I totally love long weekends. It is an amazing opportunity for a short roadtrip. So I opened a map and checked what can I see in 1-day driving distance. The most attractive for me was a region of the Saguenay river, which is about 500 km north of Montreal.
For each of my tourist voyages, I try to set a goal, to make it have some sense, and to be able to answer a question was it successful or not. So for this voyage, my goal was to see whales in Tadoussac. It is a small village of about 800 people, located at confluence of St Lawrence and Saguenay rivers. It is famous for being a popular tourist place to see whales, that come to the region in summer. Also, an interesting fact, Tadoussac was France’s first trading post on the mainland of New France, and it is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in Canada, and the oldest surviving French settlement in the Americas.
Day 1. On the road again
This was not just a regular trip for me. It is a one to remember. It was my first big road trip in Canada, first road trip on my first car in Canada, and my first-ever solo road trip, and my first road trip for 2 years! (I don’t count 1-day trips).
I left Montreal crossing Champlain bridge heading to Quebec city. It is already familiar road, but this time it surprised me by traffic jams when leaving Montreal. I guess everyone was heading somewhere for a long weekend. I should have left earlier in the morning.
Just after passing Quebec city, and getting to route 138 that will get me to my destination, I had a first surprise of the trip. My tablet PC decided that 3 hours of navigation soaked its battery, and that current provided by Elantra’s USB port is not enough for charging. Ok, I found the nearest gas station and bought 12v charger to try to charge it via 12v outlet, hoping it will provide more power. And also I bought a paper map. Just in case. And it was a wise decision. The tablet did not want to charge from 12v. OK, you cannot get me! I can do it old-school, I can navigate with the most reliable navigation device, a map.
There are many really nice places along route 138 that are must-see. But I wanted to get to Tadoussac before dawn, so I have chosen to see only few of them. First, the Canyon Saine-Anne, which is only about 30 min away from Quebec city. It is a really nice place, and I got there at lunch time (as I initially planned), so I stopped there for an hour to have a lunch and see the Canyon. It was a second surprise of the day, I had to pay $13 CAD to see the canyon and waterfalls. I am not sure what they charge for – there are no any extra services or amenities, just a regular park like many others. But OK, since I was already there. The canyon itself if really nice, amazing what the Mother Nature can do. The water falls down 74m into a rocky canyon, looks impressive. There is also a suspension bridge that offers a spectacular view of the waterfall and the canyon below. But beware! The bridge shakes and swings, up and down, left and right, even when there are only few people on it. But to me it is super cool, I am absolutely confident in those huge steel cables that carry all the load.
I continue my way north-east until I reach a town of Baie-Saint-Paul. Here is where all fun starts. It lays on a shore of the river and offers magnificent views even from your car. Also it was an important milestone on my route, because here you can either continue driving the route 138, or take the route 362, which is a bit longer, but follows the river. Of course on a road trip you want to see as many nice places as possible! So in my opinion, driving along the river here is a must. And preferably, to have someone on the right seat to make photos! It offers a lot of scenic viewpoints along with many small roads that lead directly to the river. I wish I had more time to explore it properly. The most interesting point on this route for me was a town of Saint-Irénée. It is notable for having a wide sand beach along the river coast. Here the river actually reminds more of a bay, it is very wide, you can barely see the other side on a horizon.
I made a pit stop for rest and food at this amazing place. I started wishing that I had no hotel reservation in Tadoussac, I did not want to leave the beach. Next time I’ll try to stay there overnight. But I decided to keep driving according to my initial plan.
I got to the town of La Malbaie, where I had to re-join route 138. From now on the road goes directly to Tadoussac. And what a road that is! A narrow winding road wriggles between mountains and lakes, offering some spectacular views. I wish I could drive it in a very slow pace, enjoying every corner and making a stop every time I wanted to make a picture. But it was totally impossible. First, the road is very narrow with no suitable roadside to make a safe stop. And second, locals drive like crazy! The speed limit is 90 km/h, I was doing 100-105 km/h, and I had a huge Dodge Ram pickup truck on my rear bumper and several other cars who wanted to go faster, but overtaking was impossible. Sorry guys, I was a first-timer on that road, I was doing maximum that I felt safe.
When the road reaches a town of Baie-Sainte-Catherine, it literally ends. Baie-Saine-Catherine is separated from Tadoussac by river Saguenay, and there is no bridge. But there is a free ferry service. Some people would consider it an obstacle, but for me it is more fun, more adventure! It was my first-ever time on a ferry! Two vessels depart from each side every 10 minutes, so it is a short interruption and an excellent reason to take a break, look around and breathe crystal-clear fresh air that blows from the river.
I got to Tadoussac just in time, at early phase of sunset, I quickly found my motel by intuition (GPS was not working, and the map was not detailed enough!), checked-in and immediately rushed towards waterfront. I’ve read that one of the most beautiful sunsets in Canada can be seen in Tadoussac. It is true! The sun set behind cliffs that surround fjord Saguenay creating amazing scenery and colors. Just look at these pictures!
I explored city center for some time and headed back to hotel. I need to get a good sleep and wake up early tomorrow. I have an appointment with the Mother Nature.
Day 2. Hello Mr/Mrs whale!
I woke up at 6 am, was happy to leave that over-priced under-maintained place they call motel and drove to town center to look for breakfast. Despite being a tourist heaven, it is still a sleepy small town, meaning that only a few places open at 8 am, others are closed until afternoon. But it’s OK, I had enough time to enjoy beautiful morning on a beach.
