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Bring one pair of comfortable walking shoes as well as a pair of sandals or Tevas. Before you leave home, break in your new shoes so you're not uncomfortable on the road.

Ron Bernthal on Northern Quebec

Canada

Article courtesy of Ron Bernthal

Within minutes of taking off from Dorval Airport, the grey urban sprawl of Montreal's suburbs is replaced by the endless white sea of the Quebec countryside, an area so large--almost 600,000 square miles--that all of Europe could fit into it with room to spare.

I am flying to the Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec which, at this time of the year, is like visiting the inside of an ice box.

"Why do you want to go up there?" a friend asked me from the warm confines of her Montreal apartment. "You'll freeze to death, and besides, there's absolutely no one up there who speaks English."

"Bien sur," I said, practicing rusty high-school French with my bilingual friend. "That's exactly why I'm going."

As one of the few Americans who regularly reads Macleans magazine, the Canadian version of Time, I find myself caught up in the ongoing drama of French separatism, the political sparring between Quebec's francophones and the rest of English-speaking Canada.

During the 1996 referendum to decide if French-speaking Quebec should secede from Canada, the separatists lost by just a few thousand votes, less than one percent. Articles in Macleans have described the Lac-Saint-Jean region as the heart of the movement, the birthplace of the popular referendum leader Lucien Bouchard, and where a large majority of the residents voted "Yes" in favor of creating the "country" of Quebec.

"Going to Montreal or Quebec City, and thinking you've seen Quebec, is like going to Paris and thinking you've seen France," a Quebec tourist official had once said to me. "Once you get north of the St. Lawrence River you're in another world."

Looking down at the vast landscape of dense forests, frozen lakes, and snow-covered farms, as the plane sliced through the cold clear air, I had visions of picturesque French villages, cozy cafes, and stylishly-dressed Quebecoise awaiting me when I landed.

"Are those your only shoes?" Marie-Claude Goyette asks me upon my arrival at Chicoutimi airport. Ms. Goyette, who works for the local tourist office, is decked out in a heavy, fur-lined parka and knee-length mukluks. She has offered to give me a quick tour of the area but my leather work shoes have thrown her off stride.

"Perhaps we can borrow some boots for you later today. Anyway, I hope you brought some warm gloves and a hat," Ms. Goyette says, speaking English with a heavy French accent.

As we walk outside the small airport terminal I can understand her concerns. The temperature is about minus 15 F and a stiff wind blows across the snow-covered car park. Inside the car the heater can't keep up with the ice that keeps forming on the windows, and I soon realize that my view will be limited to a small, clear patch of windshield closest to the hard-working defroster.

The city of Chicoutimi (sh-COOCH-imi) has one of the few non-French names in this part of Quebec. Before the French arrived, in 1838, the Montagnais Indians fished along the Saguenay River, which forms a 100-mile fjord connecting the St. Lawrence River to Lac-Saint-Jean.

The early French settlers had left the more crowded cities of southern Quebec looking for virgin farmland, and were quickly followed by British investors who establishedpulpand paper mills, logging and fur trading camps, and mines. The English soon controlled the area's commerce, employing Frenchmen to work the industries and do manual labor.

The French have never forgotten the "second class" citizenship bestowed upon them by the English, a history retold to each generation of francophones. As the motto on Quebec's license plates testify, "Je me souviens" (I remember), the descendants of the early French Canadians, colloquially known as "pure laine" (100 percent wool), intend to finally get some respect.

Bundled against the cold, Marie-Claude and I drive past the huge Alcan aluminum smelting plant, the Stone Consolidated paper mill in Ville de La Baie, and the bleak industrial parks near Jonquiere. Thick white steam billows out of chimney stacks, presenting a Dickensian tapestry of cold steel, grey skies, and blue-collar laborers trudging through wind-swept dockyards. Instead of croissants and vineyards in this land of French culture, I am reliving the industrial revolution and the ice age.

