SAGUENAY LAC-SAINT-JEAN, QC - From its rolling green hills to flower-box accessorized homes to a landscape dotted with water everywhere, Saguenay — Lac-Saint-Jean had me at “bonjour.”
A region — not a town — the vibe of this area almost four times the size of Belgium is so surprisingly cozy that locals call it “a small village at the end of the road.” Comprised of Lac-Saint-Jean and the Fjord-du-Saguenay, the destination is large, diverse and comfortably isolated (a one hour, 15 minute flight from Montreal; a two-hour drive from Quebec City); but its overflow of down-to-earth experiences and out-of-the-norm adventures makes whatever effort necessary to reach it worth it.
Adventure is in this region’s DNA. Winter season entertains ice skaters, ice fishermen, downhill and cross-country skiers and dogsledders, while warmer weather appeals to hikers, fishermen, beluga whale watchers, boaters and kite surfers. With 700 km of road biking lanes and 200 km of mountain bike trails, it’s a cyclist’s dream as well.
The 256-km Véloroute des Bleuets (Blueberry Trail) — which wends around Lac-Saint-Jean, crisscrosses 15 municipalities and enters countless villages, with interspersed treks through farmland and forests — attracts more than 200,000 annual cycling enthusiasts. With five microbreweries on La Route des Bières (The Beer Route), be forewarned that the only thing missing from this fun-filled trail may be a designated driver.
Left: Bears rule the Saguenay forests. Right: The area offers many other forms of wildlife.
Beyond these active temptations, some of the area’s most popular ventures include the word “bear.” Okwari Aventures is where black bears can be observed from a watchtower in their natural habitat (of the region’s 3,500 black bears, 30 are here). With assistance from a guide, visitors can hike the area, learn about the world of beavers and salmon and ride along the water in a Rabaska canoe. To maximize a bear watching visit, it’s good to know that between the end of June and mid-July cubs are prevalent and September’s blueberry season is a delicious attraction for the mammals.
Then there’s the 26-hour, bear-filled VIP tour and overnight stay called “Adventure in the Land of the Caribou.” Located within Zoo Sauvage de Saint-Félicien (named one of the world’s most beautiful zoos and home to more than 1,000 animals from 75 native or exotic species), the experience is unique in an opposite sort of way — the animals roam free while its VIP guests are “enclosed.” During the venture, a ride in an elevated, open-air, protected trolley train through its 324-hectre Nature Trail Park section can be stop and go. As it’s in an area where bears (alongside such large North American mammals as elk, bison and deer) roam freely and continually wander along the road, cross it and sometimes block it, the most valuable visitor advice is cue the cameras.
Left: Lodging in a treehouse one of the experiences. Right: Waterfalls bigger than Niagara can be found in the Saguenay.
The wrap-up of this VIP adventure includes an old-fashioned meal cooked over an open fire, a finale of s’mores and an overnight within a prospector tent tucked into a sleeping bag atop a bed of balsam needles. There are no showers and no flush toilets, simply an exceptionally clean outhouse, the opportunity to bottle feed a baby moose and the possibility of an unannounced up-close-and-personal caribou greeting anytime, anywhere within the campsite. The rules are simple: Always walk in a group, never wander off and rely on good old-fashioned common sense.
“Creative adventure” best describes the assortment of accommodations found in Saguenay — Lac-Saint-Jean. In addition to the within-the-zoo stay is Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux’s variety of high-energy adventures and assortment of overnight possibilities — from accommodation in a tree house eight metres above ground to a stay in a huge fibreglass bubble dome (windows cover a third of its surface) to sleeping in a suspended sphere — all perched in pine trees and all featuring panoramic views of the Saguenay Fjord. Awaking within the woods (actually overlooking it) is like no other “good morning.” There are no hotel-like amenities; but the outhouse is again impressive.
Activities can be negotiating the tree-to-tree ropes course, propelling along the park’s nine zip lines, tackling the via ferrata (imagine climbing a sheer cliff above the fjord) or, my selection, early-morning sea kayaking in the fjord.
Jerome, our kayak guide, describes this on-the-water choice “always different, never the same,” citing the ever-changing variables of tide, wind and group number. “But it is always special,” he concludes.
Left: Saguenay region is one of the best kept secrets in the world. Right: Visitors can get up close to the bears here.
A more subdued but no less distinctive immersion into the region’s past is an overnight in a ghost town, the historic village of Val-Jalbert. A booming, thriving pulp mill company town from the 1920s (at its 1926 peak there were 950 residents), one couldn’t even visit during its decades-long closure. However, these days its recreation of the back-in-the-day town and the natural site on which it sits lure thousands of annual visitors.
Among Val-Jalbert’s irresistible enticements are 40 original buildings seemingly frozen in time, 24 rooms situated in its turn-of-the-century houses now converted to 21st-century luxury accommodation, the general store, convent school, post office and walk-about “residents” in character — perhaps Mother Superior in route to school or the mayor’s daughter riding her bicycle along its main street. Additionally appealing is Val-Jalbert’s unparalleled natural beauty. The draw of its paper pulp past, 55-metre-high Ouiatchouan Falls, surpasses Niagara Falls.
My departure arrives all too soon. As I bid farewell to this area of which I knew little but to which I instantly bonded, I reflect upon my Quebecois adventure. Aboard the small airplane, I turn to my seatmate, a local named Andre — until now a stranger. “In a few words, can you describe this area — your home?” I quiz.
He replies in three: “I love it.”
It is important to note that many of Saguenay Lac-Saint-Jean’s out-of-doors attractions and accommodation are seasonal and fill quickly, so book well in advance to avoid disappointment. / For tourist information on Saguenay Lac-Saint-Jean, go to www.saguenaylacsaintjean.ca