QUEBEC CITY - We have transformed into dwarfs with pointy green hats. Suddenly, I feel shorter and wonder if I will grow a long white beard. My 7-year-old son Noah is in charge of the treasure map and his new friend Zoe has cool binoculars and a compass. Magical blue keys hang around our necks — they unlock secret codes on our treasure hunt in the forest of gnomes.
Oh, and a golden retriever dwarf-dog named Tofu just gave me a wet sloppy kiss.
It’s a typical day at La Vallee Secrete, located in a beautiful forest in Saint-Raymond, a 45-minute drive from Quebec City,
Sandy, the manager of this fairytale fortress who’s also in dwarf attire, explains the rules of this fun and educational adventure game. Our keys unlock a special message in the forest with clues and secret codes that allow access to hiding “gnomes.”
But we are in Quebec so the clues are in French. Not so easy for me but great for dwarf Noah — a recent graduate of Grade 1 French Immersion.
Sandy’s parents bought this land 17 years ago and opened up their adventure forest in 2003. They impressively built the trails, boutique wooden cottages and even created a small lake surrounded by tall lush green trees. Today they have a staff of 11 “dwarves” and welcome almost 20,000 people a year to this very special place.
Staff hand sews their dwarf outfits and mould keys and toys on site. And to my delight and surprise, their impressively clean child-friendly outhouse plays French songs while you go about your business.
I ask Sandy why she chose gnomes, and she replies: “Gnomes are like us. They can live in harmony off the land. Even though they are imaginary they are still believable because the kid in us has faith in a little special world.
“When my father was a child, his brother used to tell him about the little gnomes who were living in their room. He told my father he saw the gnomes and they were very friendly. My father believed in those stories and they inspired the gnomes here today,” Sandy reveals.
There are several trails you can follow at La Vallee Secrete, depending on participant’s age. There’s even a 1.5 km course for teens and adults called Impossible Mission.
Left: Miriam Porter and son Noah find magic in the forests around Quebec City. Right: Noah gets to play soldier on the historic ramparts of Quebec City.
After completing their treasure hunt, all dwarves are invited to watch a short recorded performance in a mini theatre where toy gnomes happily sing and dance to the delight of the audience. Should you choose to remain dressed as a dwarf long after you leave the gnome forest, you can visit their colourful gift shop to purchase original dwarf hats and accessories.
Suddenly, dwarf Noah and Zoe zoom past me running. They quickly consult their treasure map and insert a key into a wooden box nailed to a tree. Noah shouts in French, “J’ai eu le code secret”! He excitedly runs through the forest with his dwarf hat flying behind him. They have completed their mission.
I think I spy an old friendly gnome through the forest winking at me.
Days earlier, Noah and I arrive in magical Quebec City and are immediately immersed in a world of French culture. This old town, founded in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, is one of the oldest settlements in North America and its winding cobblestone streets remind me of hilly San Francisco. However, this city is unique in North America and Noah and I can’t wait to explore and put his French to the test.
The old walled city, much of which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has three main gates — Saint-Louis, Port Saint-Jean, and the Kent (the latter was a gift from Queen Victoria, whose daughter Princess Louise laid the cornerstone in 1879) — and is divided into an Upper and Lower town, which are linked by a funicular ($2.25 a ride) which Noah dubs “the coolest rocket escalator in the whole wide world!”
The first funicular began operating in 1879 and it’s been updated and modernized several times since. Noah presses his nose against the glass walls of the funicular as we “zoom” down into historic Lower Town, where we are greeted by the sound of music.
Noah grabs my hand and leads me to some accordion players — there’s lots of street entertainment to be found in this part of Old Quebec.
Happily absent are fast food restaurants and popular clothing chains. In their place I admire innovative cafés and original boutiques selling hand made gems. Pastel coloured stores with original architecture from decades earlier display paintings and their widows overflow with flowers and treasures. Lower Town is where the first settlers built their homes when they arrived in “New France.”
We chill with a cool gelato and admire local artists painting caricature portraits for tourists. I could stay here all day nibbling on gourmet pizza and farm fresh veggies but my offspring bundle of energy needs to explore, so off we go back up the funicular.
A few hours later we end up in jail and Noah thinks it’s hilarious.
Above: Montmorency Falls is one of the natural wonders of Quebec City.
My spunky boy chooses to visit a spooky old jail instead of the many other attractions Quebec City offers and we’re totally captivated by the experience.
The Morrin Cultural Centre and Heritage Site sits on the site of Quebec’s first prison, built more than 200 years ago, and our friendly guide Benois gives us an entertaining tour of the old facility.