"Avez-vous faim?" Marie-Claude says, sensing my unspoken desire for some lunch. She steers the car across a bridge over the Saguenay and we take a snow-covered road that runs parallel to the river. We've left the industrial zone behind us, and the views open up to reveal the stunning cliffs of the fjord, and the small villages strung out along the frozen bays.

We stop at a small house, La Maraichere du Saguenay, near the village of Saint-Fulgence. The 140-year old farmhouse, quite nondescript from the outside, has been renovated into a warm, antique-filled, restaurant and inn.

The interior of the house, with its low beamed ceilings, hand-made wooden tables and chairs, a crackling fire, and volumes of French literature lining the bookcase walls, is reminiscent of Bretagne or the mountains of Provence.

"I understand you are interested in our politics,"says Adele Copeman, the owner, along with her husband Rodrigue Langevin, of La Maraichere du Saguenay. "Ask us anything you want, but first you must have some wine."

This was the first of several instances where people I would meet for the first time in Quebec would already know what I had discussed before meeting them. I had mentioned my interest in Quebec politics only to Marie-Claude, and she made no phone calls to Madam Copeman during our tour.

One afternoon, during a luncheon in the small village of Chambord, I had mentioned that I would like to return to the area during the summer blueberry harvest, when every food product, from soup to ice cream, was made with the locally grown blueberries. Several hours later, during dinner in a restaurant far from Chambord, the chef came out of the kitchen and said, in French, that he's making up a special dry-blueberry dessert since he had heard about my desire for the local berry.

It makes you wonder what sort of telepathic system they use to keep track of the needs and desires of the infrequent English-speaking visitors. Fortunately, the French up here are so friendly and generous, so willing to share their passions, and so patient with broken French, that you don't mind feeling somewhat like a small pet, handed off to local individuals for feeding and TLC.

After an aperitif of white wine and maple syrup (a local specialty and quite good actually), the table is set with baked Atlantic salmon, wild caribou, scalloped potatoes, homemade bread, and red and white wine. As the saying goes,"The French don't eat, they dine."

"The English in Quebec are the best treated minority in the world," Ms. Copeman says, leading off the discussion on the issue of French separatism. "I wish the English would make the effort to integrate themselves into French culture, and have more respect for us. More than 97 percent of the English voted "No" in the last referendum. That's not right."

You will find few Quebecoise in this part of the province who would not like to pull away from Canada and live in their own French-speaking country. Although the government of Canada has incorporated the French language into the nation's legal system, limits the use of English in Quebec province (on shop signs for example), and tries to accommodate the wishes of Quebec's five million Francophones, the ultimate goal of the strident Parti Quebecois is for separation.

The desireto form their own country to maintain the French language and culture in this part of the world is better understood if you look at the current birthrate among French Canadians.

For many years this group had one of the highest birthrates in the world, with twenty children in a family not uncommon. Since the 1960's, however, as more women had to enter the work ,force, the birthrate has fallen to 1.6 children per family--the lowest in Canada, and well below the replacement level.

The French Canadians, who have survived 450 years on the North American continent, and were the first to explore and name the areas around Detroit, St. Louis, and New Orleans, fear they are dying out. Only by becoming purely and independently French, many people in Quebec feel, can this great culture be maintained in North America.

"Canada does not want to let us go for many reasons," Ms. Copeman continues, enjoying the repartee between us."We have the St. Lawrence River, which is Ontario's link to the Atlantic. We work hard, producing many raw products which are then shipped to Ontario, where they are created into a final product and sold for a good profit."

Mr. Langevin, a soft spoken man who vaguely resembles the French actor Gerald Depardieu, is also an ardent supporter of separatism, but during the conversation he, too, notices my shoes, which seem unsuitable to the task ahead. "Borrow these while you are in Quebec," Mr. Langevin says, handing me a pair of thick, black thermal boots which he has retrieved from the closet.

