The province of Québec in eastern Canada combines the best of two worlds: French flair and the American Way of Life. And all this embedded in an overwhelmingly beautiful landscape around the Sankt-Lorenz-Strom, the third largest river in North America. FOCUS online author Katrin Hoerner was in this dream region – and explains what you should not miss.
We are in AD 2020. All of Canada speaks English. All of Canada? No! A province populated by indomitable descendants of French immigrants insists on continuing to use the language of their ancestors. "Ici, on parle français!" French is still Québec's only official language today, and Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city after Paris.
A province three times the size of France
When I thought of Canada so far, it was the Rocky Mountains, endless forests, grizzly bears and salmon. Québec is different. It is the largest province in Canada by area, around three times the size of France. The St. Lawrence River dominates the landscape, which it cuts through as a lifeline.
A total of 3590 kilometers long, it originates in North American Minnesota, flows through Ontario and Québec, then flows into the sea. The first settlers settled on the shores of this third largest watercourse in North America and one of the most powerful in the world. They followed the navigator and discoverer Jacques de Cartier, who took possession of the country in 1543 for the French crown. A large part of the approximately eight million Québec people still live in a settlement belt along the river.
Whale watching on the Beluga Highway
Our journey begins in Quebec City. From here we drive in a minibus on the panoramic route “Route des Navigateurs” to Trois Pistoles in three hours. There we take the ferry to the north bank in one and a half hours. Our destination is Les Escoumins, where we will take part in a whale expedition.
St. Lawrence is one of the best bodies of water in the world to observe the large marine mammals. I am excited because I have never seen a whale in the wild in my life.
Up to this point the river runs fresh water. Then the salt water of the Atlantic presses into its delta. The salty-sweet mixture makes the water particularly nutritious. Krill can multiply wonderfully here. The tiny crustaceans swarm in huge flocks and are the favorite food of various whale species.
I am particularly looking forward to the relatively small beluga whales with a maximum length of four meters with their round foreheads and beak-like mouths. They live here all year round and are mostly in schools with around ten animals. Sometimes there are several dozen swimming up and down the coast.
The locals therefore jokingly call the river the Beluga Highway. Humpback whales, blue whales and fin whales migrate here from warm tropical waters in early summer to eat their fill. They grow up to 70 centimeters of bubbly, that's their bacon layer, between May and October.
A stream blue like the Mediterranean
Before we board our Zodiac, a large inflatable boat, we first have to equip ourselves for the expedition. We get yellow waterproof dungarees that we put on over our clothes, orange jackets over them and bright green hats. I'm worried that the whales won't show up because of such a terrific color aberration.
But the cladding is necessary. The St. Lawrence River shows the same color as the Mediterranean in the sunshine. But even in early summer the water has a maximum temperature of five degrees. And it's not much warmer on the boat. The organizers also warn the participants: "You fall in the water, you stay in the water!" Is it because the cold shock kills you immediately? I decide to stay seated while driving.
Our captain Gilles looks like a sailor's cliché with his weather-beaten face. During the whale season, he drives the Aventure 7, which can accommodate a dozen passengers, several times a day. And although whale watching is routine for him, I still feel his hunting fever.
We fly over the river and somewhere in the middle of nowhere a few kilometers from the mainland, Gilles suddenly stops the engine. With his field glasses he watches the smooth water surface. I stare in the same direction and see – nothing. Gilles starts the engines again, we drive a few kilometers, stop, stare again.
"Là-bas!" – "There he blows!"
Suddenly someone shouts: "Là-bas!" – "He blows over there!" I look hard in the direction. Everything I see is a shadow. A huge shadow with a small triangle that protrudes halfway out of the water. A fin whale. At one end, a kind of steam rises from the water in a column.
This is the "blow", one of the fellow travelers teaches me. The whales have a breathing hole at the top of their head, which is tightly sealed under water. When they come to the surface, they blow out the used air – the blow – explosively, then take a few minutes to breathe before diving again.
We see how the whale arch bulges elegantly and the caudal fin, the fluke, hits the water when diving down. I catch my breath for a moment, I am so impressed by the huge creature. I imagine him now gliding under our boat and filling his stomach with krill and small fish. Except where the whale boat captains are, no one knows where he will appear next in about an hour and a half to catch his breath.
We stay out here for almost two hours, keep driving, waiting, watching. Our prey: six fin whales, eight belugas, two minke whales and two seals. Gilles is happy.
- More info: Essipit Cruises organizes whale watching tours from early June to mid-October. A two-hour tour in a twelve-seat Zodiac costs around 40 euros for an adult and around 27 euros for children under 16 years of age; www.quebecmaritime.ca/en
Reminder of one of the greatest civil ship disasters
The St. Lawrence River showed us its friendliest side today. It is the world's longest inland waterway and is one of the busiest inland waterways in the world. It transports economic goods from the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie and Lake Michigan on the Canadian-US-American border, to the Atlantic and thus to the world markets.
But it has its pitfalls, especially when thick fog suddenly comes up. Today, passenger steamers, cargo ships and ferries navigate using satellite systems. In the past, 43 lighthouses showed the way and prevented most accidents.
- More info: The "Lighthouse Trail" is a total of 2020 kilometers long circular tour that leads to the historic lighthouses along the Sankt-Lorenz-Strom. 18 of the 43 buildings can be visited; www.quebecmaritime.ca/en/road-trips-and-getaways
Not one of the biggest shipping disasters, however, the sinking of the "Empress of Ireland" passenger ship, which regularly ran between Québec and Liverpool. In the early morning hours of May 29, 1914, a Norwegian coal freighter rammed the luxury liner in thick fog. It sank within 14 minutes and killed 1012 people. 465 of the passengers and crew survived. It is the third largest civil ship disaster before the outbreak of the First World War.
