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. 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 remoteness of the Île d’Anticosti and the sculptured terrain of the L’Archipel-de-Mingan – 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.
Heading east from Québec City along the southern shore of the St Lawrence, the most scenic route is Hwy-132, which sticks close to the shoreline showcasing the highlights of Bas-Saint-Laurent (Lower St Lawrence), a region of fertile lands with farming and forestry covering gently rolling hills. The landscape is agricultural and dominated by long, narrow fields that are remnants of the old seigneurial system. The stops worth making on the trip to the Gaspé Peninsula are the woodcarving centre of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, the seigneurial Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies, the architecturally quaint Kamouraska, the regional centre of Rivière-Du-Loup and the stunning coastal landscapes of Parc national du Bic.
Stretching along the north shore of the St Lawrence River east of Québec City, from the Beaupré coast to the Fjord du Saguenay, the region of Charlevoix, named after the Jesuit historian François Xavier de Charlevoix, is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Species like the arctic caribou and arctic wolf, not usually associated with such southerly latitudes, can be seen in the more remote areas, and because the Ice Age that shaped the rest of eastern Canada missed this breathtaking portion of the Canadian Shield, numerous pre-glacial plants still thrive here. It consists of gently sloping hills, sheer cliffs and vast valleys veined with rivers, brooks and waterfalls, a landscape that Québec’s better known artists – Clarence Gagnon, Marc-Aurèle Fortin and Jean-Paul Lemieux – chose for inspiration. Though Charlevoix has been a tourist destination for years and especially popular with people from Québec City on weekend breaks, the land has been carefully preserved, and quaint villages and tin-roofed churches still nestle in an unspoiled countryside.
Highway 138, the main route through Charlevoix, travels 225km from Québec City to Baie-Sainte-Catherine on the Saguenay. The main towns along this highway are served by Intercar buses from Québec City, but many of the quintessential Charlevoix villages – in particular those along the coastal Hwy-362 which starts from Baie-Saint-Paul – are not served by public transport. Be prepared to rent a car or bike; the expense is worth it.
Some of the province’s most dramatic skiing is at Le Massif (day-pass $75; lemassif.com) perched over the St Lawrence River 20km to the west of Baie-Saint-Paul, one of Charlevoix's earliest settlements, tucked into the Gouffré Valley at the foot of the highest range of the Laurentian Mountains.
At 15 rue Amroise-Fafard, Randonnées Nature-Charlevoix (418 435 6275, randonneesnature.com) runs excellent hiking tours in the Parc national des Grands-Jardins and tours around the Charlevoix Crater – to the east of town and one of the planet’s largest – by bus (year-round; reservations required; 2hr 30min; $195). To really get a sense of the crater’s immense scale and beauty see it from above on a helicopter tour from Héli Charlevoix (June–Oct daily 9.30–7.30pm; Nov–May by appointment; two-person minimum; $114; 418 435 4071, heli-charlevoix.com), which has an office in town at 1608 Hwy-138.
At the marina, Katabatik, at 210 rue Ste-Anne (t 418 435 2066, wkatabatik.ca), is one of the top outfitters in the region, capable of guiding or providing equipment for just about any outdoor activity you might have in mind. Rent bicycles, kayaks, canoes and paragliders or choose courses in kayaking and paragliding; it also runs guided kayak trips along the coast and toward l’Isle aux Coudres (from $59/half-day).
Attracting hikers, mountain-bikers and cross-country skiers, the long-distance Traversée de Charlevoix (t 418 639 2284, w traverseedecharlevoix.qc.ca) begins near the Parc des Grands-Jardins on Hwy-381, crossing 105km of mountainous terrain including the Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie before ending at Mont Grand-Fonds near La Malbaie. Accommodation starts at $25.50 per day for cabins or $28.50 per day for cottages for the six nights needed to complete the hike.
The Fjord du Saguenay is one of the world’s longest fjords, cutting through the Canadian Shield before merging with the St Lawrence River. A stupendous expanse of rocky outcrops, sheer cliffs and thick vegetation, the land flanking the fjord on both sides is protected as the Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay (w sepaq.com) and Parc marin du Saguenay–Saint-Laurent (t 418 235 4703, t 1 800 773 8888, w parcmarin.qc.ca), whose main entry is at Baie -Éternité. The marine park contains six different ecosystems and supports hundreds of marine species, but has had its work cut out. Since the park’s creation, government initiatives have eliminated ninety percent of the pollutants from industrial plants in the immediate vicinity. Still, pollutants remain in the sediment and the number of St Lawrence River beluga whales is currently at one thousand, down from five thousand a century ago, placing them on Canada’s list of endangered species. The area continues to attract whales because the mingling of the cold Labrador Sea waters with the highly oxygenated freshwater of the Saguenay River produces a uniquely rich crop of krill and plankton. The white St Lawrence River beluga lives in the area year-round, and from May to October it is joined by six species of migratory whale, including the minke, finback and blue.
