by Janet LoSole – Flanking New York State, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine lies the Canadian province of Québec, where the citizens enjoy a certain joie de vivre and love of the outdoors. After you cross the border, English disappears, French street signs pop up and conversations become incomprehensible.
Québec is Canada’s only province whose sole official language is French. Outside of Montreal, where nearly half the residents are bilingual, and apart from employees in the tourist district of Québec City, visitors will hear very little English. This feature enticed us, a family of four Anglo-Canadians looking to improve our second-language skills, to spend a summer camping there.
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Camping Québec, an association of campgrounds, publishes Le Guide du Camping au Québec, a bilingual reference manual showcasing some 900 campgrounds in seventeen administrative regions. While the official information in the guide itemizes services and activities in both English and French and is organized geographically, most of the ads tantalizing readers with images of bucolic campsites are written in French only, with one location seeming to surpass their campground neighbor with exclamations of offerings such as:
- Du Vrai Camping en Nature! – Real Camping in Nature!
- Bienvenue Cyclistes! – Welcome Cyclists!
- C’est Ici Que se Tissent les Souvenirs – This is Where Memories Are Made!
Rather than get taken in by vague promises, I brushed off my rusty French and relied on the legend to decide where to stay. Here is a short glossary of terms:
- Loisirs organisés – organized activities.
- Camp de jour – day camp.
- Sentiers pédestres – walking trails.
- Pistes cyclables – cycling trails.
- Casse-croûte – snack bar.
- Dépanneur – convenience store.
- Plage surveillée – lifeguarded beach.
- Activités familiales – family activities.
- Piscine – pool.
- Animation pour enfants – children’s programs.
By the end of our eight-week sojourn, we had circumnavigated a geographic block of some 1000 kilometers, searching for places that offered trailer rental—location d’une roulette, for rainy nights and campgrounds that were situated near bike trails. Based on information in the guide, we stayed primarily at spots that offered children’s programs. What a great way for the girls to be immersed in French.
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On our first night, we camped three hours due north of Albany in the Montérégie region, also known as the Eastern Townships or Cantons de l’Est. We rolled into the four-star campground on the outskirts of Granby called Camping Bon-Jour and set up camp behind the casse-croûte and centre-communautaire.
Every morning, the girls met up with the moniteurs, two university students who organized crafts and floor hockey mini-tournaments for the kids. I took advantage of the child care and cycled down into Granby, stopping at a scenic spot on Lake Boivin designed for cyclists, called the Vélo Gare—a bike repair shop inside an old train station that also houses a tourist information center and a MacDonald’s.
After lunch, we spent hours swimming in the multi-level pool and jumping off the water trampoline into the lake. In the late afternoon, the campground wagon circulated through the park, picking up kids and dropping them off at the corn roast—épluchette de blé d’Inde. Our post-dinner routine consisted of watching a movie in the communal hall, or on our last day, joining campers and townsfolk alike to kick up our heels at the weekly line-dancing event.
A week later, we drove north and crossed the St Lawrence River via Le Pont Laviolette and continued past Trois Rivières thirty minutes to Lac-à-la-Tortue. We are avid cyclists and Camping Rouillard, located on Avenue Tour du Lac—the village’s main thoroughfare circling the lake, proved ideal. Every Sunday afternoon from one to three the avenue is reserved for cyclists, just one example of how the province has supported cycling infrastructure; the most comprehensive is the 5300-kilometer course called La Route Verte.
Following the north shore of the mighty St Lawrence, we stopped off for three days to see Québec City, camping just southwest of the city center at La Jolie Rochelle campground.
On day one we toured the magnificent city and visited two of its best museums: the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec and the Musée de la Civilisation, both of which charge families astonishingly low entrance fees. On day two, we bought tickets for Abraham’s Bus, a guided tour that meanders through Battlefields Park and the historic site of the 1759 battle between the British and the French on the Plains of Abraham.
Navigating around Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the girls bumped right into Québec’s famous mascot—Bonhomme, and could not resist getting a photo with him. On our last day, we stumbled across a street performance of Québec’s own Cirque du Soleil.
Soon though, we craved the outdoors, so we struck out on Autoroute 138, heading east for the village of Baie-Ste-Catherine, where we embarked on a short fifteen-minute ferry ride to one of the most picturesque towns in Canada, called Tadoussac.
At the confluence of the St Lawrence and Saguenay Rivers, Tadoussac is famous for the setting of the movie “Hotel New Hampshire,” but adventurers visit to kayak the fjords, slide down the sand dunes and catch a glimpse of breaching Beluga whales as they harvest krill so plentiful at the intersection of the two rivers.
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We left our bikes at the campground and opted to hike around town instead; it’s small enough to navigate on foot and buckles and bends down to the sandy shore of the river, a challenging terrain for young cyclists.
Further east on 138 we caught the ferry at Les Escoumins to traverse back across the St Lawrence. The girls found it just as fun to be on the hour-long crossing as it was to camp, due to the novelty, no doubt. Once we disembarked at Trois-Pistoles, we hugged the south shore, a much flatter, smoother road until Lévis, a small city across the river from Québec City, then drove southwest past Sherbrooke thirty miles to Bleu Lavande, one of the largest lavender farms in Canada.
That afternoon we checked into a campground that held little interest to us adults, but the girls were enthralled, jockeying back and forth between the swimming hole and the jeux gonflables, the giant inflatable play structures we had come across at almost every site.
Next door to the campsite we found the municipality of Stanstead, a unique town straddling the Canada-US border. Half the community lies in the US, while the other half is in Canada. In fact, there is a line painted on the road delineating the border which runs right through the center of town and cuts through the main library. It makes sense to cross back into the US here and pick up the I91 and from there routes to Bangor, Boston or New York.
With its French language and culture and boasting some of the prettiest campsites in North America, Québec poses an exotic locale for a camping trip. An easy drive from major cities in New England, families can bike, hike, whale-watch, camp and parlez their way through a French-Canadian summer.
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Janet LoSole is a freelance writer living in Ontario, Canada. Before becoming a mother, Janet taught French at the elementary level and has taught ESL internationally since 1994. Find her at janetlosole.com
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