Look for the bear necessities in Quebec

The British have set ideas about where's worth visiting in Canada - Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, British Columbia. But why not Quebec, asks Paul Newman
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The Independent Travel

Our five-strong group had been sitting in silence, perched on a rocky ledge overlooking the clearing, for half an hour. The sun would soon be setting and the only sounds here, five miles into the forest, were those of distant birdsong and of a squirrel scampering between the firs and spruces.

We asked Stephanie, who had visited the spot earlier in the afternoon, if there was a time when they usually appeared. "Eight o'clock," she whispered. "They've come every night for the past couple of weeks."

Five minutes later, almost exactly on cue, a female bear padded into the clearing. Nobody had heard her coming: considering their size and strength, the black bears that live here in the wilds of Quebec are remarkably lithe and graceful. Her sleek frame belied her power.

We watched, entranced, for half an hour. She left at one point, apparently concerned by a noise ("If there's a bigger bear around she'll make herself scarce," Stephanie said), but soon returned. She was almost certainly aware of our presence, but the bears here have learned that humans are not a threat. Even camera flashes do not distract them. "They think it's lightning," Stephanie said.

Our bear-watching evening, which had begun with a glimpse of a cub scampering along the forest track, came at the end of an exhilarating day in the Centre Plein Air Bec-Scie, an area of forest, lakes, rivers and canyons just outside the town of La Baie. We paddled down a river in a canoe, lunched in a log cabin and saw buzzards and owls. Although the bears obliged (six live in this forest and there are plans to introduce more), we had to make do with tracks, pointed out by our eager, informative guides, of beavers, wolves, caribou, moose and lynx, rather than the animals themselves.

The enthusiasm of those behind the Okwari Adventures project ("okwari" is the Mohawk word for "bear") is typical of much of the tourism in this part of French Canada. It is less than 170 years since the first settlements were established here on the St Lawrence River's North Shore, to the north and east of Tadoussac, and there are comparatively few visitors today, despite the region's stunning beauty. We drove for 50 miles into the mountains, forests and lakes north of Forestville and counted just 10 vehicles and not a single house.

While Britons have long savoured the beauty of British Columbia and Vancouver and the buzz of cities including Montreal and Toronto, they have yet to discover in any great numbers the delights of Quebec province and its capital city. With hotels and restaurants providing excellent value, the region has huge potential.

The Quebecois themselves currently provide the bulk of the tourist trade, particularly outside Quebec City. There are few other North Americans and a good percentage of the European visitors are French. English is spoken in the larger shops, hotels and restaurants, but not always in the more remote areas. The thick accent, moreover, is a challenge, no matter how good your knowledge of Parisien French.

While Canada is the size of Europe, Quebec is three times bigger than France and is comprised of regions of vastly contrasting natural beauty, from the windswept Arctic tundra of the north to the mountainous majesty of Charlevoix and the rugged coastline of the Gaspé peninsula. We stuck to the most accessible part of La Belle Province, the south, which is dominated by the mighty St Lawrence. The river is nearly 90 miles wide at its mouth and at some points ferries take two-and-a-half hours to cross it.

The first bridges are in Quebec City, more than 600 miles upstream from the furthest reaches of Gaspé. The oldest and only walled city in North America has a distinctly European feel and a real sense of its history as the bastion of French Canada.

For all the delights of the capital city, however, the province's greatest treasure is its natural beauty. Just a few miles to the east, the tranquil Ile d'Orleans and the impressive Montmorency waterfalls (at 84 metres, the highest in the province) give a taste of what is to come.

The North Shore road between Baie Saint-Paul and La Malbaie offers wonderful views across the river from peaks like the ski station at Le Massif (a reminder that hot summers here are quickly succeeded by bone-chilling winters). While the drive north through the imposing mountain scenery of Charlevoix leads to the Saguenay, the northern hemisphere's most southerly fjord.

Cliffs up to 500m high loom over the spectacular Saguenay, which is 100km long. Aéro Plus La Baie offers tourist flights over the fjord from the airport at Bagotville, a one-hour trip for up to three people in a four-seat plane costing just C$165 (about £80). The view from the air is stunning: lakes, mountains, gorges, rivers, pine forests and, above all, the glorious Saguenay, a thick ribbon of deep-blue water bordered on both sides by steep wooded slopes.

There are whales in the Saguenay, but the best place in Quebec to view these creatures is along the St Lawrence from Tadoussac, where the fjord's relatively warm waters converge with the river's chilly (and salty) currents to sustain a unique collection of marine life. On a three-hour trip, we saw beluga and minke whales - one of which swam within 10 metres of our boat - as well as porpoises and seals.

We had developed an eye for seal-spotting on the Lower St Lawrence at the Parc national du Bic, a peaceful area of coves, secluded beaches and soaring hilltops which at just 33sq km is one of the smallest of the many parks in Quebec. If the waters here seem tranquil, their potential perils are highlighted by the nearby Musée de la Mer, dedicated to the haunting story of the 1,012 people who lost their lives when the Empress of Ireland, an ocean liner, sank in the St Lawrence after colliding with another ship off Pointe-au-Père in 1914, two years after the sinking of the Titanic.

Farther downstream you can enjoy the homely beauty of the Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens. Forty acres of intimate gardens (now open to the public) are the legacy of 30 years of work begun in 1926, at the age of 54, by Elsie Reford, whose uncle was the founding chairman of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Upstream is the delightful village of Kamouraska, where the riverside garden of the tiny Café du Clocher is a charming spot for lunch.

As you would expect,on mange bien in Quebec. The region is full of intimate inns, providing imaginative and cleverly presented food. At the cosy Auberge du Mange-Grenouille near Le Bic we opted for the seven-course saveurs du terroir menu, giving an introduction to the region's culinary delights. Like vast Quebec itself, it seemed to go on for ever.

Canadian Affair (020-7616 9999; canadianaffair.com ) offers direct non-stop flights with Thomas Cook Airlines from Gatwick and Manchester to Montreal until 31 October 2006 from £388 return. The Auberge du Mange Grenouille (001 418 736 5656; aubergedumangegrenouille.qc.ca) offers doubles from C$72 (£35) per night. Okwari Adventures (001 418 544 8800) offers bear-watching trips (001 418 697 5132) between May and October. Croisières Groupe Dufour (001 418 235 4421; dufour.ca) offers whale-watching trips between May and October. Aéro Plus La Baie (001 418 677 1771) offers one-hour tourist flights over the Saguenay fjord. Jardins de Métis (001 418 775 2222; refordgardens.com). Musèe de la Mer (museedelamer.qc.ca). For more information on the Parc national du Bic go to sepaq.com. For more information on Quebec, contact Destination Quebec (08705-561705; bonjourquebec.co.uk)

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