Wild wonders of French Canada

It takes me a few seconds to realise what they are looking at but the instant I do, my heart almost skips a beat. The hundreds of white cresting waves are not waves at all, but pods of Beluga whales swimming around the ferry as it crosses from Les Escoumins to Trois-Pistoles – a 90-minute journey. While incredible to me, this is not a rare sight on the Saint Lawrence.

One of the world’s busiest waterways, the 750-mile long river brings water from the Atlantic Ocean, cutting through the heart of French Canada and feeding the Great Lakes of North America.

Fin whales, minkes, humpbacks, endangered belugas and the world’s largest mammal, the blue whale, are some of the 13 species that can be spotted in the Saint Lawrence.

They are such a common sight you can see them from the shore, sometimes hearing their loud blowholes before you are able to spot them. Whale-watching tours out of the town of Tadoussac can also take you within yards of these majestic creatures of the deep as they break the surface for air.

But the Saint Lawrence River has more to offer than its wildlife and wonderful vistas. The French Canadian regions of Charlevoix and Quebec Maritime, a combination of Bas-Saint-Laurent, Gaspésie, Côte-Nord and Îles de la Madeleine, border the river and each has their own unique offering.

A four-hour drive from Montreal, the Charlevoix region was formed by a meteor 400 million years ago.

The mountains surrounding the 33-mile wide crater make the area a preferred choice for hikers, while the Massif ski resort offers a chance to plummet down slopes while enjoying a panoramic view of the river in winter.

But in the summer Charlevoix’s true talent comes to light – its local produce.

Famed for their fresh veal, cheese, lamb and lavender, local restaurants work hard with nearby producers to create menus with a true flavour of the region – an initiative that has led to the creation of the Charlevoix Flavour Trail.

Faux Bergers, a “fromagerie” or cheese factory, is one example of a family-run business on the route that puts local produce at the heart of its offering, with unusual if tempting dishes including emu heart salad and homemade black pudding pizza.

Restaurants with similarly tantalising menus line the streets of Baie-St-Paul, a town so quaint and colourful it’s like walking on to the set of a Wes Anderson film.

The town can be reached by train from Quebec City, while Train de Charlevoix also has a tourist train that runs to La Malbaie, offering visitors one of the most scenic ways to see the Saint Lawrence.

If this doesn’t offer enough of a view, Charlevoix Aviation offers floatplane tours.

After the five-seater plane takes off from Nairne Lake, I am flown over the beautiful thick forests that blanket the region.

I later learn that these forests are full of the region’s native black bears, which I come face to face with in the wild at the bear observation centre in Domaine le Pic-Bois.

Watching them climb trees and roll around in their natural habitat can keep you occupied for hours – but only if you can withstand the abundant mosquitos. For anyone else bitten to within an inch of their life like I was, Quebec City offers a respite from the hungry mozzies.

Founded in 1608 as the cradle of French-speaking North America, the city is built in upper and lower sections.

The Fairmont Le Château Frontenac Hotel and the churches and government buildings that surround it dominate the walled city’s skyline on the upper level, while the lower part of the city is famous for its shops and original stone buildings.

One of the best times to visit is during the annual Festival d’été which takes over the city’s grassy Plains of Abraham, scene of a pivotal battle between the French and British in 1759 which paved the way for New France falling under London’s control and the eventual creation of Canada.

International stars from Beck to Cyndi Lauper are performing to thousands of music fans at this year’s 10-day event. In previous years acts including Red Hot Chili Peppers and Gorillaz have played.

Although the city has enough to entertain visitors all year, the city comes alive at this time of year.

I can’t decide whether the thrill of a festival or the incredible feeling of watching hundreds of endangered whales on my ferry crossing makes me feel more alive.

What is certain is whether it is wildlife that takes you to French-speaking Canada or the thriving music and foodie scene across the regions, there is something to take everyone’s breath away.

THE KNOWLEDGE 

Air Canada has connecting flights from Heathrow to Quebec City from £684 return. See aircanada.com. Auberge La Muse, Baie-Saint-Paul, from £88 a night (lamuse.com). Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, La Malbaie, from £105 (fairmont.com). Natakam Condos, Les Escoumins, from £82 (vacancesessipit.com).

Hotel Rimouski, Rimouski, from £82 (hotelsone.com). Hotel Delta in Québec City from £82 (marriott.com). For more information see quebecoriginal.com, tourismecharlevoix.com, quebecmaritime.ca, quebecregion.com

Source: Read Full Article