In June 2017 I discovered five beautiful destinations along the Saint Lawrence River: Quebec City, Tadoussac, the Saguenay Fjord, the Reford Gardens, and the Magdalen Islands. These destinations are challenging to reach, and some are only accessible by expedition cruise. Adventure Canada offers travelers the opportunity to visit these remarkable Canadian destinations. Their 10-day voyage along the Mighty Saint Lawrence is considered one of National Geographic Traveler’s 50 Tours of a Lifetime. There are several stops along the way, but these five stood out to me.
1—Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac on the Mighty Saint Lawrence
Flying from Portland, Oregon, to Quebec City consumed the entire day. Exhausted but excited, I retired for the night at the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City.
For over 125 years this hotel, which is a beautiful castle, has been famous for housing political figures, music and film stars, sports personalities and numerous members of nobility. Hotel records flaunt visits from Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Grace of Monaco, Prince Andrew and Lady Ferguson of England, and many other royals. Although I personally have no claim to fame nor come from royal ancestry, this wonderful exquisite resort permitted me a night’s stay.
Exploring the Shore in Quebec City
Energized by a peaceful night of sleep, I ventured into town to do a bit of exploring and soon found myself at La Buche. I enjoyed a breakfast of poutine, a traditional Quebecois dish that combines fries, cheese curds, and light gravy. Full and satisfied, having topped off my poutine with a refreshing mimosa, I returned to the hotel to attend the trip orientation. Expedition host David Newland began the briefing by stating, “Adventure Canada focuses hard on helping passionate people visit inspiring places.”
Due to the logistical challenges of anchoring near Quebec City, the expedition staff decided to bus adventurers four hours down the road to where the ship awaited safely anchored. Zodiacs, which are small inflatable boats with outboard motors, lined up along the dock like bumper boats at a kiddy park, while the trained drivers excitedly anticipated escorting us to our new temporary home, the Ocean Endeavor.
Before climbing aboard the zodiacs, Jean Knowles, a member of the expedition team, jokingly exclaimed, “No stilettos are to be worn when boarding the zodiacs!” Over the following days, I found Jean to be not just humorous but also knowledgeable and well spoken, .
2—Tadoussac: Oldest European Settlement in Canada along the Mighty Saint Lawrence
The following day began bright and sunny. I ventured down to breakfast at the onboard Polaris Restaurant. The numerous delicious choices displayed at the buffet made it difficult to choose what to eat. However, after weighing in the selections, I ate some fresh fruit, scrambled eggs and bacon, and then made my way to the gangway to pick up my lifejacket and take the zodiac into Tadoussac. According to local history, the town is the oldest European settlement in Canada and is home to the first trading post on the mainland of New France. This post was established in the 1600s.
Tadoussac was the sole seaport on the Saint Lawrence River for 30 years. Fur traders and whalers frequented the thriving town until the end of the 1600s. Tourists discovered the quaint town in the 19th century, and many wealthy Québécois opt to build beautiful vacation villas at the seaport.
The elegant Hotel Tadoussac, built in the 1940s, sits on the hillside raised well above the waterline. Its stunning red roof renders it the most prominent landmark seen from the sea. Today, people visit Tadoussac for its impressive scenery, lively local culture, and fantastic whale watching.
My visit began with a short hike on the Sentier de la Pointe-de-I’Islet trail. The beautiful path meanders around Islet Point, a great place to watch for whales.
The easy walk ends near the Marine Mammal Interpretation Center. This facility provides an education forum distributing information about the various species of whales and marine mammals living in the local Canadian waters. The town boasts a variety of boutique shops and restaurants. The schedule allowed only a few hours in Tadoussac, but it was enough time to get a feel for the community and the local lifestyle.
3—The Saguenay Fjord on the Mighty Saint Lawrence
Leaving shortly after noon, the ship cruised into the Saguenay Fjord. Passengers gathered on deck nine to view the majestic fjord and watch for whales along with Pierre Richard, a marine mammal naturalist. Pierre said that this section of deep blue river water comprises a large portion of tidal water flowing from the Saint Lawrence Estuary mixed with fresh water from Lac Saint Jean. The combination of these waters results in an ideal habitat full of food for marine mammals making this area one of the best places for whale watching.
