So, as you may have heard, I spent Memorial Day weekend with my girlfriend, Breeah, in Quebec, introducing her to the Canadian Francophone culture and getting further into the rural part of Canada’s most “European” province (at least moreso than I did in my 2012 visit).
We had all of 2 1/2 days to blow in the Quebec countryside, and boy did we blow through a lot of it in a short time. The plan was fairly simple, Day 1 we drove from Ottawa to the ski resort of Mont-Tremblant, which looks a little like it was plucked right out of Bruges. After that, it was off to the town of Shawinigan, which would be our base for La Mauricie National Park (which is actually administered by Parks Canada – it can be confusing in Quebec, as provincial parks are labeled as National Parks of Quebec)
Americans unfamiliar with Quebec will undoubtedly be surprised at the general lack of English-language integration in the province. Quebec is very, very French. Can’t read or speak the language? Well, get used to interpreting road signs based on familiar shapes and colors. Store signage won’t offer much help either. Nearly nothing is translated into English, though Quebec’s North American location gives a familiar feel to the surroundings, so everything is fairly easy to figure out even if you can barely utter “Merci”.
It’s true that in Montreal (and, to a lesser extent, Quebec City) English-speakers shouldn’t have much trouble striking up conversations with the local Quebecois. However, drive away from the metro areas and you will actually find people who have a hard time grasping English or simply don’t speak it at all. OK, I’ll just jump right into the instances that we experienced:
- Shawinigan (St-Hubert restaurant): Once we told our waitress we could only speak English, she immediately ran to get someone else to our table. Our replacement couldn’t speak English well, but was friendly.
- Shawinigan (gas station): Very nice cashier told me that she could understand me, but had a very tough time speaking.
- Trois-Rivieries (Resto-Bar Fast-Fou restaurant): Love the “little” city of Trois-Rivieries. Our waitress cheerily said she’d practice her English with us, and was generally good at speaking but had a hard time translating the menu.
I’m hardly complaining. It’s my fault I didn’t actually crack open those Berlitz French language CD’s I bought a few years back. As worldly as I’d like to be, I’m about as lazy as can be when it comes to trying to learn a language. My basic German knowledge is barely passable (though, I suppose few speak German exclusively), my Spanish consists of only a select few words and I barely know more than a couple common French greetings. I actually found the reactions we elicited amusing as I went around sputtering “English-only” while putting my hand over my heart apologetically, puppy dog eyes and all. We actually didn’t have one negative experience; no funny looks, no evil stares, nothing of the sort. Those Quebecois attitude stereotypes be damned, at least for us…
Anyway, onto the experiences themselves, starting with Mont-Tremblant. On a mid-70s day in May, Mont-Tremblant is like a shimmery Epcot-esque “mega” pavilion (I imagine this place is packed in winter, and especially beautiful on a cool, snowy evening). All sorts of restaurants and boutique shops dot the resort area, giving tourists ample opportunity to spend money.
We settled on the very American named Casey’s Bar & Grill, based on reviews we had read earlier. The food was great, especially the trio of soup, salad and poutine (Oh, Canada). After that we shared a beavertail. No…not a real one. BeaverTails is a Canadian franchise (most locations in Quebec and Ontario – though there seems to be at least one store in Colorado) that sells an absolutely delectable beavertail shaped pastry topped with a variety of sugary goodness. We got the Heath toppings and it was unbelievably good (and, I suppose, quite caloric).
Breeah and I mostly enjoyed people watching in the main square, where one can take a chair, read a book, relax or just bask in the sun. Sometimes yours truly likes to just experience 20 minutes of mostly nothing, letting a foreign culture just interact around me while I take it all in.
A very rainy back road-heavy drive to Shawinigan in the late afternoon (a town north of Trois-Rivieres, which is, in itself, halfway between Montreal and Quebec City) put us a stone’s throw from La Mauricie, a beautiful park nestled in the Laurentian mountain range. I actually hadn’t visited a Canadian National Park since Breeah and I were in Prince Edward Island National Park in 2011, so a visit to any park was more than overdue).
A late May day in La Mauricie could be unpredictable as far as weather is concerned, but we couldn’t complain with our good fortune (outside of a downpour chasing us out at the tail end of our day). The sun was mostly shining and the air was generally quite warm. The park is clean and very accessible, with short trails to picturesque lakes dotted around a looping road (which is about an hour’s drive if you didn’t stop – which would defeat the purpose, since the road isn’t really scenic unto itself). The highlights were a walkable sandspit at Wapizagonke Lake and, of course, the Les Cascades trail (a must see for every visitor to La Mauricie) which leads to a very “walkable” waterfall (as you can see in the photos).
I really do love Quebec. It’s a unique North American getaway, a chance to experience the feel of a truly foreign land in our own backyard, yet still having our usual comforts within reach. Also, Quebec is HUGE! I would still like to visit stunning Saguenay, or the Gaspe peninsula and, perhaps, drive up to the James Bay or into Western Labrador and really get a feel for the Quebec frontier. Prochaine fois…