Photograph by Yves Marcoux/First Light/Corbis
Kamouraska, off Route 132 on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, is a throwback, a slice of old France, a bucolic town that few tourists frequent. It is one of those places that you go just to be. I chanced upon its simple charms because a good friend’s family owned a 100-year-old rambling home there overlooking the St. Lawrence River. We would sing French-Canadian chansons into the wee hours, take tramps in the chill fall air, or squint from kayaks to spot whales coming down the wide river. Andrew, my friend, told me that a Superior Court judge who had lived there during his salad days was inspired by the place to write the original French lyrics to “O Canada.” And it is the setting for Anne Hébert's 1970 novel Kamouraska, which was made into a film three years later. The movie was painfully slow, but the imagery was gorgeous, and how I remember it. I hear little has changed since I last visited—except now it has a few hotels. I yearn to return.
I lived in Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) when I was 16 and cherish it as a short drive to a slice of idyllic childhood. We used to take our Newfoundland dog to swim in ponds hidden among the peach trees seven miles outside of town. Now that backcountry is largely given over to vineyards that are among Canada’s best (wine-tasting tours are the major activity here). I loved NOTL’s Shaw Festival. Today this celebrated “other Stratford,” now a Canadian institution, brings you way more than George Bernard Shaw—from Guys and Dolls and Cabaret to works by Tom Stoppard and Brian Friel. Mostly, though, for a teen, NOTL was a crushing bore. I didn’t golf (there’s a fine course here) and sailed Lake Ontario only when I could cadge a crewing berth. A walk down Queen Street—NOTL’s main drag—was pretty sedate then and still largely is, but now charmingly so. And if you have kids in tow, it becomes sweet-tooth alley (try the Prince Edward Island-based COWS and Maple Leaf Fudge). Truth is, when growing up I had no idea how important NOTL was, being home to Ontario’s first parliament and newspaper and a way station for slaves seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad. NOTL, which has clung to much of its original classical revival and regency architecture, evokes the era in which it came of age—during the years surrounding the War of 1812. The palisaded Fort George, which passed hands between British and U.S. forces during the conflict, was a favorite spot for late-nights trysts. Now I’m told visitors convene here for ghost tours—and brochures claim NOTL is the most haunted town in Canada. The only thing that spooked me when I was growing up was the quiet. Now I so appreciate it.
George Lake, Ontario
When I was a kid—too many years ago—I summered near Killarney, Ontario, at a small camp on George Lake in the shadow of Silver Peak, the highest point around. We hiked the modest mountain and took spectacular ten-day excursions, some deep into Georgian Bay, where we’d camp on granite shores and brave five-foot waves in small canoes. At worst, we endured deluges, suffocating black flies, long-slog portages—and lots of Spam from a tin. But at best we experienced an escape from the common world that was transformational. We didn’t see anything except black bears and big fish and a porcupine that eventually became dinner. We picked fat blueberries, swam in dazzling blue lakes, chilling even in summer, and gazed 30 feet down to soft white sands through the lazy traffic of pickerel as we paddled along. In 1964, much of this area became Killarney Provincial Park—which means that it is still pretty much how I found it. Today outfitters will give you the soup-to-nuts experience, but you can provision at George Lake and take your pick of hundreds of canoe- and trail-accessible campsites if you want to go your own way (you need to book months ahead for a spot). This may well be the most flat-out gorgeous place in Ontario. And the real gem is O.S.A. Lake, named for landscape artists from the Group of Seven who fought to protect its beloved incandescence from logging interests.
Ferme 5 Étoiles, Quebec
One of my great winter memories is set in Ferme 5 Étoiles, a 700-acre farm in Sacre-Coeur-Saguenay that acts as a sanctuary for injured and orphaned wildlife. Here is where you can experience the rush of piloting a sled hauled by four huskies a stone’s throw away from Saguenay Fjord National Park. After 15 minutes of instruction, you’re off on a flat, open field and then into dense forest on just a thread of trail. The dogs pull hard, desperate to make speed. It is a slam-bang roller-coaster ride with whipsaw curves that lasts about two hours (with a short break for lunch). Says Roch Anctil, head of Boutique Voyages: “Being out in the snow and the fresh air in the middle of the wilderness—it’s the experience of a lifetime.”
Lachine Canal, Quebec
My first apartment in Montreal 35 years ago was perched on the edge of the Lachine Canal (built to allow ships to navigate around fierce rapids) in a gloomy, run-down, blue-collar neighborhood. The water was heavy with waste, the river’s margins a squalid dumping ground. Now the canal, which runs almost nine miles from the Old Port to Lake Saint-Louis, is an urban treasure to rival any city waterfront in Canada. When I visit Montreal in summer I rent a bike or strap on Rollerblades and dodge the pedestrians and runners on the canal's well-lit, well-tended pathway. Where once industrial barges commanded the waters, you can now take a two-hour boat ride. My suggestion, though, is stick to land: Start your trip at Rue de la Commune East (plenty of pubs and restaurants here) and make your way toward Old Montreal, the quaint, cobblestoned 1642 birthplace of the city. Head for Place Jacques-Cartier (you’ll have to endure the camera-toting hordes) to scope out the musicians, jugglers, and mimes, then escape the hubbub with a cool beer in the Jardin Nelson.
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