versions of both Japanese and Chinese gardens. The Chinese boasts a gushing waterfall, reflective lake and oriental pavilions. The Japanese has its own variation on the theme while both have impressive collections of bonsai trees—some of which date back over 100 years. On the garden grounds is another attraction—the Insectarium, where as you’ve probably guessed, there are many opportunities to get up close and personal with all sorts of creepy crawlies. You might want to save that one until after lunch.

Hopping on one of the frequent shuttle buses across busy Rue Sherbrooke, is Olympic Stadium, formerly the home of the Montreal Expos (which sadly, was never quite as busy) and now a municipal arena. The attraction here is its soaring inclined tower which offers amazing views. Nearby is the third of the aforementioned attractions—the Biodome. Not surprisingly, this is a biological showcase featuring flora and fauna from four different ecosystems, ranging from tropical rain forests to polar zones.

Since this is Canada, one must take the seasons into account when choosing a time to visit. If you plan on spending time outdoors, the summer is high season for good reason – fall and winter can get downright frigid (though the cities have lots of winter activities for those who don’t mind losing a finger or two to frostbite). While it is convenient to arrive at either city by car, you’re probably best off not using it much upon arrival. Most of Quebec City is geared to pedestrians, and Montreal’s traffic make the Metro a far more appealing mode of travel. You’ve already skipped an ocean crossing – a little time out of the car won’t kill you (though a little time under it will).

Of course, like any cities, they boast a downtown with tall buildings, museums and the like. But what differentiates Montreal and Quebec City from any other cities in North America, is the inescapable sensation of walking through Europe that only ends when you realize that you’ll be driving home in your own car. So hang your air freshener on the rear view mirror and leave your Euros at home. The road to North America’s Europe lies north, not east.

French Colonial Charm in Basse-Ville, Quebec City
French Colonial Charm in Basse-Ville, Quebec City

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The Witty Traveler’s Guide To Cruising Alaska

It seems that everybody and their grandmother has either cruised, or wants to cruise the scenic coastline of Alaska. Each summer a growing armada of cruise ships disgorge tens of thousands of passengers—many of which are in fact people’s grandmothers—into various ports of call along the southeastern arm of the 49th state. That fact alone may scare off potential travelers who come to Alaska to commune with nature and escape the crowds. Well, fear not. With a landmass greater than California, Texas, and Montana combined, getting away from the crowds—grandmothers and all—is not so hard if you know what to expect going in.

 

The vast majority of Alaska’s northbound visitors begin their journey from either Seattle or Vancouver, where they are herded onboard their waiting ships. After a muster drill and the first buffet, most ships start by winding their way through the Inside Passage, making their first port of call on the town of Ketchikan. Creek Street, KetchikanThe proud residents of this hillside settlement have dubbed themselves “Alaska’s First City” a reference to the fact that this is usually the first piece of Alaskan soil that visitors set foot on. Personally, I think this is just because there’s no one else around to contest it. Nearby is the Misty Fjords National Monument—a dramatic inlet of pristine wilderness. Getting there involves either a boat or a seaplane, and the high price tag of such an excursion ensures that you won’t be contending with the masses for this up-close view of nature untouched.

 

For those who don’t mind the aforementioned masses, guests will have fun browsing through historic Creek Street—a collection of vintage buildings propped up on stilts where souvenir shops have replaced brothels as the primary source of income. Shopping for souvenirs here is both easy and reasonably priced, and if you miss out on doing it in one port, don’t be alarmed. I’m convinced that all the stores pack up their goods and move to the next port overnight. Which now brings us to Juneau, the state capital. You could meander about town, but one of the star attractions is just a short bus ride away at the Mendenhall Glacier, situated at the source of the Mendenhall River, which is nestled in the—you guessed it—Mendenhall Valley.

Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau
Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau

 

The glacier, valley, river, et al are the essence of what people come to Alaska to see. You can hike, tromp, stroll, and mosey until your heart’s content, all while taking in the gorgeous alpine scenery made famous in movies, documentaries, and cruise brochures everywhere. By the time your stay here is over, you will have some great additions to your photo album to go along with the burning sensation in your calves.

 

The next stop on the itinerary for most is the frontier-style town of Skagway. Once again the charms of villainy and prostitution are softened and packaged for the masses, and you could spend the whole day revisiting the shops you missed back in Ketchikan. For those wanting more of a natural connection, I highly recommend a trip into the nearby Yukon, easily accessible via an overpriced train ride brimming with grandmothers or a cheap rental car.

The Yukon sign

Getting to the Yukon in a rental car is remarkably simple with some stunning scenery along the way. Entry into Canada requires a passport and a drive through the aptly named White Pass. From there it is a short ride through British Columbia to the majestic scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities lingering just behind the giant Yukon sign, welcoming you to an even more northwestern territory than the adjacent Northwest Territories.

 

Once you’ve got your land-based activities done, most ships pull into Glacier Bay National Park for scenic cruising of its namesake glaciers. Again, the natural splendor is sure to delight even the most jaded traveler, and it’s great to get a sense of the tremendous scale when other ships pass these cascading mountains of ice looking like sleek, white rubber duckies in comparison.

 

Col Fjord
College Fjord

While some ships turn around at this point, a sizeable fleet will make the crossing of the Gulf of Alaska and file their way into Prince William Sound and stunning College Fjord.  This waterway of ice floes and the telltale ripples of otters is home to an amazing array of glaciers, some nineteen in all, each bearing the name of an Ivy League school. Whether this has drawn the ire of less-prestigiously named glaciers in the area remains to be seen, but the overall effect is quite impressive. At the very least the whales, bears and bald eagles seem to like it.

 

It is at this point that guests must disembark at either Seward or Whittier for the trip to Anchorage or an excursion into the larger interior playground of Alaska. I’ll cover that in another article but for those considering a cruise, the following is some practical information you’ll find helpful, amusing or both.

 

Many people have accused Alaskan residents of being a bit quirky, to which I reply, “A bit?” Alaska has the distinction of being the only state where men outnumber women, leading to a clever saying devised by Alaskan women to describe their prospects: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” If you have trouble remembering it, don’t worry—you can always pick up a t-shirt emblazoned with the saying at one of the souvenir shops that follow you around. If at some point it feels like you’ve strayed into a lost episode of Northern Exposure, just embrace it as part of the cultural experience.

 

Another factor to consider are the costs involved. Prices are definitely higher than you’ll find in the lower 48. Put it this way: At one point I saw signs touting a $1.50 store—a near 50% increase over the 99 cents stores back home. Food and transportation costs too are higher than average. If it makes you feel any better, you can revel in the fact that by the time you pay off your credit card bill those same merchants will either be buried under snow, enveloped in darkness, and/or withstanding a 5000 below wind-chill.

 

Armed with this precursory information, should you venture to the northernmost, westernmost, and easternmost state in the union, you should be able to keep the crowds at bay and enjoy your time taking in the majesty of what is otherwise a very un-crowded place. And if there are still a little too many other people around as you heed the call of nature, at least you can shop your disappointment away in a souvenir shop—there’s sure to be one right around the corner. Just be sure and say hello to my grandmother while you’re there.