Canada, with its vast landscapes is the perfect place for a road trip adventure. This summer I flew to the vibrant city of Montreal before picking up a car and heading through the heart of Eastern Canada to explore Quebec and Ontario’s best cities, sights, and national parks.
French speaking Montreal is the cultural capital of Canada. As we arrived late into the city after a long day of flight-delayed travel first impressions were of a big bustling North American city but with European charm. The French influence is obvious, but we found a diverse city with lots to explore.
With only one full day in Montreal, we maximised our sightseeing time by purchasing a $11 24-hour travel card and jumped on the metro in the direction of Vieux-Montreal.
Old Montreal is home to the city’s most historic attractions, but cutting-edge restaurants and a mixture of independent and designer shops give it a modern and dynamic feel.
We started off with a tour of the beautiful blue-lit Notre-Dame Basilica. The 19th Century Gothic church is spectacular with its intricate wooden engravings, historic story-telling stained glassed windows, and religious paintings.
Each evening they also offer the Aura Experience, an award winning, multimedia musical and sensory experience beamed onto the walls and ceiling of the basilica.
Outside the basilica we found the two snobs; statues of an elegant French lady carrying a poodle, and an English toff holding his pug, which humorously portray the historic discord between French and English Canadians.
We only found warm hospitality from our French-Canadian hosts as we called in at Parisian-style cafes selling pastries, excellent coffee, and the regional produce that we would find proudly on offer wherever we went in Quebec.
We headed down cobbled stones and onto Rue Saint Paul and the old port area, exploring the streets, artisan shops, and pausing for coffee and food pitstops across the water from Ile Notre-Dame, home of Montreal’s famous formula one circuit.
In the evening we decided to treat ourselves and find somewhere fancy to eat. A bit of research took us to Foxy in Griffintown where the locally sourced, ever-changing seasonal menu serves up produce cooked only on either a charcoal grill or the wood fired oven.
A roasted carrot dish, with some peachy Japanese dressing was particularly good, but the smoky aroma made everything smell divine. Afterwards we slipped back into the old quarter for drinks and to sample the busy evening atmosphere, before heading back to pack and sleep ahead of the road-trip proper beginning the following day.
After the usual driving abroad adjustments, like remembering the steering wheel is on the other side outside of the UK, we were quickly out of the city and on our way on the 3-hour drive to Quebec City.
The road was flat, straight and the drive largely uneventful, but the driving was easy as we coasted up to sleepy Levis, our base across the water from Quebec City.
Quebec City and Montmorency Falls
Quebec City is a world heritage site, and its historic centre is full of charm. Wandering through the fortified walls of Old Quebec felt like stepping back in time, and it was easy to see why it draws so many visitors.
The cobblestone streets, ramparts, centuries-old architecture, and a palpable sense of old world charm make for a pleasant day of exploration.
The ferry from Levis dropped us into the lower town. We by-passed the 140-year-old funicular, instead making our way up winding side-streets and staircases in the direction of the upper town.
The iconic Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, a grand chateau-like hotel, dominates the skyline and holds the title of the most photographed hotel in the world. I’m not sure who keeps track of these sort of things, but I added to that number with a few photos of my own.
I read that high up on the city walls is the best shot of the hotel, but I was happy with my sunset photo across the river from Levis the previous evening.
We wandered through the doors of the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac to find that it is as equally grand on the inside as out.
Outside, we sauntered in and out of art shops and boutiques, interspersed with more coffee and patisserie stops, before getting some cultural sustenance with an afternoon jazz concert at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec.
The famous Breakneck Stairs (L’Escalier Casse-Cou) were successfully and safely descended without the need for any orthopaedic repair, and we explored Petit-Champlain for more cafe breaks and history nerd knowledge.
Quebec is the first French settlement in North America, and is home to many of the continent’s ‘oldest’ things such as the charming Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, the oldest stone church in North America.
