Hit the highways of the French-Canadian province for wilderness, whales, cosmopolitan cities and the best poutine in town
Canada’s ‘little France’ isn’t so little. Québec – the biggest province in Canada – spans over 1.5 million sq km, stretching from the banks of the St Lawrence River up towards the Arctic Circle. It also offers up a raft of original Québécois experiences within easy reach of two of the country’s most vibrant, historic and entertaining cities. Which means there’s a lot of potential for an easy yet epic roadtrip...
Montréal makes a great gateway. With its European heritage, North America feel and its welcoming and diverse population, the world’s second largest French-speaking city is the perfect blend to create a thriving metropolis that’s a touch of Paris, a dash of New York, un poco Italian but, ultimately, a brilliant mix of them all. It’s a city that loves a shindig too, hosting a calendar of eclectic world-renowned festivals that focus on everything from comedy to jazz, cirque to poutine, and Formula 1 to snowy electronic raves.
Start with a walk around the old alleys of Vieux-Montréal, home to cafés, art galleries, and the 19th-century Notre-Dame Basilica. Then head to savour the town with typically maple products and beer tasting at one of the many local brewery’s, sampling satay chicken, legendary beef brisket (a classic smoked meat), fresh-baked bagels, buttery croissants and authentic pizza and cannoli in the Italian district. Burn it off with a walk in Mount Royal Park – the city’s namesake 232m-high peak provides exercise and the best panorama.
Pick up a car and leave Montréal’s urban sophistication for the great Canadian outdoors. It’s only a short drive from the city into the forest-cloaked Laurentian Mountains, which offer outdoor adventures year-round.
Head for the alpine-cute village of Mont-Tremblant. In winter, it’s the region’s best ski spot, home to perfect downhill pistes plus a vast network of cross-country trails, skating lakes, snowmobile tracks and dog-mushing possibilities. When temperatures warm up there’s great biking, hiking, horseriding and paddling to be found, as well as an extensive zip trek network to explore whilst admiring the fiery foliage in fall.
Mont Tremblant National Park is only the beginning of the Québécois wilderness. Plunge a little deeper by driving further northeast to Lake Sacacomie, where you can stay in a timber lodge overlooking the water and pretend to be pioneer for a few days. Head out onto the lake by kayak, canoe or a traditional rabaska, the boats used by the region’s original traders. Look out for wildlife along the shores (bears and beavers lurk here) and try catching your own fish supper. Or join a guided Trapper Trek to learn how hunters once survived in these wild woods.
Next, drive east across the Canadian Shield to find more magnificent waters. Huge Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean is fringed by sandy beaches, fertile countryside, waterfalls, hiking trails and intriguing history. To make the most of the latter, stay at Val-Jalbert, a 1901 milling village turned ghost town that’s now a living museum. It’s also a good base for making forays into nearby parks to look for wolves, moose and bears.
From Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, do as the river does: flow towards the St Lawrence via the dramatic Saguenay Fjord. Measuring 105km, it’s one of the world’s longest inlets, flanked by 300m-high cliffs, rocky outcrops, tiny bays and small towns considered to be some of the prettiest in Québec. Stop off to browse artisanal shops, eat homemade blueberry pie in clapperboard cafés or the set off on kayak trips along the river.
Finish in the old fishing village of Tadoussac, which sits where the fjord finally merges into the St Lawrence River and where three currents collide, stirring up an underwater buffet for all manner of whale species. Head out on a Zodiac trip to look for the resident bright-white belugas, seals and dolphins and for the mighty blue, humpback, fin and minke that congregate here from June to September.
Tear yourself away from the whales and turn south at Tadoussac to traverse charming Charlevoix, a region of gentle, forest-blanketed hills, fecund valleys, streams and waterfalls, with quaint villages tucked in between. There’s plenty of potential for hikes and bike rides. Or follow the Charlevoix’s Flavour Trail, which links some of the region’s best restaurants and producers – pick up fresh-made cheese, chocolate, honey, charcuterie and other specialities straight from the farm door.
Stay the night in La Malbaie, which offers access to excellent ski fields in winter and trails in summer, and dreamy river views year-round. Don’t miss the artsy hub of Baie-Saint-Paul, original home of the Cirque du Soleil, whose old streets are lined with museums, galleries, bars and bistros.
Province capital Québec City is a fine finale. Perched atop a cliff on the banks of the St Lawrence, with a higgle-piggle old town that’s surrounded by robust 17th century walls, it’s arguably the most handsome hub in all of North America.
It’s best explored on a guided walk: soak up the city’s turbulent history as you’re led along the top of the ramparts and down through the alleys of Vieux-Québec, perhaps pausing at a Parisian-style street café en route. Also visit the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame, browse the boutiques and galleries opposite, take the ferry over to Lévis simply to enjoy the view looking back; and, depending on the season, stroll or cross-country ski around the Plains of Abraham, the huge and historic city park.
Don’t leave Québec City without indulging in the local food. You could opt for fancy French haute cuisine, try bison bourguignon or traditional tourtière (game pie), feel the sugar rush of a maple syrup-soaked pouding chômeur or simply tuck into a plateful of poutine – the classic Québécois version of chips, cheese and gravy.