The aroma of baking baguettes pulls you nose-first down a cobbled street to a boulangerie. That green-gabled Norman manor house on the bluff? It’s your hotel. The woman smiling out at you through her window box crowded with geraniums is someone’s grand-maman. Ah, to be in Canada.
More than anywhere else in North America, the province of Québec qualifies as a country-within-a-country. French language laws are strictly enforced. Food and culture are inflected with a Gallic style that’s held strong since Champlain pushed up the St. Lawrence River in 1608. This is France without the jet lag, and vive la différence.
You get full and instant immersion in Québec City. The French colonial buildings that dominate the skyline and twisty lanes might have been lifted straight from a village in the Dordogne Valley. On Île d'Orléans you walk between centuries (and empires) from old French settlements to Regency-style English villas with spectacular gardens. As your local guide introduces you to friends and tradesmen, it’s hard not to be impressed by the cultural feistiness of Québec. You won’t have a bit of trouble finding someone to argue that their distinctive variation on the French language is more authentic than anything you hear in Paris.
But that’s the mere tip of a huge iceberg. The province of Québec is just a few square miles smaller than Alaska. You get a real taste for that vastness as you head east into the area known as Charlevoix where the contrasts between cultivated village life and authentic wilderness couldn’t be more striking. This is territory where you can track a rare herd of caribou and spot peregrine falcons floating over the highest mountains east of the Rockies – and then settle into Manoir Richelieu, a castle-style hotel, all on the same day. That grand hotel just happens to perch over the St. Lawrence--where the whale watching is excellent--and the Saguenay Fjord. (And if that has you feeling like you beamed over to Norway, is that such a bad bonus?)
We’re big fans of the towns that dot this intensely rural region. Just outside St-Joseph-de-la-Rive, you’ll visit our friends Maurice and Francie on their farm where they raise cows and sheep and offer you a taste of their artisanal cheeses. You’ll also love it for Le Germain Hotel, a country retreat with a modern twist and, of course, it’s own patisserie. The arty village of Baie-St-Paul is the birthplace of the Cirque du Soleil and home to a naturalist-friend who loves to show off the sandy beach on the shores of the St. Lawrence. La Malbaie has been a resort town for the wealthy since the late 19th century, and that atmosphere is as alive today as ever.
That deep Quebecois link between the European past and the outdoorsy North American spirit makes for a distinctive vacation. So much the better that all of that continental flair is waiting for you right here on the continent you call home.