If you can spare two days for Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean, Quebec, you will get a rich taste of Quebecois hospitality and enjoy a fun family getaway!
Many tourists to Quebec visit cosmopolitan Montreal, and experience the culture and history of Quebec City, but never manage to make it further afield into the rest of the Belle Province. Quebec is a vast province, and you could easily spend months exploring, but if time and budget preclude that option for you, how about a quick road trip from Quebec City into the wilds of Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean? Here’s how to spend 48 perfect hours in Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean with your family.
From Quebec City, it is about a 3-hour drive to where we’ll start our tour of the region of Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean. So stock up on some Quebecois car snacks (cheese curds, natch) and get driving! It’s pretty much a straight shot down the highway with beautiful hilly scenery. Before you know it, you’re there!
Wild times! Get an early start because you will have a full day, and it all starts at Zoo sauvage de St-Felicien. Apart from the Welcome Centre, the zoo has two parts: the “Pedestrian Section” feels like the kind of zoo you are probably used to; animals in their enclosures as you walk through and take a look and some pics. The animals at the Zoo sauvage are all from the borealie, (regions of the globe where the temperature is less than -3 degrees in the coldest months) so they are at home in our Canadian climate. The real draw at this zoo though is the “Nature Trails Section.” The tagline is visit a zoo where you are in a cage, and it’s awesome. Visitors climb aboard a train and tour though across the vast acres where forest animals roam with limited constraints! Wolves are locked up because they will eat everything, and the moose are now corralled on their own because they eat indiscriminately and kill all the trees…like your bad friend who wrecks a good thing for everyone. I’ll admit to a bit of skepticism about being able to actually see any animals, imagining a lot of squinting into trees for brownish blobs while everyone around exclaims “I think I saw something!” Nope. Not like that at all. From the minute we rolled past the gates and were greeted by elk, there was a constant parade of animals. Our patient guide urged us to take a last picture, as we had a lot of ground to cover, with promises we “haven’t seen anything yet!”
At a reconstructed pioneer cabin we were allowed off the bus (during public tours, visitors stay on the train,) our guide keeping a careful eye on the mama bear and her two cubs happily gamboling in the nearby field. As bears are afraid of horses, we were able to position ourselves close to the protection of the horses and get (a little) closer to the bears. “Just remember to watch your backs as well” we were cautioned, “These are not the only bears in the park!” Sage advice indeed!
Piece of History From St-Felicien it is less than half an hour to the restored village of Val-Jalbert. The historic village was once a utopian mill town, if ever there was such a thing. To hear the former residents speak of it (and you get to, in a charming mini documentary that plays in one of the houses) it was an idyllic community, and when the mill closed and the residents left it ended a chapter in their lives that was never quite matched again. In the bowels of the old mill visitors are immersed in a multidimensional show that highlights the history of the town in a thrilling way that I have never witnessed before. From below, ride the tram high up beside the powerful waterfall that powered the mill, and still drives a smaller plant that now generates power that is sold to the province as a revenue stream. After touring the buildings, some which have been partially or fully restored, and others which have been left to return to the earth, you may still have time for a little geocaching before you get cleaned up for supper.
The restaurant du Moulin is a fine dining experience, a cut above what you often find at museums and family attractions. You will want to enjoy your supper before bedding down, either in the charming rooms in town (some with murphy beds and baby gates for the stairs) or in a cottage at the adjacent camp ground.
Ride the Trails! Hop on a bike in the town of Alma and take a cycle tour on the Blueberry Trail. A friendly guide from Equinox Aventure can help you plot out the best route. The Véloroute des Bleuets is 265 km–don’t worry, we don’t expect you to do the whole thing!– and has some challenging areas (ask how stiff my flat land quads were after a hilly Quebec trail) and on secondary highways that might be a touch busy for novice riders. There are really nice paved trails as well, and those are perfect for families with young kids. Ask about building in a stop at one (or several!) of the lovely restaurants or fromageries along the way. I learned a chiming bell means fresh curds are ready. Yes please!
Above the Trees: From Alma hop over to an afternoon of adventure at Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux. If you are unbothered by heights, you will be rewarded by stunning vistas from high above the ground at the top of the trees on the Zipline adventure. To participate, kids need to be at least 8 years old and measure 1.8 metres from heels to fingertips with hands above their heads. Although I demurred from participating (see above warning about heights!) the more experienced zipliners in the group suggested it would be a good idea for one adult to go ahead, to help at the landing platform, and one to stay behind to help other zippers clip in. There are several rankings of adventure, including a “Bambino” course that is perfect for children. And wussy travel writers. Ahem.
After all the adventure, you are going to be thrilled to bed down in one of the coolest accommodations going. The park has several options, from campsites and log cabins, to a domed suite (complete with star-gazing windows on the ceiling) or one of the treehouse suspended in the trees. Note that the “nontraditional accommodations” don’t have bathrooms, so a midnight walk to the outhouse would be required for a potty break, but as someone who values her creature comforts, I think these spots are cool enough to make it worth it!
A quick visit to Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean is probably just enough time to convince you it is a good idea to go back for a longer trip, but 48 perfect hours are a great start! For other year round adventures and planning help, please visit the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean website.
Many thanks to Tourisme Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean and QuébecOriginal who hosted my visit. As ever, all opinions are my own.