by Erin Kirkland
“Attache ta tuque!”
This is what my Uber driver, natty ball cap askance on his bald head, shouted when I mentioned I was beginning a seven-day road trip to explore sections of Quebec.
The literal meaning is “Secure your hat on your head,” and in modern vernacular translates to “Hold on tight!” because something unexpected or exciting is coming your way.
It was only day one, and already people were telling me to get pumped. Not a bad way to begin adventuring around Canada’s second-largest province.
Quebec is located at the northeastern tip of North America, and is quite large – 1,667, 926 square kilometers (1,036,401.167 square miles), more than a quarter of the total surface area of Canada’s other nine provinces. It’s environmentally rich, culturally diverse, and recreationally unique in a way I was only beginning to understand.
I’d arrived that morning after an overnight series of cross-country flights from my home in Anchorage, Alaska, landing to blue skies at Quebec City’s Jean Lasage International Airport. Starting the journey from here seemed the perfect place to capture a sense of the province’s history and, I hoped, secure an itinerary for a future trip with my own family.
How Quebec Began
Quebec’s back story is not a simple one. Québec has had a tumultuous series of good and bad relationships, beginning with the arrival of Europeans early in the 17th century.
The name “Quebec” came long before that, though, after French explorer Samuel de Champlain first heard and recorded the word ‘kebec’ (an Algonquin word meaning ‘where the river narrows’) when he founded a settlement at Quebec City in 1608.
At that time, European explorers arrived in Canada to find the entire region fully settled and controlled by various Aboriginal groups, all of whom are still represented as residents today, including the Mohawks along the St Lawrence River, the Cree above them, the Innu in the north and east, and the Inuit of the remote far north. Everyone wanted a piece of this agricultural and maritime region, and throughout the 17th century, French and English forces squabbled over who would get and retain control.
When thousands of British Loyalists fled the American Revolution in the 1770s, a new colony divided into Upper (now Ontario) and Lower (Québec) Canada. Nearly all the French settled in the latter region, but major power struggles between the two language groups continued through the 1800s, with Lower Canada joining the Canadian confederation as Québec in 1867. Today’s Quebec supports agriculture, forestry, and tourism, attracting visitors from all over the world for adventure, food, and more than a dash of French culture.
Begin at the Beginning
Anxious to launch myself into a deep dive of the province, I summoned the above-mentioned Uber driver to take me into the historic core of Old Quebec City. With only a few hours to explore, I didn’t want to waste a minute of my sunny Sunday afternoon.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Old Quebec City is the only walled city north of Mexico. Known by many as the “cradle” of French civilization in North America, it’s a delightful space in which to immerse children in the atmosphere of French culture. There’s much to do in Old Quebec City with kids, and with a few more days in the city I could have run my hands over centuries-old stones, taken a tour of the St. Lawrence River, or checked out the city’s famous aquarium.
Dropped off at the tourism office within the Historic district, I was able to secure a map and recommendations for a meal while observing other visitors strolling the narrow, cobbled passageways. Street performers, a staple of Quebec City history, were attracting the attention of young and old at different locations, filling balloons, performing pantomime, magic tricks, and musical repertoires that brought audiences to their feet again and again.
Children are a treasure in the eyes of the community, so many activities and performances are geared especially to them, and I whiled away an hour wandering among the makeshift stages provided by the community. Too soon, I returned to my hotel and prepared for the next day, a drive along the St. Lawrence River through the scenic Côte-Nord region via Route 138.
Road-tripping Quebec, Canada with kids should be approached thoughtfully to absorb the sensory explosions available, from viewpoints to local cuisine. The mighty St. Lawrence, one of the largest rivers on Earth, provides a natural boundary, allowing drivers to wander through a variety of ecological environments, from forest to taiga, with thousands of rivers and lakes scattered among them. Each region offers a bounty of opportunities, and I learned not to breeze through tiny villages along the river, but instead stop, grab a coffee, and find the nearest trail or roadside interpretive sign.
Quebec also has 30 national parks in just about every corner of the province: 37,000 square kilometers of protected wilderness managed by a partnership between Parks Canada and Société des établissements de plein air du Québec (SÉPAQ). As such, parks display an array of services that appeal to families; level bike trails with accommodations along the way; hikes of varying levels of difficulty, visitor centers with displays just for kids; and the popular Parks Canada Xplorers, similar to the Junior Ranger program in United States national parks. Children complete an age-appropriate booklet of activities, learn about camping as a healthy family option, and gather tools to use in the future as youth “citizen scientists.”
Dignified Delight in Cote-Nord
Route 138 delivered me to the Tadoussac-Baie-Sainte-Catherine ferry, a free, 10-minute crossing across the entrance of Saguenay fjord and Quebec’s rugged northern reaches. On the other side were rocky trails within the boundaries of Saguenay Fjords National Park, where hikers, many children among them, stood waving at our ferry as it pulled in to the dock.
I overnighted in Tadoussac, a delightful seaside village popular with Canadians and European visitors. The community is a tourist town, to be sure, with whale-watching tours and guided excursions telling the centuries-old history of the area, but it’s well worth a stop for the friendly beach access, music, food, and activities.
I stayed at the Hotel Tadoussac, a dignified property right on the waterfront, and savored my evenings on the lawn, sipping wine and listening to conversations from other guests carried on in several different languages. Tadoussac is also a walk and bike-friendly place as well, with many chances to explore trails ringing the town.
