Hail to Whales in Quebec’s St. Lawrence Region

Looking for a “Jonah” moment? The Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre is where visitors can discover a unique collection of whale skeletons and take a deep dive into the world of cetaceans. (Rod Charles file photo for Vacay.ca)

With so much history, nightlife, and culinary delights in Quebec the rural charms of the province are often overlooked. The best way to truly appreciate those lesser-known pleasures is to take a few days off, jump in your car, and go for a road trip.

Once you do you will understand why the region is among the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada for 2021, a list sponsored by the travel-trivia mobile game, Trippzy, and compiled by travel writers and editors from around the country. (The full rankings will be released later in January.) 

For my adventure I chose to follow the St. Lawrence River north from Quebec City in the Côte-Nord Region where I spent time in Tadoussac, home to Saguenay-St-Lawrence Marine Park and one of the most important whale-watching destinations in the world.

DAY ONE

The trip began by catching the VIA Rail train from Oshawa to Montreal and then to Quebec City. We arrived at Hôtel Château Laurier, located just steps from La Citadelle de Québec.

The train is a safe option: With the COVID-19 pandemic a deep concern, I was worried about this trip but was reassured that all precautions would be adhered to and they were. I rode business class. The attendants were professional and wore masks and gloves at all times. Everyone on the train was seated at least a row and an aisle apart from each other and masks were mandatory for passengers. For extra security, I brought along extra masks and wipes that I used to sanitize my tray and other high-touch areas. When I arrived in Quebec City, I removed my train clothes and put them in a bag separate from my other luggage. With ongoing lockdowns, be sure to check the schedules carefully as services may be postponed or cancelled.

DAY TWO

The morning drive was a 250-km (155-mile) pleasant journey along the St. Lawrence River Route 138 took me to Tadoussac in Côte-Nord region and then to Les Bergeronnes and the world-famous Cap-de-Bon-Désir Interpretation and Observation Centre. For a beautiful view and a nice spot to take a break along the route, make a stop at La Malbaie Lookout on Boulevard Malcolm-Fraser.

An hour later we arrived at the entrance of Saguenay Fjord between Baie-Sainte-Catherine and Tadoussac and crossed on the ferry. We drove to Cap-de-Bon-Désir Interpretation and Observation Centre, where visitors can see up to 13 species of whales from the rocky shore including the endangered St. Lawrence beluga. During my visit to Cap de Bon-Désir a whale swam by so close to the shore I wondered if there was any chance it would beach itself. Other animals you may see include seals, porpoises, and a wide array of birds. A lighthouse at Cap-de-Bon-Désir is a wonderful place to picnic, hike, and take pictures with the family. There is walking involved and the temperature can drop quickly when the tide rises, even in the summer so wear close-toed shoes and warm clothes.

My next stop was Marine Environment Discovery Centre, located 8 kilometres (5 miles) south of Cap-de-Bon-Désir. Besides having marvellous views of the area, Marine Environment Discovery Centre educates visitors on the efforts to protect whales from oceanic dangers, such as boats and pollution. If you are feeling adventurous, the Discovery Centre gives visitors a chance to put on a wetsuit and snorkel.  

After an educational day learning about whales I headed back to the village for dinner at Hôtel Tadoussac, where you can dine in a gigantic renovated dining space.

DAY THREE

What makes Tadoussac extraordinary is Saguenay-St-Lawrence Marine Park and the whales that call it home. One of three in the Canadian national park system and the first national park in Quebec to protect a purely marine environment, the marine park is a 1,200-square-km (465-square-mile) playground that draws more than one million visitors a year. Unlike other Parks Canada experiences, this park is entirely on or underneath the water.

One of many whale sightings to be enjoyed on the Croisières AML Zodiak excursion. (Photo courtesy of Guy Theriault/Parks Canada)

My excitement for a cetacean encounter grew as a two-hour whale-watching Zodiac excursion with Croisières AML neared. In a Zodiac, it’s possible to see up to 13 species of whales and marine mammals. I am easily seasick, so my stomach didn’t enjoy the journey. But my eyes were mesmerized. There were many whales to see and I realized you have to get out on the water to truly appreciate this park that is unique in Canada.

Next door is the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre, where you can learn everything you have ever wanted about whales, including the history of local minkes and others that call the area home. Whale skeletons, including one that allows visitors to walk right into the belly, are the main attraction.

On-site specialists will answer your questions and your purchases at the store will support important work of protecting the whales. It was also interesting to learn that whales can be identified by patterns on their tails, the same way you or I can be identified by our thumbprints. Staff at the Interpretation Centre spoke about whales the same way we might speak about Aunt Sally returning back home after a long trip. Some of the whale-human relationships go back decades.

It is not difficult to see why so many Quebecers vacation in the region. It’s peaceful and everything revolves around the water. Hôtel Tadoussac is the focal point of this picturesque town and is an easy walk to surrounding restaurants and shops.

Another wonderful feature of Tadoussac are the hiking trails. I took a walk on the De la Pointe-de-l’Islet Trail, an easy loop close to the marina that takes about 20 minutes to complete. A slow, easy walk on a boardwalk overlooking the water was the best way for me to end my time in Tadoussac and pay my respects to the whales at the same time.

Restaurant Chez Bolduc in Beaupré is one of many spots to enjoy a tasty snack while travelling through the St. Lawrence River region of eastern Quebec. (Rod Charles file photo for Vacay.ca)

MORE ABOUT TADOUSSAC

Tourism Website: tadoussac.com/en
Baie-Sainte-Catherine Ferry: It is a 1.6-km (1-mile) ride that operates daily from May to October between 8:20 a.m. and 8:40 p.m. If it’s not too chilly, take the opportunity to get out of your car and take pictures.

Where to Dine

There are several places to enjoy culinary treats between Quebec City and Tadoussac:

• Chez Laurie, a tiny Charlevoix take-out restaurant in Saint-Siméon sits next to the ferry crossing that connects the Lower St. Lawrence region to the rustic village in northeast Charlevoix. Pick up a burger and take a break.
Restaurant Chez Bolduc, a fourth-generation business in the village of Beaupré, started off in a bus in 1954. Grab a smoked-meat sandwich and try the poutine.
• Feeling cheesy? Laiterie Charlevoix in Baie-Saint-Paul is a fine option for snacks, souvenirs, and gifts. Pick up a bag of squeaky cheese curds for your road trip.

 

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Rod has previously worked for Canoe.ca and is currently freelancing for Huffington Post Travel. He’s also written travel articles for the Toronto Star and Up! Magazine. Living in Toronto but raised in the small central Ontario village of Holstein, Rod is a country boy at heart who has never met a farmer’s market he didn’t like.

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