Sag-a what? I know. I hadn’t a clue as to what or where it was either before my Amazing Race adventure this summer in the wilderness of Northern Quebec.
The Saguenay Fjord is the outdoor enthusiast’s ultimate playground by offering kayaking, hiking, sailing, extreme ropes courses and biking in an absolute pristine setting of thick forests flanked by soaring, jagged cliffs. The fjord, formed during the fourth and last Ice Age, is almost as untouched as when the first melting ice glacier carved out the deep crevasse to create Saguenay Fjord.
More than 60 miles in length, Quebec's Saguenay Fjord is one of the longest fjords in the world with an unusual microclimate of salt water from the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River and fresh water from Lake Saint-Jean.
Hotel Chicoutimi, a restored historical downtown hotel with tranquil views of the Saguenay Fjord, was modern, clean and hospitable. Hotel Chicoutimi’s moody pub below the hotel, Rouge Burger Bar, features a meat-centric menu with both basic and elaborate eats.
Early the next morning, myself and 4 other thrill-seekers were off to get up close and personal with Saguenay Fjord. Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux – both a kid and adult outdoor wonderland – was our first stop to test our endurance and will with a Via Ferrata tour (Italian style rock climbing), a run through the largest rope course in North America and the finale – ziplining through Saguenay Fjord’s fauna.
To Via Ferrata over the Saguenay Fjord was a major exercise in conquering fears - we had to write a postcard while hanging from a cliff over the deep dark waters below! Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux’s treehouses, rustic cabins literally elevated among the trees, would be my choice for an ultimate vacation high - literally.
Twenty minutes away from Cap Jaseux, we were perched on yet another Saguenay Fjord cliff. La Pourvoirie du Cap au Leste, a former hunting lodge, offers rustic yet modern, immaculate cabins with peaceful landscapes, brilliant stargazing and golden stillness to revel in. With the price of the room, family style, country-French meals are included.
Spiritually enlightened by the tranquility of Cap au Leste, a pilgrimage to Saguenay Fjord’s Notre Dame was appropriate to carry the theme onwards at the Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay the next morning. With chocolate monk-dipped native blueberries and squeaky cheese in my belly as fuel, I set out to hike Cap Trinité (Cape Trinity), the highest cliff of Saguenay Fjord of nearly 1,000 feet, to say my prayers to the mighty white Madonna.
The National Park of Saguenay Fjord covers over 200 protected square miles to camp, hike, hunt, fish, kayak and whale watch during the spring and summer months. In the winter, there is skiing, ice fishing, and snowshoeing to enjoy.
Although the 4-mile hike was not a simple jaunt with stairs both ways, seeing the views of the Baie Eternite (Eternity Bay) and the 3-ton, 30-feet-high massive Lady of the Fjord statue was pure bliss.
Sitting on the dock of the Baie, I had a Folie Douce local blueberry beer to reward myself while we were preparing to set sail on Voile Mercator – a chartered sailboat taking us across the Saguenay Fjord to the village of L'Anse St. Jean.
To watch the sunset while dining on a boat-cooked gourmet dinner by Voile Mercator’s captain/chef was definitely a highlight, among so many magical moments, of the Saguenay Fjord Amazing Race.
Silently floating towards L’Anse St. Jean, the lights of Les Gîtes du Fjord (Cottages of the Fjord) twinkled on the horizon, summoning our weary crew to take rest.
After settling into the quaint two-story chalet overlooking the Fjord, I was still thirsty from the day’s activities and went to the favorite local watering hole, Bistro de L'Anse.
Bistro de L’Anse is not only where villagers come to play French Tarot card games and sip on artisan beers and ciders, but they also have live music and are organizing a co-op of local products to be made on site.
Next morning, I got up even earlier to relax my peeved muscles in the outdoor jacuzzi of Les Gîtes du Fjord before the fjord kayaking with the affable, surfer-type Louis Dubord of Fjord en Kayak. The longest running kayak tour operator in Quebec, Fjord en Kayak specializes in one to three day kayak excursions in Saguenay Fjord with an emphasis on glamping-style food, think marinated red deer fillet with wild berry sauce, bison sausages and cranberries, and homemade blueberry pie for dessert.
Dubord not only made sure we were safe at all times but also entertained us with Saguenay Fjord facts and urban legend stories of Saguenay Fjord’s sea monster. With the depth and blackness of the fjord’s water, I could easily imagine a lochness type monster making a cozy home for himself, snacking on kayaking tourists as h’orderves.
Next stop, Saguenay Fjord’s haven of outright good, clean, silly fun at Village Vacances Petit-Saguenay. With elaborate games, campfire ghost stories, and theatrical performances, it's summer camp that kids enjoy as much as parents. Don’t miss the Native American Sauna made the traditional way, the mud fight/spa day or the toilet plunger toss.
Cabins at Village Vacanes Petit-Saguenay come fully equipped with kitchens and campfires. Parents, don a whimsical hat while sipping on a libation at their Pub L'Oasis.
After a kayaking across the fjord again, (with few bridges over Saguenay Fjord, better to sail or kayak it to save time and hire a driver to take your luggage to your next destination), we hiked an easy trail in another part of Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay to catch sight of the mysterious Belluga whales that play and mate during August/September in the Baie Sainte Marguerite. No whale sighting, but did discover ideally located cabins overlooking the Beluga whale playground.
Still in search of the great white whale, at the mouth of Saguenay Fjord, Groupe Dufour of Tadoussac took us on a zodiac 3-hour whale watching tour.
It must have been a marine mammal convention as the sea was filled with hundreds of seals and dozens of humpback, fin, minke whales and eventually even Beluga whales! A stay at the historical landmark and plush Hotel Tadoussac is convenient if planning a Saguenay Fjord whale watching tour from Tadoussac.
It’s a two minute walk from Hotel Tadoussac to the boat launch and also located centrally, perfect for exploring the shops and restaurants of downtown Tadoussac. Cafe Boheme serves up the best meal in Tadoussac with homemade desserts, blue cheese nachos and an impressive craft beer menu.
With bruises, scrapes and aching bones, our adventure-loving group gathered for the ‘last supper’ of the Saguenay Fjord Amazing Race at Auberge des Battures in the arrondissement (suburb) of La Baie. Auberge des Battures, a four star country-style hotel, not only has an elegant dining room with a Quebec-inspired menu, but a massage at the Auberge des Battures spa and soak in the in-room Jacuzzi tubs with views of the Baie des Ha!Ha! in the distance was a perfect ending to this incredible outdoor vacation in Canada's less traveled eastern wilderness.
I came not even knowing how to pronounce Saguenay Fjord, I left planning my return for the Saguenay Fjord Amazing Race the Sequel...
Air Canada flys into Bagotville twice a day from Montreal. Recommended by a 'Le Bleuet' (the nickname for Saguenay Fjord locals...The Blueberry), land in Quebec City and take a 3 hour scenic drive to Saguenay Fjord with a gorgeous diversion to the historic city of Charlevoix. www.aircanada.com
To plan your own Québécois Amazing Race to Saguenay Fjord, including information about Lake Saint Jean, visit www.saguenaylacsaintjean.ca
(Photo credit: Brendan McGuigan)