On my first night in Quebec, I sit in my hotel room overlooking a bleak car park thinking, “This is not how I imagined it to be.”
The car park is surrounded by a chain link fence, beyond which is an intimidating section of highway that leads to the Montreal airport.
The hotel does not have a restaurant but, if one wanted to risk their life walking along the shoulder of the highway, there’s a Domino’s Pizza a kilometre or so away.
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I’d imagined Quebec as sort of a wild west France: Gallic accents and rich food, but with everything on a much vaster scale – more rugged beauty, larger lakes and forests that stretch forever.
It’s wild alright but in a different way.
After searching on Google for reviews of the hotel, I discover that several guests have complained about having their car stolen from its car park. When I go down to the reception, a couple is in intense conversation with the manager – their car has gone missing too.
It would have been interesting to stick around and see if, as the TripAdviser reviews suggest, the hotel is a front for a crime syndicate. But early the next morning we’re off and within an hour on the road, we’re in the countryside, whizzing through the Quebec of my imagination. There’s a vast blue sky, tall fir trees and glimpses of sapphire lakes. The air carries the wholesome scent of fresh fir trees and the leaves are on the verge of turning autumnal.
We drive into one of the forests, past the town of Rawdon, and pull into a car park near a tall staircase partly hidden by foliage.
Up the stairs we go and enter a stunning area of forest that contains the sensitively designed spa complex La Source Bains Nordiques. With a mixture of indoor and outdoor saunas, pools and relaxation areas, the centre makes you feel you are partaking in the popular pastime of forest bathing.
Visitors can buy day passes and spend hours going from hot sauna to cold plunge pool to hammock to river. After almost 30 hours’ flight time from Sydney to Montreal, it’s a heavenly and much more fitting start to the trip.
Quebec is three times the size of France yet populated by just 8 million people. Half of them live in Montreal and Québec City.
So there’s a lot of big, wild spaces (two-thirds of the land space is under forest), including countless lakes, to explore on our trip to the south-east corner of the province.
While most visitors to Quebec gravitate towards the cities, the most stunning parts are in the countryside. Quebec is the biggest province in Canada and a car is helpful to explore the back roads, lakes and small communities.
The small towns are dotted with old churches (historically the Catholic church was a huge presence in Quebec), quaint houses, and traditional sugar shacks all surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful wilderness.
It is a place that fully experiences the seasons. Quebec transforms dramatically throughout the year – it’s heaven for skiers and snowboarders during winter while hiking, swimming, mountain biking, trout fishing, boating and waterskiing are popular in the summer.
At the time of our visit, Quebec is having an Indian summer. Although we are several weeks into fall, the leaves are green and the days are still hot enough to swim in the lakes. And this is exactly what we do when we arrive at Auberge du Lac Taureau in Saint-Michel-des-Saints.
Built near a sandy beach, Auberge du Lac Taureau is a classic Quebec wilderness resort with 23km of trail and 95 square kilometres of lake, and 45 islands you can get to by kayak or jet ski.
During the winter (beware: the wind chill can get to -40C), it offers cross country skiing, tobogganing and sledding.
We wake up early on our first morning and by lunchtime I’ve been jet skiing, had a trail ride through a forest and along the banks of the lake and then visited the mountain lodge Pourvoirie Domaine Bazinet. We spend the afternoon trout fishing. Trout are usually abundant in the six lakes on the estate, although we don’t catch any, thanks to the unseasonal heat.
That evening we stay at another grand old lodge, the Auberge du Vieux Moulin, and feast on traditional Quebecois cuisine, which features French-inspired sauces, cheese and game, along with local seasonal produce such as scallops and pork.
We sample the whole range of foods on this trip: from haute cuisine to traditional sugar shacks (including the famous Dany’s Sugar Shack where even the bacon, meat pies, baked beans and potatoes are cooked with maple syrup).
Yet if there’s one dish that manages to combine high and low, it’s poutine. Originating from Quebec in the 1950s, the dish is a base of hot chips and cheese curds topped with a brown gravy. Bits of bacon, lobster, pulled pork or whatever you fancy can be added to it. Not for the faint hearted (or those with heart disease), poutine is delicious in small doses – or in large doses, if you have a hangover.
Hotel Sacacomie is a trip highlight. The remote lodge is located in the middle of one of the most stunning forests in eastern Canada. Many of the rooms offer spectacular views of Lake Sacacomie but there are also many opportunities to fully experience nature.
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Before I fall asleep, I glimpse the stunning mountain and lake views from my bedroom window, but the next day I take a 20-minute light plane trip over the area and am captivated by the scenery. The scale is a lot to take in – the lake has a 42km coastline – and we fly over the Mastigouche wildlife reserve and the village of St-Alexis-des-Monts.
Later that afternoon, back on the ground, we meet veteran wildlife guide and former trapper, Gaspard Bourque, who takes us to observe beavers in their natural habitat. We’d been on the lookout for black bears, waiting quietly with other tourists at a viewing platform a safe distance from where bears gather, but after 90 minutes of waiting, none appeared.
We have better luck with beavers who are working away (“They never really stop working,” says Bourque) on the construction of a nearby dam.
Maintaining the dam means they can partly submerge their lodge and avoid predators. Each beaver is about 20 kilograms and remarkably effective at sawing through the forest, with miles and miles of beaver dams visible from the air. So it’s not surprising that their teeth look almost comical – they are enormous, bucked and extremely sharp. “Do not attempt to pat them”, warns Bourque.
So how French is Quebec? French is the first language of the province and in rural Quebec, you can’t rely on English being spoken. The average person in a small village doesn’t speak English, we’re told. And in every hotel we stay in, there are large groups of French tourists.
“We are a bit like the Scottish. Twenty-five years ago, we wanted to leave Canada – it was a close referendum but now we don’t feel it,” says one of our guides.
In fact the relationship between the countries is not unlike that of Australia and Britain. They speak the same language, have a lot of the same customs and attitudes and visit each other regularly the way cousins would.
Many of the Québécois I meet have either lived or worked in France and there is a strong connection between the countries despite the distance and difference in geographies. At times, they seemed more identified with France than Canada.
Yet there is a strong and long Indigenous history in Quebec and a continuing fight for rights and recognition, including a land rights struggle. Quebec’s First Nation peoples number 11 ethnic groups and account for 2% of the population.
That evening we leave the more remote, forested landscapes to stay in the Indigenous-run and -owned Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations, not far from Quebec City. Located on the Wendake Indian Reserve, the beautifully designed, award-winning hotel includes a restaurant featuring Indigenous ingredients and a museum and tour where you can learn about the Huron-Wendat community and history. The hotel delivers a $4m a year benefit to the community’s 1500 residents, and has been recognised as a model for Indigenous business and hospitality.
- Brigid Delaney was a guest of Destination Canada
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