The St. Lawrence River
Sea kayaking, ancestral homes, whale watching, salt harvest: from Montréal to the Côte Nord, with a detour to the Île d’Orléans and Saguenay, the river awaits, inviting you to take it slow. Look at a (1197 km) horizon.
Text — Juliette Leblanc & the BESIDE team
The St. Lawrence River is one of Québec’s most distinctive landmarks. Also an estuary and a gulf, this waterway wears many hats. Its shoreline stretches through changing landscapes from Montréal all the way to the Gaspésie and the edges of Labrador. It is Québec’s artery, the irrevocable link between past and the present. We tend to forget how grandiose the river is, how stunning its panorama. With its salt air, tides, and vast horizon; its smelt, whales, and cormorants, the St. Lawrence has long been anchored in the Québecois collective imagination as a calm refuge.
Minganie, just north of the 50th parallel
Paddle boarding, birdwatching, and bakeapples
Travelers who venture all the way to Havre-Saint-Pierre (a 12-hour drive from Montréal, or 10 hours from Québec City) will be rewarded by an unforgettable view of the St Lawrence. The long sand point is perfect for an afternoon nap or for watching the milky way at night, bundled up in a wool sweater.
If you’re not scared off by cold water, try paddling among the marine mammals off the Archipel-de-Mingan with Les Vagues, a small company founded by Jane-Anne Cormier. They offer guided paddleboard excursions, group lessons with options for children and beginners, as well as meditation sessions on the water.
Havre-Saint-Pierre is also the point of departure for the Réserve de parc national de l’Archipel-de-Mingan; thousands of islands and islets where you can watch colonies of marine birds. From mid-July to mid-August, discover local Innu culture with members of the community in Ekuanitshit, or go on a guided hike in search of the edible species that abound in this boreal territory: bakeapples, balsam fir, lingonberries, and Labrador tea, to name just a few.
You can pitch a tent and spend the night on one of the islands. Or sleep in a historic lighthouse like the one on the Île au Perroquet, offshore from Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan.
Dominic and Marie-Pier’s tip: On the way to the Havre, our friends at Vanlife Sagas highly recommend stopping in Port Cartier for a visit to Walker Lake in the Port-Cartier-Sept-Îles Reserve, where you can admire the stunning geology of the Canadian Shield. The mountainous vistas of the park offer a comforting contrast before reaching the infinite horizon of Havre-Saint-Pierre.
Take your time on the Île d’Orléans
Biking, wineries, and u-picks
The old suspension bridge that links the Île d’Orléans to the shore of the St. Lawrence has stood since 1935. The island is popular during apple season, but summer is the best time for biking. And what better way to practice social distancing than on a bike tour? The Circuit Félix-Leclerc is a 67 km loop on the Île d’Orléans, which makes it a perfect destination for a daytrip.
The route runs along the coast and through the villages along the shoreline. If you haven’t thought to bring a picnic, stop by La Boulange for a croissant on the balcony, across from the Église de Saint-Jean, visit one of the nearby restaurants: Roulotte du Coin (specializes in duck products) or the gourmet food truck Panache mobile of the Sainte-Pétronille vineyard (lobster rolls, yum!). Stretch your legs at a little seasonal fruit u-pick (plums, grapes, or apples), at one of the island’s many growers. Take the time to read a book or steal an afternoon nap in an orchard or a field of organic strawberries, like Jean-Pierre Plante’s in St-Laurent-de-l’Île-d’Orléans. Finish up your tour on the patio at the Microbrasserie de l’île d’Orléans or cool off in the wine cellar at Cassis Monna & Filles, with a glass of crème de cassis kir.
Juliette’s tip: If you want to spend the night on the island, our colleague Juliette recommends Le Triangle d’été, an inn that also offers yoga classes and artist residencies. Marie Charles recommends the rooms at the Domaine Steinbach cider works, nestled inside a heritage home.
The bucolic route along the river
Architecture, biking, and distilleries
In the Charlevoix region, between Baie-Sainte-Paul and Malbaie, is one of the most beautiful panoramic roads in North America—a stretch of 78 km along the St. Lawrence River.
In Baie-Saint-Paul, once you’ve visited the touristy downtown area, find your way to the wharf and watch the boats passing by. If the call of the river is strong, try a sea kayak excursion with Kabatik. You can spend the night at Le Germain hotel in Charlevoix, in a unique setting that includes chickens, sheep, and alpacas. The old convent next door, La Maison Mère of Baie-Saint-Paul, is another interesting architectural and cultural stop. The convent, once drawn by architect Pierre Thibault (read our profile on Pierre Thibault), hosts an artist residency and an artisanal bakery, as well as a youth hostel, the Auberge des Balcons.
