Central Charelvoix: Baie-St-Paul, St-Irénée & La Malbaie

Baie-St-Paul: 93km (58 miles) NE of Québec City; St-Irénée: 125km (78 miles) NE of Québec City; La Malbaie: 140km (87 miles) NE of Québec City

The Laurentian mountains move closer to the shore of the St. Lawrence River as they approach the mouth of the intersecting Malbaie River. U.S. President William Howard Taft, who had a summer residence in the area, said that the air here was "as intoxicating as champagne, but without the morning-after headache." Taft was among the political and financial elite of Canada and the eastern U.S. who made Murray Bay, or La Malbaie, a wildly popular vacation destination in the early and mid-19th century. The Charlevoix region (www.tourisme-charlevoix.com) first blossomed under the British regime in the 18th century. In 1762, Scottish officers in the British Army, John Nairne and Malcolm Fraser, built sawmills and flour mills here. They attracted French-speaking Catholics, making the region a combination of Old France and Old Scotland.

Grand vistas over the St. Lawrence abound, and there are many farms in the area. Moose sightings are not uncommon, and the rolling, dark green mountains with their white ski slope scars offer numerous places to hike and bike in the warm months and ski when there's snow. (It's not unheard of for it to snow in May.) In 1988, Charlevoix was named a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, which means that it's a protected area for cross-disciplinary conservation-oriented research, with development balanced against environmental concerns. It was one of the first populated areas to get the designation.

Because of the area's raw, undeveloped beauty, a group of entrepreneurs has been developing big plans to build an "anti-resort" in the area, a year-round destination that could hold large international events and become what they've termed "a type of Davos of sustainable tourism development." Called the Massif de Charlevoix project, it's led by Daniel Gauthier, a co-founder of Cirque du Soleil and owner since 2002 of the ski resort Le Massif.

Upper Charlevoix: St-Siméon, Baie Ste-Catherine & Tadoussac

St-Siméon: 173km (107 miles) NE of Québec City; Baie Ste-Catherine: 207km (128 miles) NE of Québec City; Tadoussac: 214km (133 miles) NE of Québec City

After visiting La Malbaie, you have several options. You can return back to Québec City the same way you came -- it's only 140km (87 miles) along the river's north shore. Or you can continue up Route 138 for 33km (21 miles) to St-Siméon and cross the St. Lawrence by ferry, landing at Rivière-du-Loup on the opposite shore a little over an hour later to return to Québec City along the river's south shore.

But if it's summer or early fall, and you have more time -- a full afternoon or an extra day to stay overnight -- consider continuing on to Baie Ste-Catherine and Tadoussac. Here, at the northern end of Charlevoix, is one of the world's richest areas for whale-watching. The confluence of the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers attracts 10 to 12 species each summer -- as many as 1,500 minke, humpback, finback, and blue whales, who join the 1,000 or so sweet-faced beluga (or white) whales who are here year-round. Add to that the harbor porpoises who visit, and there can be 5,000 creatures diving and playing in the waters. Many can be seen from land mid-June through late October, and up close by boat or kayak.

Springtime comes to this area in May and June -- yellow forsythia in May, lilacs in June. Note: In winter and spring, when the whales are gone and the temperatures are lower, most of the very few establishments between St-Siméon and Tadoussac are closed. If you're driving, pack some snacks and water, take bathroom breaks when they're available, and make sure you've got enough gasoline.