The Complete Guide To: Quebec

From chic ski resorts to pretty cities and spectacular wildlife-watching, Canada's Francophone province offers a tourist experience with a certain élan. Harriet O'Brien reports


LITTLE FRANCE?

Yes and no. Much of the culture of this Canadian province has developed from French settlers, and with only eight million inhabitants it is tiny compared with France. But geographically there is nothing small about Québec. Covering more than 1,500,000sq km, it is Canada's largest province and seven times bigger than Britain. Visually, Québec is startlingly different from France, with bear- and moose-filled forests, whales swimming into its largest river, and three coastlines (along the Gulf of St Lawrence, the Labrador Sea and Hudson Bay) that remain frozen for several months. Around a quarter of the terrain is covered with water - at this time of year gently thawing ice.

Most Québécois live in and around towns in the south, so there are vast, untamed tracts. Only about a tenth of the 500,000 lakes have official names, while roughly 3,000 rivers and 11,000 streams have been identified. Yet where the Québécois people do have some common ground with the French is in language - well, sort of.

FRANGLAIS?

According to Canada's Official Languages Act, the entire country is bilingual, with French and English accorded equal status. In practice, you could expect blank looks if you attempted to talk French with a shopkeeper anywhere from Ontario to British Columbia. The maritime province of New Brunswick has a significant Acadian population, who speak a plausible version of French, but Québec is Canada's only thoroughly French-speaking province. In rural areas it is the only language spoken. A Frenchman or woman, bemused by that accent and baffled by some of the vocabulary, might not agree that the language uttered corresponds to his or her native tongue.

CANADA IS IN THE COMMONWEALTH - SO WHY SPEAK FRENCH AT ALL?

At the risk of oversimplifying a highly charged passage of history, in 1759 British forces defeated the French army at the Plains of Abraham above the settlement of Québec (an Algonkian word meaning "where the river narrows"). The French had established a sizeable community beside the St Lawrence River and the settlers were forced to become British citizens. To keep them loyal during the American revolution, the British government allowed the settlers to retain their language and Catholic faith; however, the French Québécois rapidly became the underdogs of an English-French province. Fast forward to the 1960s: with increased urbanisation the French Québécois became wealthy, and the resulting power they wielded gave rise to La Révolution Silencieuse (Quiet Revolution), so-called because society was fundamentally altered with a minimum of violence.

As the French Québécois asserted themselves, many Anglophones left the province. This cultural polarisation in turn brought about the vexed issue of Québécois separation from the rest of Canada. The last referendum on the matter took place in 1995, with the result that just 50.6 per cent of the Québécois voted to remain in Canada. Since then the issue has been played down, but it remains a cloud on the horizon.

I'D LIKE SOME URBAN COOL

Romantic, colourful Montréal is busily becoming ever more chic. Boutique hotels have been popping up in its historic neighbourhoods, the Old Port has received a makeover and the Lachine Canal has been spruced up and reopened for summer pleasure-boating.

Set on an island in the mighty St Lawrence River, the city is a vibrant blend of North American and European styles with high-rise buildings, a green "mountain" (Mount Royal, from which the city's name derives), and lovely old residential quarters. Montréal is Canada's second-largest city (after Toronto) and the second-largest French-speaking city in the world (after Paris). Yet it thrives on a multicultural ambience. While winter here can be icily grim, summer is a whirl of activity: the Montréal Grand Prix takes place from 23-25 June ( www.grandprix.ca); the International Jazz Festival runs from 29 June-9 July ( www.montrealjazzfest.com); and a comedy festival, Just for Laughs, takes over the city 13-23 July ( www.hahaha.com).

Montréal is Québec's main international gateway and is served from the UK by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.com), Air Transat (08705 561 522; www.air transat.co.uk) and Zoom Airlines (0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com). Canadian Affair (020-7616 9184/0141 223 7517; www.canadianaffair.com) offers flights on extra-comfortable Thomas Cook Airlines jets and packages to Montréal and beyond. During May a one-week break, for example, costs from £615 per person (based on two sharing) including flights to Montréal from Gatwick, four nights at the city's stylish Hotel St Paul (room only), rail transfer to Québec City, and three nights at the Hotel Manoir Victoria.

