Forming the greater part of Canada’s largest province, Northern Québec stretches from the temperate farmland in the south to the Arctic tundra in the north, covering over one million square kilometres. Nature rules supreme in this area and the influence of the Arctic is strong – winters are long and among the coldest in eastern Canada, and the blazing summers are clipped short by northern frosts. Moose, caribou, wolverine and bears fill the forests and in many places humans have barely made inroads. Civilization is largely concentrated on the shores of the St Lawrence River, around the main coastal highways radiating eastward from historic Québec City.
The regal provincial capital is the undisputed highlight of the region, perched commandingly above and alongside the narrowing of the St Lawrence River like a symbolic gateway to the north (the city’s name actually derives from the Algonquin word kebek, meaning “where the river narrows”). It is also the most easterly point that connects the north and south shores of the river. Beyond the city, the waterway broadens dramatically and the only connection between shores is by ferry.
The southern shore of the St Lawrence is less remote than its counterpart, with the agricultural Bas-Saint-Laurent (Lower St Lawrence) the gateway to the rugged and lightly populated Gaspé Peninsula. East of here, stuck out in the middle of the Gulf of St Lawrence, are the majestic, treeless landscapes of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, most easily reached by air or a ferry from Prince Edward Island. The islands’ fine shores and strikingly eroded sandstone cliffs will appeal particularly to cyclists, walkers and solitude-seeking beach-goers.
The north shore of the St Lawrence covers an area that changes from trim farmland to a vast forest bordering a barren seashore. Immediately northeast of Québec City is the beautiful Charlevoix region, all idyllic villages and towns that bear the marks of Québec’s rural beginnings. Often the winding highways and back roads pass through a virtually continuous village, where the only interruptions in the chain of low-slung houses are the tin-roofed churches. The beguiling hills and valleys give way to dramatic ravaged rock just beyond the Charlevoix borders, where the Saguenay River crashes into the immense fjord that opens into the St Lawrence at the resort of Tadoussac, a popular spot for whale-watching and hiking. Inland, Lac Saint-Jean – source of the Saguenay River – is an oasis of fertile land in a predominantly rocky region, and its peripheral villages offer glimpses of aboriginal as well as Québécois life. Adventurous types following the St Lawrence can head beyond Tadoussac along the Côte-Nord through a sparsely populated region of spectacular empty beaches and dramatic rockscapes where the original livelihoods of fishing and lumber have largely given way to ambitious mining and hydroelectric projects. In the far northeast the supply ship Nordik Express serves the Île d’Anticosti and the roadless lower north shore as far as the Labrador border – the ultimate journey within Québec. The remoteness of the Île d’Anticosti and the sculptured terrain of the Mingan Archipelago – a national park well served by boats from Havre-Saint-Pierre – is matched by the isolation of the fishing communities along the Basse Côte-Nord, where no roads penetrate and visits are possible only by supply ship, plane or snowmobile.