Montréal may have more media connections, commercial activity and global cachet, but Québec City has something else: the soul of the province, and the fiercer grip on French Canadian identity. It also happens to be one of North America’s oldest and most magnificent settlements.
Montréal to Québec City
There's so much charm packed into the idyllic stretch of pastoral patchwork between Québec's two metropolises that it's bursting at the borders. Kick back and stay awhile to enjoy the picture-postcard scenery of the Eastern Townships and take in the unique bilingual atmosphere that constant American tourist traffic to this area has fostered.
The Laurentians, or Les Laurentides in French, are perhaps the best-kept secret of Montréal day-trippers and are just an hour's drive from the city. Here you'll find gentle rolling mountains, crystal-blue lakes and meandering rivers peppered with towns and villages too cute for words. A visit to this natural paradise is like putting your feet up after a long day.
Lush rolling hills, crystal-clear lakes and checkerboard farms fill the Eastern Townships, or the 'Cantons-des-l'Est' as it's known by French-speaking inhabitants. The region begins 80km southeast of Montréal and is squished between the labyrinth of minor highways that stretch all the way to the Vermont and New Hampshire borders.
In winter, icy fog pours over snowcapped mountains into the rural valleys of Charlevoix, while in summer, the brilliant blue sky is matched by the deep azure of the St Lawrence. At all times of year, this is a stunning outdoors playground. For 200 years, this pastoral skein of streams and hills has been a summer retreat for the wealthy and privileged.
The roads snake north of Charlevoix, but they all spread into dozens of detours as they edge a deeply forested, craggy cleft that tears into the heart of this province: the Rivière Saguenay fjord. Overlooking its deep blue waters are windblown, lichen-and-pine studded cliffs that stretch some 500m high.
As you drive (and drive, and drive) into the heart of the Côte Nord (North Shore), the feeling of frontier becomes ever more pronounced. At some point the patchwork of agriculture becomes endless kilometers of taiga, wide swaths of dark forest, tundra, and past that, the steel-gray St Lawrence, stretching to the Atlantic.
Around Québec City
Québec City is surrounded by a quilt of rustic villages, day-tripper-friendly hamlets and suburbs that embrace the Euro-hybrid identity of the ville. Other than Lévis, the sights in this area are all on the north side of the river: Wendake, St Gabriel de Valcartier, Stoneham and Parc de la Jacques Cartier to the north of Québec City, and the rest to the northeast.
Îles de la Madeleine
A salt-swept, gale-blown string of red-dirt islands crusted with fuzzy tufts of grass peppers the Gulf of St Lawrence, and they are a sight to behold. The Magdalen Islands, or Îles de la Madeleine, a stringy archipelago that resembles a Mandelbrot set on maps, are 105km north of Prince Edward Island.
Mauricie is one of Québec's lesser-known regions, despite being in a strategic spot halfway between Montréal and Québec City. Stretching 300km from Trois-Rivières north to Lac St Jean, it follows the flow of the mighty Rivière St-Maurice, which for centuries has been the backbone of the area's industrial heritage.
Ville de Mont-Tremblant
The Mont-Tremblant area is the crown jewel of the Laurentians, lorded over by the 968m-high eponymous mountain and dotted with pristine lakes and traversed by rivers. It's a hugely popular four-season playground, drawing ski bums from late October to mid-April, and hikers, cyclists, golfers, water-sports fans and other outdoor enthusiasts the rest of the year.
Founded in 1634, Trois-Rivières is North America's second-oldest city north of Mexico, but you'd never know it: a roaring fire that swept through in 1908 left little of the city's historic looks. Still, the city center, right on the north shore of the St Lawrence River, is not without charms and some bona fide tourist attractions.
For many visitors to Québec, Tadoussac is the one place in the province they visit outside Montréal and Québec City. What consistently draws the hordes to this small spot is the whales. Not only do Zodiacs zip out in search of the behemoths, but smaller whales such as belugas and minkes can be glimpsed from the shore.