AND FOR OLD-WORLD CHARM?

Québec City, the petite capital of the province, is chocolate-box pretty. This is the only walled town in North America, its historic heart a warren of cobbled streets lined with 17th- and 18th-century stone houses. It has many intriguing galleries and museums, from the hi-tech Musée de la Civilisation (10am-5pm daily except Monday; admission C$8/£4) to the extensive Gallery of Fine Arts (10am-5pm daily except Monday; admission C$10/£5).

The city's superb skyline of gables and turrets is dominated by a fairytale castle. Fairmont Le Château Frontenac is a hotel, built as such in the 1890s and occupying the site of the first fort (00 1 418 692 3861; www.fairmont.com - doubles from C$199/£98 excluding breakfast). The restaurant serves some of the most highly rated food in town.

Non-stop flights between Gatwick and Québec City are not being repeated this summer, leaving two options: the easiest way to get here is via Montreal, about 80 minutes away by train (00 1 514 989 2626; www.viarail.ca), or Maritime Canada via Halifax and then by train.

A BREAK IN THE COUNTRY?

About an hour and a half north of Montréal is a playground of mountains and lakes. The resorts of the Laurentian Mountains are open year-round, attracting winter skiers and a summer crowd of hikers, bikers, campers and more. The highest peak in the area is Mont Tremblant (a modest 968m), below which sits a pretty village of the same name with a string of cafés and restaurants. With plenty of hiking trails, canoes to hire on Lac Tremblant and even a gondola to take you up to the top of the mountain, Mont Tremblant Village makes a good summer base for enjoying the great outdoors.

Lakes & Mountains Holidays (01243 792442; www.lakes-mountains.co.uk) offers fly-drive trips that take in this area. A seven-night package to Ontario and Québec, for example, costs from £899 per person (based on two sharing) covering flights from Heathrow or Gatwick to Toronto and back from Montréal; two nights at the Days Inn in Toronto; rail transfer to Montréal and two nights there at the Europe Centre Ville hotel; and car hire for a self-drive trip to Tremblant where three nights are spent at the Hotel Club Tremblant including use of tennis courts, canoes, kayaks and pedal boats.

L'Estrie (or the Eastern Townships), on Québec's border with the US states of Vermont and New Hampshire, is another popular destination. Geographically part of the Appalachian foothills, it is a pleasantly undulating area of woods, lakes and farmland, and is within easy reach of Montréal. There's an atmosphere of laid-back affluence here: the pretty towns such as Knowlton offer craft shops, art galleries and excellent restaurants, while the area is peppered with spas and health centres.

The Canada specialist Frontier Travel (020-8776 8709; www.frontier-travel.co.uk) has an eight-night package that includes several days in this region. The price of £996 covers Air Transat flights from Gatwick to Montréal, two nights at the Hotel Cantlie Suites, a week's car rental, three nights at the Auberge Saint-Pierre in Québec City and three nights at the glorious Lakeview Inn in the Eastern Townships.

YOU MENTIONED SKIING?

Québec has nothing like the altitudes nor the dramatic mountain scenery that western Canada enjoys, but its skiing options lure a fair number of aficionados. The main ski areas include Mont Tremblant ( www.tremblant.ca) with 94 runs; Mont-Sainte Anne ( www.mont-sainte-Anne.com) near Québec City, whose alpine trails cover 42 miles; and Le Massif ( www.lemassif.com), also near* *Québec City, which usually remains in operation until late April. This year the popular Tremblant area is scheduled to close for skiing on 17 April, when the lifts stop, but given sufficient snow the lifts and resort will remain open for longer. Late deals here are offered by Erna Low (0870 750 6820; www.ernalow.co.uk).