It is late afternoon, the next day, in the village of Sainte-Rose-du-Nord, not far from Adele and Rodrigue's guest house. The village, composed of a few small white houses, a church, and the charming Auberge Le Presbytere, lies along the banks of the frozen Saguenay River. It has been a cold and grey day, and the fading winter light paints everything--the sky, the snow, the ice covered fjord--in an eerie mauve.

Dozens of ice fishing huts are clustered on the three-foot thick frozen fjord, a temporary village of weather-beaten pink, purple, green, and blue shacks amid the swirling and blowing snow of the wide river.

During the summer I could imagine how lovely and enjoyable this spot must be, boating and swimming in the cool waters of the Saguenay, with outdoor barbecues waiting for the fresh fish to be hauled in. Today, however, as the temperature falls rapidly to almost minus 30 F, the air sears the lungs and the tiny fishing huts,in which I am about to spend several hours, seem as inviting as a pup tent on Mt. Everest.

I leave the car at what would be the water's edge and wait for Monsieur Plume. The monochrome quality of the scenery belies the time. It could be late afternoon or early morning. The flickering gas lights in the huts emit a soft glow behind frosted windows, a romantic sight, perhaps, for lovers raised in igloos.

Occasionally a gust of wind blows across the fjord, picking up loose snow and frozen ice crystals and slamming them against the huts, which creak and groan under the pressure.

Two small headlights move towards me from across the fjord, as Monsieur Plume approaches on his moto-neige (snowmobile). Monsieur Plume, who is about the size of a small brown bear, runs the ice fishing village, a job that keeps him outdoors, in below zero temperatures, from sunrise to sunset. He motions me to get on the back seat and off we go, racing along the frozen river to a distant hut.

I'm wearing long underwear, ski pants, thermal boots, a down parka, heavy gloves, a ski mask, three layers of sweaters and a scarf. How can I still be cold? I try to calculate the wind-chill but Monsieur Plume is yelling to me in French, trying to talk over the wind and motor noise, explaining the complexities of ice fishing.

Monsieur Plume, this giant bearded Quebecois, does not speak English, nor does he seem to get cold. He puts his gloves on only occasionally, and his shirt collar is open at the neck as if it were a warm July day. He laughs heartily, mockingly, whenever I put my ski mask on, but nods approvingly at my thermal boots. I don't tell him that they're borrowed.

Together Monsieur Plume and I visit several huts, stopping to chat with the local fishermen who are comfortably ensconced with kerosine heaters, lawn chairs, snacks and drinks. Some of the huts have battery-operated televisions and radios.

The water under the ice is deep, and partly salty, and the men pull ocean perch, rainbow smelt, halibut, and cod from the holes. When caught, some of the larger fish are tossed outside the hut where they quickly freeze into flat grey slabs, looking more like scattered pieces of slate.

Ice fishing is a big winter sport here, as is snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and, this being Canada after all, ice hockey.

"French Canadians work hard and play hard," Nathalie says, as we drive along the shore of Lac-Saint-Jean. Nathalie, who works for the nearby Saint-Felicien zoo, where the visitors are in cages and the animals run free, has a ruddy complexion, braided pigtails, and an exuberance that is typically French Canadian.

We spend a day along the south shore of frozen Lac-Saint-Jean, visiting the locally famous Perron cheese factory, where we purchase baggies of "fromage en crottes,"small pieces of white cheddar, which has the consistency of rubber and squeaks when you chew it. The cheese is also sold at the many little grocery stores (depanneurs), where the locals sprinkle it with salt and wash it down with Coca-Cola.

We rent snowmobiles and go off-road to explore the remains of historic Val-Jalbert, a former 19th-century mill town whose main street has been renovated and preserved. Nearby, the Ouiatchouan River Falls, one of Canada's highest waterfalls, cascades down the mountain in torrents of churning, foaming water.