The walls of the fjord itself extend to a depth of 270m in places, almost as much as the height of the cliffs above the waterline. Wedged between the two halves of the Parc du Saguenay are some of the most attractive parts of the Parc marin du Saguenay–Saint-Laurent. But since no bridges cross the Saguenay for the 126km between Tadoussac and Chicoutimi, you may need to backtrack to explore both shores.
The archipelago of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine (Magdalen Islands), in the middle of the Gulf of St Lawrence some 200km southeast (and one hour ahead) of the Gaspé Peninsula and 100km northeast of Prince Edward Island, consists of twelve main islands, seven of which are inhabited. Six of these are connected by narrow sand spits and crossed by paved and gravel roads, while the last is only accessible by boat. Together these dozen islands form a crescent-shaped series of dunes, lagoons and low rocky outcrops that measures about 80km from end to end, with the main village and ferry port roughly in the middle at Cap-aux-Meules. The islands lie in the Gulf Stream, which makes the winters warmer than those of mainland Québec, but they are subject to almost constant winds, which have eroded the red-sandstone cliffs along parts of the shoreline into an extraordinary array of arches, caves and tunnels. These rock formations, the archipelago’s most distinctive attraction, are at their best on the central Île du Cap-aux-Meules and the adjacent Île du Havre-aux-Maisons.
The islands’ 15,000 inhabitants (most descended from Acadian settlers) are largely dependent on fishing, the lobster catch in particular. Despite international pressure, the annual seal hunt in late winter also still supports many islanders (seals can be easily spotted on the ice floes in March). Other sectors of the fishery are now suffering because of fish-stock depletion, and the islands’ future livelihood revolves around tourism. Many residents worry about preserving their way of life and the fragile ecology of their beautiful islands.
Visitors are drawn to the archipelago for its wide-open landscapes and sense of isolation – it’s easy to find a dune-laden beach where you can be alone with the sea. The islands’ big attraction for many adventure travellers is the strong winds that blow here: between late August and late October conditions for windsurfing and kitesurfing are exemplary and the Canadian Professional and Amateur Windsurf Championship heads here every year. Throughout the islands, powerful currents and changeable weather conditions can make swimming dangerous, and the waters are occasionally home to stinging jellyfish.
Unsurprisingly, the opportunities to get on, and in, the water around the islands – from wreck diving to horseriding on a beach – are plentiful and every bit worth setting aside time for, if not making them the focus of your trip.
Boat and fishing trips
Outings depart from near the ferry terminal in Étang-du-Nord during summer. Excursions en mer (t 418 986 4745, w excursionsenmer.com) and Le Pluvier Aventurier (t 418 986 5681, w www3.telebecinternet.com/lepluvier) offer similar services, which include marine wildlife-watching trips and explorations of coves and uninhabited islands (from $30).
Windsurfing, kitesurfing and kayaking
The island boasts Canada’s first kitesurfing school, Aerosport Carrefour d’Aventures (t 418 986 6677, w aerosport.ca), at 1390 chemin de La Verniére in Étang-du-Nord. If you’re looking to windsurf or kitesurf stop here first; it’s an indispensable source of advice and rentals. It also offers excellent guided kayak tours to some of the islands’ geographical highlights, including the red sandstone caves of Gros-Cap (3hr; $44).
Winds have also played their part in causing so many ships to founder around the coast, leaving behind some superb wreck-diving. For information contact Le Repère du Plongeur (t 418 986 6548, w repereduplongeur.com), 18 Allée Léo Leblanc, Étang-du-Nord.
In Cap-aux-Meules, La Crinière au Vent (Mon–Sat 9am–5pm; t 418 986 6777), 115 chemin John-Aucoin, leads scenic horseback rides along the beach (3hr 30min; $152). They also offer pony rides and day-camps.
Down at the wharf, Les Trésors de la Lagune (June–Sept; 1hr 30min; $30–40; t 418 937 8906, t 1 855 986 1724, w tresorsdelalagune.com) departs daily at 7.30pm for a highly entertaining and educational tour of the lagoon on a glass-bottom boat. It also has four excursions daily that take in the island’s marine life and demonstrate lobster fishing.
