Friday, October 20, 2017

From Fjord to Treehouse: Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec

By Cynthia Dial for

My initial introduction to Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean is a serene one, with the drive through acres of farmland dotted with corn, cows and a collection of colorful barns simply a preview of its attractions to come. At one point La Route des Bières (The Beer Route) runs adjacent to our road and serves up five microbrewery stops along the trail (the only perk missing from this bicycle path is a designated driver). Only a bit further down the two-lane road water appears and reappears bend after bend – from rivers to lakes to fjords – all underscoring the significance of Saguenay’s name, meaning “from where the water flows.”
Photos by Cynthia Dial

“Welcome to our region,” I’m warmly greeted at my first stop with a warm handshake and a seasonal snack, chocolate-covered blueberries (my sampling is from Pères Trappistes de Mistassini, Trappist monks, rumored to be the best). Coincidentally synced to wild blueberry season (mid-August to mid-September), my visit is during the time of year that its food scene showcases such specialties as blueberry butter, blueberry onion confit and blueberry sausage. Fresh and farmed characterizes the area’s food and drink, with agriculturalists and artisans selling their local products from roadsides to storefronts. Among the fresh-from-the-region fare are maple syrup, walleye fish, broad bean soup, Perron cheddar cheese and sparkling wines made from raspberries, blackcurrants, grapes and blueberries.

Beyond its month-long affair with “everything blueberry” is a topography as diverse as it is impressive – plains, forests, mountains, rivers, a lake as big as a sea and one of the world’s longest navigable fjords lined with unspoiled villages and cliffs so steep they are accessible only by water. Even the Michelin Guide recognizes the region’s most noted natural attraction, listing the Saguenay Fjord as one of the planet’s must-see destinations -- alongside such internationally-renowned landmarks as Egypt’s pyramids and the Eiffel Tower. 

A white “S-a-g-u-e-n-a-y” name sculpture accented with a red heart confirms you’ve arrived in this area known for its unique combo of independence and ingenuity. Since 1981 it has been illegal for a woman to take her husband’s name; moms are not encouraged to stay at home; typical snacks are cheese curds, salt and vinegar chips, poutine and Pepsi (not Coke); the roads’ yellow-and-black warning signs caution motorists of moose, deer and snowmobiles and opportunities to see bears are abundant.  

At Okwari Aventures it’s possible to observe black bears in their natural habitat from a watchtower, with the animals coming within feet of the open-window viewing areas. Of the 3,500 black bears in the region, 30 reside here. As timing is important, it’s key to note that from the end of June to mid-July there’s the potential to see cubs and because of September’s blueberry season it’s a good month for sightings. Additional options include hiking in the bear-free area, canoeing the lake in a rabaska traditional birchbark vessel and observing beavers in their environment.

It’s this eclectic spirit, almost exclusive to Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean, that also defines its overnight prospects, which creatively range from traditional hotels and treehouses to ghost towns and zoos.  

At Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux, a night in the wild translates to a treehouse stay 25 feet above ground at the top of a trunk-mounted flight of steps, sleeping within a starlight dome with windows covering one-third of its surface or overnighting in the coziest of choices, a suspended spherical treehouse – each ensconced in the woods and many with through-the-tree views of the fjord. Nothing quite compares to awaking at dawn by the sun filtering through the forest’s canopy to the sound of a bird symphony. An early morning start is advised to take advantage of the large menu of activities – sea kayaking on the fjord (sunrise, sunset and full moon), ascending the cliffs lining the fjord along the Via Ferrata (day time and full moon) and climbing the high ropes circuit (includes zip lining on seven giant zip lines).
To imagine an overnight in a ghost town is a stay in Val-Jalbert, a photogenic company pulp mill town from the 1920s, complete with 40 of its original turn-of-the-century houses, the general store, convent school (option: sit in on a lesson as Mother Superior teaches her convent girls), post office and the imposing 236-foot high Ouiatchouan Falls (a higher cascade than Niagara Falls). Here it’s possible to sleep in of one of the 24 luxuriously-restored workers’ houses or in accommodations above the general store – all projecting a back-in-the-day vibe and all complete with 21st century comforts.

A cultural and heritage site – it was home to 950 at its peak in the 1920s, the mill permanently ceased production on August 13, 1927 and the village was abandoned for years until the 1960s – today’s Val-Jalbert is the recreation of last century’s thriving town, complete with “nuns” walking its main street in route to school, the “mayor” driving the tour bus and the “mayor’s daughter” bicycling around town.

The 26-hour VIP experience and prospector tent overnight within Zoo sauvage de Saint-Félicien takes adventurous sleepovers to a uniquely Quebecois level. Listed as one of the world’s ten most beautiful zoos, it is home to more than 1,000 animals from 75 native or exotic species. This one day-plus experience begins in an elevated, open-air nature trail park train as it winds more than four miles through acres of open territory – home to such North American mammals as deer, moose, caribou, wolves, musk oxen and bears. Bears are the only animals able to traverse all areas of the zoo and train stops to accommodate them along the road are frequent, which translates to even more photo opps.

“We make the schedule,” says guide, Maëlys, of the customized itinerary. Lunch is in a home from 1905, which was moved from its original site to the zoo. Reflective of its era, the house’s minimalistic décor includes religious pictures and a Singer sewing machine. “Marguerite” (the occupant of the house) serves a traditional meal of soup, chicken pie and blueberry pie (a menu that is always homemade and forever varies). Marguerite speaks only in French and stays in character, even as she gives a brief tour of the outdoor yard before rushing us back into the house when a bear is spotted wandering onto the lawn. Thus, the rules: Always walk in a group, never wander off and be aware of your surroundings and its animals at all times.

