An exhilarating trip to Canada’s French province of Quebec leaves you breathless and panting for more
From the squeals of delight from the almost all-female crew, you would have sworn that we’d seen George Clooney swimming alongside the boat rather than a vanilla-hued beluga whale. Although, had it been George in Speedos, I don’t think we could have been any more excited.
It’s a decadent way to answer the call of the wild, but with budget airlines now flying to the east coast of Canada, I decide to chance my luck and search for a big blue or two on the St Lawrence River in the French province of Quebec.
After flying into Montreal I take the train two hours north to Quebec City. The province’s capital is smaller and much cosier than Montreal. Its clean, cobbled streets and francophonic signs are very much Disney-does-Europe. It’s all very quaint but there’s no forgetting that you’re in North America. The air is clean and fresh, everything’s priced in dollars and the folk are ultra-friendly. It’s like Paris after a power wash and a dose of valium.
I arrive at Quebec City train station and, on advice from a local, I take a walk through the old town to my hotel. Thankfully, I have picked Canada’s most iconic hostelry, the five-star Le Chateau Frontenac, which can be seen from almost any viewpoint in town. The city is both dominated and celebrated by this regal old bird and I can see exactly why it has been voted ‘the most photographed hotel in the world’. Tall and ‘turretty’ and topped with the minty green of oxidised copper, Le Frontenac has all the drama and poise of a stern French queen.
The lower walls of the hotel are accessed by a funicular, which allows me to get a cracking view of the St Lawrence River. I squint to see if I can spot any whales. It’s doubtful - unless I had the visual capacity of the Hubble telescope - as the whales are at least 100 miles upstream near the Saguenay Fjord.
The St Lawrence River is a huge ocean-like body of water that flows from Lake Ontario up along the coast of Quebec until it joins with the Atlantic Ocean at the Gulf of St Lawrence. This area is a haven for krill, which attract thousands of whales each year into Canada's icy waters. The blue whale is a frequent visitor, as well as the endangered white beluga and the sleek and slender minke. There have even been Californian killer whales spotted further upstream off the coast of Charlevoix.
Two hours up the coast and we arrive at Baie Sainte-Catherine, where we board the Zodiac, a large, speedy dinghy that travels the waves like a Saint Bernard on a bouncy castle. As soon as I don the heavy rubber wet weather gear the anticipation builds, and before I know it the Zodiac is speeding out of the small harbour and I try desperately to hang on to my seat.
All eyes are on stalks as we crane our necks to sight a black fin or shiny hump lifting out of the water. The crackle of the radio goes and suddenly Yvonne, our rugged yet unlikely-named captain, cranks up the motor and pulls the Zodiac 90 degrees west. We’re speeding through the blue-black waters, each of us desperately awaiting that Athena-poster moment, when suddenly a black fin and hump of a 3m minke rises about 20 ft in front of us. The excitement hits us like a tidal wave as everyone fumbles to grab his or her camera. Staring at the trembling water, we are treated to another rise of her fin and the minke sped off towards another boat, leaving us excited, breathless and panting for more.
Whale-watching is an addictive pastime and already our eyes are hungry for the next sighting. It didn’t take long: just yards away from the minke we were treated to three cheeky, white beluga whales who decided to come and play with us. Their bulbous heads, the colour of white chocolate, have a wide-eyed innocence; being so close to these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat is just exhilarating.
Bobbing about on the water, with the shore just a sliver of dark land in the distance, I feel very aware of our vulnerability. Blue whales grow to around 25 metres in length and weigh over 100 tonnes. It crosses my mind that our Zodiac could easily be a light afternoon snack for such an enormous beast, until I remember that these incredible creatures are placid, plankton feeders and are as likely to contemplate me for lunch as I would a baby.
Flying to Canada may be an extreme way to get back to nature, but for restoring your vitality there is no better way than watching whales frolic freely in their natural habitat.