AUGUST 2023 ISSUE
‘Authentic’ has become something of an overused word in travel, but as JON UNDERWOOD discovered on a recent visit to Canada, there’s one region where it’s etched into their DNA.
THERE’S A few things you’ll notice if you spend any length of time around Canadians.
First, they are unswervingly polite and welcoming. Nothing is ever too much trouble – I’m guessing road rage is practically unheard of.
The second thing you’ll realise is that they weren’t built to be indoors. They love the wide-open spaces (they have bucket loads of those), adventurous activities (ditto) and being at one with nature.
I wasn’t familiar with the Mauricie region of Quebec before spending a few days touring through it but can highly recommend it for those who simply want to plug in, slow down and zone out.
French settlers arrived here in the 17th and 18th centuries, thereby establishing some of the oldest towns and villages in Quebec. Some 85 per cent of the 35,000-square-kilometre region is classed as ‘great outdoors’.
A 90-minute drive south-west of Quebec City on Highway 40 and we stopped in Trois-Rivières, a city at the confluence of the Saint-Maurice and Saint Lawrence rivers.
Another fact about Canadians is that if there’s one thing they like almost as much as ice hockey it is maple syrup. They smother it over everything: I suspect they’d bathe in the stuff if they could.
Everywhere you go across the country you’ll find ‘Sugar Shacks’ where the sticky, sweet, ubiquitous syrup is served. And in Quebec, where they make 72 per cent of the world’s maple syrup, Dany’s is the place to go.
We were greeted by Dany Néron himself, who explained there are 100 million maple trees in Canada, his store has been in business since 1935 and everything they produce is natural.
A giant barn of a place, Dany’s wouldn’t look out of situ in the Swiss alps with its red and white checked tablecloths, wooden walls and beams as far as the eye can see.
The food here is of the traditional, hearty and comforting nature: think French Canadian pea soup with baked beans, maple ham, meat pie (with maple syrup, of course) and maple pancakes.
All this accompanied by the most energetic wooden spoon playing display I’ve been privileged to witness. It’s impossible not to leave Dany’s without your belly full and your soul uplifted.
After all that joie de vivre, we needed something a little quieter to relax and unwind.
So next stop was Le Baluchon Eco Resort in Saint-Paulin. It is run by husband-and-wife team Patricia and Louis, the man who originally came up with the idea back in 1982. What they have created is something quite remarkable.
Here they have embraced the philosophy of “slow design” which aims to reduce their ecological footprint through non-polluting production methods and the use of renewable resources.
All the buildings, accommodation and activities are spread out across the site, encouraging people to get up off their backsides, step outside and walk/run/cycle/ski/sled, depending on the time of year.
“What we want to offer is really to be in contact with nature,” says Patricia as she guides me around the property, which encompasses some 400 hectares.
“For my husband and I it’s very important to share the land and we are very proud of what we’ve built.
“My most important moment is when I read all the nice comments from people who have stayed at Le Baluchon. That’s my salary.”
This is the kind of place to exercise your body and mind during the day and then sit back in the hot tub, recounting your achievements, before a delicious dinner.
Unfortunately, my second bout of COVID prevented me from exploring the resort in great detail but reports from my travelling companions were universally positive.
MONK-Y BUSINESS IN THE FOREST
If you go out in the woods today, you’d better hope you have Jean-Guy with you…
He is the kind of man who can disappear into a forest, grab a handful of leaves, roots and nuts, and whip up dinner for two.
I met the Canadian version of Crocodile Dundee (pictured) during a visit to the Abbaye Val Notre Dame in Saint-Jean-de-Matha.
The day had begun in spiritual circumstances with a visit to church to meet the monks who live here and who have turned the place into a kind of devotional Airbnb.
For around $70 a night (min. two-night stay), guests can have one of the 16 small rooms available to find peace and solitude among the 13 resident monks. There are no phones or laptops allowed and talking is frowned upon – it’s for those needing a total break from the world.
Yet opening their home wasn’t enough for these business-minded brethren. They’ve also launched a shop, bistro and activity centre in the nearby forest, offering visitors a variety of authentic experiences.
“Everybody needs to spend some time in nature,” says Helene Marchand, who is the General Manager of the Magasin de L’Abbaye and the driving force behind the monk’s vision.
“When you come here, you will have a unique, authentic and grounded experience. You will have the chance to experience the forest on your plate.”
Which brings me back to Jean Guy. He took us on a guided ramble, pointing out the things you could or couldn’t eat should you be silly enough to get lost in the forest.
I would have liked more time sampling this very local produce but the mosquitoes that appear in June and early July were voracious and unrelenting, so we returned to have lunch, cooked by Jean Guy’s wife, Josee Miller.
Using some of the flora we’d just seen in the forest, Josee whipped up a delicious meal before we headed into the store to buy a variety of products, several of which are made by the monks themselves. It doesn’t get much more authentic than that.
WHERE TO STAY
As you walk into the lobby of the Sacacomie Hotel in Saint-Alexis-des-Monts, a framed picture on the right-hand wall catches the eye.
The seven-person crew of the space shuttle Endeavour stayed here before their flight to the International Space Station in 2009. Whether their experience was “out of this world” isn’t clear, but this is one very impressive hotel.
The property has more than 100 room and suites, GEOS Spa with pools and saunas, and more activities than you can shake a ski pole at, depending on what time of year you visit.
But it’s the hotel’s towering position above Lake Sacacomie which is the stand out winner – sitting on the deck with an adult beverage, watching the sun set was a truly magical experience (apart from those damn mossies!).
With the lake so nearby water sports are naturally plentiful and we enjoyed a special treat, a float plane ride over the property and its surrounds.
Sadly, the forest fires decimating parts of Canada at the time of our visit caused a smoky haze to hinder the view but we were still able to appreciate the spectacular topography of the location.
Special mention must also go to the fantastic food. I had a fillet of beef shoulder in a shallot sauce with gratin dauphinois and seasonal veggies that was to die for and all the chef’s nightly specials were mouth-watering.
I’m not sure if there’s a weight limit on the shuttle but those astronauts would have been well fed before their journey into space.