I was listening CBC Radio earlier this week. They were asking their audience to call in and recommend places within Quebec to spend a last minute vacation. I was driving so I couldn’t make the call, but I live in Saguenay and I wanted to tell them what we did over three days with friends who came to visit us last week from just outside of St. Louis, Missouri.
Before they arrived, I went to the Saguenay tourist office in Jonquiere to find out what they might recommend. After a rather long visit there with the friendly women working behind the desk there, I came home armed with loads of ideas of how to best show off my adopted home to our American friends.
Art, Jen and their teenagers Samantha and Curtis – are an active family. Art and my husband, Guy, coached hockey together when we lived in the USA, and our sons, Nic and Curt, played on the same team. Jen, the mom, is a marathon runner, and Sam is an elite soccer player. All four of them like running – and one of the great things about the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region is the paved bike path which is shared amongst bikers, walkers and runners. The paths are a network 256 km. long, and go throughout the city of Saguenay all the way to La Baie on one side and up and around all of Lac-St-Jean itself. Since the bike path is part of the street we live on, an early-morning run was an easy option, with absolutely no interference from traffic and very little noise – except from the singing birds.
After everyone was showered and ready-to-go, we jumped into the car and went to the west side of Lac-St-Jean to visit the ghost town of Val Jalbert. Val Jalbert was built at the turn of the century around two falls on the Ouiatchouan River – complete with a village to support the pulp operations. By 1927, the technology had changed combining pulp with paper milling and Val Jalbert became an abandoned town, but many of the original structures remain.
The weather wasn’t particularly delightful: it was a bit chilly (15 degrees) and rain was threatening when we got there around 11:00 a.m., but climbing the 782 steps up to the top of the two waterfalls warmed all of us up in a hurry. In addition to touring the village homes, post office, new power station, general store and the convent/school house, we ate at the cafeteria there and nearly everyone had the soup of the day, tourtiere and freshly baked blueberry pie. It was $15 for that trio and it was absolutely delicious. The last time I’d been to Val Jalbert was 4 or 5 years ago and their multimedia show explaining the history of the purposely-built pulp town is fun and educational, and has been greatly improved although the mist they sprayed at the beginning of the show mimicking the spray from the waterfalls got some of us a bit wet! The abandoned town is both fascinating and sad and a great indication of what can happen when technology leaps forward.
We were 4 adults and 3 children and bought two family entrances that cost $64.36 each. That entrance fee covers 2 adults and 2 children under 17. Small children are free.
We left Val Jalbert and headed further up the Lake towards St. Prime to track down cheese and sausages from one of the most famous families in the region: the Perrons. The Fromagerie Perron is Quebec’s oldest cheese factory, established in 1890 and still family held. Their cheddar and curd cheeses are famous — some would argue that the best poutine (fries with curd cheese and gravy) is made with Perron cheese, and I would find it hard to argue. Someone once told me that Perron’s 2-year-old cheddar is Queen Elizabeth’s favourite cheese and whether or not it’s true, I always buy it whenever I find it. Perron exports its cheddar to England, FYI.
In St. Prime, the Perron’s cheese factory is across the street from the Perron’s butcher shop and they now have a store/restaurant on the main street, right across from the church, where you can buy their products as well as other regional specialties, like chocolate-coated blueberries.
Armed with cheese and a variety of sausages (like sweet Italian, spicy Italian, Mexican, Inferno, pork and beef, vegetable) we went home and had a feast. The Boréale Beer from Blainville, Quebec was a perfect match for our meal (I love their new Rousse) and Nic loves Red Champagne – a local soda brewed by the Simard brothers at Lac-St-Jean.
Day 2 the families split up: the boys went their way and the girls went their’s. The boys went golfing at Stanley Thompson-designed Arvida-Saguenay Golf Course, an 85-year-old 18-hole course on the south bank of the mighty Saguenay River. As for the girls, we were off on a hike to see Notre-Dame-du-Saguenay, a magnificent 9 meter statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the Saguenay Fjiord in the Saguenay Fjord Provincial Park. We’d packed a lunch and our hike up to the statue made us hungry, and we ate our lunch at the foot of the statue, overlooking the Fjord below. It was wonderful. The hike up to the statue and back took about 3 hours and the park entrance fees totalled $25.50 for 2 adults and one teenager.
