When we hear the word “fjord” most people think of Scandinavia or Norway. Few think of Canada. The Saguenay Fjord is a relatively unknown, unexplored region in Northern Quebec, with exception of tourists from the more urban areas of the province. With 2,130 known Fjords around the world, only 38 are 100 or more kilometers long, Saguenay being one of them. But what distinguishes it from the rest is its southern location – being the southernmost fjord in North America that is navigable and inhabited.
The region is centered on two major waterways, Lac Saint-Jean and the Saguenay River, both of which play a critical role in the history, development, and evolution of the area, which began some 950 million years ago. Along the fjord’s edges are acres of beautiful forest, rugged mountainous cliffs, stunning natural beauty, and an adventure-seeker’s playground. This year marks its 175th anniversary and Saguenay is the only region in the province of Quebec with its own flag.
What exactly IS a fjord?
A fjord is essentially a body of water that was formed when a glacier moving through cuts a deep valley into the surrounding bedrock. The eroded sediment forms the floor and glacial melting fills the space with water that is often deeper than the seas that surround it. In other words, a “glacier valley filled by the sea.” In the case of Saguenay, the width is between 2 and 4 km, with cliffs as high as 350 meters. Average depth is between 210 and 270 meters, but with the layers of sediment below, many assume the fjord may be more than 1400 meters deep.
The waters are cold, but not as cold as some may suspect. In summer, it can get up to 20ºC with the surface fresh water, and as cold as 1ºC in the bottom salt water layer, which makes up about 93% of the fjord’s waters.
Venturing to Saguenay
The beauty in the region is a perfect backdrop for physical activity, anything from extreme rock climbing to sailing in the summer, and ice fishing in the winter. But part of what makes the area unique is that it is still fairly protected from massive tourism, both part of its charm and what holds it back from growth. If one truly wants to escape, this is one place you can. If one wants to play and explore, you’ll have no shortage of opportunities to do so. And if you want to relax, you can do that too, surrounded by glacial waters and brisk, clean air. No matter the time of year, season-appropriate activities abound.
Be forewarned. Because the area has not yet reached the tourist masses, many of the best local spots have yet to offer translated menus or informational guides. Having a French-English dictionary on hand is a good idea if you’re the type who wants to digest nitty gritty details and facts, but not critical if you’re open to just experiencing an authentic adventure. On a selfish level, I hope the area remains a secluded and magical getaway. But for all not to experience the serenity and splendor of the region would be a shame.
Where to Play
Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux
This is an active, thrill seeker’s dream that has a multitude of activities for adults and children alike with varying difficulties along the way. For the courageous, the Via Ferrata is an incredibly intense experience, scaling rocks high above the fjord, strapped in by a harness. Along the way, you hook and unhook carabiners to various iron rods and cables to ensure your safety should a foot slip or you lose your grip on the rock.
The Aerial ropes course at Cap Jaseux consists of 73 suspended bridges that cross over four different areas of the pinewood forest. Adventurers go platform to platform experiencing various challenges and surprises along the way. The Zipline course at the end of the ropes course is one of the more creative courses, with rope ladders to climb and short hikes to traverse between the lines. The most unique is the trapeze line, where you jump from the platform attempting to land on the trapeze bar to zip through the air as if you are in the circus. If you miss the bar, your safety harness will carry you to the next platform.
For those interested, the Parc also offers camping sites, cabins, and the opportunity to stay in one of their two treehouses perched high above the Parc, with stunning views. It’s a unique experience without a doubt ($225 CAN/night) but be prepared for accommodations that are not luxurious – the treehouses and cabins are comfortable enough, but they are treehouses – which means no modern amenities or conveniences like running water or toilets or electricity. (Both Ropes course and Via Ferrata are $36 for adults, $31 for children under 18, group rates and packages are available; 253, rue Saguenay Saint-Fulgence, 418-674-9114, www.capjaseux.com)
Musée du Fjord
The museum is a good place to get oriented with the area and learn the region’s cultural history, which technically began in 1838, followed by the arrival of 14 settlers. At the museum you can learn of the flora and fauna present in the region – for example, the Greenland shark is the only shark in the fjord’s waters. Depending on the level of the tides, take part in the opportunity to dig in the mud of the tidal bays outside the main building. Rubber boots will be provided. At the front desk, you can say hello to Rosie, the museum’s resident tarantula. (3346, Boul. de la Grande-Baie Sud, La Baie, 418-697-5077, www.museedufjord.com)
Parc National du Fjord-du-Saguenay Located about 1 hour from the Musée is the first of three main areas of the National Park. Take an afternoon hike (7 km roundtrip) to the Mary statue at Cap Éternité, the highest cliffs on the fjord. This takes about three hours and is a good climb, but not for anyone out of shape. The hike is primarily uphill and more than a little challenging.
