So your kids are learning French. Fantastique! Of course, it’s part of the curriculum for every child and immersion programs have become increasingly popular. Personally, I love watching my daughter learning in French and even started taking lessons myself. But we all know that any language is different outside the classroom. A trip to Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean is the ideal place to introduce kids to real-world French and have a fun vacay at the same time. Not only is the region 97 per cent French speaking, it’s also incredibly scenic and has a slew of family-friendly activities to enjoy.
A two-hour drive north of Quebec City, the area is known for its forest and waterways, most notably Lac Saint Jean and the Saguenay Fjord. The landscape is beautiful with deep glacial waters stretching from Saint Fulgence to Tadoussac at the north of the St. Lawrence River. Our family has been fortunate to have had some wonderful road-tripping adventures in this gorgeous region. Here were some of our fave things to do:
Rockhounding for crystals at Cristal du Lac: “Even after 30 years, I never know what I’m going to find,” said Genevieve Chretien-Belly, an owner of this quartz mining site. It was a treasure hunt and a true family adventure. First, we hiked a mile through the forest with interpretive stops along the way to learn about the unique geology of the area (and eat wild blueberries). Once we reached the open mine, we put on hard hats and gloves, and began the search. Genevieve advised us to keep our eyes peeled for pink quartz. Rare and valuable, this is the only mine in Canada and one of seven in the world where it exists. Finding these special treasures was a thrill, and we all left happy with our own little bags of treasure.
Sleeping in a treehouse at Cap Jaseux Park: We loved our treehouse adventure on this 200-hectare property that also offered suspended spheres, log cabins and tenting. Our wooden house was perched high among the evergreen boughs and looked out at the Saguenay Fjord. Activity options included aerial rope courses, hiking, swimming, and sea kayaking. We chose the guided kayaking excursion and paddled onto the fjord at sunset.
Hiking in Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay: This 320-square-kilometre (124 square miles) reserve showcased nature at her best with 650-foot cliffs, boreal forest and the fjord itself. Almost 100 kilometres (65 miles) of hiking trails offered challenging treks like climbing to Cap Eternité, as well as easy jaunts like the 3-kilometre (1.9 miles) hike to the lookout over Baie Sainte Marguerite. This was a great spot to see the beluga whales that swim and play in the bay during the summer.
Sleeping in a ghost town at Val-Jalbert Historical Village: One of the best-preserved ghost towns in Canada, this pulp-mill company locale was abandoned at the end of the 1920s, leaving behind wooden homes, a school, general store, the mill itself, and according to some, a few ghostly residents. We didn’t encounter any other-worldly folks when we spent the night in one of the restored homes, but we did get a glimpse of life in another era. We learned about a time when strict nuns ruled the school, families with eight children were the norm, and the indoor washrooms and electricity were considered the ultimate in in modern living. The focal point of the town is Ouiatchouan Falls, which at 260 feet is higher than Niagara Falls. The name means white, boiling water in Innu, and its powerful cascades can be viewed from a glass platform lookout or just as you wander through the village itself.
Digging for Fjord creatures at the Musée du Fjord: Besides its natural beauty, the glacial river was home to a unique eco-system comprised of both salt-water and fresh-water species. Armed with shovels and wearing rubber boots, we learned firsthand about the fjord’s inhabitants on the “Life Between Land and Sea” activity.
We were thrilled to find clams, shrimp, and other organisms with the help of our guides. (This summer, because of COVID-19, participants are asked to bring their own rubber boots to help prevent the spread of the virus.) Back inside, we checked out the aquariums and exhibitions. The highlight was the touch pool, where we held a slimy sea cucumber, a star fish, and other creatures of the fjord.
Spelunking at Parc Caverne du Trou de la Fee: These deep granite caves were discovered by chance in 1821, when workers saw an eagle disappear into the cliffs and went looking for its nest. It was a tight squeeze in some spots. Once we got through, the cavity’s size was surprising. Exploring the cave was more than enough adventure for me, but my daughter craved more thrills.
She whizzed over the canyon on a zipline course offered at the park. My heart stopped just watching her and I was glad I chose the more peaceful option of a stroll along the boardwalk with gorgeous views of rivers and waterfalls. COVID-19 Note: The caves are closed for tours during the 2020 summer; however, the trails and other activities at the site are open.
Biking le Velo du Bleuet: The Blueberry Trail is a 256-km (160 miles) path that circles beautiful Lac Saint-Jean, taking cyclists through a variety of landscapes. We biked a small portion, about 20 kilometres (13 miles), with Equinox Adventures. You wouldn’t think it would take long to bike that distance, but it did — simply because we had to stop so many times. Why? Blueberries, of course. The trail was true to its name and these small, flavourful berries the region is famous for were so much tastier that the ones we buy at the supermarket.
As we had no containers, the kids filled their water bottles and tummies with them. We returned to our condo accommodation at the Centre de Villégiature Dam-en-Terre with blue-stained lips, talking about how much we’d love to come back and cycle the complete route.
Camping fun for families at Villages Vacances Petit Saguenay: A summer camp for families is the best way to describe this property that has 37 cabins on a hilltop overlooking the fjord. Here, both kids and parents get their own animateurs (counsellors) who lead activities that families can participate in together or apart. So, for example, while the parents could go on a hike with a reward of wine and cheese at the end, their kids could be playing organized games at the beach or doing arts and crafts. Food and activities are included in the price, making it a great deal for families. We were told that about 10 per cent of guests were English-speaking families looking for immersion opportunities. With skits, bonfire ghost stories en francais, it was a much more fun way to learn French than in the classroom.
COVID-19 Note: The all-inclusive packages are not available during the 2020 summer; however, accommodations and some activities are still available.