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Trip Report Road Trip! Philadelphia to Montreal and Quebec

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Hi all. Yes, I know this is in the US Forum, and we were travelling to Canada. A significant part of our driving was in the US, and we made several stops in Vermont and New York, so I am posting our trip report here in the US. (I may cross post to Canada later…)

My son goes to skateboard camp for a week, and last winter, we decided we were going to go away somewhere during that week. The criteria were that we had to drive, not fly, to be somewhat close by in case he injured himself and we needed to get back relatively quickly. We also wanted to go someplace new to us. We have heard so many great things about Montreal and Quebec, so we decided on that.

Initially we thought: camp was north and Montreal and Quebec were north. Which is true, but…camp is northwest and Montreal and Quebec are northeast, so dropping son off at camp wasn’t exactly on the way. Prior to leaving, we knew we were in for a lot of driving. We are used to driving on vacations, but not as much as much we are we were planning for this one. As it turned out, we did 1,750 miles of driving in one week – which set a record for us.

We set off with a list of things we wanted to see in Montreal and Quebec, and some ideas for some brief stops in Vermont on the way to Quebec. (One thing about road trips – we don’t worry as much as about what we bring, and we didn’t have to worry about suitcase weight limits!)

Day 1 – Philadelphia to Bennington, VT via central PA

We left on a sunny day, with son excited to leave - he thinks skate camp is the best event of the whole year. This was his 7th summer at camp, and the second we were finished bringing all his stuff into his cabin, he was ready to say good-bye to us. Off we went.

It wouldn’t be a driving trip without traffic delays, and we hit a big one crossing the border from PA into NY state. After sitting through that traffic standstill, we didn’t want to stop for dinner with so much driving ahead of us, but we were hungry and anxious to get out of the car. We pulled off the highway to look for a restaurant, and we saw Orange County Choppers!

After we decided on Montreal/Quebec and were wondering what stops to make on the way up and back, my husband said he wanted to visit OCC. Neither of us had looked at a map at that point, and I said I didn’t think it was on the way, and we both forgot about looking further into it. What a serendipitous (lol) find. We stopped in – my husband was a fan of the TV show. I wasn’t a fan, but the bikes they created – several of which are on display, really are pretty amazing.

After dinner, we had several hours of driving ahead of us, which were thankfully traffic standstill free. We arrived in Bennington after sunset, but still drove up to the Bennington Monument and the Old First Church. Robert Frost was buried in the graveyard there, and we searched out his gravesite. His tombstone reads:

“I had a lovers quarrel with the world”.

After our long driving day, I kept thinking of Frost’s line, “miles to go before I sleep”. We arrived later than anticipated, but it was very atmospheric wandering around a graveyard in the dark, under a super moon, with bats flying overhead.

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    Day 2 Bennington to Quebec

    This was another long driving day (about 6 hours) so we didn’t explore Bennington any further. Our first stop in Vermont was to the King Arthur Flour Company. What a great place! I stocked up on some of their baking supplies I often order from their catalog, and then I had a hard time deciding what to order in their bakery/café. I ended up with a S’mores cupcake for later that day, and some crackers and other snacks for the car.

    After another hour or so of driving, we stopped in St. Johnsbury, VT. This was like stepping back in time. The main street was totally torn up for construction – so it was like entering a town back in history before their roads were paved. The architecture along this main street was varied and interesting.

    I wish my town’s library looked like theirs – at the Athenaeum. The library had curving wooden spiral staircases – and in the back, an art gallery! The highlight was the enormous canvas by Albert Bierdstadt, “The Domes of the Yosemite”. We have a reproduction of this painting in our family room.

    The town appeared closed due to the heavy construction, but we found a deli and ended up having delicious sandwiches. (We ate great food this entire trip).

    We drove the rest of the way to Quebec without incident. I found driving in Vermont to be very scenic and relaxing. Once in Quebec, we dropped our suitcases at our hotel (the Marriott) and went off to explore.

    Our hotel was right outside one of the gates, and immediately upon crossing into the older area, we were walking along picturesque streets. We were told Quebec is very European in feel, and we agree. We wandered around a bit before stopping for a great dinner, outside, on a square overlooking the grand Hotel Frontenac.

    After dinner, we shopped around (well, I did – lots of craft vendors were set up), wandered through the Frontenac, and along the terrace in front of the hotel, with sweeping views overlooking the river. On the way back, we walked in front of the Parliament complex. They have two fountains there – both of which were lit up beautifully at night.

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    Hi all. Continuing...

    Day 3: Quebec

    On this day, we walked down to explore the Lower Town area. We walked by several interesting stores and antique shops on the way to Place Royale – a very pretty small square. From there, we walked along more picturesque streets.

    Near Place Royale, and further up the street, were two huge trompe l-oiel murals. For my Art Goes to School group, my research project this summer was a mural in Philadelphia – Philadelphia has the largest mural arts program, and I learned a lot about this type of community art. The Quebec murals were really remarkable and showed the history of Quebec – and were a fun photo op.