To reach the campsite, the vehicle stops as Maëlys surveys the situation. She quickly unlocks the gate to our enclosed area and we just as quickly drive through it, gate closed behind us. Once we’re settled into camp, items securely tucked into our tents, possibilities include moose tracking, feeding the site’s baby moose and venturing again onto the train and out of the enclosure to travel to a bison-surrounded lake for a sunset canoe ride. After an old-fashioned meal cooked over open flames, the day ends as all campouts should – surrounding the fire to roast s’mores. Before departing the next morning, it’s possible to visit the new animal nursery and go backstage to observe the vets at work.
It's best described as a Canadian safari with only guarantee: adventure. While it’s possible to stay at nearby Hôtel du Jardin instead of within the zoo, who would choose to forgo a night in the wild surrounded by roaming animals and their around-the-clock activity?

Returning to the water, passengers have discovered Saguenay Fjord from the comfort of Les Navettes Maritimes du Fjord (the Fjord Marine Shuttle) for more than 40 years. Between its three ships offering approximately 15 daily departures from a variety boarding points, the July and August shuttle traverses from village to village. As the perfect vantage view for whales, its appeal extends to bikers and sightseers alike.

If arrival to the region is by sea, the port of Saguenay does not disappoint. Recognized for the “best international port welcome” four years running, the lively passenger greeting is from the costumed cast of the region’s summer theater production “La Fabuleuse Histoire d’un Royaume” (“Fabulous History of a Kingdom”). Celebrating its 30th season and noted as the country’s first large-scale historic performance, the show features 150 actors, horses, cars, flooding, cannon shots, explosions of fire and whirlwinds of music and dance.
So hospitable, so extroverted are the people of Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean that though French is widely spoken (with a bit of English conversed here and there), should a non-French speaking visitor need help, it isn’t uncommon for a local to find someone who can assist and if that’s not possible, communicate through a game of charades, if necessary.

As I bid my silent farewell to this remote retreat, I hear “Au revoir,” when walking through security to board my flight. And though it is all too soon that I disembark in reality, I find comfort in my carry-on snack – a bag of chocolate-covered blueberries which I’ll enjoy with a Pepsi (not a Coke).

Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean
The city of Saguenay is Quebec’s sixth largest and the region of Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean is almost four times the size of Belgium, yet its atmosphere is so homespun, to locals it’s “a small village at the end of the road.”

The area code for Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean is 418.

Where to Sleep:

Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux – Self-described as “a renowned destination in adventure tourism and eco-tourism,” this park of adventures and such unique accommodations as treehouses is seasonally open from late May to mid-October, with peak season from June 24 to the first Monday in September.  250 Chemin de la Pointe aux Pins, Saint-Fulgence; 418-674-9114;

Val-Jalbert – Not only the impressive revival of a ghost town, it’s also possible to overnight here. For a peek into its history and to best understand the town, first stop should be at the old pulp mill to watch its 360-degree multi-media production, an “immersive sensory experience,” that transports you to the turn of the 20th century. As village visits are seasonal (open from late May to mid-October), book early as July and August fill soon. 95 Rue Saint-George, Chambord, 418-275-3132;

Zoo sauvage de Saint-Félicien – Called “Land of the Caribou,” this night in the wild is one where you are caged and the animals run free in their vast natural environment (though caribou are within your multi-acre enclosure). Accommodations are available June through mid-October; though the zoo is open winter and summer. 2230 Boulevard du Jardin, Saint-Felicien; 418-679-0543;

Where to Eat and Drink:

Microbrasserie du Lac Saint-Jean – An award-winning microbrewery within walking distance of beaches and the blueberry trail is known for such homemade beers as its famous Gros Mollet and 10 seasonal draught beers (all enhanced by the use of regional spices). Its equally-revered menu offers such choices as escargot and cream pub pastry, foie gras crème brulee and beeramisu (ladyfingers soaked in beer syrup and topped with mascarpone mousse). 120 Rue de la Plage, Saint-Gedeon; 418-345-8758;

Restaurant du Moulin – Located within the old industrial mill of Val-Jalbert, Chef Carl Murray is at the helm of this fine dining establishment. Having served as chef for six years, his connection to the site is more than his longevity – his grandfather was once employed as a mill worker. Chef’s recently created Heritage Meals showcase recipes of the village’s past. Val-Jalbert, Chambord; 418-275-3132;

Auberge-Bistro Rose & Basilic - By using regional herbs, spices, honey, blueberry liqueur, cheeses and more, this urban inn focuses on the flavors of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean – featuring such menu items as salmon tartar, house rillettes, pan fried scallops and shrimp and chocolate fondant. 600 Boulevard des Cascades, Alma; 418-669-1818;

Must See:

Site de la Nouvelle-France – An archeological site where movies such as The Black Robe were filmed, this is a replication of Champlain’s first settlement in Quebec City and its daily life in the 17th century, complete with colorful characters who act as colony habitants. 370 Vieux-Chemin, Saint-Felix-d'Otis; 418-544-8027;   

Musée du Fjord – Located on shores of the Saguenay River’s Baie des Ha! Ha! cove, this museum features a 14,000-gallon salt water aquarium, a touch pool with starfish, sea cucumbers, urchins and other species and such outdoor activities from June to September as digging in the fjord’s tidal pools and guided excursions in quest of discovering living organisms, minerals, plant and wildlife. 3346 Boulevard de la Grande-Baie-Sud, La Baie; 418-697-5077;

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