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Quebec’s River Towns

Driving into the fortifications of old Quebec City feels like nothing less than time travel. One minute you’re jockeying for a lane change and passing office parks. Then suddenly you’re inching past ancient stone ramparts straight from 17th-century France. Soon enough your time machine—whoops, car—deposits you in front of a green-turreted castle where a regally dressed doorman greets you with “Bienvenue au Château Frontenac.”

And welcome to the launching point for one of the world’s most wonderful drives: a 130-mile meander along the St. Lawrence River to the lively village of Tadoussac. Though short, the trip takes in forts and funiculars, waterfalls and island farm stands, art galleries and whale watching. As you move north, pine-studded mountains crowd the shoreline and the St. Lawrence widens into a majestic estuary. It’s no wonder that artists have settled here for centuries. Bon voyage!

Though romantics gush over Quebec City’s cobblestone streets, kids also love this storybook city of turrets, cannons and funiculars. The city, one of North America’s oldest, just celebrated its 400th anniversary.

Vieux-Québec, or Old Quebec, should be your first stop. But park the car, as this ancient section of town is best explored on foot. The upper portion, called Haute-Ville, sits atop Cap Diamant. Naturally, this high ground is home to the city’s earliest fortifications, most famously La Citadelle, a low-slung stone fortress that remains an active military garrison. In summer, you can catch the changing of the guard daily at 10 a.m..

Lovers of poutine, a Québécois specialty that tops french fries with cheese curds and gravy, should make a beeline to Chez Asht. Afterwards, a stroll is advised, and there are few better places to do so than Dufferin Terrace, a wide boardwalk with breathtaking views of the St. Lawrence. To get to Basse-Ville, or Lower Town, jump on the Funiculaire du Vieux-Québec near the Château Frontenac hotel. The vertical railway only travels 210 feet, but you’ll be glad you took it when you see the slope: a 45-degree angle.

In Lower Town, the Quartier Petit Champlain is crammed with 50 tiny boutiques and cafés. Brightly painted doors and vibrant awnings offset the quarter’s gray stone buildings. From here, you can hop on the 15-minute ferry across the St. Lawrence to the Victorian town of Lévis. But don’t get off—the boat ride is simply for the pleasure of admiring the city’s skyline.

Back in the Quartier Petit Champlain, Le Cochon Dingue (Crazy Pig) is one of those rare bistros that pleases all members of the family. Adults get tin buckets of mussels and tall glasses of La Belle Gueule beer, while kids love the sausages wrapped in pig-shaped biscuits. All the better to fortify you for the next leg of your journey.

More than 400 years ago, French farmers began plowing and planting riverbank plots just east of Quebec City. Today, the 25-mile stretch of the Côte-de-Beaupré (Beaupré Coast) still brims with produce stands, bakeries and dairies—along with art galleries, moccasin shops and maple-syrup sugar shacks. Your first stop, though, is 272-foot Montmorency Falls—a full 100 feet taller than Niagara Falls. Take the cable car or climb the 487 stairs to the suspension bridge for thrilling, if vertigo-inducing, views of the torrential cascade. From this perch you can also take in the wide St. Lawrence River and your next stop: Île d’Orléans.

This 20-mile-long island is quilted with farms, the livelihood for many of its 7,000 residents. Not surprisingly, roadside markets are plentiful. But why not stretch your legs a bit by picking your own strawberries and raspberries at the Ferme Léonce Plante in St-Laurent. In the maritime village of St-Pierre you can load up on smoked trout at Poissonnerie Jos Paquet, where the island’s fishermen bring their catch. If you have a taste for aperitifs, the black currant liqueur at Cassis Monna & Filles is justifiably famous.

Back on the mainland, avoid a touristy stretch of Route 138 by using the less-traveled Route 360. This parallel backroad undulates along a ridge lined by centuries-old stone mills, vineyards and gardens. If you weren’t already fooled into thinking you were in Europe, you will be now. And whatever sins your wallet and waistline committed at the galleries and bakeries may be atoned for at Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré. The sprawling neo-Roman basilica draws more than a million pilgrims each year, partially for its reputed healing powers. A hillside Stations of the Cross is a pleasant rest stop; inside, blue vigil lights and star-spangled ceilings will hush the noisiest traveling companions.

For a slightly less contemplative detour off the Côte-de-Beaupré, follow Route 360 north to Mont-Sainte-Anne, a ski resort that offers a slew of warm-weather activities in summer. Hikers have 20 miles of trails, while mountain bikers can blast through the resort’s downhill courses or cross-country routes. If you just want to drink in the view, take a panoramic gondola ride.

As you move north into Charlevoix County, the Laurentian Mountains begin creeping closer to the shore. (Some of Eastern Canada’s best skiing can be had practically riverside at Le Massif, near Baie-St-Paul.) Road signs on this stretch of Route 138 warn of cars going airborne at the crest of steep hills. Another sign lists the number to call if you hit a moose. You’ll understand how such an accident can occur when you find yourself distracted by the stellar views of the broadening St. Lawrence when it pops up between corridors of pine.

As you drop into the artists’ colony of Baie-St-Paul, the panorama of what locals call “the sea” might well elicit a gasp or two. Just try not to hit any painters at work with their easels and palettes. Take time to browse through this arty village’s galleries. The Centre d’Exposition Baie-St-Paul is definitely worth a visit.

From here it’s a 15-minute drive on Route 362 to the turnoff for St-Joseph-de-la-Rive. The road into this tiny fishing town is an ear-popping 18-percent grade. After a quick visit to the Maritime Museum, walk down to the wharf to catch the free ferry to Île-aux-Coudres, named for the hazelnuts that Jacques Cartier’s crew found on this 7-mile-long island in the 1500s. Pick up some baguettes and a bottle of water, toss them in a backpack and wander around until you’re blissfully lost.

To reacquaint yourself with civilization, continue northeast on Route 362 to the enchanting village of La Malbaie. Here the river is an astounding 10 miles wide. For a view (and a sumptuous meal), visit La Pinsonnière, an 18-room luxury inn atop Cap-à-l’Aigle. Chef Jean-François Bélair plucks herbs from the garden and smokes the salmon for supper. Afterward, check out the action at the town’s other big attraction, the Charlevoix Casino.

The consolation for bidding adieu to La Malbaie is the prospect of seeing whales cavorting 44 miles north near the village of Tadoussac. The St. Lawrence meets the Saguenay River at the hulking Saguenay Fjord; 1,200 beluga whales live here year-round, and dozens of other types of migratory whales join them each summer. The 500-passenger Famille Dufour I sails on 3-hour whale-watching tours. Listen for the cry of “Baleine!” and watch the mythic creatures on their own time travels.

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.