On the other side of Lac-Saint-Jean is the tiny village of Peribonka. Louis Hemon, the French author of "My Fair Lady," spent the winter of 1912 in the village, and his description of the area from his novel, "Maria Chapdelaine," is so apropos. "This chill and universal white, the humbleness of the wooden church and the wooden houses scattered along the road, the gloomy forest edging so close that it seemed to threaten, these all spoke of a harsh existence in a stern land."

It is my last night in Quebec and I am having dinner with Marcel Bouchard, owner of L'Auberge des 21, an exquisite, trendy little hotel on the Saguenay River in Ville de La Baie. The Quebecoise claim this hotel is "tres elegant."

Outside the large picture windows of the dining room the night is dark and stormy. The snowstorm that had been predicted has finally arrived and a strong wind blows the snow against the building, rattling glass panes, sending employees home early, and scaring off potential diners.

Monsieur Bouchard and I have the dining room to ourselves, and we settle in for meal of medaillon d'agneau du Quebec, magret de canard, a wonderful breaded shrimp, and wine from Marcel's well-stocked cellar. Only in a French culture could a meal of this type be prepared, and served with such perfection, in an off-the-beaten-track town, with a raging storm outside, without the full complement of kitchen staff, and on short notice.

"There are sharp differences between us," Monsieur Bouchard explains in our discussion about the controversy of separatism. "The French and the English have differences in their culture, language, food, outlook, way of thinking."

He goes on to say that for French Canadians, their loyalty is to Quebec, and not Canada. We both agree that this is a concept difficult for Americans to comprehend. Although Americans may have strong loyalties to state teams, I can think of no one who would become overwrought with passion and loyalty for, say, the states of New Jersey or New York.

Later that night, in my room, I listen to the mellifluous sound of French conversation on Quebec radio as the wind howls outside. I read the last page of "Maria Chapdelaine," where Hemon writes, "Strangers have surrounded us whom it is our pleasure to call foreigners; they have taken into their hands most of the rule, they have gathered to themselves much of the wealth; but in this land of Quebec nothing has changed. Nor shall anything change, for we are the pledge of it. Concerning ourselves and our destiny but one duty have we clearly understood: that we should hold fast--should endure. And we have held fast, so that, it may be, many centuries hence the world will look upon us and say: These people are of a race that knows not how to perish. We are a testimony." Sleep will come with some difficulty. I wonder if my flight will leave tomorrow. I think about moving to Quebec and becoming fluent in French. I silently thank Marcel for saving my toes. I start to count sheep, I mean mouton. Un, deux, trois...

Traveler's update:

Montreal is the gateway city to the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec. Air Canada provides service to several small towns in the region, flying time is about one-hour. Canada's Via Rail offers an interesting 12-hour journey from Montreal by way the huge Laurentides Provincial Park, and Route 155 from Montreal (approx. 300 miles) can be driven in 5-6 hours.

Although most visitors come during the summer months for fishing,whale watching, fjord cruises, and the blueberry festival, the area offers a multitude of winter sports activities, including ice fishing, dog sledding, cross-country and downhill skiing, and snowmobiling along hundreds of miles of marked trails.

Traditional Quebec accommodations include (all prices for double room in U.S.dollars): La Maraichere du Saguenay, 2 rang Saint-Joseph.

Saint-Fulgence, Quebec G0V 1S0
(Fax. 418-674-2247, $45 with breakfast);

Auberge Le Presbytere,
136 rue du Quai, Sainte-Rose-Du-Nord, Quebec G0V 1T0
(Fax.418-675-2503, $41 with breakfast);

Auberge des 21, 621 rue Mars, Ville
de La Baie, Quebec G7B 4N1
(Tel. 800-363-7298, $60 room only).

For additional information on this region of Quebec, or the entire province,
contact your travel agent or the Quebec
Tourism Office, One Rockefeller Plaza,
New York, N.Y. 10020 (Tel.
212-397-0200; 800-363-7777)
Quebec Tourism website

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