It wasn’t until after 11 hours of driving, when our little Subaru had finally passed the Canadian Border Patrol station, that I allowed myself to believe that this trip was actually happening. Travel during a pandemic is unpredictable: Any trip could be derailed for any reason, at any time. And driving seemed to make it even more so. At least when you fly, you have something tangible — a ticket, a baggage claim stub — to assure you that yes, you are going on vacation. But when you’re driving to Canada mere days after the land border reopened to tourists in August, all you have is your vaccination card and your hopes that you didn’t screw anything up.
Because: There is a process to enter the country via car. You have to be at least two weeks out from the final dose of your coronavirus vaccine (check) and be free of all coronavirus symptoms (check). You have to input your passport and vaccination documentation 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 put down the address of a friend we had planned to see.) You must also present a negative coronavirus test from less than 72 hours before your border crossing. Rapid antigen tests are not permitted. (There are no requirements for American citizens to reenter the United States.)
Three days before we left, my husband and I had taken a free drive-through coronavirus test at CVS. Two days before, upon reading the fine print in the CVS handout, we realized that our results might not be delivered in time for our expected 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 after that.
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Doubly negative for the coronavirus, we began the approximately nine-hour drive from D.C. — for us, 12 hours with traffic and stops — to the Champlain/Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle entry point on Interstate 87, watching the signs turn to French north of Plattsburgh, N.Y. Yes, we could have flown. But with one member of our party slightly immunocompromised and the delta variant running rampant, we weren’t yet comfortable being in a crowded airport. Plus, having our car would give us the flexibility to bounce between Montreal and Quebec City, and to take day trips.
It turns out we had nothing to worry about. The crossing was easy: A jokey Canadian border guard inspected our paperwork and asked us whether we were transporting any marijuana. (“It’s legal over there and legal over here, but not right here,” he said, pointing to his station.) Thirty minutes later, the skyline of Montreal, with its massive cross on top of Mont-Royal, was in sight.
Which presented our next uncertainty: How do you have a vacation in a large city when you aren’t yet comfortable being indoors with other people for an extended period of time? We were still avoiding crowds, still eating outdoors. It was our first vacation since January 2020.
This, too, was a nonissue in both cities. Mask compliance is much, much higher in Quebecois cities than in some of the most liberal parts of the United States. Masks are mandatory indoors throughout the province, and many shops also require that you sanitize your hands on the way in. A vaccine passport, introduced after our trip, is now required for entry at many bars and entertainment destinations.
We shouldn’t have worried. In a city where winters are lengthy and brutal, pleasant weather is even more appreciated. All of Quebec wanted to be outdoors, too. We filled the week — five days in Montreal and two in Quebec City — with walks. We walked through the historic Old Port and the Montreal Botanical Garden, which has impressive displays of plants important to the country’s First Nations population and a display of boreal foliage from around the world. We walked up Mont-Royal, huffing and puffing our way up the steep stairs until we got to the top of the mountain, with its panoramic view of the skyline (and a well-positioned ice cream stand). We walked through Mile End and the Plateau, Montreal’s historic Jewish neighborhood, for a captivating tour of the area’s history, led by a guide from the Museum of Jewish Montreal.
And in between, we ate.
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Both cities take their streateries — terrasses, here — seriously, and there was an abundance of outdoor seating. Schwartz’s — the famous Jewish deli known for its smoked-meat sandwiches served with cherry soda — had a covered tent out front, and the historic coffee shop 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 get your order to go and eat it at La Fontaine Park, across the street). The bagels at St. Viateur and Fairmount — better than New York-style, in my blasphemous opinion — have always been a takeout endeavor, and the lox and schmear are a DIY project to assemble in Jeanne-Mance Park. (Go for the French brand of cream cheese, not the Philadelphia.)
Montreal also boasts excellent Caribbean food, so for one dinner, we grabbed takeout from Mile End’s Le Jardin du Cari, tearing into a massive goat-and-pumpkin roti and a peanut punch on a nearby bench. Another afternoon, we walked through the open-air Jean-Talon Market, stopping for berries and buckwheat galettes filled with ham and eggs, and maple syrup to take home.
A three-hour drive to Quebec City later, we were fully ensconced in the city’s old French charm, in the shadow of the Chateau Frontenac, the towering 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 city’s promontories, including the Plains of Abraham, site of the consequential battle that led to the British control of Canada — and more eating, this time at traditional French and Canadian restaurants with outdoor seating.
There was the escargot and wine at brasserie Chez Jules, with its perfect people-watching spot adjacent to the Frontenac. The garden lunch at Le Lapin Saute, a rabbit-themed restaurant with hearty dishes such as pot pie and cassoulet. And a showstopping dinner at Chez Boulay, a restaurant serving contemporary takes on “boreal cuisine” — the local fish and game of northern Quebec (bison, seal, Arctic char) but with a French bistro touch. The onion soup — served “cappuccino style,” with a frothy cream on top — was the best we’d ever had. On the way out of the city the next day, we popped into Épicerie J.A. Moisan, a gourmet grocery founded in 1871, for edible Quebecois souvenirs and imported French treats, such as maple candy and jars of pork rillettes.
Just northeast of the city, we drove to Montmorency Falls, crossing a vertigo-inducing pedestrian bridge over the 276-foot plunge — nearly 100 feet higher than Niagara Falls. Pandemic travel is a risk and an adventure. But we had made it to the other side, so we took a deep breath.
More from Travel:
Canada has reopened: Here’s why visitors should book an Indigenous experience
A local’s guide to Montreal
Crossing Canada by train
If you go
3895 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal
A nearly 100-year-old Jewish deli known for its smoked-meat sandwiches. Entrees from about $5 to $23.
74 Avenue Fairmount O, Montreal
The older of Montreal’s two most famous bakeries for the city’s distinctive style of bagel.
7070 Avenue Henri-Julien, Montreal
Open-air market with fresh fruits and vegetables, baked goods and prepared foods.
124 Rue Saint-Viateur O, Montreal
An old Italian espresso bar in the heart of Mile End.
Le Jardin du Cari
5554 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal
A low-key Caribbean restaurant with Guyanese specialties. Entrees from about $5 to $8.
24 Rue Sainte-Anne, Quebec City
Classic French bistro fare. Entrees from about $5.50.
Le Lapin Saute
52 Rue du Petit-Champlain, Quebec City
A garden restaurant with plenty of rabbit dishes on the menu. Entrees from about $13.
1110 Rue Saint-Jean, Quebec City
New takes on traditional Quebecois ingredients, with a French flair. Entrees from about $22.
Épicerie J.A. Moisan
685 Rue Saint-Jean, Quebec City
A 150-year-old specialty grocery with plenty of edible souvenirs and picnic fare.
Montreal Botanical Garden
4101 Rue Sherbrooke E, Montreal
Approximately 185 acres of exhibitions about plants from Canada and around the world, as well as Chinese and Japanese architecture. Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Adults about $17; seniors about $15; children 5 to 17 about $8.
Museum of Jewish Montreal
4281 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal
The museum is closed until 2022, but tours and virtual programming are available. Walking tour dates, times and starting points vary; see website for current schedule. Adults about $17; children 8 to 12 about $8.
5300 Boulevard Sainte-Anne, Quebec City
A steep, plunging waterfall with a cable car and rock-climbing excursions. Adults about $5; children 17 and younger free.