The year was 2020. Heritage professionals and travel buddies Emily Welsh & Serena Ypelaar were excited for their annual weekend trip with friends. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic thwarted such plans, but the duo went ahead with a Christmastime trip to Quebec City – virtually. Their online “visitor experience” explored how sensory immersion can convincingly take us elsewhere.
By Emily Welsh & Serena Ypelaar
Serena Ypelaar: This is one of my top memories from 2020 – which I guess isn’t saying much, as everyone spent most of the year at home. Back in December, Emily and I travelled to Quebec City ~virtually~ since we couldn’t do so in person. It helped that we’d both been there before; we had sensory memory to work from. Moving our trip online actually shaped a unique experience that was almost as fun as the real thing – I was surprised how absorbing it was.
As part of our pseudo-trip, I planned a virtual stay at the Fairmont Château Frontenac, which has always been on my bucket list. Can’t afford to stay there irl, so why not pretend, with the help of PowerPoint and HQ images? But we couldn’t just appear in Quebec – a virtual train ride would bridge the gap between Ontario and Quebec nicely, so I hopped onto YouTube to find the goods. You’d be surprised how many Ontarians post videos of their train rides. As our Zoom call connected on Day 1 of the trip*, I for some reason decided Ozzy Osbourne’s “all aboard!” (from “Crazy Train“) was a mandatory soundtrack to our simulated journey via Zoom screensharing and someone’s train video. Sorry for subjecting you to it, Emily!
Emily Welsh: “All aboard! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.” The perfect way to start a trip! Music plays such a large role in travel, especially for us. The first person POV helped me feel as if I was actually departing on a trip, rather than simply showing up at our virtual hotel stay, which likely would have been a jarring introduction. I was immersed in the experience from the very beginning, and it only got better from there. After exploring the public spaces and rooms of the Château Frontenac, we explored the Old City with a first person night time walk. Walking among others bundled up against the cold, hearing the snow crunching underfoot, seeing the Christmas lights and skaters, it was as if I was breathing in the cold air and exploring the city with friends. I was mentally choosing benches to sit on and Christmas booths to visit.
SVY: I couldn’t have described it better myself – the sights and sounds really got me! I can’t convey how much I enjoyed the night walk. Another boon from YouTube and shot in 4K, it was as if we were actually walking through the snowy night, through the streets of 17th and 18th century architecture I love. Perfect way to spend the simulated evening.
EKW: For Day 2 of our trip, I was excited to curate a walking food tour, or dessert hop, of Old Quebec City. Quebec City provided the opportunity to taste traditional French and French Canadian dishes, and explore the modern inspirations offered by restaurants and shops. For instance the piesicle, frozen pie on a stick, offered at Kerrmess seemed too cool to pass by (pun intended).
However, I quickly realized this trip must also be realistic, and although we may wish, we cannot simply eat the day away! I decided to pair a tour of historic homes and architecture with the dessert hop, as food and architecture seemed to go hand in hand in my mind. By examining the architecture of the Old City, I was constantly surprised by stories of cultural influences, military campaigns, epidemics, natural disasters, building codes, and modern reconstructions. I was pleased to gain a fuller understanding of the city’s history, and excited to share what I had learned.
SVY: Your tour was engrossing, and can I just say I was glad I had tea and stroopwafel on my end, because taste-testing-without-actually-tasting was a killer! Your visuals of bakeries, restaurants, and of course, food sparked my imaginative powers, that’s for sure. And the way you interwove all the stops with local building history, the evolution of the city, and landmark features made the experience really organic, yet again fooling me into thinking I was there. It’s amazing how much you can engage with a faraway place if you tune your senses in. If we ever get back to QC, we’re re-enacting this food tour, s’il vous plait!
EKW: I’d be honoured to offer this tour dans la vraie vie!
SVY: We engaged with even more places as the trip went on. When organizing travel itineraries, the first place my mind goes to is “HISTORIC SITES” (yes, my brain yells it in all caps). So it was only fitting that we checked out the Fortifications du Quebec National Historic Site, Lévis Forts National Historic Site, and Le Monastère des Augustines. The Plains of Abraham and other sites were not on the list (despite my fascination with Wolfe and Montcalm) as we’d both been there, done that. Instead we watched a rather dramatic video about the Fortifications, followed by a few lads’ recent visit to the site thanks to YouTube (overlaid by my on-the-spot spiel about the colonial history of Quebec and New France). Visitors captured in that video were masked up, which struck me as particularly authentic – how it would be if we were really there in 2020.
Google Maps / Street View brought the Lévis Forts before our eyes, as if we were standing there. While it was interesting learning the history of the British-built forts, not much is left of them today to engage with. The virtual trip served us well in that sense. We didn’t have to make the long trek to the outskirts just to see… well, not much. We learned, we interacted, but we also decided we don’t need to see the forts in person, thanks to virtual tourism! On the other hand, Le Monastère is a place I’ve seen from outside and always wanted to enter, so it was fulfilling to traverse the halls in some form and I definitely want to explore further in person.
EKW: How else should one’s brain shout historic sites? The fortifications of the city are impossible to miss, so I was excited to learn we were going on top of the walls and inside the associated structures! Again, the immersion of the virtual trip was paramount and your curated tour made it as if I was actually exploring all of the exhibits in person. Plus, your personal re-telling of the city’s history, with fun historical photographs thrown in, made it an even more valuable and enjoyable experience.
I was also excited to explore the museum and archives at Le Monastère Des Augustines. The site, its collection, and interpretation provided me with the opportunity to learn about early healthcare practices in the community, as well as the opportunity to investigate how tourism, accommodation, wellness, and heritage can be blended in a single site. I’m glad you were able to walk its halls, albeit in your digital presence.
SVY: Thanks! I had the ideal company. So, the big question: would you do a trip like this again?
EKW: In a heartbeat! From researching our destination, to designing experiences, and finally executing the trip, this educational experience exceeded my expectations. I was pleasantly surprised by how immersive a virtual trip could feel. Even outside of a global pandemic, I would consider completing a virtual trip prior to a physical one, as it provided such a well-rounded introduction to a city and would help inform decisions for the real deal! I think it would be an interesting experiment to try a virtual trip for a city we had not visited before to examine whether the level of immersion is equally as deep without prior memories.
SVY: I’m right there with you (ha). This trip was awesome and like you, I’m taken aback by how effective it ended up being. Agreed about using virtual tourism to plan in-person trips. A virtual first-time visit somewhere would be intriguing … Shoutout to the power of imagination and memory, and to you, Emily, for your partnership in this worthy endeavour. Before long it’ll be time to pack our virtual suitcases for a spring adventure! If this is all the travel we have in the time of COVID, well, I’m not that mad about it anymore.