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Bigger is better on Canada’s cycle trails

Most of my fellow travellers speak French. That leads me to believe that if you’re from Quebec you probably already know about this great place, but if you’re from anywhere else, you probably don’t. Where is this treasure trove of wonders: cultural, natural and wild? North of Quebec City in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of la belle province.

Maybe you heard the same rumour I heard, that French people in rural Quebec are not hospitable to Anglophones. I had been to Montreal and Quebec City before and found it very easy to get by in English. When I reported this to people outside of Quebec, it was usually met with, “Yeah, sure that’s true – in the big cities – but not in the rural parts of the province.” But, this summer I had the opportunity to travel beyond Quebec’s major cities to the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region and, after spending 10 weeks in wide-eyed wonder discovering one delight after another, I realized that my first discovery was the most important one: the rumour is false; the folks here (called bleuets because the area is renowned for its blueberries) are very friendly. Bonjour, merci, and a lot of smiling go a long way around here.

Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean is rich in natural beauty. It is a mountainous region, reaching heights over 3000 feet, with the Saguenay River flowing through it. With so much wilderness, there are plenty of outdoor activities available.

Encircling Lac Saint Jean is a 272 kilometer bicycle path, Veloroute des Bleuets. Some sections of the path run directly alongside the lake. Other sections meander through meadows and traverse quaint towns. When you want to take a break, you’ll find wonderful sandy beaches and numerous comfortable rest stops. The words casse croute will be added to your French vocabulary. It’s a snack bar. They’re common along the route, both beachside and in the towns. Granted, they don’t represent the best of French cuisine, but they are convenient.

You can cycle all the way around the lake, packing your gear with you and staying in a different hotel each night. This is easily done because the lake is dotted all the way around with hospitable towns. Campgrounds are plentiful so you can also camp your way around the lake. You can even bike the entire circumference of the lake without carrying any gear at all. Your hospitable hosts have created a reasonably priced luggage transfer service, so you can arrange to have your bags transported each day to the hotel in the next town you intend to ride to. The only thing left for you to do is pedal your bike – stopping occasionally to pick fresh raspberries and blueberries, of course!

The Sagenuay-Lac-Saint-Jean region is also home to a wide variety of wildlife, including whales. These magnificent creatures of the sea can be found here from May to October each year. Five species of whales are commonly seen in the St. Lawrence at Tadoussac: beluga, minke, finback, humpback, and the blue whale. If you sit on the rocks at the shore where the fjord meets the St. Lawrence, you will have a very good chance of seeing whales, many whales. Even a casual walk on the sandy beach at Tadoussac may bring you a whale sighting, right in the bay. Some belugas love the St. Lawrence so much that they make it their year round home.

To get a closer look at the whales, there are three ways to get on the water. First, you can take a three hour whale watching cruise in comfort, with snack bar and washrooms onboard. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you can opt to view the whales on a two hour zodiac trip. Finally, if you’re feeling both adventurous and energetic, you can rent kayaks and go either as part of a guided group or on your own. To learn more about the fascinating giants visit the Centre d’Interpretation des Mammiferes Marins, (CIMM) in Tadoussac.

Just as whales are without a doubt the most mesmerizing sea creatures, bears are arguably the most fascinating land creatures, at least amongst those found in North America. Who doesn’t want to see a bear in its natural habitat? Our fascination with them is probably due to their enormous size and agility. Black bears can weigh as much as 800 pounds, yet they can climb a tree with ease. Because they hibernate through the long winters, they need to pack on some extra pounds during the summer. On a diet of blueberries they can gain five pounds a day! In the belle province, there are 75,000 black bears. Despite their numbers, you are unlikely to encounter one in the wild because they are quite shy. Fortunately, you can go on a black bear safari. The safari base is located on highway 172 east of Sacre Coeur at the Gite Domaine des nos Ancetres. After watching a brief introductory video (in French), the group is taken by bus to an open-air shelter in the woods that overlooks a clearing across a valley where the wild bears can be viewed. During our visit six bears came to this spot, including a mother with two cubs!

If all of this is too tame for you and you’re seeking more athletic challenges, there’s also white-water rafting, rock climbing, and the adventure attraction of D’Arbre En Arbre – a treetop thrill that allows you to traverse the forest on suspension bridges and zip-lines. This sport is a natural fit with the rugged beauty of this mountainous terrain. Courses vary in levels of difficulty, so you can choose your challenge.

For adventure and wildlife in a culturally interesting setting, Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean is a great choice. You can plan a relaxing itinerary of leisure cycling with lots of beach and berry picking stops. Or, you can pump up the adrenaline and spend your vacation zip-lining, rock climbing, and white-water rafting your way along from Lac-St-Jean to the St. Lawrence, capping it off with a stopover to see the black bears in Sacre Coeur and a visit with the whales in Tadoussac. Either way, there is one thing you can count on: in bleuet country, you will receive a hospitable welcome!

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