A museum in Rimouski on the south bank shows wreckage, photos, videos and provides meticulous information about the course of the disaster. The museum complex includes the Phare de Pointe-au-Père, at 33 meters high the second tallest of the 43 lighthouses in eastern Canada. The slender white tower with a red roof is the only one in the country that was built in Art Deco style. In addition, on the beach is the submarine "Onondanga", which was decommissioned in 2000 and which visitors can visit.
- More info: Entry to the exhibition plus a tour of the lighthouse and submarine costs around 17 euros per person, for children around 10 euros; www.shmp.qc.ca
Again and again we are surprised by the blend of French and Canadian elements that is typical of Québec. Colorfully painted wooden houses with jagged gables and churches made of natural stone with pointed towers in the village of Rimouski make us believe that we are by the sea in Brittany. The broad stream, whose other bank we do not see, reinforces the illusion. Then suddenly an American truck drives past and irritates the view.
The “Auberge du Mange Grenouille” looks like a relic from another time, translated “The Hotel for Frog Eating”. The manor house with its red facade, the white lattice windows, a surrounding veranda and the carved gable windows is located in a lush flower garden directly on St. Lorenz.
Each of the rooms is individually decorated with antiques, fabrics, accessories and pictures. There are four-poster beds, tapestries, free-standing bathtubs with lion feet, velvet-covered chaise longues, plaster busts. In front of one of the guest rooms stands the life-size sculpture of a nun in a black robe that looks so scary that I am convinced that she will be haunted through the hallways tonight.
We feel half transported back to France around 1900, half like in a costume and prop collection. This feeling is not deceptive because the owners of the hotel come from the theater.
- More info: An overnight stay in the "Auberge du mange Grenouille" in Rimouski costs from around 60 euros per person in a double room. The tasting menu in the restaurant costs about 58 euros per person, about 90 euros with wine accompaniment; www.aubergedumangegrenouille.qc.ca/en
The kitchen of the hotel's restaurant is French and very excellent. The menu includes, for example, snails, duck liver, mussels and fish from the river in unusual creations. The quality of the food is typical of the Québecoise cuisine, which is considered a bastion of good taste on the “fast food” continent.
The fact that the provincial national dish is fast food seems to be a aberration of taste: Poutine is a plate with French fries and fresh cheddar cheese pieces, drowned in hot gravy.
Canadian contrast program
Then prefer American food as it is served in the restaurant "La Maison du Bootlegger": steak from the charcoal grill in all imaginable variations. The Victorian-style house, built in 1860, is secluded in the Malbaie Forest. During the prohibition years it was a notorious "speakeasy", a "whisper bar", where liquor was secretly served. The alcohol smugglers were called bootleggers because they carried bottles in their wide boot shafts.
The current owner, Johanne Brassard, a former mannequin, bought the dilapidated building and had it renovated extensively. The main part of the restaurant is on the first floor under the mighty beams of the roof structure. Here is the charcoal grill and guests can watch the chef at work.
Elvis was here!
A red-haired guide leads us through the rooms in the basement before eating. Unfortunately, I hardly understand a word of his explanations. I'm not sure if he speaks French with an English accent or English with a French accent. Regardless, the rooms themselves tell their story: there are secret doors, alcohol hiding places behind wooden panels, a labyrinth of corridors through which wider people have to walk at an angle so that they don't rub shoulders against the walls. Elvis Presley is said to have been a fan of the pub, he left his signature on one of the walls.
After dinner, the band, under the direction of Joey Tardif, heats up the guests with rock classics. The dance floor fills up immediately. A couple of cool guys are bored to the rhythm of the music, holding on to their beer bottles. One naturally wears slippers. The guys look huge, definitely descendants of Canadian lumberjacks. Large and massive as they are, they remind me that bears also live in Québec's forests, the 24 national parks and 175 other parks.
- More info: A guided tour through the secret passages and hidden rooms of the "Maison du Bootlegger" costs around 7 euros for adults and around 3.50 euros for children up to 12 years. A steak with side dishes costs around 35 euros. For dinner guests, the tour and the music show are included in the price; www.maisondubootlegger.com
Québec-Citiy: Oldest town in North America
We return to the provincial capital Québec, 125 kilometers west of Malbaie. Founded in 1608, it was the first city on the North American continent to get a place on the list of Unesco World Heritage Sites in 1985. A mighty fortress ring surrounds its winding old town, the oldest in Canada. The Château Frontenac, one of the most famous luxury hotels in the country, sits enthroned above.
It immediately reminds me of the castles on the Loire in France. However, Frontenac was never a castle, but a hostel from the start. Directly in front of it is the Dufferin Terrace, a public viewing platform with benches, crepes stands and street musicians, where we start our exploration tour.
From here you have a fantastic view over the old town, which is 90 meters below, and over the Sankt-Lorenz-Strom. There is a staircase downstairs or alternatively the Funiculaire, a small cable car that takes passengers to the Petit-Champlain district in two minutes.
Passers-by stroll in the alleys in front of the renovated stone houses, most of them lavishly decorated with flowers. Between the boutiques, bars and restaurants, gallery owners show art and booksellers praise their goods. The whole scene reminds me of Montmartre in Paris. Some of the restaurants are almost as old as the city itself, with bistro tables in front where guests can dine with a view of the passers-by.
On the sidewalk, an accordionist plays his repertoire of chansons from Charles Aznavour to Edith Piaf. I want to say: "Typically French!" But that's not true. It should read: "Typical Québec!"