    Next we wanted to head up to the Citadel, which took a lot longer than it had to b/c my husband “knew the way” without looking at the map. We walked a long time along the roadway along the river, but there was no access to go up the Citadel. (Not only did the map show no access, but the cliffs were straight up and tall – there would have had to have been 1,000 steps to get up there from where we were. As it was, I think we walked up about 500 steps (probably an exaggeration) once we walked back to the area below the funicular (which we did not take b/c my husband said we could easily climb the stairs). Up another steep incline, and a few more stairs, and we were on the walls of the Citadel. We walked around to the entrance and went inside to take a look. From that point, any more exploring of the complex would have required a guide, which we chose not to do. We walked back to the Parliament area to see it during the day. The fountains were still beautiful, and we could see the pretty gardens which we couldn’t fully admire in the dark the evening before.

    We had another great meal and then walked again along Terrasse Dufferin and around Artillery Park that evening.

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    Quebec to Montreal

    This was an easy drive of about 3 hours. It poured rain almost all day this day, but it didn’t deter us from getting out to start sight-seeing.

    Montreal Museum of Fine Arts – this was a really nice art museum. I felt fortunate to be there when they had a special Faberge exhibit – there were a few Faberge eggs, and many other items from the house of Faberge.

    Place Jacque Cartier – there were no street performers out on this rainy night, but this was still a pretty place to walk through. We ate dinner at the Jardin Nelson – in the interior open courtyard. We didn’t get wet b/c they had many umbrellas and white awnings to shield us from the weather. This really was a pretty setting – flowers all over the place.

    Notre Dame church – I thought this church had a stunning altar – it had a background of blue light.

    Rue St. Paul – I shopped along this street; interesting stores.

    La Joute Fountain – my college roommate told me about this fountain, which I would not have learned about otherwise. It was only a block from our hotel and looked attractive “just” as a fountain, But, at night, the fountain has special mist effects – and a ring of fire! It really was a remarkable site.

    Day 5 Montreal

    Thankfully, it stopped raining and was a sunny, pleasant day for exploring. We walked down to the waterfront area.

    Museum of Archaeology and History – this was an interesting museum, showing archaeological artifacts (actual archaeological excavations were also inside the museum), from the area around the site over the years. It had an interesting and well done multi-media presentation on the history of Montreal – which was very informative to us, who admittedly, knew very little of Montreal’s history.

    We were fortunate to be there to see a large exhibit on Marco Polo that was fascinating. It was quite extensive, starting with his travels from Venice, along the Silk Road, through the Middle East, etc. It had information about his journeys, and info and objects from the areas he visited. Two guys faithfully re-created his trip in the 1990s, and it was so interesting watching a part of their documentary – how all these years later, travel through many areas of MP’s journey is still very difficult (such as a weeklong crossing of the desert). Some remote areas haven’t changed that much over the years.

    Waterfront – we walked along here, a pleasant area.

    Bonsecours Market – didn’t buy anything here, but did stroll through.

    Place Jacques Cartier – This square was livelier in better weather; we ate lunch at a restaurant here.

    Redpath Museum of Natural History – this was part of McGill University, which has an attractive campus. There were all sorts of stuffed animals, fossils, shells, rocks/gems, etc. on display here. I told my husband we were going to see shrunken heads. He was disappointed – as there was only one, and it was a fake. (They believe it is actually a shrunken monkey head). But there were other curiosities such as this on display – such as a display on foot binding, and the very, very tiny shoes that women crammed their deformed feet into.

    St. Catherine – I think this is the street we walked down – it was a long street, closed to vehicle traffic. We ate outdoors at a restaurant across the way from the performing arts center and we had a wonderful viewpoint to people watch. People were coming and going, and there were several street performers walking by, or stopping nearby, to perform. Very enjoyable way to spend a hour or two in the evening.

    Poutine! It wasn’t until our last meal that we finally tried poutine! Boy was it good – our version was lobster poutine and it was delicious.

    Night lighting show – the la Joute fountain was somehow broken – there was a plumber’s truck parked nearby and they had drained the fountain, so we didn’t get to see the fire ring/mist during our second night. We had read that several of Montreal’s landmark buildings are lit up at night. We didn’t do the whole walking tour, but did walk to Notre Dame, which was bathed in an attractive blue/white light.

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    Day 6 Montreal to NE PA via Hudson River Valley/ NY I-87

    The only reservations we made for this trip were for Olana, the amazing home of Hudson River painter Frederick Edwin Church, in Catskill, NY. It was about a 4 hour drive, so we got a (mostly) early start that day.

    We realized that we forgot to buy refrigerator magnets for Montreal and Quebec. (Oh, no!) We do this on every vacation, and with all the different stores we were in and out of in both cities, it seemed very odd neither of us remembered to do this. We stopped at a large, deserted, souvenir shop a few miles from the border to get our last minute magnets.

