La Fleuve Saint-Laurent

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Part two of our three-part Quebec adventure was our exploration of the shores of the Saint Lawrence to the northeast of Quebec City– the road trip part of the vacation. Starting out at Métis, we backtracked upriver, eschewing the highway for the slower Route de la Mer along the shore. Just past the city of Rimouski, a pleasant-looking mid-sized city that would warrant a stay some time in the future, the Route de la Mer rejoined the highway and continued unchanged, a two-lane road passing through the countryside. Passing through the tiny hamlet of Saint-Simon, we spotted a large swinging sign in the shape of a giant bagel. This warranted an immediate stop, where the friendly baker sold us a bag of honey-sweetened Montreal style bagels, made with all natural, local ingredients– heaven with a hole in the middle. Shortly afterward, at the small town of Trois-Pistoles, we found the Fromagerie des Basques, a large-scale operation that clearly had the visitors in mind. We had a brief look in and purchased a smoked maple cheddar for our later enjoyment. 

We continued on through farm and ranch land, green and surrounded by low hills, until we reached Rivière-du-Loup, where we took the ferry across the Saint Lawrence. Even here, where the map shows the river much narrower than at Métis, the crossing took an hour. From Saint-Siméon on the opposite side, we had a short drive north through forested hills to the mouth of the Saguenay River, where a small ferry took us across to the town of Tadoussac.

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Tadoussac is most famous for its whale-watching industry, which was what had drawn us there, but the bonus is that it is a lovely, charming town with a great deal of history. Founded at the beginning of the 17th century, it was the first French settlement in north America. We visited the excellent history museum on the site of the original settlement, which documented the fur trade origins of the town.

We ate well in Tadoussac, no problem for vegetarians here. We enjoyed beer and pub food the first night, at a place with a nice deck overlooking the bay, and the second night, had a fabulous dinner at Cafe Boheme– amazing pizza, appies, and desserts, all great, with a litre of valpolicella to wash it all down. As we found everywhere in Quebec, there was a good boulangerie that provided us our lunches, and great local beer was readily available as well. We particularly enjoyed a delicious, fizzy blond ale from the Saguenay microbrewerie La Chouape. We also found a cider shop near our hotel, where we purchased some local fruit ciders that were really tasty. 

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But the main event was the whale watching, and it was spectacular. We saw fin whales, minke whales (one skimming the waves like a dolphin!), a pod of belugas, a seal, penguins and razorbills, and coolest of all, a pair of humpbacks that put on an amazing show. It was fascinating out on the river witnessing the tides and currents interacting, and we had a short cruise into the Saguenay. We later contemplated taking a detour upriver to Lac Saint-Jean, but realized it would just take too long, so we have put further exploration of the Saguenay region on our to-do list for next time. 

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We carried on with our rambling journey, heading south through the lovely Charlevoix region. It reminded us of British Columbia, with tree-covered rolling hills dotted with farms and ranches. We stopped in La Malbaie, known to the anglos as Murray Bay, and didn’t find much going on, other than a really great artisanal boulangerie, Pains d’exclamation! We bought a perfect baguette and a loaf of walnut bread, and sat down for Lavazza cappuccinos. 

Afterward, we continued on to the town of Baie Saint-Paul, where we visited the wonderful fromagerie Migneron up on the hill. There were beautiful views down over the fields where the sheep were grazing, and down into the cheesemaking room where they were wiping the big wheels! Cheesemaking is big in the area as the Charlevoix is a dairy region; there is a cheese museum in Baie Saint-Paul that we didn’t have the time to visit, but that looked fascinating. Another time! 

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Baie Saint-Paul is a charming art-centred town, with a quaint centre-ville featuring lots of galleries, shops, and restaurants. While we were there, the main street had been dug up and the sidewalks were being renovated, so it was unfortunately quite a mess, but nice despite that. The downtown will be lovely when finished, as there are beautiful historic buildings everywhere, and there is a friendly, uncrowded feeling about the place. The art galleries were varied and fascinating, featuring lots of different styles and quite high quality. Our fourteen-year-old son enjoys contemporary art a great deal, and we were impressed with the respect and friendliness with which he was treated by the proprietors. Despite the fact that they were clearly not going to make any big dollar sales, they were happy to discuss the artists and the work with him, and answer his questions. We visited a wool shop which is trying to bring back the weaving industry to the region; we bought a tapestry woven from the Charlevoix wool. 

We also visited the contemporary art museum, as well as the town’s lovely Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, which features an organ by the renowned Quebec organ builder Casavant. Later we drove along the river to the little community of Les Eboulements, where there were a number of shops selling folk art and paintings, and we visited an excellent chocolate shop. There were beautiful views of the river and Baie Saint-Paul.

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Once again, we ate well during our two-day stay, enjoying local cheese and beer for lunch, and two lovely dinners. The first was in the charming Cafe des Artistes, where we had excellent thin-crust pizza, including one called “La grande bleue”. The second was at Chez Pineault, an Italian restaurant across from the church. There was lots of goat cheese here– on the spinach/chevre ravioli, and loads of it on the pizza quatre fromages. There were generous tasty salads with everything, really good frites, and a Quebecois treat called “fondue parmesan”, small squares of cheese rolled in bread crumbs and deep fried. Delicieux!

Overall, we discovered a region filled with the French and the not-French Amazing French-style cheeses are made here, but rather than wine, craft beer rules. As in France, towns and cities of all sizes feature large churches at their heart, they are eclectic in design, and commonly feature the tin-covered spires typical of Quebec. Rather than closely-built European-style towns and villages, the communities feel distinctly North American in their spaciousness. It is a delightful region of old and new, farms and towns, land and sea.

Photos: cheese curds in the Fromagerie des Basques; bagel stop in Saint-Simon; historic Tadoussac church; humpback whale; Saguenay River; Charlevoix tapestry; traditional building in Baie Saint-Paul

© Leslie Wilkes 2016