Before reaching Les Éboulements, take a detour to the village of St-Joseph de la Rive to visit the Papeterie Saint-Gilles; they make fine cotton paper, with embedded leaves or flowers from the region. You can also take a (free!) ferry to the Isle-aux-Coudres. Bring your bike or rent one at Vélo Coudres to take a tour of the historic windmills and visit the riverbanks (keep your eyes peeled, you might find some delicious sea asparagus). It’s definitely worth a stop at Les Moulins economuseum, which includes a water-mill and an old miller’s house. Inside, L’Auberge La Fascine offers take-out lunch boxes (steak tartare, salads, and fish n’ chips). In collaboration with the organization L’Ancrage, the Auberge also offers the chance to donate a meal to an islander in need.
Be sure to stop by Cap-aux-Oies—the little-known beach is wonderful for watching the sunrise, before heading into the village of Sainte-Irénée, and then walking on the Jetée des Capelans. This is one of the most beautiful villages in Québec. Finish your tour in Clermont, a few kilometres from La Malbaie, for drinks at the Menaud (read our profile on Menaud) distillery and brewery, which uses exclusively local grains, fruits, and sea asparagus from the Île-aux-Coudres to make its products.
Charles’s tip: Charles Boissonneau, co-founder of Menaud, always stops at the Fabrique de l’Isle when he visits the Île-aux-Coudres, to get a coffee, a berry square, or a book.
Cliffs and tidal flats in Kamouraska
Climbing, salt harvesting, and local beers
This summer, there’s no rush, so take a long drive along the river on the 132 and pass through the beautiful villages of Bas-Saint-Laurent. Your stops for lunch, rest, and reading will feel decidedly pastoral.
Be sure to stop in Rivière Ouelle, a village that was once a fishing harbour for porpoises and capelin; you can fish for salmon from June 15th to August 31st. Further along you’ll find Pointe aux Orignaux with its unparalleled view of the estuary. Les Jardins de la Grève cultivates four lesser-known varieties of organic strawberries, which you can pick yourself starting July 10th.
Next you’ll pass through the village of Saint-Denis-de-la-Bouteillerie before reaching Kamouraska, Saint-Germain, and Saint-André, a famous destination for climbers. Les falaises de Saint-André is one of the most popular climbing sites in Quebec. Climbing walls, boulders, overhangs, soft rock, and an exceptional backdrop are all on offer here. The site includes 120 routes for all levels, accessible to climbers with paperwork from SEBKA (the ecological society of the Kamouraskan tidal flats) – a non-profit organization whose mission is to conceive, create, undertake, and manage projects related to regional development. Note: you can also go bouldering at Mont Carmel, about 15 minutes from Kamouraska.
If you continue on past the municipality of Saint-Germain on highway 132, you’ll find Les Jardins de la Mer, which harvests natural products from the river’s edge. Discover sea asparagus, arroche hastée, rose hips, and sea plantain, to name just a few. You can even try your luck and explore the shore to gather your own specimens—though remember to harvest responsibly, the tidal flats are a fragile ecosystem.
The Microbrasserie Tête d’Allumette is a must-see in the area. Their beers are often brewed with local products, and are a wonderful way to finish off a day of climbing.
Sergio’s tip: Our colleague Sergio is an avid climber—he recommends the classic routes at the Cliffs of Saint-André, such as Tintin in Tibet (5.9+), Moby Dick (5.11b), and Cassonade (5.8). No matter which one you choose, the backdrop—nestled between the river and the mountains of the North Coast—is spectacular.
La Route des Navigateurs by bike
Ancestral homes, monadnocks, and salt air
Bas-Saint-Laurent is a must-see for lovers of vernacular architecture. On highway 132, which ranges from Montréal to Gaspésie and is known as the Route des Navigateurs, you’ll wind your way through pretty little villages perched on the river banks. There’s little traffic on this road, making it ideal for a leisurely bike trip.
There are no fewer than six Vélo Québec-approved routes in the area. If you prefer to cruise slowly, the route Verte is an easy option. You’ll still be sharing the road with cars, though, so riders need to take care. Le Circuit des Églantiers begins in the heart of the village of Kamouraska, and takes you past gorgeous ancestral homes all along the highway. You’ll pass magnificent landscapes and several monadnocks—unique rocky outcroppings scattered across the plains of Kamouraska.
The city of La Pocatière also abounds with old buildings, just like Rivière-du-Loup and Trois-Pistoles. Kamouraska is also well known for its picturesque houses, which can be admired from a walking (or biking) tour, complete with interpretive panels. Visit the Boulangerie Niemand, located in a beautiful Queen-Anne-style home, and grab a latté at the Café du Clocher, housed in a former stable. The Côté-Est bistro, situated in an old presbytery, is not to be outdone; it also boasts a small market with goods from local producers. Finally, consider taking off your cycling shoes for a stroll on the shore to breathe in the salt air.
