The French Connection IV: Tadoussac and the Youngest Victorian Hotel

Photography by the authors

Bias revealed: We loved this village. On a bright summer’s day the view from the Tadoussac Hotel was stunning not unlike the scene created in the mural throughout the hotel’s dining room. Tadoussac was the favorite port of call for most of the 20 English-speaking passengers on the Compagnie du Ponant’s Le Boréal cruise ship that anchored in the bay this September of 2011.

“We are small,” says a guide, “so you are the first cruise ship to stop here."

The village, he points out, is said to be one of the most attractive in Québec and, surrounded by two protected areas, it will always be au naturel.

Every port seems to have a dominant landmark and in this little village, the first “oldest surviving settlement in the Americas,” the overriding feature is the sprawling, red-roofed, white-painted Great Old Dame, its Victorian hotel.

The Tadoussac Hotel does look very Victorian but Queen Victoria never saw it. The original hotel was built around 1864. When it was destroyed by fire, a fate common to the great old wooden hotels of North America, William Coverdale, the president of the Canada Steamship Company and an avid collector of Canadian history, created a new, even more beautiful hotel in 1941. He furnished it with French-Canadian antiques. His collection ultimately passed to the Musée du Québec, but the hotel has remained a local attraction. It closes in winter, says a guide, because it’s too expensive to heat!

The hotel may be a recent addition to the Tadoussac scene but it looked old enough for the site of the movie Hotel New Hampshire when John Irving’s novel was filmed in 1984. Many of the social websites claim the hotel is overpriced now, but it’s surely a great place for afternoon tea. Our tea was part of a Le Boréal shore excursion. The hotel is delightful and its pace languid. Indeed, later, many of its guests were sitting contentedly in deckchairs on the front lawn just watching the St. Lawrence drift past.

If the Tadoussac Hotel is only 70 years old but looks older, the opposite is true of the Indian Chapel built by the Jesuit missionaries of the Society of Christ in 1747. It is the oldest surviving wooden church in North America although not the first.

The Jesuits (“the Soldiers of Christ”) had founded mission chapels as early as 1625 in New France but later replaced them with stone buildings. The Indian Chapel in Tadoussac with its fresh paint looks surprisingly new even though original antiques hang on its walls.

A docent dressed in period clothing gives an animated presentation to visitors but unfortunately in voluble French. Québec could do more to help tourists who don’t speak or read French but it is a foreign country.

The chapel and the hotel lie very close to the town tourist office near where a replica of the old trading post stands facing the river. Fur trading between the French explorers and the local native tribes allowed the huge profits that enabled New France to be developed.

Tadoussac, at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay rivers, had an ideal location for trade. Natives had been coming to this area for hundreds of years to harvest the whales that swam upriver to reap the krill that was abundant in the rivers. Pierre de Chauvin, a French naval officer, established a trading post here in 1600 and built a settlement although only five of his 16 men survived the first winter. Like sailors at sea —
and for the same reasons — they died of scurvy.

The trading post casts light on much we’ve heard about the first explorers. The watercolor, brown ink on parchment art (bottom right in our illustration) shows how the natives fished in 1674 to 1780 at the time of the Jesuit artist, Louis Nicolas and is photographed courtesy of the Codex Canadiensis series of 180 drawings in the Library and Archives Canada.

Most of the history in this building, to our pleasure, has translations into English. Thus we learn when Cartier arrived here in 1535 he found four groups of “Aboriginals” who had come to hunt seals. An artist drew them for the explorers’ journals, our photograph detail courtesy of the Bibliothèque et Archives Canada. Cartier wrote that two of the canoes approached his ship in “fear and trembling.” We would be trembling, too, if Martian aliens ever advanced on us in San Diego!

But we’re not trembling as we end our special day in the little town of Tadoussac. Not as we walk past the local tribute to the Beluga whales which come to mate in the adjacent Saguenay fjord every summer. Not as we amble past some of the simple but colorful homes that straddle the main street. Not as we wander past two musicians singing to each other contentedly.

We tell our guide we can’t follow what they’re singing, and ask, what are the words?

“They are singing — in French — of how much they care for each other,” he says. “Naturally it’s in French, because that, the world knows, is the language of love.”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.