Just over 400 years ago French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed up the St Lawrence River and established a settlement that became known as Quebec.
While the French ruled for more than 150 years, they eventually lost their territories, bar the tiny Atlantic islands of Saint Pierre et Miquelon, to the British.
Fortunately, the language of de Champlain and his countrymen lived on and today Quebec Province is the heartland of French Canada and its capital, Quebec City, is its glittering jewel, complete with a castle-like hotel sitting atop the promontory of Cap Diamant (Cape Diamond).
It’s not hard for me to imagine I’m in Europe as I stroll the city’s cobblestone streets and walk along the stone walls that enclose the old town, now a UNESCO site. Quebec’s unique walled city has four huge gates, adorned with turrets and spires, while its dramatic Chateau Frontenac atop the highest point is said to be the most photographed hotel in the world.
Ninety-three per cent of Quebec Province residents speak French and, such as their kinsfolk in Europe, are passionate about good food, art and fine boutiques. As Canadians, they also relish the great outdoors, and even during the depths of winter when the St Lawrence freezes over, the locals are strapping on their skates to glide over its icy surface.
Quebec City, a walker’s delight, is actually divided into the upper and lower towns, which are connected by nearly 30 staircases, some with more than100 stairs. Luckily there’s a funicular to whisk folks from the Dufferin Terrace, near the Chateau, to the quaint shopping avenue of Petit Champlain a few hundred metres below.
From Quebec City, I head out to explore some of the huge province, the largest of Canada’s 10 provinces and home to a staggering 1 million lakes.
First stop is Baie St Paul. It’s 95km from Quebec and the former home of the famous ‘Group of Seven’ landscape artists, who painted in the town in the 1920s. From this base in the Charlevoix region, known as the gourmet centre of Quebec Province, I visit several providores on the ‘flavour trail’ who excel at producing fare, such as cheeses, pates, chocolates, artisan breads, cider, craft beer and even emu, on the fertile pastures between the St Lawrence and the mountains.
After browsing galleries and kayaking on the Gouffre River, I head to La Maurice, an area of bears, beavers, caribou and moose. While the region’s traditional lodges seem to be hidden deep in the wilderness, the area is only a two-hour drive from the capital.
Image © Caroline Gladstone
I stay at Seigneurie du Triton lodge, where past guests have included Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt; and at Hotel Sacacomie, where Johnny Depp took up residence during the 2004 filming of Secret Window.
Image © Caroline Gladstone
Late one afternoon I set out with ‘trapper Gaspar’, a wildlife guide who wears a bear tooth around his neck and carries a can of capsicum spray. We walk along forest trails before taking up position in a hut to watch a black bear forage for food a few hundred metres from our safe haven.
Later we spot a beaver collecting branches to add to his lodge, not quite up to the same standard as my luxurious digs by the lake. Quebec is certainly full of surprises.