Québec, Canada, February 2013:
The seaplane came in from the south and made a long sweeping turn, almost skimming the tops of the pines on its approach.
Trailing two glistening cascades after hitting the lake, it rounded a fir-clad promontory and coasted to a halt on the little beach below us.
Just three regular customers arriving for breakfast at the Pourvoirie du Lac Blanc… a hotel, restaurant and outdoor centre in the wild heart of Canada’s Québec province.
I was watching the scene from our hotel balcony with a steaming mug of tea. It was 7am on my first morning after a 90-minute drive from Montreal with girlfriend Flo the previous evening. Now it was time for a big breakfast and a day packed with activities.
First, fishing on one of the property’s 10 lakes. With the help of our guide, an amusing old rascal called Stéphane, two hours in an electric boat were filled with laughter as well as expert tuition. We caught four glistening trout too, which Stéphane delighted in pointing out to two locals who hadn’t seen a bite all morning.
Then we plunged into the woods with a Québécois countryman called Tony who told us the history, philosophy and techniques of fur-trapping. A controversial subject, but it played a huge part in Canada’s development and it was fascinating to learn more.
As well as its beautiful setting, a stay at the Pourvoirie is special because of the charm, skill and knowledge of guys like Stéphane, Tony and our next guide Pierre, who is the canoeing and “First Nations” expert (the Canadian equivalent of Native American). He took us around the beautiful bays and inlets of nearby Lac à la Perchaude in a rabaska canoe, gliding right up to a dam built by beavers.
It’s possible to climb out of your canoe and stand up on one of these amazing structures, but Pierre said it was too waterlogged to hold our weight (well, let’s be honest… my weight). We weren’t lucky enough to spot any brown bears coming down to the lake, but there are plenty in the woods and you can book a guided bear-spotting tour.
After lunch in the hotel’s cosy restaurant (lots of trout, everything fresh and perfectly cooked) we set off on a guided quad-bike trip through the Pourvoirie’s 8,000 acres of woodland.
This was a superb thrill-ride up and down hills on narrow grassy tracks, until we arrived at the First Nations camp, a clearing in the woods with a huge tepee and campfire. You can join a group and spend the night here, gathering round the fire to eat traditional Métis cuisine with fresh Amerindian banique bread while Pierre spins hair-raising stories of Nanabush, a shape-shifting spirit from local mythology. We stayed just long enough to try on a traditional First Nations headdress, which looked daft on me but suited Flo remarkably well.
Back on the quads, we made our way back via the Belvedere, a vista with a meandering river disappearing into the far distance and so perfect it could have been a scene from Middle-earth in the Lord of the Rings films. Finally, we relaxed in the hotel’s pine-walled Aquatic Centre, a pristine pool, sauna and jacuzzi overlooking Lac Blanc.
There’s something about the Pourvoirie, part of the Mauricie region, that compels you to unwind. It helps that it’s an independent business run by the charming Gaston Pellerin and his family since 1994. You don’t have to cram it all into a single day as we did on our short sampler stay, but we certainly had an appetite for that night’s magnificent dinner. Activities are mostly paid extras but there are some you can do for free.
Driving through the rolling countryside the next morning it struck me what a unique part of the world this is. The roads, the passing trucks and tiny towns all feel like rural America… but in French. Most people are bilingual, but English is very much the junior partner.
We made a detour to the town of Shawinigan on the St Maurice River to visit La Cité de l’Énergie, a kind of industrial theme park centred on an old hydro-electric power plant. Open from June to September, it’s very popular thanks to a spectacular setting and 360º views from a 385ft viewing tower. Entrance costs £11 adults, £7 for 6-12s, or £25 for a family ticket. www.citedelenergie.com. Shawinigan itself, laid out on an elegant grid pattern based on New York’s, is worth a stop too. www.shawinigan.ca
Two days earlier we’d called at the pretty town of Trois Rivières, built where the St Maurice flows into the mighty St Laurence River. The old town jail is now a museum and with ex-inmates as guides you get a real insight into the harsh conditions. Groups can even stay a night in the cells. Entrance is £6 adults, £4 5-17s, £16 family, www.enprison.com/Home
On the riverbank there’s a new attraction called Boréalis, where the local history of timber logging and paper milling is the basis for an innovative museum with children’s activities such as making your own paper. Entrance from £8 adults, £6.50 6-18s, family £23. www.borealis3r.ca/en
We had an affordable steak lunch in Trois Rivières at laid-back Restaurant Le Grill, which has a cool jazz soundtrack too. www.restolegrill.com
Our last stop in Mauricie was at a “caban à sucre” (sugar shack) called Chez Dany. If you want to see French-Canadians at play, this is the place. It’s a restaurant with live traditional music and a gift shop, but one where the key ingredient is maple syrup… there’s maple ham, maple pancakes and even maple syrup ice lollies. Plus local specialities like grilled salt pork, pea soup and baked omelette. And a jovial atmosphere inspired by Dany himself, who tours the tables making sure everyone’s having a good time. www.cabanechezdany.com
Don’t fly in and out without seeing the city of Montreal. It has the loveliest laid-back atmosphere and some of best galleries, museums and restaurants in North America. We spent a rewarding day at the quirky McCord Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts. www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en, www.mbam.qc.ca/en
If the weather’s bad you can get around underground… everything’s linked via tunnels between the shopping malls, offices and subway stations.
We also hopped over to the trendy Plateau district for lunch at L’Express, where the food and service rival the best bistros in Paris… at more affordable prices.www.restaurantlexpress.ca
WHEN TO GO
It’s icy cold from November to February but hits 19C in May and September and 27C in July.
The perfectly lit wooden interior of Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica. It’s got a real wow factor.
WHAT TO BUY
Pure maple syrup. And elegant souvenirs from Trois Rivières tourist office: you can be T-Rès Cool, T-Rès Cute, T-Rès Fille, T-Rès Garcon…
FIND OUT MORE
Six nights in Quebec province from £698pp from Canadian Affair with direct GatwickMontreal flights and room only at Pourvoirie Lac Blanc (two sharing) in midMay. Car hire from £34 per day.
www.canadianaffair.com, 020 7616 9933
Direct return from £398 with Air Transat. www.airtransat.co.uk, 020 7616 9187
This article was published in the Sunday Mirror’s Holidays & Getaways supplement on February 26, 2013