View of Quebec City During Summer
At first, there’s just a whole lot of frustrating nothing, as far as the eye can see, as my group bobs gently on the quiet surface of the water, sat expectantly in a sturdy Zodiac boat.
Our captain, a piercingly blue-eyed, weathered-looking seaman called Gilles, advises patience. “Sometimes you’ll see nothing but sometimes, you’ll be lucky.”
I’m really hoping we will be. After all, I’m here, in the Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park – halfway up the St Lawrence river, which slices through the vast province of Quebec – during prime whale-feeding season (May to October).
The profusion of fish here, from krill, to pike, salmon and squid, attracts belugas, minkes, and even fin whales – the second largest animal on the planet, after the blue whale. Then, we hear it: a loud snuffling noise, followed by a tall plume of spray.
After that, we see a sinuous, black, graceful curve as the body of a minke whale arcs from under the surface, its triangular fin protruding, before plunging back into the deep. Then it does it again.
And again. Suddenly there is much squealing from the boat’s passengers, as this magnificent creature is joined by another. And another.
To Gilles’s delight, we also sight a pair of beluga whales, their white bodies moving lithely through the water.
French-speaking Quebec is vast – three times the size of the country which colonised it between 1608 and 1759 – and most of its population is clustered towards the south of the province, particularly in the main towns of Montreal and Quebec City.
St Lawrence river, which slices through the vast province of Quebec
However, along the 745-mile stretch of the St Lawrence River, as it flows east to join the Atlantic Ocean, you’ll find a host of impressive, nature-focused experiences, as I discover over the course of a week’s road trip.
This striking section of south-eastern Quebec is a mix of mountains and farmland, peppered with dense pine forests, lakes and patchwork fields.
There are also dozens of charming riverside towns and villages; I stop at a couple on my way from Montreal to Les Escoumins – from where the whale-watching cruise departs.
Baie-St-Paul, in the region of Charlevoix, is known for its Flavour Trail, a collection of small producers who harness the best produce the area has to offer, from apples to lavender, duck, cheese and beer.
Baie Saint-Paul in Quebec, Canada
I have lunch at nearby Faux Bergers, a rural working farm where they make their own cheese, yogurt and ice cream. I scoff a wood-fired pizza while taking in the stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
Seventy-five miles upriver is the picture-perfect harbour town of Tadoussac, with its cluster of pastel-coloured clapboard houses and a fascinating Marine Mammal Centre.
Quebec has, like Africa, its own version of the big five: the blue whale, grey wolf, snowy owl, moose and another creature I’ve always wanted to see: the black bear. Two hours south of Les Escoumins is Domaine le Pic-Bois, a sun-dappled wood that is home to around 15 of them.
Every day, around 11am, forest ranger Denis Laliberte, who has worked here for more than 25 years, brings bucketfuls of corn, apples and pork lard to a clearing.
It seems the bears know his routine all too well: “If I’m ever late, they head out on to the path to wait for me with their paws raised, like dogs!” he laughs.
The black bear, Quebec like Africa is known for its wildlife
Thankfully, his careful and respectful interaction with these gentle creatures – unlike grizzlies, they don’t aggressively attack humans – means they allow small groups to observe them from a raised viewing platform nearby.
I’m overwhelmed as a mediumsized female lumbers over from behind a clump of trees and starts chomping happily away at her lunch, just 65ft away.
Then a bigger one joins her and, perhaps showing off for her audience, casually climbs up a tree to break off a bunch of leaves.
It’s spellbinding but my last destination is more about culture than creatures.
Quebec City has a population of just over 500,000, with a history that seeps out of almost every pore. Constructed, essentially, on a cliff, which tumbles down to the St Lawrence, it’s composed of an Upper and Lower town.
Formerly a trading post, it was established as a permanent French settlement in 1608 by navigator Samuel de Champlain.
A statue in his honour stands by the boardwalk overlooking the river in the Upper Town, while behind it rises the fairy tale façade of Chateau Frontenac.
Built in 1893 by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, the hotel’s architect was inspired by castles in France and Scotland, and former guests include everyone from Winston Churchill to the Queen.
I take a seat by the window and order a cocktail. It’s a fitting place to round off a journey which has been full of wonders, and I decide I’ll stay for longer next time. After all, I need to tick off the rest of the Big Five.
Quebec City has a population of just over 500,000
Travelbag (020 3139 7026/travelbag.co.uk) offers seven nights in Quebec from £1,549 (two sharing), B&B.
Price includes return flights with Wow Air from Gatwick to Montreal, car hire and accommodation including one night at Auberge La Muse in Baie-St-Paul, one night at Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, four nights in the Quebec Maritime region and one night at Delta Hotel By Marriott in Quebec City.
Based on selected dates in March 2019, book by September 30.
Wow Air (0118 321 8384/wowair.co.uk) offers return flights from £293. Quebec tourism: quebecoriginal.com