As he leads us up an extremely thin staircase in almost total darkness, I’m hoping no one jumps out of the shadows. The old jail is like a haunted house and Benois explains the reason the hallways were built so narrow was to prevent prisoners from escaping.
Once upstairs, Noah walks into a dark cell and closes the door behind him. The cold damp chamber doesn’t scare him at all. He’s braver than me.
Between 1813 and 1868 this tiny callous cell was home to many convicts. The original graffiti carved into the floors by some prisoners is still visible today. I stare at the bars on the windows inset into the thick stone walls and quietly shudder at the old thick metal chains on display.
Benois then mentions something about the public hangings that took place from the balcony door I’m looking at and I try to block it from my mind.
After witnessing the spooky prison, I figured it’s time to experience Quebec’s gentler side, so we make our way to the Maizerets Butterfly House, a conservatory located in the arboretum sector of the Domaine de Maizerets. It sits surrounded by 27 hectares of lush green gardens filled with butterflies, one of which lands on Noah’s head and gives him a kiss.
The stunning butterflies, 250 to be exact, fly all around us in a mesh enclosure and represent every colour of the rainbow and over 60 species from around the world. Everyone is walking around with butterflies on their heads, arms, backs or hands. But don’t worry — before you leave the conservatory, staff ensure no creatures escape attached to humans.
Our nature theme continues with a visit to Parc de la Chute-Montmorency — Montmorency Falls. The narrow waterfall is one of Quebec’s most impressive natural wonders and is actually higher than Niagara Falls.
Samuel de Champlain named the falls after Henri II, Duke of Montmorency, in 1613. The powerful water doesn’t freeze in the winter but ice forms on both sides creating a frozen spectacle that can’t be matched.
We ride the cable car to the top and discover a gourmet restaurant and terrace where you can dine and enjoy the view. A suspension bridge also overlooks the falls and Noah peaks over the edge at the rushing water.
“I see a rainbow!” he shouts excitedly. “Let’s go find the pot of gold!” And off he runs down the long bridge as I try to keep up and admire the spectacular view set against lush green forests and clear rushing water.
The next day, Noah and I set out in search of goats. Well, just one goat in particular named Batisse, who happens to be the official mascot of La Citadelle de Quebec, home to the famed Canadian Army Royal 22e Régiment, affectionately known as the Vandoos.
The Citadelle was built by the British between 1820 and 1850 and was once the largest fortress in North America. It’s open year round for guided tours in both French and English.
Upon entry into the impressive Citadelle gates, we’re told it’s still an active military base and Noah is wide eyed as soldiers march past in uniform.
The Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place here daily in the summer and the highlight is an appearance by Batisse, the goat who acts as the regimental mascot. Sadly, Batisse is resting the day we visit so to appease Noah, I buy him a toy goat — a wonderful reminder of his visit to the fortress where kids climb on old cannons and gaze out over the majestic St. Lawrence River below.
Located next to the Citadelle is the historic Plaines d’Abraham, which the French and English fought over from 1759 till 1760. I try to explain the significance of this place in Canadian history to Noah but he’s too excited at the idea of walking over the city walls at the edge of the park.
He jumps from stone to stone with toy Batisse in his arms and runs in the huge meadow that runs down to the board walk which is turned into a giant ice slide each year during the world famous Quebec Carnival.
So instead of trying to teach Noah more history, I jump on the stones with him and together we walk over the walls of Old Quebec.
All this exercise works up an appetite — time to fill our chocolate cravings.
Thankfully we discover the Choco-Musee, also known as Erico’s Chocolate Museum, which first opened in 1987. The store manager, Nedgie, tells me they don’t use chemicals and everything is fresh and authentic in their products.
I catch Noah staring at a chocolate carousel on display and he looks like he’s about to eat it. I encourage him to try the museum’s hands-on activities, such as the choco-game where kids test their chocolate knowledge, interactive video stories and even a chocolate history lesson. As vegans we appreciate pure cocoa beans without added milk so when Noah discovers they have dairy-free chocolate and soy chocolate gelato in sugar cones, he literally jumps for joy.
With our tummy full of chocolate, we resume our tour of Old Quebec, a magical place where dwarf dogs wear pointy green hats, friendly gnomes hide in forests, rocket escalators zoom around and kids can walk on walls.
For more information on Quebec City, go to www.quebecregion.com
/ Porter Airlines and Air Canada offer daily flights to Quebec City. / A family friendly hotel located downtown we recommend is Palace Royal www.hotelsjaro.com
/ The Fairmont Chateau Frontenac loves kids as well and offers many kid-friendly programs - www.fairmont.com