Quebec: The bear necessities
From black-bear spotting to gourmet delights, there's plenty to entice visitors to Quebec
Published 24/08/2013 | 04:00
They saw us and made their move before we had even noticed them. The three baby bears looked like fur balls as they raced up the tree trunk and disappeared.
We had entered the forest surrounding Quebec's Lake Sacacomie hoping to see a black bear. The cubs were cute, but we wanted more.
Our patience paid off less than an hour later, when a full-sized Daddy Bear ambled towards us – we were safely ensconced in a wooden cabin by then. We watched him enjoy a snack, before he yawned and stretched out in a sun-dappled patch of woodland. It was a sight we'd never forget.
We had flown into Montreal a few days earlier and got straight onto the open road. Our destination? The Eastern Townships, a cluster of New England-style villages beside Canada's border with Vermont.
Our first stop was picture-perfect Sutton. Nestled among rolling hills, the village is a haven for skiers and bikers. The area is just as renowned for its local produce, including wine, cider and cheese. We broke our journey from Montreal at the impressive Domaine Pinnacle orchard, where we sampled the local speciality of iced apple wine.
That night, we got a taste of how small the world can be when we ate in the chalet-style Auberge des Appalaches (auberge-appalaches.com). The inn is run by John from Ontario and French-born Patricia, who had fallen in love when they worked in Wicklow's Rathsallagh House. It didn't take too much of Patricia's charm to persuade us to try her husband's fabulous chocolate fondant.
The next morning, we forced ourselves to go for a run around the village before sitting down to breakfast on the veranda of Linda Graham's charming B&B Vert Le Mont (bbsutton.com).
Thus fortified, we headed off to face our fears on the Velo Volant at Au Diable Vert (velovolant.com). It's a bike on a zipline, and you speed through the treetops as fast as you can pedal. I was prepared to be terrified but sheer excitement won out, and my only disappointment was that the 1,000-metre circuit wasn't longer.
Next on our itinerary was Parc National du Mont-Orford, home to white-tailed deer and Great Blue Heron, where we hiked along the gorgeous Colline des Pins and kayaked on the oh-so-still Cherry Pond – well, we were still trying to make up for the previous night's blowout in Sutton.
We spent that night in the buzzy lake-side town of Magog in the award-winning A L'Ancestrale B&B (ancestrale.com) run by the incredibly welcoming Monique and Leslie.
The next day we were back on the open road for a three-hour drive to our next destination. The Sacacomie Hotel (sacacomie. com) overlooks beautiful Lake Sacacomie and it's a real escape into nature. Along with an Italian couple and their young son, we went into the heart of the forest to watch the incredibly industrious Canadian beaver and black bear in their natural habitat.
It was fantastic, but the local mosquitos are very, very hungry at that time of year and, although we were slathered in insect repellent, we brought some unwelcome souvenirs with us when we left.
After three nights and three different lodgings, we were looking forward to spending a few days in the fairytale environs of Quebec City and settling into the boutique Hotel des Coutellier (hoteldescoutellier.com). But first we had to visit the Borealis Museum in Trois-Rivieres.
The 375-year-old city was fought over by the British and the French, and the museum celebrates its renowned paper industry. It's also where we got to indulge our not-very-well-hidden childish side and make our very own pieces of paper.
It turned into a very indulgent day as afterwards, we treated ourselves to a traditional Canadian feast in Dany's Sugar Shack (cabanechezdany.com/en). Yes, maple syrup was involved – we even made our own lollipops and, of course, we had to sample them – and pancakes.
The best way to arrive into Quebec City is on the deck of the ferry from Levis. It's impossible not to be awestruck by the sight of the world's most photographed hotel, Chateau Frontenac, towering over the old town.
The founders of the world-famous Cirque du Soleil are from the province and, every summer, the troupe visits the city to put on a free show for several weeks. The night we arrived, we joined a group of locals to watch the dress rehearsal. It was an amazing and spontaneous experience, one that typifies what makes the city so very special.
The next day, it was time to explore the city, from the atmospheric cobbled streets of the lower old town, to the thronged areas of the upper town, the oasis of calm that is the park and the Grand Allee with its restaurants and bars where the locals come to play.
Just outside the city limits are the Montmorency Falls. We were there for the Via Ferrata, a combination of hiking and climbing from the top of the waterfall to almost the base and back again. It was hard to enjoy our delicious lunch at the Manoir Montmorency beforehand, but afterwards, feeling exhilarated and very, very proud of ourselves, we celebrated with cocktails at the Chateau Frontenac.
Quebec City had cast a spell over us, but the north of the province was calling. Quebec is a slice of France in the heart of English-speaking Canada. Although we were aware of the campaign for separation from the rest of the country, it came as a surprise just how passionate the Quebecois were about protecting their language and their culture.
We were greeted in French by almost everyone we met, and the further north we travelled, the less English was generally spoken. But the friendly Quebecois went out of their way to make us feel welcome.
That day, we were the only two English-speakers on a kayaking expedition in the Parc National du Fjord-du-Saguenay, but the guides went to great pains that we didn't miss out on any explanation or joke.
It was the same in the lovely village of Tadoussac. After Montreal and Quebec City, it's the most visited destination in the province thanks to the schools of killer and beluga whales that have made their home in its waters.
It was absolutely freezing on the zodiac run by Groupe Dufour Croisieres (dufour.ca), but every fleeting glimpse of those majestic mammals made any discomfort disappear.
The next morning, we left the historic Hotel Tadoussac (hoteltadoussac.com) and made our way to the Charlevoix region, stopping at La Maison du Bootlegger (maisondubootlegger.com) for an unusual lunch of elk after a thorough exploration of the very special architecture of the smuggler's home.
Prohibition, America's ban on alcohol in the early 20th century, had had a real impact on its northern neighbour.
Our final night was spent in the artist enclave of Baie-Saint-Paul in the beautiful Victorian house Auberge La Muse (lamuse.com). To work up an appetite for dinner at its adjoining bistro, we strolled around the town's boutiques and galleries, stopping only to test the local produce of wine and chocolate along the Flavour Trail.
We didn't think we would be able to do our meal justice, but changed our minds when presented with turbot stuffed with crab in a lobster bisque followed by the lightest of chocolate confections.
We were almost glad that it was our last night.
Need to know
We flew to Montreal with Canadian Affair. Flights are from €569 return including taxes (canadianaffair.ie).
For more information on travel in Quebec, see quebecoriginal.com.