After our two-day visit we left the city to head north but not before a stop at Montmorency Falls. The ‘Chutes Montmorency’ are 10km north of Quebec City and at 83 meters the cascades are taller than Niagara Falls.
From the upper car park, a trail takes you on the suspension bridge that spans the falls and offers an exhilarating perspective, allowing you to gaze directly down into the vertigo-inducing-gorge as the water crashes below.
There are also several other lookout points and trails throughout the park, providing different angles and viewpoints of the falls.
For the more adventurous there are 3 via ferrata circuits that get you up close to the falls, and a dramatic zipline zips you through the spray from one observation deck to another on a 300-meter-long wire which spans the falls.
Heading north, we reached a hidden gem of Quebec, the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region. The driving in-between cities thus far had been a little prosaic, but the journey into the Saguenay region became much more interesting. Roads weaved through forests with intermittent views of rock faces and crystal-clear lakes replacing the flat-lands and dual carriageways of the south.
When planning the trip, we wanted to take some time out in the middle of the holiday in a more off-the-beaten-path location, and Saguenay delivered this.
We booked a beautiful airbnb chalet to kick back in for 5 days, a few kilometres from the Mount Edouard ski region. Although other chalets were nearby, there was 10km of dirt-track between us and the nearest road to give us that feeling of isolation.
We still had home comforts like Netflix and a big tv room. Staring at the northern stars in a remote location is a beautiful thing but you can’t do that all night.
Glaciers carved the 100km long fjord thousands of years ago and created what is now a beautiful wilderness area. In the summer months it is a whale watching hotspot, particularly at Tadoussac where humpback, beluga, and blue whales feast on the rich source of krill that inhabit the waters.
The break in Saguenay meant no long days in the car, as we sought adventure locally spending a couple of days hiking in the Saguenay Fjord National Park, taking in the views across the fjord, walking through pine forests and chasing waterfalls.
We saw plenty of of wildlife, such as the slow moving porcupine, groundhogs, and chipmunks but sadly none of the moose that inhabit this area. Post-activity afternoons were spent in the cafes of pretty L’Anse St Jean eating delicious crepes in Cafe du Quai overlooking the small harbour.
We rode on horseback through forest trails with the very entertaining Patricia from Centre équestre des Plateaux .
I have a chequered history on horses, but this was an enjoyable experience as we trekked through the forests, spotting other creatures on the way, whilst trying to persuade by trusty steed not to stop and munch too much foliage along the way.
The highlight was the via ferrata at Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay. There are several via ferrata throughout Quebec, but the one at the national park in Saguenay is one of the best.
The 4-hour trail includes 570 metres of via ferrata, a huge inverted ladder that allows a view over the waters of Baie Eternité, and a magnificent suspension bridge.
It was an exhilarating morning’s climb, and there were so many highlights; edging across a monkey bridge whilst facing out to the fjord, climbing the ladder, and holding ‘the titanic’ pose from the top rungs, and resting on footholds with 200 metres drop down to the trees below. The high point was the 85m long suspension bridge at the end of the climb.
Obviously, you need a head for heights to enjoy this activity, especially on a bouncy bridge which is incredibly exposed. Our leader challenged us some extra activities to add some extra zing to the experience.
First up was stepping outside of the bridge and just dangling in thin air from your harness, and then doing a 360-degree spin over the central cable. It’s all very safe of course when you are clipped in, but having only your kit saving you from the drop below certainly squeezed a little more out of the adrenal glands.
Lac Saint Jean
Back in the car we took a 3-hour detour to the Lac St Jean area passing the 50km wide lake that feeds the Saguenay Fjord to visit the excellent Zoo Sauvage in St Felicien.
The main feature is the trail park where visitors travel in a caged train through forests and meadows where many of North Americas favourite animals roam in semi-freedom – it’s like Jurassic Park but without any T-Rex chasing you.
The concept works well and having a huge black bear walking just a metre away was thrilling as we ticked off all the animals that we hadn’t managed to see in the wild.
