Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Road Trip Along Quebec’s North Shore: What’s to Do in Natashquan?

Des Galets, Natashquan
Photo by Kate Tompkins
Natashquan may be a small town, but it has a very good tourist office (I think it’s run by the municipality rather than being a provincial government facility). They have lots of brochures and the lady behind the desk is very happy to tell you what’s going on, albeit in French only. They also have wifi access, if you’re looking to get caught up with the outside world.

There are at least three historic sites with guided visits so it’s a good idea to check in with the office to see when they are actually open. One building had a musician/story teller, one was an old schoolhouse, and the one we managed to fit into our schedule (we had to drive to Kegaska and the end of the road, after all!) was the former general store and shrine to locally born Quebec folk singer Gilles Vigneault. While I didn’t personally find the short documentary on his life interesting, I did enjoy looking around the store/post office, which had lots of information on how people used to live. Seems the main sources of income were to be cod fishing and berry picking, the results of which would be sold to the store in exchange for groceries and other supplies. We saw people out berrying along the roadside on the way to Kegaska.

What I didn’t see on offer, and had hoped to find, was 4x4 tours into the bush. There is apparently a hiking trail along the river, if you want to try your own trek into the woods, but at 16 kilometres one way, we weren’t particularly tempted, especially after one of the locals said they’d been on it the other day and the bugs were really bad.

Besides being the (former) end of the road, Natashquan is probably most famous for “des Galets,” a group of old fishing shacks built on a large rocky area jutting out from the beach. They used to be used for processing cod. Now they’re an official historic site which you can wander around (you can’t enter the buildings). Do take your camera, they’re quite picturesque. There are a few plaques at the site explaining their historical significance.

Speaking of the beach, it’s beautiful for walking on. We needed jackets the day we were there (late in August) so I don’t know how it is for sunbathing or swimming. Like most of the North Shore, there were very few shells to be seen, though holes in the sand indicated the presence of clams.

There’s one restaurant on the beach, and another plus a café somewhere in town, but don’t count on them for meals, especially in the off season. I never saw the restaurant in town open. We did eat at the one on the beach (I recommend it) but it was the last week it was going to be open that year. However, as long as you have access to a barbeque or a microwave, the grocery store is well-stocked.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Road Trip Along Quebec’s North Shore: Sept-Iles to Natashquan

Chutes de Manitou
Photo by Thomas Tompkins
It may have been raining most of the day before, but the sun was shining from Sept-Iles to Natashquan. About midmorning we pulled into a highway rest stop at Chutes de Manitou. There was a small fee for admission to the hiking trail to the falls, which we figured was worth it to keep the trail maintained. While we didn’t go all the way to trail’s end, we did go down to the bottom of the falls. It’s quite scenic, and was a good chance to stretch our legs. Not recommended if you can’t handle stairs however.

At lunchtime we reached Havre-Saint-Pierre, which we’d been told was the last place you could get gas on Highway 138 (not true, as it happens). You can catch a boat cruise from there out to the Mingan Archipelago, where you’ll see flowerpot rock formations, and, if you’re lucky, puffins. We decided to save that for another time as we didn’t have three hours to spare. We did have lunch sitting at a picnic shelter at the end of the harbour, watching a seal bobbing around as we ate. There’s a large tourist information centre there, which even has a cafeteria. It also has a large wall map of the north shore.

Photo by Kate Tompkins
Farther down the road, we came across the town of Baie-Johan-Beetz, and pulled off to take a look. It’s very picturesque. There’s a pedestrian bridge across to a small islet, which gives you good views of the St. Lawrence and of the town. It was shortly after that that we drove through an area where all the larger trees had been burnt. It went on for about 22 kilometres, and was due to a forest fire the previous summer. They’d had to evacuate the town, but fortunately the fire never reached it.

Next stop was the town of Aguanish, which had a lovely, but very deserted beach. It was quite windy, which seemed to be the case everywhere we stopped along our trip. That’s probably why we never had any trouble with black flies or mosquitoes. Finally, it was on to Natashquan.

