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Come on in, the water's lovely
Québec Province, Canada

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Sarah Shuckburgh went to Québec for an idle time at a luxury hotel, but Canada's great outdoors proved irresistible.

Québec is a place of superlatives and extremes. The scale of this province is astonishing - it is seven times the size of Britain, with one million lakes, more than 100,000 rivers, and 6000 miles of coastline. For the final hour of the flight from London, I stared down at the immense, pale grey St Lawrence river, and beyond, as far as the eye could see, an undulating wilderness of woods, dotted with pools of glittering water, but not a sign of human habitation. The Côte Nord stretches to the border with Labrador, and is one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world - with less than one person per square mile.

The friendly Québecois sitting next to me talked eagerly about his favourite summer sports, which included le kayak d’eaux vives, le cyclisme, la randonné e, le golf, le tennis, le rafting, le camping and la natation. He looked puzzled when I said that I was planning minimal physical exertion. Little did I guess that I would try le canoë myself.

I was heading for Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, one of Canada’s grandest hotels, in the beautiful Charlevoix region. Thanks to the new direct flight from Gatwick to Québec city, Charlevoix is only a two-hour drive from the airport. I set off along Route 138, past shop fronts, road signs and billboards, all in French, beneath clusters of cables looped from giant pylons, and on through suburbs of neatly painted clapboard bungalows. Winters are cold here, very cold - snow six feet deep, and temperatures sinking to minus 40 degrees centigrade. Houses and barns almost touch the highway, to minimise snow shovelling. But every house I passed sported colourful window boxes, and meadows were speckled with midsummer flowers. High above the road, grassy ski-runs zigzagged like pale green scars through thickly wooded hillsides.

Visitors have flocked to Charlevoix since the early 19th century, when “white ships” from Québec started to bring trippers seeking clean air and a gentler summer climate. In 1899, when the cliff-top Manoir Richelieu was built, the resort began to attract rich and glamorous Americans, and the new hotel, built in 1930 after a fire, was the most luxurious in Canada - a grey concrete chateau, with steep copper roof, turrets and terraces overlooking the river. The steamboats were cancelled in 1965, guests stopped coming, and the Manoir fell into disrepair. It is only in the last few years that the hotel’s 1930’s decor and French colonial grandeur have been restored.

The views from the hotel are lovely. I sauntered along cliff-top trails, stopping to gaze at the shimmering St Lawrence and the faint grey-blue line of forest on the far bank, 16 miles away. I steered a golf buggy up a winding track to the clubhouse (to admire the view, not to play golf). I wallowed in warm swimming pools, surrounded by tall pines. Becoming even lazier, I lay in a darkened room in the spa, having my skin scrubbed and softened with local maple-sugar granules. For breakfast I sipped café au lait, and guzzled pancakes with maple syrup. I dined on fois gras, confit de canard, carré d’agneau, and caribou and moose with blueberries. I sampled cheeses from local farms - delicate white migneron, and the delicious blue-streaked ciel de Charlevoix. And I relaxed on the terrace, just as the rich and famous had before me, for this hotel was a favourite of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, and even President Taft of the United States.

But the highlight of my trip was whale watching. Deciding against a flimsy kayak, or a Zodiac speedboat, I opted for the largest, most comfortable boat for a three-hour cruise. French and British whalers first arrived in the St Lawrence in the mid 19th century, and whaling continued until the 1950s, when international pressure led to a ban. The deep water downstream from the hotel is now a marine conservation area, with laws protecting wildlife even underwater. This is one of the best places in the world to see whales.

From Baie Sainte Catherine, we left the warmth of the shore, and chugged out into the chilly estuary. The naturalist guide warned us not to expect tame animals performing circus tricks. “Ce n’est pas Waterworld ici.” We watched and waited. The huge expanse of sparkling grey water was curiously patterned with dimpled ripples and cross-hatching. Other patches were glassily flat. The far bank was a hazy green blur. Grey seals bobbed up and peered at us engagingly. Overhead, seabirds glided through a pearly sky.

Suddenly there was a shout through the microphone, “Deux minkes à trois heures”. I dashed to the starboard railing just in time to see a massive glistening body arch elegantly and disappear with a splash, leaving a delicate line of foam. Seconds later, we all shrieked with delight as two minke whales resurfaced, flipping and splashing, before diving into the deep.

I went below to have lunch, and was just tucking into a deliciously sticky maple-sugar pie, when I heard another yell: “Finback feeding near the surface, 9 o’clock.” Through a port window I saw giant plumes of water emerge from a monstrous body. These spectacular whales are the second largest animals on earth, growing to 75 feet - even their newborn babies are 18 feet long. Only blue whales are larger, and these, too, come to the St Lawrence in the summer.

On the middle deck, a bilingual boffin demonstrated how scientists monitor the movements of les baleines. His instruments looked charmingly haphazard - a bathroom plunger with a fluorescent float and an aerial, or an arrow with a detachable tip. But his photographs were impressive, with tails and fins in focus - unlike mine, which captured only blurred human heads and an empty seascape.

At the mouth of the Saguenay fjord is the tiny village of Tadoussac. Fur traders built a cabin here in 1600, making it the oldest European settlement in north America. The village also marks the start of the north-shore wilderness, the vast, inaccessible region of forest and lakes which I’d gazed at from the plane. Here we saw a pod of small, snow-white belugas, the only species of whale to live here all year. The skipper slowed the engine to a quiet judder, as the belugas swam within yards of us, each sleek body seeming to hover in the air as it leapt out of the inky water of the fjord. We were lucky to get such a close view. Belugas were hunted almost to extinction in the first half of the 20th century, and are now so rare that boats are not allowed to approach them.

The next day, the great outdoors beckoned again, and I went canoing. The Jacques-Cartier river flows through a vast nature reserve in the Laurentian mountains, with lowland forests of sugar maple and yellow birch, and highland boreal forest of spruce and fir. With a guide, aptly named Mademoiselle Laforest, I paddled upstream, and soon spotted two hefty female moose, grazing at the bank, and wading into the water to reach leaves and branches with their ludicrously outsized heads. In the reserve, moose outnumber humans by far - there are ten moose for every ten square miles. As we glided along, Mlle Laforest explained that native Canadians - who arrived here via the frozen Bering Strait, perhaps 11,000 years ago - would canoe up this very river on their way to summer clan meetings, dispersing across the plateau in search of food in winter. Mlle Laforest suggested a night under canvas, watching beavers, and maybe Canadian lynx, wolf, red fox, or black bear. For a moment, I wondered if the beauty of Québec had turned me into an outdoor sporty type, but in the end, I chose to return to five-star luxury and some more relaxing.

As I drove to the airport next day, I noticed the motto on every car number plate - “je me souviens”. Inhabitants of Québec are remembering their complex heritage of Native Canadian, French and British influences. But for me, the memories will be the wooded hills, the wide river, the whales, and my new enthusiasm for water sports.

First published by the Telegraph

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