I'D LIKE AN INDIAN SUMMER

It was the native American tribes of the area who taught the European settlers how to extract and use maple sap - and, indeed, how to survive the extreme swings of climate. At the Musée de la Civilisation in Québec City ( www.mcq.org; see above) you can learn about the enduring culture of the 11 tribes (from Abenakis to Naskapis) who once roamed the region that has become Québec. But you might prefer to meet some of them this summer. Windows on the Wild (020-8742 1556; www.windowsonthewild.com) offers a two-week independent fly-drive holiday that includes two nights at the Ashuapmushuan reserve of the Montagnais Nations people. Accommodation is in comfortable prospector-style tents with separate bathroom facilities. You spend two days with guide Gordon Moar who will introduce you to the customs and traditions of his people. The trip costs from £1,500 per person (based on two sharing), which also covers connecting flights to Québec City from London, Manchester, Glasgow or Edinburgh; car hire; and all hotel, lodge (and tent) accommodation on a grand tour of Québec. As well as the First Nations reserve, the journey takes in the spectacular Saguenay Fjord and the wilderness area around Tadoussac (see below for details); the Parc des Hautes Gorges de la Rivière Malbaie; and the charming town of Baie-St-Paul, an artists' colony and home to the world-renowned Cirque du Soleil.

AND FOR MORE OF THE WILD...

From Québec City, head east along the upper bank of the St Lawrence River and you reach the pretty Charlevoix region of pastoral villages and rolling countryside. The charm gives way to drama around the confluence of the St Lawrence and Saguenay rivers as the landscape abruptly changes to rocky outcrops and sheer cliffs. The area is protected as a federal marine park (see www.parcmarin.qc.ca) with a wealth of bird and fish life as well as a resident population of Beluga whales and harbour seals. Meanwhile, visiting marine mammals include sperm whales, white-sided dolphins, hood seals and right whales. Between April and the end of October, numerous wildlife cruises operate from the little town of Tadoussac.

The south shore of the St Lawrence River stretches into the extraordinary Gaspé Peninsula. This thumb of land on the Gulf of St Lawrence is a primordial area of forest-clad hills, craggy mountains and ravines, and a rugged shoreline sprinkled with fishing villages. The coastal route along Highway 132 offers jaw-dropping scenery. The peninsula also contains two significant wildlife reserves: Forillon National Park ( www.pc.gc.ca/forillon) at the tip, with seabirds, offshore whales, moose and an increasing population of black bear; and Parc de la Gaspésie ( www.sepaq.com) which is popular for hiking and whose woods are home to deer, moose and caribou.

Walks Worldwide (01524 242000; www.walksworldwide.com) offers two holidays in this wilder region of Québec. A 10-day self-drive trip to the Saguenay region costs from £1,875 per person and includes flights from Heathrow or Gatwick to Montréal, car hire, and accommodation as you journey through Québec City, Charlevoix, the Saguenay area, Tadoussac and back. By contrast, the 15-day guided Québec Adventure is a more specialist camping holiday with fixed departures in June, July, August and September. The price from £2,020 per person covers flights from Heathrow or Gatwick to Montréal, transfers, guided hiking and camping, most meals, wildlife boat trip from Tadoussac, and hotel accommodation in Montréal and Québec City.

Alternatively, a trip with expert wildlife guides is offered by Naturetrek (01962 733051; www.naturetrek.co.uk). The 17-day Great Whales and Fall Migration holiday in eastern Canada leaves in mid-September and takes in birdwatching in New Brunswick and tours of the Bay of Fundy before progressing to Québec followed by whale- and bird-watching trips around Tadoussac. The price of £3,395 includes flights, all accommodation, transport, specialist guidance, and most meals.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Destination Québec (08705 561 705; www.quebec4u.co.uk).

SWEET TEMPTATIONS

Autumn, when the maples turn a vibrant shade of red, is the most spectacular time to visit Québec - but the maple turns brings on spring festivities, too. Right now it is the "sugaring off" season, when syrup producers tap their trees and boil down the liquid. About 40 litres of pure sap makes up one litre of syrup.

Traditionally, families gather at sugar shacks (or cabanes à sucre), where the syrup is boiled, to enjoy a feast of pea soup, baked beans, maple-cured ham, fried salt pork and maple-sweetened pies and crêpes.

There are a good 400 maple syrup operations near Québec's southern cities (see www.cabaneasucre.org), many of whose visitor centres are open year-round, although clearly the best time to come is in spring. Until 23 April this year, La Cabane à Sucre Millette at Saint-Faustin-Lac-Carré near Tremblant (00 1 877 688 2101; www.tremblant-sugar-shack.com), for example, charges from C$13 (£6.40) for a day out at a sugar shack complete with tour and meal (the price rises on Saturday nights, when live music is played).

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