All roads lead to...Natashquan
Photo by Kate Tompkins
We picked up the keys for the cabin where we were going to stay, took the obligatory picture of the sign, and stared with amazement at the gas pump (admittedly just regular and diesel, but still!) and large grocery store on the main street of town. Not at all the middle of nowhere we’d been led to expect! 

Next: Natashquan

Monday, September 22, 2014

Road Trip Along Quebec’s North Shore: Tadoussac to Sept-Iles

Photo by Kate Tompkins
The day we drove to Sept-Iles was grey, windy, and rainy. Despite that, we did make a couple of stops. The first was at a lookout near Ragueneau, which offered not only a view of the St. Lawrence, but a giant obelisk and two life-size dinosaurs in cement. I’d expected the obelisk to be a war memorial, but the plaque said that it and the dinosaurs were a tribute to the early settlers. If you’re travelling with kids, it’s probably a good spot to pull off and let them run around for a bit. This part of highway 138 is called the Route des Baleines, but we never saw any whales, even with our binoculars.

Our next stop was the Centre National des Naufrages du Saint-Laurent (St. Lawrence shipwreck centre). The weather continued to be appropriately gloomy at this point, adding to the atmosphere of the centre. There’s not a lot to see but there is a 20 minute multimedia show about some of the many wrecks in a very small section of the river (nearly 200 in around 80 kilometres if memory serves), a detailed wall map of all the wrecks, and, at least the day we were there, a very well-informed staff member who was quite happy to tell us about the shipping history of the area and answer all our questions. We thought it was worth the stop.

Photo by Thomas Tompkins
Things began clearing off as we got closer to Sept-Iles. It’s very much an industrial town. The number of hydro lines converging on it is impressive, as is the sheer size of the aluminum factories. There were a dozen or so large freighters docked in the river. My husband was more interested in the Argo outside a store next to our motel, however. Judging by the number of dealers, everyone on the North Shore must own a snowmobile, a 4 wheeler, a dirt bike…

Photo by Kate Tompkins
And, while it was actually on our return trip, also saw this at a gas station in Sept-Iles. Pretty cool!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Spotted: Citroën 2CV6 Charleston

Citroen 2CV6 Charleston
Photo by Kate Tompkins
On our north shore road trip, we took a cruise up the fjords of the Saguenay and docked at the town of L’Anse-Saint-Jean. While we were eating lunch at the dock, I saw what looked like a car from the 1940s pull into a parking lot up the hill from us. Naturally, I had to check it out, so once we were done, I grabbed my camera and headed up the hill to take a look. Wouldn’t you know it, I was just lining up a shot, when somebody else decided to park right next to it, despite there being plenty of other spaces. That meant I couldn’t get a good shot from the side, but did manage front and back views.

Citroen 2CV6 Charleston
Photo by Kate Tompkins
The car was a Citroën 2CV6 Charleston, and in beautiful shape. Despite its 40s appearance, I discovered when I had time to look into it that this particular model was built between 1980 and 1990, when Citroën discontinued the 2CV. I wasn’t wrong in thinking it looked old, however. The 2CV used pretty much the same body styling right from its initial introduction at the 1948 Paris Auto Show. They did change up the engine over the years, however, but the 2CV is no muscle car. According to ranwhenparked (which has a good post on the Charleston here), the Charleston had a 602 cc flat twin engine that put out 29 horsepower. While it could reach a top speed of around 70 mph, it would take nearly 33 seconds to do 0-60. No, I’m not missing a decimal point.

I can’t pin this one down any closer than 1980-1990, not having access to the VIN, or the owner for that matter. It is sporting the colours of the initial limited edition Charleston, which became so popular Citroën put it into regular production. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the last official 2CV to roll off the line was a Charleston.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Road Trip along Quebec’s North Shore: Tadoussac

Saguenay Fjords
Photo by Kate Tompkins
We spent a couple of nights in Tadoussac so we could take a five hour boat cruise up the Saguenay Fjords. Of course, that's really two hours up, two hours back, and a stopover for lunch. It was scenic but I wouldn't recommend it for anyone with kids--the ones that were on the boat were bored silly. The number one industry in Tadoussac seems to be whale watching cruises, but we didn’t have time to do that as well as the fjord cruise, and it was still fairly early in the season for the best whale watching.