The next stop was the ‘ghost town’ of Val Jalbert, a mill town that was abandoned in the 1920s after the pulp mill closed. The village has been cultivated into a living museum where old buildings remain fixed in time, and staff dress in traditional clothing and re-enact the lives and activities of the people who lived there 100 years earlier.
The tumultuous Ouiatchouan Falls that powered the mill boom down from the Ouiatchouan River are memorable, but the standout feature for me was the beautifully preserved anachronism of the Saint-Georges school building.
We were now heading south on a journey that would take us to Niagara and Toronto via a few overnight stops along the way.
The late afternoon and evening we spent driving south on the 155 through Maurice National Park was best driving section of the road trip on quiet roads that wound through lake strewn forests and adjacent to the mighty Maurice River.
Our timing was perfect as long shadows and a beautiful evening light led into a stunning red sky sunset.
1000 Islands National Park
As we re-joined the highways that connect the major cities the driving became more methodical as dual carriageways and highways replaced the picturesque roads of the north.
We passed service stations with a depressingly familiar and repetitive fast-food offer like the background of a Scooby Doo chase scene, Subway, McDonalds, Tim Hortons, Subway, McDonalds, Tim Hortons.
The exception was the 1000 Islands Parkway, a scenic drive that provides some breathtaking views of the national park. This unique park is a collection of lush green islands dotting the St. Lawrence River, forming a picturesque archipelago that spans the border between Canada and the USA.
The best way to explore the islands is by boat and we took a cruise boat from Ivy Lea on a tour around the beautiful islands, and into US waters and to Boldt Castle.
It’s an attractive area with diverse birdlife, and we saw ospreys and eagles soaring above us. I could have stayed longer but we had places to go.
After skirting around Toronto we arrived at Niagara. I don’t need to tell you too much about Niagara Falls that you don’t already know, other than that the falls are as awe-inspiring up close as you could hope for, and the area back from the falls is as tacky as the falls are beautiful.
For UK readers think Blackpool but brasher. We donned our fuchsia pink ponchos and boarded the Niagara Falls City cruise boat and headed into the maelstrom.
It’s curious experience paying and queueing to get drenched, but I felt like growing up in the Northwest of England that I had trained all my life for this event. The Gore-Tex waterproofs underneath my flimsy poncho was the tell that me and falling water had locked horns before.
The power of the falls is something to behold. The roar of 2.8 million litres of water per second falling is deafening and the persistent spray makes it difficult to open your eyes.
The boat sits at its closest point to the falls for longer than you would expect, and the numbers on the open top deck dwindle as the suitably soaked seek some solace in the shelter of the lower decks before the boat headed back to shore.
The road trip ended in the city of Toronto where we dropped off our car and headed to the hotel for a final day and a half exploring another great Canadian city.
I really enjoyed Toronto. It’s a big place where skyscrapers soar into the sky but there are also lots of independent shops, eateries, and culture to seek out.
We enjoyed street food, beers, and live music outside Union station and found some delicious food vendors at Chefs Hall.
On our first evening we managed to get tickets to the ball game, watching Toronto Blue Jays in the Rogers Centre whilst staring up at the mighty CN Tower overlooking the stadium.
The next morning, we enjoyed the opposite view from the observation deck of the CN Tower. It is the most obvious tourist thing to do if you are in Toronto, but it is worth the fee and the queue as the views out to Lake Ontario and down to the downtown streets are amazing.
The glass floor on the bottom floor of the observation deck divides visitors into three distinct groups; so confident that they will jump on the glass, a hesitant one foot on, one foot off approach, and the final group so nervous that they edge along the wall with their eyes closed so they cannot see anyone else on the glass, let alone the 500 metres below them.
Eventually the fun was over, and we checked out of our hotel, pushed our luggage through the busy early evening, and took the Union Express to the airport for our journey home.
The flight took us back over the Saint Lawrence River, passing Montreal, Quebec, and Saguenay. It looked amazing from 35,000 feet, but travelling through it by car is my recommendation.
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