Louis-Philippe’s tip: Louis-Philippe Pratte, founder of À Hauteur d’homme and collaborator on the BESIDE Cabins, recommends an overnight stay at Auberge 112. This ancestral building, renovated by dedicated owners—with design advice from Hh—is located in Saint-André, across from Les Pèlerins archipelago
The Majestic Fjord
Kayaking, whales, and spectacular sunsets
The Fjord du Saguenay is uniquely situated in the continent’s interior, unlike, for example, those of British Columbia and Chile, which open onto oceanic fronts. For thousands of years, this remarkable place has been a preferred route for Indigenous peoples.
Before setting out, rest for a moment on the sand dunes in Tadoussac, at the mouth of the river, to breathe in the salt air. Stretch your legs at the Sentier de la Pointe de l’Islet Trail, from where you might be lucky enough to see a whale, a beluga, or a seal.
The shores of the Fjord are nearly all abrupt high cliffs, with a 460m summit at Cap Trinité. The landscape is breathtaking, particularly from the water. The most environmentally-friendly—and certainly the most exciting—way to see them is in a sea kayak. Note: all excursions on the Fjord must be guided, as it’s part of a protected Marine Park. There are several options, including Fjord en Kayak, Ferme 5 étoiles, Mer et Monde, the Sépaq’s Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay and Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux. Kayak is also the most respectful way to observe the Fjord’s sensitive ecosystem. Our team particularly loves the campground in the Baie-Éternité sector, a small and little-known gem. Sunset on the Petit-Saguenay wharf is also worth the detour.
Jad’s tip: Our collaborator Jad Haddad, adventurer and photographer, strongly recommends rewarding yourselves with dinner on the lively (and socially-distanced) patio at the Bistro de l’Anse, or with a beer at its microbrewery, La Chasse-Pinte, after your efforts paddling upstream on the Fjord. They provide blankets for watching the sunset in cozy comfort.
Road Trip on Highway 138
Birds, siestas, and whales
The vacation route in Québec often ends in Tadoussac. But those who venture further will discover a region that is both poetic and a refreshing change of scenery. Follow highway 138 for a different kind of road trip.
Essipit, the gateway to the Côte-Nord, offers an opportunity to engage with Innu culture. Outfitters, campgrounds, and sea kayaking: the choices are vast.
Before hitting the open road, take a walk along some of the 10km of paths in the Parc nature de la Pointe-aux-Outarde. There are eight distinct ecosystems including dunes, pine forests, salt marshes, and peatland, populated by more than 250 species of birds during the migration season. You can also camp here for the night.
In Sept-Îles, visit the Vieux-Poste, the second oldest trading post in Québec, which now hosts an interpretive site about the fur trade. You can also visit the Sept-Îles archipelago by kayak. The Ferme Maricole Purmer cultivates mussels, scallops, and a few varieties of edible seaweed—stop by for a tour!
Between Sept-Îles and Havre-Saint-Pierre is the Rivière-au-Tonnerre area. The municipality is considered one of the most beautiful spots on the North Coast. Fishing, kitesurfing, birdwatching, whale watching (from shore or on the water), as well as wild-fruit harvesting are all enticing possibilities for tourists in this typical coastal town in the Minganie Regional Municipality.
The road between Havre-Saint-Pierre and Natashquan will make you feel like you’re the only person in the world (or as though you’re in Iceland). Little fishing villages Aguanish and Baie-Johan-Beetz are truly remarkable. The old Spar Mica feldspath mine road near Baie-Johan-Beetz travels through dramatic landscapes and is perfect for an impromptu hike.
Natashquan, birthplace of Gilles Vigneault (to put on your reading list and/or playlist for this trip), is a must-see. Visit Les Galets, a heritage site featuring old fishing hangars as well as the lovely Café l’Échouerie.
At the end of highway 138, on the North Coast, you’ll arrive in Kegaska. The village only became part of the province in 2013, and is thus the port of entry to the Lower North Coast. It revolves around commercial fishing for lobster, crab, and scallops; in the summer, you can see cod spread out on large drying racks at the water’s edge. People stop here for a photo at the end of the road and often they linger awhile, having finally arrived in a place where slowness reigns supreme.
Marie-Charles’ tip: Our colleague Marie Charles recommends a stop at Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan, where you’ll find the Chez Nat food truck—and their famous soft-serve!
