Québec's wood runners
When the coureurs des bois had collected their furs, they canoed and hiked back to what is now Québec City. The city was formally founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, and is now the only walled city in the Americas north of Mexico. It had a vital strategic placement on a rocky bluff over the St Lawrence River, at the furthest point that ocean-going ships could venture from the Atlantic. The British, the French and the Americans often fought over it, and today it retains a European-edged charm.
Vieux-Québec, the old walled city, is exceptionally pretty, historic houses and chapels lining its winding streets. By the late 17th Century, as Québec City began to develop a civic identity, the fur trade began to be regulated. The coureurs des bois were licensed, and renamed the voyageurs. The days of freewheeling fortune-seekers striking out into the wilderness were over. But the legacy of the Beaver Wars between the indigenous nations, and the bitter rivalries between european settlers for control of the north American continent, were coming to an extraordinary climax. In 1756, a war broke out between Britain, Prussia and their allies on one side, and the French, the Russians and theirs on the other, that would expand across the Americas and europe, and even into parts of Africa and Asia. This was the Seven years' War, described by Winston Churchill as the first "world war" for its immense scope. Québec City became the scene of one of the most crucial battles in world history.
Alongside the newer part of the city, stretching from the old fort past the fashionable Avenue Cartier and the elegant Museum of Fine Arts, are the Plains of Abraham. It was here, in 1759, that the famous battle (of the same name) was fought. Sitting now on lawns, amid well-tended flowerbeds and chattering picnickers, it is hard to imagine the British Army swarming onto this plain to attack the French, the smoke of gunfire forming a thick haze among the trees, the slashing of bayonets, and the screaming of the wounded. Today, it is blissfully quiet - though back in town, on the elegant Rue St-Louis, there is a cannonball still wedged in the roots of a tree that is said to date from that battle.
What had begun with a fashion for hats ended with the fall of a mighty empire. The British victory in Québec was the beginning of the end for the French in North America. But Québec City remains, even 250 years later, a monument to that lost world - and a gateway to a wilderness that is still very much untamed.
Air Canada has flights from London Heathrow to Québec City, connecting in Ottawa or Montréal (from £450 return).
Québec City is best explored on foot as the old city has a one-way system and little parking. But you'll need to rent a car for day trips (from £20 per day).
Three of the best tour operators
Specialising in adventure and ecotourism, ENF Canada offers tailor-made packages all year round. It arranges walking, hiking, cycling, wildlife watching, snowshoeing and crosscountry skiing around Québec and the northern regions of Nunavik, as well as presentations on the area's history, culture or nature. Suggested itineraries include a four-day cycling tour in the Jacques-Cartier area, taking in local fromageries, visits to First Nation sites, and the nearby Montmorency Falls (from £415 per person).
For those travellers who prefer to adventure in luxury, Bridge & Wickers arranges top-quality tours in Québec and all across Canada. These include multi-city routes by rail, self-drive and escorted coach tours. Wilderness tours and wildlife spotting can all be included in the package, as can culinary tours. All tours are bespoke, but suggestions include a ten-day self-drive wildlife watching itinerary, taking in Montréal, Québec City and ample opportunities for bear and whale watching (from £1,614 per person).