TROIS-RIVIÉRES, QUE. - “Our prison was so out of the way that in the old days prisoners had to go to Montréal or Québec City to be judged. Then they’d be returned to us here in Trois-Rivières, to serve their sentence, or be executed.”
These chilling words, stated matter-of-factly by our prison guide, seemed like a perfect metaphor, not only for Trois-Rivières, but for the entire Mauricie region of Québec.
Although millions of motorists pass by here yearly as they whiz between Montréal and Québec City, few seem to stop in the area. As a result, it is unspoiled and, to my mind, a perfect spot to get to know the authentic Québec.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Québec City and Montréal – but leave the main Highway 40 and head up north a few kilometres, and time really seems to stand still.
For starters, save a few cyclists in the old Chemin du Roy, (King’s Road), there’s no one around. After passing innumerable farms, the first store you’ll see is Le Brun Grocery Store at Maskinongé.
The store is huge by the standard of any day, and during its long history sold livestock, fancy plates, expensive furs, and (this was big at the time) manufactured skates. Even local moonshine, if our guide is to be believed.
Today, the store specializes in items from the old days: Elephant Popcorn, Thrills Chewing Gum and those liquid-filled wax canes, popular in the 1960s. There are also handicrafts typical to Québec – Phentex bedroom slippers and linen towels.
Beside: Hotel Sacacomie is popular with Americans and Europeans.
But current owners, Isabella Thibeault and Richard Vienneau, have gone one step further. The second floor now houses L’Grange, an intimate cabaret complete with a functioning 1904 Aeolian piano player, where some of the best live performers from the province perform for crowds of 75 to 100 people. In a sense, it echoes the days when locals came to the general store Saturday nights as a kind of community centre to watch Hockey Night in Canada on the town’s only television set.
As if Mauricie wasn’t quiet and remote enough, at the end of a longish dead-end road several kilometres from Saint Alexis des Monts, Sacacomie Lake and its secretive Hotel Sacacomie lay hidden in the forest.
It offers the ultimate unplugged resort, well concealed, and perhaps deliberately, hard to access quickly. European visitors fly onto the lake by hydroplane, or get off the train at Charette (a mere whistle stop, there is no train station), or end up renting a car for the length of the trip.
Inside the massive white pine log lodge, rooms and balconies are almost too big to believe. Sure, it looks like the 1980s, but wouldn’t you expect that from an unplugged paradise?
No TVs, no AC, no room safes — this place is so utterly peaceful that one guest actually asked room service for a fan just for the comfort of noise.
The food is outstanding, but the relaxed atmosphere is what makes this place worth visiting. There is a sizeable Nordic Spa and there are guided tours of the lake, as well as tours to see bears and beavers in the wild. We saw both bears and beavers but getting to know our guide, Gaspar, was worth the tour alone. He knows it all and has seen it all — the fruit of having been a guide all his life.
Carlotte, a local dog, teamed up with us in the boat tour. In 90 minutes we became acquainted with just a part of the lake. Later, in a six-wheel drive Puch Pinzgauer, we were taken on a seriously wild trip up and down impossible elevations as we headed to the shelters built for wildlife viewing.
Left: Sebastien Houle is the owner of the Potier de St-Elie, a top pottery shop in the small town of Saint Elie de Caxton. Right: The Le Brun Grocery Store in Maskinonge is a town landmark.
Remember I underlined the relaxing nature of this place? Well, I fell into a meditative state as the minutes streamed by, waiting for a bear to show up while stationed at the viewing shelter. The guide had to pull me out of my visual meditation (inspired by the rain) to get my attention when, as if on cue, the mother bear showed up. Baby bear showed up soon afterwards.
Some character named Johnny Depp stayed at the hotel during the filming of Secret Whistle, as did Paul Walker.
The night at the hotel was memorable. Our room overlooked the lake, where not one light was visible save two fireflies that dared dart by. There was an international crowd there, as European and American tourists seem to outnumber Canadian visitors.
Nearby is another village, Saint Elie de Caxton. Almost anyone interested in contemporary Québécois culture has heard of this town and its most famous son, Fred Pellerin. Fred, while still in his 20s, hit the provincial scene big in Québec when his talents as a raconteur in the purest of traditional styles became known. Now popular even in France, virtually everyone in French Québec has heard of his hometown and the famous peppermint trees from one of his legends. A thirty-something making a living by telling stories? Welcome to Québec!
Today, this otherwise sleepy, typically slow-paced Mauricie town offers self-guided tours (on foot or on bike) and wagon tours to the many visitors who come. Talented chefs and craftsmen have set up shop here to. One spot that you should not miss is Potier de St-Elie, owned by Sébastien Houle, the town’s top pottery shop.
Not too far away, is the little town that is possibly the best-known spot in the whole area, historically, at least.
Shawinigan Falls is possibly best known for its past glory due to its aluminum factory and for local celebrity the “Little Guy from Shawinigan,” former prime minister Jean Chrétien. His family grew up in the shadow of the mill and today the Jean Chrétien Museum and the Espace Shawinigan are intimate attractions worth visiting.
Across the river, via a tiny free boat, is the Cité de l’Energie, which includes a huge tower from whose observation deck you have a view of the entire region that was once the largest aluminum producer in the world.