The Centre nautique de l’Istorlet (t 418 937 5266, w istorlet.com), at 100 chemin de l’Istorlet, offers guided snorkelling (4hr; $95) trips to see the seals that live around the islands’ coastline as well as sea-kayak outings (3hr; $50), windsurfing lessons (2hr; $90) and kayak rentals (from $15/hr).
West of Chicoutimi, the huge, glacial Lac Saint-Jean is fed by most of the rivers of northeastern Québec and – unusually for an area of the rocky Canadian Shield – is bordered by sandy beaches and a lush, green terrain that has been farmed for over a century. It’s a relatively untouched area with tranquil lakeshore villages linked by Hwy-169, the circular route that offers a unique zoo at Saint-Félicien, the strange sight of Val-Jalbert, Québec’s most accessible ghost town and the picturesque shorelines of Parc national de la Pointe-Taillon.
Better still, the Véloroute des Bleuets connects the lake’s towns and is an increasingly popular option for cyclists from Montréal or Québec who pop their bikes on the train or bus for a three- to five-day tour of the lake. Many come as well for the local cuisine, especially the delicious coarse meat pie called a tourtière and the thick blueberry pie. The itinerary outlined below begins at Alma and heads west around the lake.
Easily the best way to take in the lake is on the relatively flat Véloroute des Bleuets (w veloroute-bleuets.qc.ca), a 256km bike route that encircles the whole lake. Much of it is in the form of a wide paved shoulder, but 60km of the route is completely car-free. The path passes close to most of the major attractions and through many of the villages around Lac Saint-Jean and there are beaches all along the lakeshore where you can cool off. The train from Montréal to Jonquière stops at Chambord on the south shore near Val-Jalbert and there’s a bus from Québec City to Alma. A number of B&Bs and other services cater to two-wheeled visitors, and even the locals lay out a warm welcome – some set up garden chairs to rest on near the bike path. Enquire at the information centre in Alma for a list of shuttle services that can transport your luggage around a portion of the lake; the fee for three to four days is typically $40.
Just up the highway from Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré is the town of Beaupré, which provides access to MONT-SAINTE-ANNE. The ski resort has successfully marketed itself as an off-season destination and is now the longest-standing venue on the mountain bike world-cup circuit. In summer you can explore the extensive cross-country mountain-bike trails ($12.18), either staying around the base area to test your trials skills on the North-Shore-style wooden obstacles, or using the gondola ($17.40 round-trip) to explore one of the hardest downhill mountain-bike courses in the world (there are easier routes down the mountain). Bikes can be rented at the base area with front-suspension models going for $40 for four hours; full-suspension for $55.
Hikers wanting to enjoy the remarkable views over the St Lawrence River and Québec City, as well as try out the several marked trails, can also take the gondola up the mountain. Yet one of the best hiking trails leaves out of the car park at the base area – head down the hill and over the bridge – to the Chutes Jean-Larouse, a twenty-minute walk. The trail leads to a series of dramatic waterfalls, though the latticework stairway that’s been constructed alongside is just as dizzying and almost more impressive.
One of Canada’s oldest villages, TADOUSSAC is beautifully situated at the neck of the Fjord du Saguenay and its confluence with the St Lawrence River, beneath rounded hills that gave the place its name; the Algonquian word tatoushak means “breasts”. Basque whalers were the first Europeans to live here and by the time Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1603 it was a thriving trading post. The mid-nineteenth century saw Tadoussac evolve into a popular summer resort for the anglophone bourgeoisie, but today it’s the best place in Québec, along with Les Bergeronnes and Les Escoumins just north along the coast, for whale-watching. Mid- to late June is a good time to be here, when traditional Québécois folk singers, jazz pianists and rock guitarists all play a part in the popular Festival de la Chanson de Tadoussac (w chansontadoussac.com).
The waterfront rue du Bord-de-l’Eau is dominated by the red roof and green lawns of the Hôtel Tadoussac, a landmark since 1864 and the focus of the historic quarter. Across the road is the oldest wooden church in Canada, the tiny Chapelle de Tadoussac (June–Oct daily generally 10am–5pm; donation accepted; t 418 235 1415), built in 1747; visits are possible out of season by reservation.
Following the waterfront towards the harbour brings you to the modern Centre d’Interprétation des Mammifères Marins, run by the nonprofit Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals. This is highly recommended if you intend to go whale-watching; its excellent documentary films and displays explain the life cycles of the whales and the efforts being made to save their ever-diminishing numbers.