Excursions on the Hochelaga archipelago
Biking, lesser-known riverbanks, and take-out joints
Spring of 2020 will undoubtedly teach us to rethink our relationship with our lived environment. Never have so many bikes been seen in the streets, or people on the sidewalks, or improvised picnics on balconies or in parks. And yet, we tend to forget that Montréal is bordered by the St. Lawrence River. Take advantage of the beautiful weather to travel along these kilometres of shoreline. Have a rest on the riverbank. Let us all become vacationers and revel in the breeze.
Because there is no better way to visit a city than by bike—and because your bike is finally ready—here are three potential river excursions:
Bike route 1
For a great view of the St. Lawrence River, follow the Champlain Bridge Estacade bicycle path. The area has one of the most significant cliff swallow colonies in Québec. Keep your eyes peeled as you get close to the Champlain Bridge: you might see one of the nest boxes for peregrine falcons.
***Notre-Dame Island re-opened officially on May 23rd, making the Sainte-Catherine / Estacade / parc Jean-Drapeau segment of the bike path accessible to cyclists once again. This segment is also an integral part of the Trans Canada Trail and the Route verte.
You can even camp at the Récréoparc Sainte-Catherine. It’s not everyday one can cook a hotdog in the middle of the river.
Bike route 2
Another idea: ride along the Lachine Canal to the western part of the island, all the way to Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue. This heritage destination faces Lac St-Louis and promises to offer a true change of scenery if you’ve never been here before. Stroll along the Canal Ste-Anne, have a picnic, let yourself be lulled by the waves lapping against the boats in the marina. Walk through the streets of the historic village, which served as a point of transit for the fur trade, as well as a holiday resort.
Visit the MacDonald campus, an agricultural school spread out over the vast area donated to McGill University by Sir William Macdonald. You’ll find the Morgan Arboretum, with its walking paths that stretch out over more than 605 acres of land.
If you still have a little time, you can rent a boat at Paddle Mac (located at the water’s edge, on campus), and paddle on the waters of Lac Saint-Louis.
And if you’re still not ready to head home, go camping at the Récréoparc de Beaconsfield. But make your reservations quick—there are only 39 sites!
Bike route 3
Whether or not you surf, take a bike ride out to Habitat 67. Why? First of all, because this building (conceived by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie) is pretty impressive when seen up close. Also, right in front of Habitat, you can see people from all walks of life surfing a standing wave. Right beside it is Parc Dieppe, an underused spot that offers a new perspective on the city. And the vague à Guy (another standing wave) can be found beside boulevard Lasalle, between Gagné and Raymond streets, in the Parc des Rapides.
An afternoon at the beach
Head out to the northwest part of the island, to the Parc-nature du Cap Saint-Jacques. This is the biggest park in Montréal, measuring approximately 815 acres. You can spend the day on the beach at the Lake of Two Mountains reading a book or fishing for pike.
The Parc-nature de l’Anse-à-l’Orme is also worth the detour for those who love windsurfing and kitesurfing, especially when the westerly winds blow over the Lake of Two Mountains. (Of course, a more relaxed version would be to watch the brightly coloured sails from shore, while eating a tomato sandwich.)
On the water
Get out your boats and boards and admire Montréal from the water! And for those who don’t own their own equipment, KSF is a water activity centre whose Lasalle location has now re-opened. You can rent kayaks, surfboards, or Stand Up Paddleboards (SUP) for urban excursions. The Centre nautique du Canal Lachine is another option.
Or on the islands
Pay a visit to the Boucherville Islands on the south side of the river. Spend the day— and the night, too! Bring your fishing rod and your bike. Enjoy the kilometres of paths and don’t be surprised to chance upon a herd of suburban white-tailed deer. Head out on the water on a paddle board or in a canoe. Absorb the afternoon heat, have a snack, and let yourself daydream while watching the sunset over the river.
Before heading back, soak in the calm of the old city and go walking through Montréal’s Old Port. Take a long stroll on the pedestrian path, see the great herons, and have a rest on the Grand Quay. The former Alexandra pier is now a rehabilitation project led by the Provencher Roy firm, which has transformed the site into a riverside walk with prime views of the water, where you can have a bite or lay down for a rest.
Of course, none of these options would be complete without a gourmet picnic. Here are the BESIDE team’s recommendations:
Satay Brothers (Atwater market)
Chez José (for the breakfast sandwiches!!!!)
Lundis au soleil
Casgrain BBQ (Vin mon Lapin)
Vin et Levains (Candide)
Restaurant Palme (and their portable BBQs)
Disclaimer : The content in the Away with BESIDE section has been thoroughly verified by our team. Still, in this rapidly changing moment, we recommend that you check the accessibility of activities first before hitting the road!