Other Parc areas to check out include the 12 km hike from Anse des Roches to Baie Sainte Marguerite (on the north side of the fjord). There are various trailheads along the way to make the hikes shorter, but this particular section of the Parc is much less strenuous than the trails at Cap Éternité. Don’t miss the overlook at Saint Marguerite where the endangered beluga whales can often be seen below. Most Parc experts confirm this is their secret playground to frolic in the fjord’s waters, but animal behaviorists cannot determine a clear answer as to why. Park admission is free.
Voile Mercator From basic sailing lessons to chartered sailboat excursions, complete with a captain who will cook dinner onboard, Voile Mercator is the go-to company for sailing in the fjord. There is a dock along the National Parc trail at Cap Éternité, which is a perfect location to take a two-hour sail to the quaint village of L’Anse Saint Jean. Embarking late in the day to take in the sunset over the fjord is the best way to experience a relaxing sail. Note: arrangements will need to be made in advance if driving a car and going one-way. Sailing across the fjord is only a practical mode of transport if you’re going roundtrip, or are using public transportation to get around.
(Prices vary. Inquire directly for route options, lessons, and charter information. 40 Ch. des Terres Rompues, Saguenay, 418-698-6673, www.voilemercator.com)
Fjord en Kayak
For more than a decade, this family-owned and operated company has been offering various kayak excursions for all ages and level of physical fitness. They offer everything from short paddles for families to full-day guided tours for adults. Those wanting a more adventurous experience can go on overnight camping trips for up to five days that include gastronomic meals like red deer and pheasant confit. The company also provides bikes for day rentals to tour the town. Suggestion: bike along the Saint Jean River to the trailhead of La Grosse Chutte in L’Anse Saint Jean and hike up to the waterfall. (Rates start at $35 for short paddles and go up from there. 359, rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste, L’Anse-Saint-Jean (Qc) G0V 1J0, 418-272-3024, www.fjord-en-kayak.ca)
OrganisAction (coop V.E.R.T.E.)
This company is a one-stop shop for adventure with a network of partners in the region, including ” Group Voyage Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean, which offers a wide range of activities as packages or can tailor experiences to your desires, from sea kayaking and rafting through the Eco safari during the summer to snowmobiling in the winter. (Prices vary depending on activity and package. Call or email for more information. 110, rue Price Ouest, Chicoutimi (Qc) G7J 1L8; 418-549-0676)
Groupe Dufour Croisières
The company offers various cruise packages in the region, but their crème de la crème is their partner in Tadoussac, Les Croisières du Fjord, which offers a stunning experience on board its bateau-mouche, the Cap-Liberté where you can experience a range of marine life, including whales. However, the best way to get the full experience of the massive mammals is to go by Zodiac. The Tadoussac III allows you to get as close as can be to the six kinds of whales present in the Saint Lawrence River and Bay, including the glorious white belugas. Unlike whale watching in most places, frequent sightings are guaranteed. Get your cameras ready! (Rates start at $67 and go up from there; Departures run daily at Tadoussac. 57, rue Sainte-Anne, Vieux-Québec; 418-692-3738, www.dufour.ca)
Where to Stay
The only accommodation located in the heart of downtown, the hotel is a 20-minute drive from Bagotville airport. Rooms are simple in design and play upon the fjord’s natural eco-friendly vibe with earthy tones and biodegradable bath products. Various restaurants and shops are within walking distance but close early – plan ahead if arriving on the late flight into Bagotville. (Rates start at $121 per night; 460, rue Racine Est, Chicoutimi; 418-549-7111, www.hotelchicoutimi.qc.ca)
Pourvoirie Cap au Leste