Whale watchers must have lots of money because eating in Tadoussac was expensive. At least, I consider $9 for a slice of pizza, or $12 and up for a burger expensive. It was a very good burger, mind you. Possibly there are some fast food chains in the area, but we didn’t see any.

Hiking at Tadoussac
Photo by Kate Tompkins
If you’re not into whale watching, there is the beach, though it’s a small one. There are also some short, not too strenuous (though they do involve stairs) hiking trails with good views. I gather that kayaking and cycling are also available.

We did splurge a bit on accommodation, staying at the Hotel Tadoussac, which is right on the beach. It’s a hotel in the grand old style, with the current building dating back to, if I remember correctly, 1945, back when steamships full of tourists used to pull up to the docks. Now the tourists arrive by bus and car, making the narrow streets a bit of an obstacle course.

Hotel Tadoussac
Photo by Kate Tompkins
The front lawn of the hotel is lovely, built on a grassy slope overlooking the water, with chairs to sit in. It would be even better if they were serving afternoon tea, or had a beverage service. The building is lovely, too, especially the lobby, which is huge, and has lots of comfy chairs and tables that people actually use for conversations and relaxing—one had a large jigsaw puzzle set out on it. The doors were open most of the time so the “sea” breeze could blow through, keeping things nice and cool.

Unfortunately, our room was at the back of the hotel, facing onto a sheltered area, and while we kept our window open, there was no breeze to be had. There was also no air conditioning, although we did have a ceiling fan, which helped. Somewhat. I wouldn’t have cared to be there when it was actually hot out, however. So if you decided to stay, try to get a room on the river side.

The hotel does have various packages, including deals on cruises, meals, etc. We opted to have breakfast there, and at $10 per person for a hot and cold buffet, it was probably the best deal in town. The Coverdale dining room wasn’t a bad deal for dinner, either. For $10 more than a burger cost elsewhere, I could have a really nice steak.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Road Trip along Quebec’s North Shore: La Tuque to Tadoussac

Photo by Kate Tompkins
From La Tuque we headed north east, to the Saguenay region. We soon left the lumber trucks and the heavily wooded area behind, in exchange for large fields around Lac-Saint-Jean. Though we only saw the eastern end of it, we were amazed at how big Lac-Saint-Jean is. I was reminded of the prairies, yet we had the feeling we were quite high up.

We skirted the bottom edge of the lake and headed for Saguenay, arriving there late morning. Once we got through Saguenay, we were back in wooded, hilly country. A sign at the side of the road not far past Saguenay warned that the next gas station was the last one for quite some time. They weren’t kidding. We never saw another station until just outside of Tadoussac. And the stretch from the sign to Tadoussac ate a lot of gas, considerably more than expected from the mileage on the map. So if you’re travelling this route, you might want to fill up either in Saguenay itself or at the “last” station.

Oh, and if you’re on the Rogers network, expect infrequent or non-existent service on your cell phone for most of this trip. You should be okay in major centres, but may not get anything at all in between. Not exactly reassuring if you’re travelling down a not particularly busy road and wondering if you can make it to the next gas station.

We took a detour off the highway into Sainte-Rose-du-Nord, looking for bathrooms and somewhere to have lunch (no, they don’t have a gas station). It’s a scenic little town, one of the very few between Saguenay and Tadoussac, and one of the stops on the Saguenay Fjord cruises. The tourist office was closed when we were there, which meant there was only one (very small) public bathroom. Since the place was packed with tourists, both those who had driven in, like us, and those from the boat, there was a line-up. We’d tried a picnic area quite a ways further back, but it had no bathrooms at all. One more reason to make a pit stop in Saguenay.