Whale-watching trips from Tadoussac and the surrounding communities are best done from mid-May to mid-October. Generally, prices for 2–3hr trips from Tadoussac are around $55 in a large, sturdy and comfortable boat, and $65–75 in a zodiac, which provides a more exciting ride. The price drops the more northerly the starting-point: similar excursions from Les Bergeronnes and Les Escoumins cost around $40 in a Zodiac. You’ll spend less time on the water from points of departure north of Tadoussac, but they are closer to where the whales are most likely to be, so you get about the same amount of contact time for less money. If you’re worried about missing a reservation in Tadoussac because of the ferry queue, ask to board at the quay in Baie-Sainte-Catherine instead – many of the companies fill up their boats on both shores of the mouth of the Saguenay before heading off to see the whales. Some firms also run cruises up the Fjord du Saguenay, as well as combined whale/fjord packages. Load up with brochures at the tourist office and compare what’s on offer.
The companies listed below have all been leading tours for several years. Officially, boats are not allowed to stray within 400m of the protected belugas, but the whales don’t know that and often come thrillingly close to the craft.
Alternatively, take the short hike around the Pointe de l’Islet from the marina in Tadoussac, which has lookout points for beluga-spotting. Improve your chances for a sighting by heading to even better lookout points along the shore: Baie-Sainte-Marguerite, west of Tadoussac, and Cap-de-Bon-Désir, just past Les Bergeronnes, are the best. An array of interpretation centres supplement the whale-watching adventures, but don’t miss the excellent Centre d’Interprétation des Mammifères Marins in Tadoussac.
Croisières AMLt 418 235 4642, t 1 800 563 4643, w croisieresaml.com. Gives you the option of a large boat or Zodiac tours that last 2–3hr.
Croisières Groupe Dufour At the Hôtel Tadoussact 418 235 4421, t 1 800 561 0718, w dufour.ca. Whale safaris aboard a variety of boats, including a catamaran and a 48-person Zodiac.
Otis Excursions 431 rue Bâteau-Passeur t 418 235 4197, w otisexcursions.com. For trips in large catamarans and twelve-person Zodiacs.
Croisières Groupe Dufourt 1 800 463 5250, w dufour.ca. Offers a 150min excursion ($64) from Saint-Siméon, 1hr 15min south of Tadoussac, aboard a Zodiac-style 47-passenger boat.
Les Croisière Essipit 46 De la Réserve Street, Essipit Reservation and Information Centret 418 233 2266, t 1 888 868 6666, w essipit.com. Uses the quay in Les Bergeronnes and runs 2hr trips aboard twelve-person Zodiacs (early June to late Oct).
Croisières Neptune 507 rue du Boisé, Les Bergeronnes t 418 232 6716 and 31 rue des Pilotes, Les Escoumins t 418 233 4343, w croisieresneptune.net. Trips in Zodiacs.
Les Écumeurs 4 Hwy-138 t 418 233 2141, t 1 888 817 9999, w lesecumeurs.com. The least expensive of the options north of Tadoussac; launches its Zodiacs from Les Escoumins, just south of the marine park (see Whale-watching from the Tadoussac area).
Bounded by the Gulf of St Lawrence to the north and west, and by the Baie des Chaleurs to the south and east, the Gaspé Peninsula is roughly 550km long, with a chain of mountains and rolling highlands dominating the interior and the northern shore. It has always been sparsely inhabited with limited economic opportunities, its remote communities eking out an existence from the turbulent seas and the rocky soil. But the landscape provides some truly spectacular scenery: forested hills with deep ravines and vistas of craggy mountains tumble to a jagged coastline fronted by the St Lawrence River, with the winding coastal drive along Hwy-132 taking it all in.
As a major summer holiday spot the Gaspé gets especially busy during the last two weeks of July for Québec’s construction holiday; if you travel during this period, book your accommodation and activities well in advance.
Gaspé is the spot where the French navigator and explorer Jacques Cartier landed in July 1534, on the first of his three trips up the St Lawrence River. He stayed here for just eleven days, time enough to erect a wooden cross engraved with the escutcheon of Francis I, staking out the king’s – and Christianity’s – claim to this new territory. Cartier’s first aim was to find a sea route to the Orient, but he also had more extensive ambitions – to acquire land for himself and his men, exploit the Aboriginal peoples as fur gatherers and discover precious metals to rival the loot the Spaniards had taken from the Aztecs. Naturally, Cartier had to disguise his real intentions on the first trip and his initial contacts with the Iroquois were cordial. Then, in the spring of 1536, he betrayed their trust by taking two of the local chief’s sons back with him to Francis I. They were never returned, and when Cartier made his third trip in 1541 the Iroquois were so suspicious that he was unable to establish the colony he had been instructed to found. Desperate to salvage his reputation, Cartier sailed back to France with what he thought was a cargo of gold and diamonds; it turned out to be iron pyrite and quartz crystals.