    It was very slow crossing the border into the US on the way back – even though there was no traffic on the highway, once we were at the border, each line had about a dozen cars in it. (We noticed the same longer lines when we crossed the border from Vermont – we didn’t encounter any delay going into Canada, but there were lines to enter into the US).

    Our plan was to stop for a quick lunch in Saratoga Springs, but that didn’t work out. We exited the highway, to discover that Saratoga Springs was actually quite busy on that Friday afternoon. We knew that it would take a while to find a parking spot, and probably quite a while to eat, and we were starting to get a bit concerned about making our 3pm Olana reservations. So we got back on the highway for another 20 minutes.

    We pulled off the highway to search for what we hoped was a quick meal, and my husband saw a Mexican restaurant in a strip mall. I wasn’t about to be picky, as I was hungry and we didn’t have time to explore. It was next to a Dollar Store, so I wasn’t sure what we were in for. The food was excellent! What a great find.

    Back on the highway, and about 5 miles from Olana, we hit another traffic standstill for bridge construction. Our original reservations were for 4pm, but Olana called us twice, asking us to move up our reservations b/c they had a special concert scheduled for that evening. We agreed, but said we might be late and in that case, could we join a later tour. We were told we could. As it turns out, I called to say we were going to be late, and I was told: sorry, all tours are sold out. Sigh. I was able to negotiate that we could join the 3pm tour late – we ended up joining about 10 mins. late and really didn’t miss anything, as the tour was still in the first room. I was upset about feeling so rushed and discombobulated when we changed our reservations based on their request (to accommodate the musicians on from the concert, who indicated they wanted a tour 2 weeks after our reservations were made).

    Regardless, I am very thankful it all worked out because this tour was terrific. Olana is an amazing place. Church originally wanted a French Gothic home, but changed his mind after returning home from a trip to the Middle East. An artist, but not an architect, he did design the Persian-inspired house. It was located on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, and 3 rooms, facing in different directions, all featured large windows designed to showcase sweeping views of the Hudson River Valley and the mountains.

    The rooms had many original furnishing, and were a wealth of interesting details – painted walls, architectural details, items from his travels, and some of his paintings. Some were paintings he did for his family and had not been displayed in public; some were studies of his more popular works. His studio was there – with his own paints and paintbrushes. It was fascinating from a historical perspective. My husband doesn’t like art, but really enjoyed the tour – which was over an hour, but seemed to fly by.

    Our guide was very good – people asked him a wide variety of questions and he knew the answers to every one – he clearly was very interested in Church as a painter, and in the history and the details of the home itself.

    After the tour of the interior, we walked outside, on the balcony/porch, and through some of Church’s gardens and hiking paths, with more nice views of the surrounding scenery.

    Truly, if you are ever in the area, do visit Olana.

    We realized that the home of Thomas Cole, another painter and founder of the Hudson River School, was right across the river. We were too late to take a tour of his home, but we were able to walk up on the porch of his home, Cedar Grove, to see the view of the Hudson that Cole painted many times.

    I had also wanted to see another popular subject of the Hudson River painters, Kaaterskill Falls, which wasn’t far away, but we kind of ran out of energy. I definitely want to return to explore the Hudson River area of this part of NY state in much more depth.

    For the rest of the day, we got some more highway miles under our wheels before stopping for the evening on the PA side of the PA-NY border (the site of our traffic jam on the way up – thankfully, there was much less traffic on Friday evening at 8pm).

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    Day 7 – driving home

    This day was basically all driving – picking son up from another great week at skateboard camp, and then heading home. We stopped at a restaurant in Mifflinburg in a historic-looking hotel that I always wanted to visit (having passed it on multiple trips to/from camp), and we did eat lunch here. And then, 3 hours later, we arrived home.

    General and somewhat random observations on our trip:

    Road trips – it’s been a long time since we took a long road trip. We enjoyed our life on the road this week, and would like to do it again. We decided we definitely want to explore the Hudson River Valley and central/southern Vermont in much more depth than we had time for this trip.

    Montreal/Quebec – these are scenic cities, and one thing I noticed, especially about Montreal, was how much wonderful public art they had. It just wasn’t hunks of abstract metal sculptures, or statues of famous people, but a variety of sculptures and art in areas all around the city.

    The cities also had great shopping – I mean browsing, crafty vendor jewelry type, or interesting stores that aren’t duplicates of every store we have in the US. I didn’t do any serious clothing shopping, but I was impressed how many stores were not tourist schlock-y, even in the most touristy areas.

    Initially, I wondered if we just dumb to be trying to do these cities in basically 3 days (total), but I do think you can see a lot of these cities in 3 days. Quebec, especially, I think was easy to see in 1.5 days. While there was more to see, I feel we got a good feel and experience in that little bit of time in Montreal as well, making these two cities an excellent choice for a long weekend trip.

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