I’m strolling along a floating walkway in the Outaouais region of Québec, Canada, over protected wetlands spanning dozens of acres of marshes, meadowlands, rivers, and ponds. Having just left the big-city bustle of Montreal, 90 minutes east, I breathe deeply in this nature oasis in Parc national de Plaisance,
“plaisance” meaning pleasure in English. And that it is. Canadian geese with babies glide by a beaver’s dam, one of hundreds such dams. A muskrat plays in the reeds beside a painted turtle sunbathing on a log. And song sparrows twitter about. Exquisite beauty is an understatement. But then, just about everything on this trip to city and country in the province of Québec has entranced me. Oui, oui, I say to Québec.
MONTREAL’S FRENCH FLAIR
I begin an excursion to Québec in Montreal. And when in Montreal in good weather, there’s nothing like the Old Port waterfront for strolling, boutiquing, people watching, and taking in the French flair of the city. Place Jacques-Cartier is a central focal point, a plaza flanked by outdoor cafes where visitors relax as street artists perform nearby. Down at water’s edge, food trucks feature offerings like poutine — French fries smothered with cheese, a Québec specialty — and bananas dipped in milk chocolate. Harbor cruises leave for scenic tours along the St. Lawrence River, zipliners scoot overhead, and I watch an impromptu fashion show of design students strut by, their costumes limited only by the imagination.
The backdrop to this eclectic waterfront scene is an enormous Ferris wheel — providing panoramic views over the entire city of Montreal — and the namesake striped tents of Cirque de Soleil, this being the birthplace of the famous circus. I take in its Kooza show, which is a return to the traditional “clowning around and acrobatics” on which the circus was founded. Then, with flips and twists dancing in my head, I lay down at the W Montreal, a hip hotel in Montreal’s city center that has a trendy take on luxury and a lively lounge area.
There’s a metro station directly across from the W Montreal, and with the efficiency of the city’s metros, it’s easy to whiz to an outlying neighborhood for a walking tour. I visit the Plateau section, once a wealthy suburb to which French-Canadians escaped, now with more of a Bohemian feel that my guide says is “like Montreal’s version of Williamsburg in Brooklyn.” Place des Arts is another neighborhood said to be worth a walking tour. Instead, I head to Montreal’s “underground city,” a vast network of shops and restaurants that goes on for miles and which I’d previously discovered on harsh winter days.
Then it’s back to the Old Port and its lively evening scene, which is a kaleidoscope of Montreal at its best. But that’s only the city.
NATURE GEMS IN QUÉBEC
I only have to venture 90 minutes west to discover gems of nature in Quebec. The Fairmont Le Château Montebello — the largest log cabin in the world — is a central location for experiencing the beautiful region of Outaouais. The name comes from a First Nations’ term for bartering, which was done along the rivers, such as where the Fairmont now sits. While technically a log cabin, make no mistake about the Fairmont, which is luxury through and through, including its soaring log-pillared atrium that serves as a gorgeous meeting place for cocktails and music. More than 10,000 red cedar logs went into building the chateau in 1930, inspired by chateaus in the Alps. Now, it adds a perfect element of country to my city-country tour of Québec. Beyond the resort walls, I join guests in a wagon behind towering Belgian horses that trot us through miles of winding, forested paths on the property, which once served as grounds for a manor house.
Parc national de Plaisance is nearby, and it’s there that I marvel at the beauty of area wetlands. Turns out, I’m in for a fun surprise in the dry lands of Outaouais as well when I visit Parc Omega, a drive-through safari park featuring endemic animals of Canada. “If you run out of carrots for the deer,” says a guide by the entrance, “you can buy more at the halfway point.” Why, I wonder, would I possibly need more than the two bags for my daughter and me? Boy, did I underestimate how many deer would stick their heads through our car windows in search of the goods. We laugh so hard, as one aims for a carrot and nearly eats my hair instead. It is, for sure, fun for the whole family. Arctic wolves scamper about, playing; a momma bear guides her baby; a halfdozen baby boars wiggle their tails in an endearing procession.
Then it’s on to one of the largest private reserves in North America — Kenauk Nature — spanning 100 square miles. This pristine chunk of Canada, with 60 lakes and an assortment of high-end cabins, was slated for sale when some dedicated guests, wanting to preserve it from cookie-cutter development, bought it, in turn collaborating with the Nature Conservatory of Canada to protect the lands. I enter one of Kenauk’s very private, five-star cabins, “The Rapids,” and open the sliding doors out back. I am awed by the stunning beauty. A gushing river makes a sharp turn before me and then pours over boulders 100 feet downstream, the fir trees above forming an inverted V to dramatically frame the scene. The last rays of sunlight peek through the forest in a photo finale, while I scan for any interloping bears. Quebec has its vibrant cities, but oh, this Québec country.
At Kenauk, every cottage has either its own private lake or a river beside it, with rowboats, kayaks, and canoes part of guest accoutrements. Visitors come for amazing fly-fishing — rainbow and speckled trout, smallmouth bass, and pike are plentiful — along with hunting, hiking over 50 kilometers of trails, and clay shooting, among other activities. “Normally, people come her to do digital detox,” says the reserve’s general manager, Simon Trudeau, about Kenauk’s very limited internet signals. Fine with me, as I’d rather converse with nature. The digital detox, however, is disconcerting to my teen daughter — until we embark on clay shooting at Kenauk. Our guide instructs us as we move among stations, from Rolling Rabbit, to Mallard Convention, and so on, the names mimicking the actions of the birds and animals the clay targets simulate. With the expert instruction, we both score hits. But then, we must reluctantly bid adieu to this Québec “country,” though not before a quick stop at Chocomotive in the nearby town, for a quick hit of its famous artisanal chocolates before going on our way.
As we leave, I ask my daughter about her favorite part of our Canada trip. “The clay shooting,” she says. I’m surprised at this answer. . . because she’d loved the Old Port, and the Ferris wheel, and Cirque de Soleil, and the underground shopping, and the Belgian horses, and the spa at the Fairmont. Could it be that every part of city and country was as equally as fun as the rest, and in travels we remember best what we did last? I ponder this thought while trying to decide what I liked best. My answer is simple. Québec.