You’ll find good opportunities for everything from cross-country skiing to ice-climbing around Québec City, but most popular are the skiing and snowboarding at three resorts – Stoneham, Mont-Sainte-Anne and Le Massif. Some experts in search of big bowls and deep powder might find the terrain limited, but for most, the fine mogul fields, tricky glades, well-thought-out terrain parks and extensive night-skiing more than compensate.
Only 6km beyond the city limits off Rte 73 is Stoneham (late Dec to mid-March Mon–Fri 9am–9.30pm, Sat & Sun 8.30am–9.30pm; late March to mid-April Mon–Wed 9am–4pm, Thurs & Fri 9am–7pm, Sat 8.30am–7pm & Sun 8.30am–4pm; day-pass $59; t 418 848 2415, t 1 800 463 6888, w ski-stoneham.com), which has limited expert terrain, but is set in a wind-protected horseshoe valley. Despite a minimal vertical drop of 421m and a modest 322 acres of terrain, it has been sculpted into an impressive ski area, thanks partly to its night-skiing operation, which keeps around two-thirds of the resort open after dark; the après ski can get wild.
The largest of Québec City’s ski areas is Mont-Sainte-Anne (late Nov to late April daily 8.30am–4pm; day-pass $75; t 1 888 827 4579, w mont-sainte-anne.com), 40km away via Rte 440, which becomes Rte 138, northeast of town. It offers a well-balanced mix of terrain and comprehensive facilities. Centred on a single peak and covering 428 acres, it’s easily navigable yet still provides a remarkably varied high-density trail system. The presence of novice runs extending from summit to base on both sides of the mountain is handy, while first-timers benefit from free access to bunny slopes adjoining the base area. The resort’s greatest strength is its wealth of intermediate-level runs that make up almost half the ski zone. Most start from the resort’s rapid gondola and follow a smooth and steep grade back to the minimal lift queues. Those hunting for steeper slopes, moguls, trees and high-speed carving should make for a cluster of black diamonds on the south side.
The third main mountain in the area is Le Massif (early Dec to early April opening hours vary throughout the season but are at least 9am–3pm, longer at weekends; day-pass $75; t 418 632 5876, t 1 877 536 2774, w lemassif.com), 75km along Hwy-138 from Québec City. It has some of the most spectacular views of any resort in the world, and despite the presence of a couple of narrow, tricky and busy beginner runs, it’s best at providing wonderful intermediate-level carving slopes. The mountain’s grooming regime puts several black diamond runs within the capacity of intermediates – but watch out for the terrifying triple-diamond La Charlevoix.
Tubing, ice-skating and an indoor climbing wall are available at Stoneham, while Mont-Sainte-Anne offers ice-skating, snowshoeing, dog-sledding, paragliding, sleigh riding and snowmobiling. The Mont-Sainte-Anne Cross-Country Ski Center (mid-Dec to mid-April Mon–Fri 9am–4pm, Sat & Sun 8.30am–4pm), 7km east of the main ski area, is a splendid local resource and the largest of its kind in Canada, boasting over 220km of cross-country trails. Day-tickets cost $27, rentals another $25. For more of a wilderness experience cross-country skiers should also explore the rolling hills around Camp Mercier. On the fringes of Québec City at Montmorency Falls, is the world’s largest ice-climbing school, L’Ascensation École d’escalade (reservations necessary; from $115 a day; t 418 647 4422, t 1 800 762 4967, w rocgyms.com).
Mont-Sainte-Anne and Stoneham have on-site accommodation, but more convenient are Québec City’s hotels, linked to all the resorts via a ski shuttle, the Ski-Express (round-trips $32; t 418 525 5191, w taxicoop-quebec.com). Services run from eighteen downtown hotels and the tourist information office to both Stoneham and Mont-Sainte-Anne. Le Massif runs a complimentary shuttle that links with the Ski-Express, which departs from Mont-Sainte-Anne’s shuttle parking area. Le Massif is also accessible via Baie-Saint Paul on the Charlevoix Light Rail Train from Parc de la Chute-Montmorency (wlemassif.com/en/train). All three resorts rent equipment (skis or snowboards around $35/day). There’s a better selection of higher-end gear and lower prices in the stores along the highway in Beaupré.