It is hard to leave the soulful plazas and glass-clinking cafes of Québec City, but a journey beyond the walled town brings big rewards. Blue whales, rustic alehouses and roadside ateliers bob up within a four-hour, shore-clasping drive northeast.
Ste Anne de Beaupré
A short 35km north of Québec City, on Route 38, the glinting spires of Ste Anne de Beaupré Basilica warrant the first stop. The village has been a Christian pilgrimage site since the mid-1600s, and the crutches piled inside the Gothic church show Ste Anne's miracle prowess in healing the sick. Buy a keychain from the gift shop, take it to the priest in the 'Blessings Bureau' next door and you are good to go.
Baie St Paul
Route 138 follows the St Lawrence River as it slices through flowery Charlevoix, the pastoral region that harvests much of the province's food. In true farm-to-table fashion, the small homesteads peppering the landscape often have attached restaurants. The town of Baie St Paul, 60km onwards from Ste Anne de Beaupré, makes a good base for grazing. Check into yolk-yellow Auberge La Muse, one of several cheerful bed and breakfasts in the area, and then walk over to Le Saint Pub. Tucked in a former brewery, the chef smokes local meats and marinates them in the head-walloping house ales.
Baie St Paul is where Cirque du Soleil began, and a creative vibe permeates the town, with artists’ studios and boutiques lining the streets. The boxy, steel-and-glass Musée d'Art Contemporain shows modern and folk art by Québec artists.
Veer onto Route 362 and keep following the river. You will pass a greenhouse tomato grower, a chocolatier wafting tempting smells and a buzzing, 200-hive honey maker among the many artisanal producers around the village of Les Éboulements 17km from Baie St Paul. After that, the road becomes a lonely stretch for the next 30km, punctuated by an occasional wood shed peeking out from the trees. Then you pull up to the town of La Malbaie, one of Canada's first holiday resorts, made popular by the steamships that chugged into its docks from Montreal at the beginning of the 19th Century. Cliff-top Manoir Richelieu is a remnant of that era, and the copper-roofed castle still serves as a luxury hotel. Strolling the mannerly gardens you half expect to run into ladies with parasols and gentlemen in coattails.
Down the hill from the castle follow your nose to Vices Versa. The husband-and-wife chefs who run this cosy, stone-walled restaurant in town each have their own stove, and each contributes half the menu. He is Vices, lover of butter and cream. She is Versa, preferring herbs and spices. What it really boils down to is succulent dishes underpinned by local produce, such as Éboulmontaise lamb and stew made with Charlevoix beer.
The river road turns back into Route 138, and little towns flash by in a hurry for the next 70km until the road ends at Baie St Catherine. From here a ferry whisks cars across the Saguenay River every 20 minutes during the day (every 40 minutes at night). On the other side lies Tadoussac. Parked at the foot of a dramatic fjord and bookended by massive cliffs, the historic town is a top spot for whale watching. In a nifty feat of geography, the warm, fresh waters of the Saguenay jet out atop the frigid, salt waters of the St Lawrence River, churning up massive volumes of krill. This brings humpbacks, minkes and king-of-the-sea blue whales steaming through the area, as well as chatty white belugas, which otherwise are seen only in the Arctic.
Otis Excursions takes Zodiac boats out in search of the behemoths. Prepare for a wild, wind-in-your-hair ride over the waves -- all totally worth it when you are close enough to smell a whale's breath.
Tadoussac offers alot besides leviathans, so book into the landmark 1870 Hotel Tadoussac and stay awhile. Fuel up on deep-dish meat pie, sugar pie (a rich dessert of brown sugar and cream) and other traditional Québec workers' fare while soaking up the view at Restaurant Le Bateau. Then you will be ready to hike in craggy Parc du Saguenay or sea kayak up the fjord with tour operator Mer et Monde .