For most people, the word 'fjord' goes with Norway and high mountain cliffs over a narrow but deep waterway. Canada's Saguenay fills most of the bill, except that the land surrounding it is generally rolling hills and forest, part of the Canadian Shield.
I’d heard as a schoolboy that the Saguenay Fjord was one of the longest in the world. Years later someone told me the area around Tadoussac was pretty, sparsely developed and inviting. Given a spare day or two that’s all the reason I needed to explore a new place. Plus it would give my kids a chance to see a fjord in North America and presented an opportunity to do some whale watching.
Our first stop was Les Escoumins, about 3-1/2 hours east of Quebec City, because it offered attractive fairly priced condo rentals situated right on the banks of the St. Lawrence River—a chance to watch the river traffic up close and hopefully see a few of the Beluga whales that frequent the area.
The drive from Quebec City takes you through picturesque Charlevoix, a less affluent but beautiful part of the province that I found especially notable for Its numerous cheese producing farms (each with its own label — much like you might find in rural France).
The area is heavily forested, with mixed conifers and deciduous trees that must be especially beautiful when decorated in their fall canopy. The road is good and took us to the (free) ferry service which crosses the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord. The ride across the fjord is relaxing, picturesque and takes about 10 minutes, but the true length of the Fjord (about 100 miles, or 160 km) can not be fathomed from this initial encounter.
Leaving the ferry, the village of Tadoussac is immediately to the right. and Les Escoumins is twenty minutes past that. This was the first time on our trip to Quebec where language became an issue: No one in the registration office spoke English and I barely speak any French. Still, with gestures and a pre-printed reservation notice we managed to work things out. I ran into a similar problem as I tried to tank up the van we’d rented. So, as you head out of the main cities into rural Quebec its good to have a French phrasebook with you!
We had beautiful views of the St. Lawrence River, but sadly we arrived a few weeks ahead of the whales, and didn't see a single fluke or blow out there. Still, there was a nice hiking trail beside the river which we enjoyed using several times, and the views up the broad St. Lawrence River were beautiful.
We spent a day visiting Tadoussac and part of the Saguenay Fjord. Tadoussac is an small historic though small village with a past that includes First Nations settlements, the fur trade, timber industry and now a focus on tourism. It's dominated by the large Hotel Tadoussac, an elegant old whitewashed hotel with eye-catching firetruck red roof, a vacation resort for 150 years and the setting for some films including "Hotel New Hampshire". The town is quaint and picturesque and has a beautiful harbor.
Located on the hotel grounds is a chapel said to be the oldest church in North America. There’s a trail that extends from the harbor area around the point at the mouth of the fjord, with extension up to the top of the hill, then loops back along the fjord into town — just over a mile, and a nice walk. There's also the Marine Mammal Interpretation Center which highlights the life cycle of the whales.
The harbor features a number of whale-watching excursions or leisurely boat cruises up the Fjord, so this is where you’d want to head if you’re here in summer, when a large number of whales swim up a deep trench at the base of the St. Lawrence River and into the waters of Saguenay Fjord, which is over 800 feet deep. Or you can just enjoy the scenery or look for some peregrine falcon nests.
The fjord is about 160 kilometers long and drains a large area of Quebec into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Like all fjords, it provides a place for mixing of fresh and salty sea water, and because of this there is a rich underwater ecosystem. There are several units of the Parc National Du Saguenay where one can hike, camp and relax.
It would take a long time to explore the entire fjord, but we did drive up the “Route du Fjord” and stopped at the Baie-Du-Sainte-Marguerite Sector where we had a nice hike along a tributary river to the fjord itself. It was a nice way to see the fauna of the area and to enjoy a different perspective of the fjord. The area around both sides of the Saguenay Fjord are nature preserves and have lots of outdoor recreational opportunities.