Pierre explained how the awe-inspiring cliffs formed from a glacial retreat. The crowds, armed with binoculars and zoom-lens cameras, listened intently while continuing to scan the waters scouting for whales. Shouts of whale sightings created havoc. People ran back and forth from one side of the bow hoping to catch a glimpse of each whale before it made another dive. Over the course of less than two hours, I witnessed the backs and sides of several beluga whales and three minkes.
4—The Reford Gardens Offers Unadulterated Beauty on the Mighty Saint Lawrence
The ship anchored off the shore of a small town and we, the expeditioners, climbed into the zodiacs and prepared to make our first beach landing. The town’s people greeted us with smiles and postcards. A school bus lingered on the side of the road waiting to take us 20 minutes away toward the unexpected beauty of Les Jardins de Métis or, in English, the Reford Gardens.
According to our guide Michelin, Lord Mount George Stephen purchased the land along the Mitis River to be used as a fishing camp. In 1926, he gifted his niece Elsie Reford the land to transform it into a garden. Rather than hire professional gardeners from Montreal, Elsie gave a call out to the community saying, “Come and we will learn to garden together.” Elsie felt it prudent and kind to assist the economically downtrodden community by hiring locals and giving them an opportunity to make an income.
Two completely different architectures make up the grounds of the Reford Gardens, the Historic Gardens, and the International Gardens. Colors explode in every direction. The International garden is a conglomeration of creative playful landscapes known as, playsages. These landscapes are chosen from winners of the International Garden Festival Contest.
The festival hosts a competition for artists to create playful landscapes. Each year, winner landscapes receive a place in the garden replacing older less popular exhibits. In 2017, 162 landscapes competed in the competition, and six won the privilege of exhibiting in the garden.
The historic gardens encompass a wild assortment of flowers growing in streamside plots, cascading down hillsides, and overrunning enormous meadows. Forested areas provide green backdrops, and the Estevan Lodge houses a variety of artwork for visitors to admire.
5—The Magdalen Islands, QC on the Mighty Saint Lawrence
Days later, we arrived at the Isle de la Madelaine in the Magdalen Islands. According to the local guide, the Magdalen Islands are a regional municipality of Québec even though geographically they are closer to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
The island hosts a unique francophone culture due to the three major groups of people that live on the island. The first are those that take pride in their Acadian culture. They are descendants of those expelled by the British from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in 1755. The second group claim to be children and grandchildren of previous English settlements. The third crowd claim to be descendants of shipwreck survivors.
As part of a group planning to hike, I traveled by bus to reach the far side of the island. Passing through the town, our guide related the story of why people painted their houses bright colors and never copied the color of an adjoining house. He declared, “When sailors headed home, they gained their bearings at sea by peering inland deciphering the color patterns of the houses along the shore. These patterns made it possible for them to determine their position.
Arriving at our destination accompanied by a few guides, we walked the grass-covered, red-sandstone cliffs for three miles. The soft sandstone yields to the brutal thrashing of ocean waves leaving arches, holes, and caverns along the capes and headlands. These overhanging cliffs embody a beauty I have not witnessed anywhere else in the world.
Residents of the Magdalen Islands once made their livings in the fishing and whaling industries. Today the population continues to decline as students leave the island to continue with higher education and no longer return to make a living. The island only survives due to the tourist industry, which has a very short season. These, islands along with the other four above-mentioned-destinations, are well worth a traveler’s visit.
When You Travel The Mighty St. Lawrence River
I enjoyed traveling the Saint Lawrence River and visiting Quebec City, Tadoussac, the Saguenay Fjord, the Reford Gardens, and the Magdalen Islands. The tour with Adventure Canada is indeed a tour of a lifetime.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals and tours for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.