The next morning, invigorated by a barefoot walk on the sandy beach and hearty breakfast at Hotel Tadoussac, I detoured along Route 172 to Saguenay – Saint-Laurent Marine Park and Cap-de-Bon-Désir Interpretation and Observation Center.
Known as one of the most popular venues for viewing minke, beluga, and other whale species, the rocky shoreline was dotted with all kinds of people waiting and watching. When a dorsal fin sliced through the water, an audible “Ahhhhh” rippled through the crowd, excited but hushed in reverence of what we were seeing.
All too soon, I had to make my way back to the parking lot and my journey, but not before exploring the historic buildings on the center grounds that now house an interpretive center, gift shop, and classroom facilities.
Sacré-Coeur to Saguenay Lac-Saint-Jean
Highway 172 was a delight. The quirky little towns, small farms, and forested landscape skirted the Saguenay Fjord, known as a “glacial valley within the sea.” The fjord is, in fact, parts of both ocean and freshwater, as cold salt water from the St. Lawrence estuary swirls one way, and warmer fresh waters from its tributaries and Lake St. Jean run along the surface. I stayed overnight at Centre de vacances Ferme 5 étoiles, part resort, part campground and farm situated in a quiet green valley.
After the busyness of Tadoussac, I relished an afternoon wandering the property’s trails and visiting with farm animals that included a herd of bison and a few cheeky goats. Ferme 5 etoiles also has rescued several wild animals as part of their refuge program, and offers tours to meet Zoe the moose, Jacob the wolf, and Peter the skunk, among other critters.
Adventure awaited the next day at Parc Adventures Cap Jaseux, one of the most unique public-private outdoor partnerships to be found in all of Canada. Founded in 2001 through a co-op format to embellish a longtime mission of preserving the area’s natural beauty, the facility also offers activities to tempt both the adventurous and relaxation-seeking guest.
Accommodations reinforce this goal; from campgrounds to cottages and tree houses to truly out-of-this-world sleeping pods suspended in the air. Coupled with the kid-sized parkour and ropes courses, kayaking, hiking, and sports fields, it is all but guaranteed kids won’t want to return home. I didn’t either, but I also had reservations in Pointe-Taillon National Park, 90 minutes down the road.
Positioned perfectly along the shores of Lac-Saint-Jean, the park is 35 square miles of beach access, muskegs, forest, with 43 kilometers of connected, family-friendly bike trails. Coming from Alaska, where national parkland is plentiful but adequate bike trails are scarce, it was a delight to view the scores of people launching bicycles from the park’s Discovery Center, many pulling trailers full of gear for an overnight stay at one of the wall tents or small cabins along the route.
Even though it was a rainy, stormy day, kids in full rain suits scrabbled in the sand and frolicked on the park’s playground, coming inside to the Discovery Center’s cafe only when called for a snack with mom and dad. The park rents bicycles, trailers, and all gear necessary for a multi-day experience; all campers need to bring is their personal items, food, and matches for the campfire.
By the time my small SUV looped around to the Saguenay-Bagotville airport two days later, I was exhausted, sunburned, dusty – but utterly charmed by my solo road trip. Each evening of the trip, as I savored a glass of wine in my collapsable camping cup, I thought back to the beginning and the smiling Uber driver who issued the challenge to “Get ready!”
How right he was.
Quebec: If you go
Flying: Air Canada offers several daily flights into Quebec from the United States with excellent service. The airline is also a codeshare partner with US carriers like JetBlue and United. (www.aircanada.com)
Driving: I rented a car from Enterprise at the Jean Lesage airport in Quebec City. Equipped with a GPS, it allowed me to travel independently, and in English.
Language: French is Quebec’s first language, and while residents of the larger population centers speak English, it is a nice courtesy to at least practice a bit of that high school French you learned. As I moved farther out into the countryside, however, English was definitely not the language spoken and I had to rely heavily on phone apps to help me out. But Quebec residents are some of the friendliest people I have ever encountered while traveling, and most of the time my missteps were met with mutual laughter and a bit of sleuthing to figure out what we all meant to say. It’s the perfect place to introduce children to another language.
Dining: I elected to go picnic style whenever I could. Choosing European-style meats, cheeses and artisan breads (often with a small bottle of wine) at the local grocery — then packing it to enjoy on a hike or beachside ramble — a luxury we don’t often enjoy in the States.
Lodging: The Tourism Quebec website offers pages and pages of options for family accommodations. From campgrounds in national parks to historic rooms in Quebec City; this is the resource to begin hunting around for family vacation plans.
Activities: Quebec’s adventure diversity is designed to compliment the landscape of land and sea and a rich cultural and socio-economic history. Besides the activities I mentioned here, don’t overlook the destinations Quebec residents enjoy on a regular basis, like Zoo Sauvage de St-Felicien, an outstanding zoo and wildlife conservation park rated one of the ’10 Best’ in the world; or Val-Jalbert village, a ghost town in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region. Founded in 1901 as a pulp mill, the sites are worth a few hours of exploration, especially near tumbling Ouiatchouan Falls.
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Erin Kirkland is an Alaska-based travel journalist, newspaper columnist, and author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series. She publishes the website AKontheGO.com to offer visitors to the 49th state a full range of helpful information about Alaska, family travel, and recreation.