Falling for Québec
by April Waterston | 08 January 2020
My arms are aching, my face is freezing and my legs are drenched. But as I drag my trusty kayak back to shore, I feel a sense of accomplishment and peace which I’ve deduced is exclusive to the great Canadian outdoors.
This brisk October morning is my last in Québec. I’ve just kayaked down the Gouffre river in Baie-Saint-Paul, Charlevoix and I’m struggling to remember a time I’ve felt this happy to be so cold and damp.
Battling our way through strong currents and chilly winds, I'm distracted from my concerning lack of physical fitness by banks lined with quaint riverside houses and birds of prey circling overhead.
With just the sound of my paddles breaking the water (and my wheezy breath) I feel calm and relaxed.
Québec seems to be the perfect destination for embracing the outdoors all year round. The province has around thirty national and provincial parks, totalling over 37,000 square kilometres of protected wilderness.
Our guide at Katabik – Aventure dans Charlevoix tells us we are the last group of the season to make this journey. Winter is drawing in and soon the rapids we’ve just paddled through will be iced over, making way for winter-friendly activities like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
A few kilometres away, popular ski resort Le Massif de Charlevoix, the highest vertical drop east of the Rockies, will soon be coated in snow, and the whole province will evolve into a magical winter wonderland.
In the warmer months, I'm told there are few better places to visit if you want to camp in forests, hike up mountains and swim in lakes. But as the temperatures begin to drop, autumn (or ‘fall’ as it's known here) comes to Québec and I can testify that it's a sight to behold.
It's as if the landscape is set on fire, with sprays of rusty red, burnt orange and yellow leaves broken up only occasionally by evergreen aspens.
Despite the constant distraction of beautiful views, the province is easy to navigate by car and as we drive down long stretches of tree-lined roads I find myself fixated by the blur of colours rushing by.
Jazz it up
My journey through Québec started in Montréal. With direct flights from London taking around six hours the city serves as a welcoming gateway to the province and the rest of eastern Canada, but it's a vibrant destination in its own right.
Despite having only 48 hours to explore the city, I quickly fall for its quirky charms.
We spend an evening soaking up the atmosphere at the Upstairs Jazz Bar and Grill, a lively basement venue with live jam sessions and seasoned soulful performers. It's just a taste of Montréal’s music scene but every summer the city is home to the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, the world’s biggest jazz event, attracting millions of visitors. Roads are closed to make space for outdoor performances and small venues like Upstairs welcome international artists.
The next day a whistle-stop tour gives us a feel for the city's hidden treasures. Our guide takes us to quaint neighbourhoods filled with multi-coloured homes, all adorned with the city's iconic outdoor staircases; hidden community gardens and bustling markets full of seasonal produce and tempting maple treats.
We walk to Saint-Laurent Boulevard and find buildings plastered with elaborate street art ranging from abstract graphic designs to an imposing homage to the late Canadian singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen. The works are products of the city’s annual 11-day-long MURAL Festival that sees street artists come from afar to transform the blank urban canvas.
Our guide tells us that the murals are particularly impactful in winter, when a white blanket of snow provides a stark contrast to the vivid colours. But even against the dull October sky they highlight Montréal's deep-rooted creativity.
Step back in time
Just a one-hour flight north to the region of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and suddenly I am a world away, gazing at a more natural canvas: a panorama of Fjord-du-Saguenay. The fjord is 100km in length and home to wildlife including whales and bears. From our viewpoint in the Park National du Fjord-du-Saguenay we watch for white belugas surfacing for air.
Visiting the historical village of Val Jalbert is like travelling back in time. Lauded as one of the best-preserved ghost towns in Canada, the site features over 40 period buildings and actors to tell the story of life back in the 1920s. We take a tour by trolley bus to the Ouiatchouan Falls, the heart of the village that was once used to power the local pulp mill. A cable car carries us to the top of the falls (which I am told stand higher than Niagara), and then on to the top of the hill, with sweeping views over the autumn foliage, onwards to Lac Saint-Jean.
Charmed by Charlevoix
A short drive on from Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean is the picturesque region of Charlevoix. It might be serene but it's also a beacon for adventurers and we head to the aptly-named Parc d’Aventure en Montagne Les Palissades – L’Ascensation.
As I look up to ant-sized climbers traversing a 200 metre-high suspended bridge, my fear of the lakeside zipline I'm about to ride suddenly melts away.
Québec is full of surprises but none more so than my own new-found love of the great Canadian outdoors.
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