“If you aren’t sure what to do, there are signs everywhere,” our guide said as he concluded his orientation on how to connect our safety harnesses to the cables along the zip line course we were about to embark on.
“But are they in English?” someone asked.
“No,” he said, smirking, much to the chagrin of the non-French-speakers in the audience.
I wasn’t surprised about the signs; after all we were in Québec, the Canadian province that proudly holds onto its French heritage, so much so that a sovereignty movement has been advocating for independence for decades. I’d been to Québec many times before, but my stays had been limited to cosmopolitan Montréal and Québec City, urban centers where English is an acceptable option.
Now I found myself in the countryside for the first time, poised to have a deeper, more authentic Québécois experience. As I traveled through Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean (a 2.5-hour drive north from Québec City), I tried to put a finger on the je ne sais quoi that sets the area apart from other bucolic destinations.
My ear isn’t trained to recognize the difference between the Saguenay accent over one from Montréal, but I do pick up on a behavioral trend: provincial pride. “Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean is different from the rest of Québec because the people refer strongly to their identity within the province,” my bilingual guide, Nancy Donnelly, explained. “They have their own expressions, accent, nickname—‘les bleuets’—and flag.”
Locals also seem to take clear pride in their region’s natural assets, particularly the fjord from which the region derives its name.
Saguenay Fjord, one of the world’s longest at 64 miles, is comprised of Saguenay Fjord National Park and its aquatic counterpart, Saguenay-Saint-Lawrence Marine Park, a conservation area that protects humpback and beluga whales and the ecosystem they need to thrive.
Other bodies of water nearby include Ha! Ha! Bay (no joke)–and that’s not the only funny name in the region. One local delicacy known as pet de soeur translates to “nun’s farts.” I sample the sweet treats—while trying to stifle my snickering–from Pâtisserie Louise, where Madame Louise Tremblay bakes the bite-size sweets along with other handmade treats for her close-knit community in L’Anse-Saint-Jean and for those, like me, who come to visit their idyllic town.
“Pretty much everywhere in the Saguenay, you could leave your wallet on the dash of your car with all of the windows down, and it would still be there by the end of the day,” boasted Martin Camp Roux, a local kayak guide. “Last time a wallet was stolen in L’Anse-Saint-Jean, the entire village met to fix the problem.”
The strong sense of community in this French-speaking corner of Québec transcends the culinary arts to the visual kind. Le Pont Couvert, a covered bridge dating back to 1929 in L’Anse-Saint-Jean’s , not only serves a functional vehicular bridge over the Saint-Jean River, but also doubles as an art gallery of local painters known by the clever portmanteau, Couvart.
But while food and the arts are an integral part of the relaxed regional culture, most visitors come to engage with the lush natural landscape. As Chicoutimi resident Ismael Raymond puts it, “There’s no other place in Quebec where you can find water and mountains together in harmony.”
Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region treats visitors, including cyclists along La Route Verte, Canada’s extensive bikeway network, to a cornucopia of color as the leaves change. But to be sure, there’s a lot to see beyond the forest–like rolling fields in the glacial valley—with working farms like La Vielle Ferme serving up fare prepared with locally sourced ingredients.
Winter ushers in a season of snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling, but canoes and kayaks are the preferred mode of transport when the ice melts away. Being on the river is also a good opportunity to learn about the myths and legends of the fjord. My guide Martin from Fjord en Kayak shared some of them with me as we paddled along—but asked me to keep to myself to honor the oral traditions passed down through generations.
“Pardon, je sais seulement un peu de français,” I said to an old woman at a store in Tadoussac to explain that I only know a little bit of French. “Je sais seulement un peu d’anglais,” she replied, admitting just the opposite. She’s genial as she hands me samples of locally produced wines, many of which include the region’s signature crop: blueberries. Around here, the fruit is as iconic as maple syrup is in other parts of Canada.
As my visit to the Saguenay region came to a close, I realized I had traveled through a place as grand as it is intimate. French may be the mother tongue in these parts, but you don’t need to speak it to enjoy yourself. In this part of Canada, a love of nature is the universal language.
Finding Your Way (and a Place to Stay) in Saguenay:
There are plenty of hotels, B&Bs, and lodges in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region, including Auberge des 21, Pourvoire Cap au Leste, Les Chalets sur le Fjord, and Hotel Tadoussac. There are also several camping options, including ready-to-camp Huttopia tents within many of the national parks.
Transportation between points of interest may be done by car or by the convenient hop-on/hop-off riverboat shuttle service, Les Croisières du Fjord.