‘Whale at 9 o’clock!’ Four magic words guaranteed to send passengers flocking to the port side of our boat. I’m cruising on the St Lawrence in eastern Canada and Chantal, our on-board expert, has made another sighting. To me, the gleaming fins and curved backs look pretty similar, but she’s been watching whales here for 25 years and can recognise not just species, but individuals.
The waters around Baie Saint Catherine in the Charlevoix area of Quebec form the Saguenay-St Laurent marine park that attracts 13 species of whale. Between April and October, they feast on the rich waters flowing out of the Saguenay Fjord and in turn, attract tourists by the boatload. Travel in a small group in an inflatable RIB boat or a larger cruise vessel with on-board facilities.
This is amongst the world’s easiest places to go whale watching. Just a few minutes out from the river’s north shore, we spot our first whale, a young beluga just a short distance away. Some whale fans come on day trips from Quebec City – a very long day trip by coach – some 100 km up river. But I combined a city break in the provincial capital with a few days exploring the unspoilt countryside of Charlevoix that borders the Saint Lawrence north of the city. And you don’t even need a car.
I caught the wonderful Light Train service that departs from Montmorency Falls station on the outskirts of Quebec, probably the most picturesque platform you’ll find anywhere against a backdrop of a waterfall 30 metres higher than Niagara.
The train trundles beside the main road for an hour through communities of clapboard houses and virtually through people’s back gardens. Keep your eyes open and you’ll even see inside people’s wardrobes! But suddenly the rails head out into open country and the view opens up as the train hugs the shore for the second hour to Baie Saint Paul. We see herons, sea eagles and even – huge excitement – a young bull moose who has found his way down a cliff to a patch of marshland beside the track.
At Baie Saint Paul, the train stops outside at Hotel Le Germain Charlevoix, a hotel, cafe and station complex built three years ago and offering everything from dormitory style rooms for friends to super-comfy suites. Part of the Charlevoix Massif tourist initiative, it has a wonderful cafe serving local produce and even a Sunday morning artisan market. In fact the whole Charlevoix area has a strong tradition of local food with small-scale producers engaged in everything from honey and cheese to bread and even emu meat! Follow the Flavour Trail to both try and buy a range of gourmet treats.
Stay over to enjoy this buzzing small town, birthplace of Cirque du Soleil and renowned for its artists and galleries. Or transfer to another two-coach train and head up the coast to La Malbaie, dubbed the ‘mal baie’ – bad bay – in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain who found the tide had retreated to leave him him high and dry. Alternatively, do as I did and pick up a car for a couple of days for maximum flexibility. Roads are few and blissfully quiet, making driving a real pleasure.
I took advantage of having wheels and, just outside Baie Saint Paul, took the free ferry to Ile aux Coudres, a low-key holiday island that’s popular with cyclists for its 23km perimeter road. Visit the cider producer, the wind and water mills, the traditional baker, or just chill. I stayed at Le Cap aux Pierres hotel, one of several accommodation options, which looks over the river’s south shore.
Back on the mainland, I followed the coast to La Malbaie and then into the National Park des Hautes Gorges de la Riviere Malbaie, which offers trails for hiking and biking, as well as kayaking and river excursions on a mini bateau mouche. Leave your car at the entrance to the park and catch the bright yellow school bus to the visitor centre beside the dam to pick up the riverboat.
These are the highest Canadian peaks east of the Rockies and an unseasonal summer downpour cleared just in time for us to see the landscape at its best. For 90 minutes I felt I was cruising through a physical geography text book as our guide pointed out examples of hanging valleys and glacial formations. The mirror-image reflections of mountains and forest in the still water were the stuff of screensavers and calendars.
Back at La Malbaie, I was able to sit on my balcony at the Auberge des Falaises and enjoy a panoramic view over the Saint Lawrence, the river widening out with every mile towards the north. The town has attracted tourists since the early 19th Century and today boasts an impressive range of hotels and a casino. But many people also come here for the whale watching cruises which leave from Baie Saint Catherine, less than an hour downriver by car along the scenic St Lawrence coastal route.
Moby Dick eluded us on this occasion, though it is possible to see the occasional blue whale. But we did see plenty of smaller whale activity on our 3-hour excursion including minke, fin and beluga, and I arrived back at Les Falaises satisfied, sun-tanned, and ready to relax before dinner in my room with a view. My first visit to Charlevoix but definitely not the last!
For more information about Quebec, please visit www.quebecoriginal.com
For tailormade holidays to Quebec and throughout Canada, Silver Travel Advisor recommends Frontier Holidays.