I’ve booked a whale-watching cruise on a ship with AML. They offer multiple variants, from a short trip on a small Zodiac boats to 3-hour cruise on St Lawrence and Saguenay river. I booked the latter. It is about 20 dollars more expensive that a ride on Zodiac, but it is much longer, it offers more comforts, such at toilets, bars and hot food. And I was not sure if I had a seasickness or not as it was my very first time on a ship that far away from shore.
The cruise lasted 3 hours and cost about $82 CAD, but it was totally worth it! The boat was packed with people (I even stated doubting that they have enough lifeboats), but shortly after going to sea the nature started cooperating. Not always such trips end up by meeting large ocean animals, but this time we were lucky. Captain spotted a big group on seals in water and directed the Grand Fleuve towards them. There was an oceanographer aboard who was communicating with passengers and explaining things about whales and marine life, she told that seals and whales have pretty much same food, so they are often together. And she was very right! After a few minutes we got to the group of seals, we have seen it! A big black whale showed its back over the water! Unbelievable. A huge ocean animal living its own life for nobody know how many years. In its natural environment, not in a zoo. A moment to remember for entire life.
Whales usually go to surface for a few seconds only every couple of minutes. So I don’t know if we have seen several whales or it was the same one in different locations, but it was an amazing experience to see whales and seals in their normal life in the wild.
The vessel turned around and headed into Saguenay river, an area where beluga whales usually hang out. The river is surrounded by high rocks, together forming Saguenay Fjord. The depth of the river is over 200m according to information I heard on a boat, and I can easily believe it, the height of rocks around it is about the same. It is amazing place, I have seen such beautiful nature only on Discovery Channel. And it is actually where they shoot such beauty!
It was extremely cold on a boat. Water was very cold, and a wind was blowing from the north, so it was really chilly. I wish I had warmer clothes. So I tried to stay on the sunny side of the boat and hide from the wind. And good that they have hot tea and coffee that helped a lot.
After coming back ashore I had a huge plate of poutine for only $8 CAD in a beautiful restaurant on a wharf. Sitting there and overlooking the bay I was thinking that having a boat must be so awesome.
Also for that day I have planned to drive to the city of Saguenay about 120 km west. I planned to drive along route 178. I heard from several people that if offers spendid views of the Saguenay Fjord. But actually it is quite far away from the fjord itself for most of the trip, so I guess you had to know the right turns to find good places. But anyway I arrived to my hotel at Chicoutimi borough of Saguenay.
I thought that I have had enough impressions for a day, so I decided to spend a quiet evening relaxing, reading a book and breathing fresh air. And the hotel was just the perfect place for it. It is located on a distance from city center, and right on a shore of the river. It has beautiful backyard with swimming pool, sauna, and large grass area overlooking the river. I was just sitting peacefully there, enjoying a book, fresh air and nice area around me.
Then I heard very familiar roar of motorcycle engines. I turned around and have seen a dozen of bikers on their Harleys rolling in. The “Sons Of Anarchy” I thought. I like motorcycles and especially Harleys, but this was my first encounter with local bikers, I did not really know what to expect from big, big-bearded guys in leather jackets. After they came out of their rooms, after having a shower I think, in regular t-shirts, with their ladies dressed ordinarily, I had totally opposite impression. I was reading my book sitting next to them for over an hour and had a very pleasant conversation with them. They were really nice people, very polite and open. They are just a group of regular people, teachers, managers, retirees on a road trip. Just like me but on two wheels instead of four. More like “Wild Hogs” then ‘Sons of Anarchy”. Also they said me good-bye and wished to have a good trip in the morning. I had a very mixed feeling after meeting them. I really liked these people, most of them seemed to be already retired, and they are able to do just what they want, spend their free time how they want, they have possibilities to do it. They are free. But I felt sad because unfortunately, this freedom of choice when you are retired is not available to everyone. Many people would never have it no matter how hard they work to get it.
Day 3. Going home.
I had a very pleasant breakfast for only 4 bucks at my hotel enjoying early morning and sunrise over Saguenay river and headed back to Montreal. I drove a little bit around Chicoutimi, it seemed very nice to me. I definitely want to come back and spend more time there.
I took route 175 that goes directly to Quebec City and passes through Reserve Faunique des Laurentides and Jaques Cartier National Park. And what a road that is! A wide open highway with almost zero traffic passing some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. There were a lot of campgrounds, roads leading to lakes, looks just a perfect place for camping. And it seemed quite remote from civilization. Twice I have seen a sign saying “Last gas station for 95 km”. And it really is, the road is mostly deserted, I have seen only 2 or 3 islands of civilization for entire 200 km trip.
When I arrived to Montreal and was crossing the Champlain Bridge, for the first time since I arrived to Canada I had a feeling of coming home. It was a good feeling.
Is it cheap or expensive? I don’t know. For me personally I feel it was a good way to spend money. I feel that I came back more rich that when I left. I have seen completely different side of the Land of my dreams, far away from big cities, the real Canada how I imagined it. And it exceeded my expectations. I made one of my dreams come true and had some unique experiences in life. This is definitely a trip to remember. I think how much money do you have in a bank account does not reflect how rich you are. Spiritual wealth is much more difficult to measure. Just people are different. Some people prefer to spend money on things, some prefer to spend money on impressions and memories.
Will I repeat this trip? No! But I will definitely drive there again. But next time I’ll drive without any schedule or time limit, in my own pace, most likely in RV or with a tent, and spend as much time I want at just random places I will encounter on my way.