An inviting former fishing lodge perched on the cliffs overlooking the Saguenay Fjord, the views alone are worth the stay. Lovely cabins and a firepit make for a comfortable camping-like experience, as the location is remote with at least a 15-minute drive from any main roads. They serve breakfast and dinner in the main cabin – each night is a different menu with just one choice of meal, included in most room rates. (Rates start at $128 per night; 551, Chemin Cap au Leste, Rte 172, Km 88, Sainte-Rose-du-Nord, (418) 675-2000, www.capauleste.com)
Les Gîtes du Fjord
This is the only place to stay in the charming, artistic village of L’Anse Saint Jean, with a location walking distance to both the marina and the Bistro, the one hot spot in town to mix with locals over a beer or basket of homemade potato chips. Cottage and condo accommodations vary in size and can accommodate up to four people. There is a pool, Jacuzzi, and restaurant on-site. (Rates begin at $89 per night; 354, Saint-Jean-Baptiste, L’Anse-Saint-Jean, 418-272-3430)
Villages Vacances Petit-Saguenay
All 37 cabins on the property are located on a hilltop overlooking the beach of the fjord below. While not a full-service hotel, each cabin comes with a fully-equipped kitchenette, bathroom with bath and/or shower, and bedding and towels. Cabins can accommodate from 4 to 8 people. The reason to stay here is simple – the location is in the middle of the wilderness, where you can walk to the beach for a bonfire and ghost stories, partake in various activities for children and adults (there is a full bar on the property), and even participate in a native-inspired handcrafted sauna on the beach. If you go, ask for Baloo. He’s the director of the property, organizes all activities, and knows the area better than anyone. Plus, he’s loads of fun, a kid at heart, and soon to open a microbrewery in town. (Summer rates start at $70 per night; 418-272-3193)
The most traditional, full-service hotel in the region (and naturally the most touristy), some may remember the Hotel Tadoussac from its cameo in the 1984 film, The Hotel New Hampshire, starring Rob Lowe. Overlooking Tadoussac Bay and the St. Lawrence River, the hotel has a majestic exterior with its red roof, parallel window boxes, white stone, and expansive lawn filled with Nantucket-style lounge chairs. These are the most luxurious accommodations in the Saguenay region. The town of Tadoussac (a two-minute walk from the lobby) has plenty of cute shops and restaurants should you choose to venture out. (Rates start at $142 per night; 165, Bord-de-l’eau, Tadoussac, 418-653-1717, www.hoteltadoussac.com)
Auberge des Battures
This four-star country-style hotel has 32 nicely furnished rooms, many of which come with a private Jacuzzi bathtub. The draw, by far, is its panoramic views over La Baie and a fine restaurant featuring gourmet cuisine that highlights local produce. Having dinner at sunset with a table by the window is incredibly romantic. The property has a spa treatment room where various services are available with advanced booking. This is not a glitzy spa, but treatments are fantastic, soothing the most active explorers’ aches and ailments. The hotel’s vicinity to Bagotville airport makes it a convenient location to stay at the beginning or end of your journey if traveling by plane. (Rates start at $87 for a standard room; 6295, boul. de la Grande-Baie Sud, Ville de La Baie; 418-544-8234, www.hotel-saguenay.com)
How to get there: Air Canada is the only major airline that has regional service to Bagotville airport, located in the heart of the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region. Connections are available twice a day from Montreal. Having a car to travel from place to place along the fjord is a must. Airport rentals can be booked in advance. The other option is to drive from the major airports of Montreal (about 5 hours), or Quebec City (about 3 hours), which if you have the time is much more cost-effective as regional flights can be pricey.
**Note: all prices are listed in Canadian dollars.**
About the Author: Lindsay Taub is an award-winning journalist with over a decade of experience as a writer/editor/photographer covering travel, lifestyle, culture, arts, food, health, and all facets that make life a journey. Follow her on twitter @lindsaytaub58.