We rendez-vous’d with the boys at Le Cage Aux Sports in Chicoutimi for supper. We had a variety of appetizers and main courses including ribs, salmon, chicken, nachos, wings – and it was all great, just like our waitress! I know it’s not a local restaurant – the boys chose it and were already there by the time we found our way back to the car – but I had been hoping they would pick Joe Smoked Meat, a local restaurant with three locations in the region – and smoked meat that the restaurants on St. Catherine’s Street in Montreal can be envious of.
Day 3 was more of the same for the boys, but they threw some go-karting at Saguenay Paintball Karting after the golf. As for us girls, we returned to the same portion of the park we’d been in the day before, but this time to try something different.
Since the weather was looking better by late Thursday afternoon, I called the Saguenay Fjord Park to find out if there was space for me, Jen and Sam on one of their 3-hour sea kayaking tours, and there was. We had discussed traveling out to Tadoussac to where the Saguenay Fjord meets the St. Laurence Seaway but our American friends were rather sick of being on the road, so a two-way journey of 4 hours just wasn’t in the cards. Jen, Sam and I all had our fingers crossed we might be lucky and see a whale in the Saguenay, but that was not to be.
When we made the reservation, we were told what to wear (swimsuit underneath, long sleeved shirts) and bring (water and a change of clothes). We were back in the park by 8:30 the next morning for our 9:30 start and blue skies, warm sunshine and very little wind. It was going to be perfect. The Park office also serves as the meeting point for a variety of activities (they also have rock climbing tours – Via ferratta) and a canteen, a shop and FREE WIFI!
Our’s was a group of seven and our instructor rounded us up to make eight. There were three couples put into two-man kayaks, and Sam and our instructor had a single-seater kayak each. The tide was low and for the first 100 meters our paddles could touch the sand below as we paddled. But soon we had deep water below, depths that mimicked the great cliffs surrounding the Bay.
Our instructor, who comes from Drummondville originally and spoke excellent English, entertained us with details about the park, the fjord and the region and told us that with no wind and relatively calm waters, we could go into the middle of the Fjord to see the statue of the Virgin Mary from below.
And so we did.
On our way there, we passed by a large granite wall where Peregrine Falcons were flying. Our guide explained that the face had been closed to rock climbers since 2004 to protect the falcons’ nest, but it will re-open to top climbers at the end of July. When it re-opens, the Park expects that some of the world’s top climbers will come to climb the face, which takes 2-to-3 days to scale.
The large statue of the Virgin Mary looked tiny from below, but her white skin was glowing from the sun’s reflection. She is wooden and painted often: I think the last time I saw her was on a trip to Sept-Illes in 2001 and she was blue and white then. Notre-Dame-du-Saguenay was built after a Catholic merchant and his team of horses were crossing the frozen Saguenay in the winter, and fell through the ice. He swore if he survived, he would build a statue to honour the mother of Jesus, and he lived to keep his word.
After our sea-kayaking tour was done, our instructor recommended a hike that would take us to the other side of the Bay and give us another perspective. We went on that trail, which was very tropical – but turned back about halfway through: none of us had mosquito repellant and the incoming tide had awoken the insects, making them thirsty for us.
It’s a beautiful park. The 3-hour sea kayaking tour cost $52 for adults and $45 for our teen and we needed to pay Park entrance fees again. The sea kayaking is not available to young children (13 and up) but the Park has a 2-adult-2-children rate of $165 which is a good deal.
Green fees before 12:30 are $38 for adults and $23 for juniors and motorized carts are extra. The Go-Karting cost $32/adult for 15 minutes (including a 3-minute warm up) and $20 for the juniors.
There were so many things we could have done in Saguenay, we didn’t even come close to scratching the surface. It’s a great area, with wonderful viiews, interesting museums and lots of activities. If you’re looking for a last-minute getaway. come for a visit. We’re only 2-hours from Quebec City.