Aside from the obvious big cities, there’s also some great little stop offs around the Montreal/Quebec City area if you’ve got wheels. From Trois-Rivieres you can detour off the main 40 highway to the smaller, slower and much more picturesque 138. If you’re hoping to find a nice riverside location to park up for lunch, like us you’ll be sorely disappointed. Most of the waterfront is taken up by terrace sitting, Chardonnay drinking local yuppies in their perfectly manicured lawns. Ok maybe not, but there’s not a lot of public space along the river here, and the best we could find was a concrete boat ramp and adjoining parking area. The drive takes you through some pleasant small towns with sparkling silver church spires unlike anything we’ve ever seen, and makes a nice change from the motorway if you’ve got the time to slow down at every small town rather than speeding past at 70mph.
North of Quebec City a good stop off is the 83m high Montmorency Falls. That makes it a whopping 30m taller than Niagara, and you can take your own free Maiden of the Mist tour on foot. Walking past what looks to be unattractive construction debris you can walk almost to the foot of the falls where the mist and force of the falls will totally mess up your hair and get you drenched.
Next stop was the weird and wonderful Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, North America’s oldest pilgrimage site (way before Burning Man guys) where you can see the left behind crutches and walking sticks of the miraculously cured. The story goes that when the basilica was being constructed some 350 years ago, one of the workers, after placing only three stones of the foundation, was cured of his rheumatism, and it wasn’t long before others jumped on the band wagon and the ‘place of miracles’ was firmly set on the map. Believe what you will, but the number of the items left behind probably speaks for itself, and the stained glass windows are well worth making this trip. Just don’t take photos during mass, apparently it’s not cool.
Just outside of this we were intrigued by the big round Cyclorama de Jerusalem building, and had to investigate. Turns out this building houses one of the world’s largest panorama paintings at 14m high and 110m in length (that makes it 1,540 square meters of 1895 masterpiece). The view is a complete immersion into Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion and if it wasn’t for the fact that we’d been in Jerusalem only a year ago we would have willingly paid the $9 entry fee to check it out.
Short but sweet, our next stop was the ‘idealic’ island of Ile de Orleans, which promised wine and cider tastings and a quaint spot for lunch. Driving the circumference of the island anti-clockwise, we found the first part lush, shaded and promising, only to then be delivered into the land of corn and tomato roadside stalls. These quickly changed to orchards on the west side, were we finally reached out destination Domaine Steinbach for some cider tastings. Now you’re probably thinking along the lines of Magners, Bulmers and Koppaberg…not quite. After dropping a cheap $4 each and tasting over a dozen different types of mustard (maple mustard..mmmm), a huge number of chutneys and jams (you can’t go wrong with the chilli jam) and some awesome (goose friendly, no force feeding here) pates, we were given the grand tasting of six ciders ranging in alcohol content from 9.5% to a staggering 18% (that’s stronger than a bottle of wine!!). These guys bought a neglected apple orchard and turned it into what is a great excuse to visit this island.
Now Quebecois sometimes get a bad rep overseas, and our own preconceptions were perhaps a little jaded by an ex-Navy Quebecois landlord we had many years ago in a west coast Canadian ski resort. The fact that he regularly turned up unannounced with a selection of different women who weren’t his wife, demanding to know who’d turned the thermostat up past 19 degrees and an unnerving sixth sense to know when we’d had a few too many beers and tried on his decorative Navy hat while he was gone didn’t help matters. But post visit we’re happy to stand to their defence as we encountered nothing but polite and helpful people from the moment we arrived. Pulling up in the van a local hippy riding by stopped immediately to ask if we wanted any help, tips or directions. For no other reason than that he wanted to help. This is a great part of Canada to experience what you’ll get nowhere else in North America, a true European city vibe with a twist.