Salmon fishing river
Photo by Thomas Tompkins
Then it was back out to the highway and onwards to Tadoussac to finally rejoin the St. Lawrence. Enroute, we occasionally caught glimpses of a river (not the Saguenay), said to have salmon, and did pull over to take a look at one of the fishing areas. After that, woods and hills changed to a somewhat more urban area.

Next: Tadoussac

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Road Trip along Quebec’s North Shore: Montreal to La Tuque

Covered bridge near St-Mathieu, Qc
Photo by Kate Tompkins
We started our trip along the north shore by leaving the St. Lawrence entirely and heading mostly north, to La Tuque. Since we’d done the Montreal to Quebec City stretch before, we figured we’d like to see something different.

The first part of the day wasn’t that exciting, as we were driving on a busy highway through an urban area. I did see one thing I would have liked to have gone back and taken another look at, however. That was an old-fashioned A&W at Joliette—the type you drove to, and got served in your car. No idea if they’re still using car hops. I’ll have to check it out one of these days.

As we got into a more rural area, we started to see signs for covered bridges. We stopped for lunch at one near St-Mathieu, but there were at least two others. The owners of some property nearby have graciously allowed access to a viewing point on the water, with a small picnic shelter, and we took advantage.

Back on the road, we decided on another detour and drove through the Parc National de la Mauricie, in hopes of seeing some wildlife. Did spot chipmunks and a blue jay, but nothing of any size. However, there was a good lookout point (a very short hike in from a parking lot) which almost made it worth the hefty entrance fee to the park. It did look like a great park for camping and canoeing—we could see several canoes from the lookout.

Parc National de la Mauricie
Photo by Kate Tompkins
After that we had to go almost as far back as Shawinigan in order to cross the river and swing north again. From that point on traffic began to pick up, but it was mostly lumber trucks and they were all in a hurry, usually on our tail. Except when we were going uphill, which happened a lot.

Somewhere between Shawinigan and La Tuque we saw a sign that the next gas station would be the last one for quite a while. As far as the highway is concerned, that’s true, but there are several stations in La Tuque itself.

La Tuque struck me as a frontier town. Most of the people staying at our hotel were hydro workers who got up very early in the morning. Not much in the way of restaurants unless you enjoy fast food. On the other hand, it has a really excellent municipal park with an observation tower and several small museums. One is on singer-songwriter Felix Leclerc, who was from there, another on the local fur trade. There was a collection of boat engines in a couple of sheds but they were under lock and key when we were there. The park also has a pond, a waterfall, and a small playground where your kids can let off steam. All free.
Falls at La Tuque
Photo by Thomas Tompkins

Monday, September 8, 2014

Road Trip along Quebec’s North Shore

Not quite the end of the road
Photo by Kate Tompkins
For some time now, my husband has wanted to drive along the north shore of the St. Lawrence, as far as the highway goes. This year we finally had our chance, and took off two weeks ago for ten days on the road. Of course we could have done the trip in less time, but we wanted to see things along the way. Also we wanted to stay in comfortable hotels and motels, which meant stopping in larger centres. However, if you like to camp, there were lots of campgrounds along the way, many of them along the water.

Would I recommend it? If you like looking at rocks, water and sand, forest and bog (and I do!), very much so. If your vacations are more travelling from one amusement park to the next, then it’s not the trip for you.

We went the last week of August/first week of September for two reasons. One, because we’d been told by someone who’s travelled that way frequently that the black flies and mosquitoes wouldn’t be as bad that late in the season, and two, because the kids were back in school, there was less traffic. We certainly didn’t see many bugs, even when we went hiking through the woods, but that could also be because it was nearly always windy. On the other hand, because school had already started, many of the smaller tourist offices (and hence public roadside toilets) were closed for the season.

While not everyone we ran across spoke English, they were all friendly and helpful and very keen to point out the beauties of their locality. Also, while we were worried about the availability of gas near the end of the road, that turned out not to be a problem (though it nearly was on the road between Saguenay and Tadoussac). There’s actually a pump right in Natashquan (up until last year the official end of the road), though it only dispenses regular and diesel. No one in the tourist industry seems to know about it, however.