It is hard to leave the soulful plazas and
glass-clinking cafes of Québec City, but a journey beyond the walled town
brings big rewards. Blue whales, rustic alehouses and roadside ateliers bob up
within a four-hour, shore-clasping drive northeast.
Ste Anne de Beaupré
A short 35km north of Québec City, on Route 38, the
glinting spires of Ste
Anne de Beaupré Basilica warrant the first stop. The village has been a
Christian pilgrimage site since the mid-1600s, and the crutches piled inside
the Gothic church show Ste Anne's miracle prowess in healing the sick. Buy a
keychain from the gift shop, take it to the priest in the “Blessings Bureau”
next door and you are good to go.
Baie St Paul
Route 138 follows the St Lawrence River as it slices
through flowery Charlevoix, the pastoral region that harvests much of the
province's food. In true farm-to-table fashion, the small homesteads peppering
the landscape often have attached restaurants. The town of Baie St Paul, 60km
onwards from Ste Anne de Beaupré, makes a good base for grazing. Check into
yolk-yellow Auberge La Muse, one of
several cheerful bed and breakfasts in the area, and then walk over to Le Saint Pub. Tucked in a former brewery,
the chef smokes local meats and marinates them in the head-walloping house
Baie St Paul is where Cirque du Soleil began,
and a creative vibe permeates the town, with artists’ studios and boutiques
lining the streets. The boxy, steel-and-glass Musée
d'Art Contemporain shows modern and folk art by Québec artists.
Veer onto Route 362 and keep following the river. You
will pass a greenhouse tomato grower, a chocolatier
wafting tempting smells and a buzzing, 200-hive honey maker among the many artisanal
producers around the village of Les Éboulements 17km from Baie St Paul. After that,
the road becomes a lonely stretch for the next 30km, punctuated by an
occasional wood shed peeking out from the trees. Then you pull up to the town
of La Malbaie, one of Canada's first holiday resorts, made popular by the steamships
that chugged into its docks from Montreal at the beginning of the 19th Century.
Richelieu is a remnant of that era, and the copper-roofed castle still
serves as a luxury hotel. Strolling the mannerly gardens you half expect to run
into ladies with parasols and gentlemen in coattails.
Down the hill from the castle follow your nose to Vices Versa. The husband-and-wife chefs
who run this cosy, stone-walled restaurant in town each have their own stove,
and each contributes half the menu. He is Vices, lover of butter and cream. She
is Versa, preferring herbs and spices. What it really boils down to is
succulent dishes underpinned by local produce, such as Éboulmontaise lamb and stew
made with Charlevoix beer.
The river road turns back into Route 138, and little
towns flash by in a hurry for the next 70km until the road ends at Baie St
Catherine. From here a ferry whisks cars across the Saguenay River every 20
minutes during the day (every 40 minutes at night). On the other side lies
Tadoussac. Parked at the foot of a dramatic fjord and bookended by massive
cliffs, the historic town is a top spot for whale watching. In a nifty feat of
geography, the warm, fresh waters of the Saguenay jet out atop the frigid, salt
waters of the St Lawrence River, churning up massive volumes of krill. This
brings humpbacks, minkes and king-of-the-sea blue whales steaming through the
area, as well as chatty white belugas, which otherwise are seen only in the
Excursions takes Zodiac boats out in search of the behemoths. Prepare for a
wild, wind-in-your-hair ride over the waves -- all totally worth it when you
are close enough to smell a whale's breath.
Tadoussac offers alot besides leviathans, so book into
the landmark 1870 Hotel
Tadoussac and stay awhile. Fuel up on deep-dish meat pie, sugar pie (a rich
dessert of brown sugar and cream) and other traditional Québec workers' fare while
soaking up the view at Restaurant Le Bateau.
Then you will be ready to hike in craggy Parc
du Saguenay or sea kayak up the fjord with tour operator Mer et Monde.
The article 'A coastal Québec road trip' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.