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Unique Hotels in Quebec May Be the Best Part of the Trip

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By Steve Bergsman

When I passed the second landing of my hotel — actually the third floor above the general store in Val-Jalbert, a ghost town — a man appeared and excitedly began yelling at me in French. I keep going, not stopping until I was outdoors and standing on the veranda. But the man pursued me and to my surprise continued to harangue me in French. I ignored his biliousness, smiled and politely responded I didn't speak French. The man opted for English, accusing me of stomping around all night with my heavy shoes and keeping him and his wife awake. I employed the Shaggy defense, "It wasn't me."

Indeed, it wasn't. I had only put my shoes on a few minutes earlier to go outside. If someone was stomping about all night, it really wasn't me. Maybe it was truly ghosts.

The ghost town, now formally known as Village Historique de Val-Jalbert in the Saguenay/Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, was once a pulp mill town, but in the late 1920s it was abandoned when the mill closed. Over the next 50 years, the harsh climate slowly began destroying what was left of a thriving town, once home to 950 hard-working folks.

In Canada a number of ghost towns get saved because of their historic settings. Many buildings are restored, interpretive centers built, and restaurants and accommodations fitted into the rehabilitated structures.

Val-Jalbert was a company town for those who worked the pulp mill, but its setting was, and still is, extraordinary. The flat lands emanating from Lac-Saint-Jean rise suddenly and steeply into a sharp, forested massif. The wall is cut by a tremendous waterfall, which I was told was higher than Niagara, forming a river at the base that flows through the town into the nearby lake.

Visitors can stay overnight in Canada's historic villages, so when the day visitors go home, the overnight guests remain to haunt the abandoned streets. I had a nicely appointed room highlighted by a deep four-legged tub. I slept soundly, undisturbed by poltergeists stomping about in heavy shoes.

I spent five days in the beautiful Saguenay/Lac-Saint-Jean region and stayed in some of the most unusual accommodations I've ever inhabited. The ghost town turned out to be the most mundane of my stops.

The next day I would be sleeping in a zoo — more or less. Zoo Sauvage de Saint-Felicien sounds basic enough, but it's very specialized, focusing only on those animals that inhabit the boreal lands of the Northern Hemisphere, which means anything from the moose and wolverines of Canada to Amur tigers of Central Asia to snow monkeys of Japan. However, what makes Zoo Sauvage (which means wild) unique is that it is attached to a game park, a huge land mass where the animals — from black bears to elk to musk ox — roam free. It's up to the skill of the guide to locate them in the park.

Even more unusual is that there is a campsite in part of the game park that is fenced off from the main park so you don't get eaten by grizzly bears or wolves, but some big game, such as caribou and moose, are still about. That took some getting used to because the caribou would often plant themselves near the one outhouse at the campsite so that if nature called, I had to run a gauntlet of caribou to get where I needed to go.

At first this was disconcerting, but the caribou were so used to humans being at the campsite that they would clearly have joined me in my tent if I hadn't been careful.

If sleeping with the caribou sounds attractive, then let me up nature's ante. The very next night I traveled to the northern edge of the Lac-Saint-Jean region, where I slept in a yurt in the middle of the Aventuraid/Parc Mahikan, a privately owned wolf park.

Quebec is a huge province, but after Lac-Saint-Jean the populated world begins to ebb, and the lands to the north are barely occupied except for miners or First Nation Canadians. Near Girardville, the last burg on the way north, Frenchman Gilles Granal began an encampment to study wolves. When I arrived, the wolves numbered 32 and were divided into three enclosures, the largest (five acres) of which was for the lupines that were still wild.

The yurt, which was an original rounded tent structure from Mongolia, had been erected a few yards from an area in the wild wolf compound where the animals liked to congregate. The yurt was handsomely and ornately decorated, and although it was comfortable for two, in its original life it was home to a family of Mongolians and probably their horse. The one drawback was that it still smelled like damp horse flesh. Although the night temperature dipped into the 40s, I kept the outer door open to allow for fresh air — and the sound of wolf packs howling — to come in.

Even after all that, the most unusual accommodation on my trip was none of the above. Instead it was a large sphere suspended by cables over the edge of a cliff. What some have called either a large golf ball, avocado or even a menacing hairball is attached to a wood landing so that the guest can climb into it with ease.

It's not very large, although I'm told a family of four can sleep comfortably in it. I slept with a roommate, with me at the top of what was a kind of bunk-bed structure. It was not uncomfortable, but the necessities of life such as water and bathroom facilities were on the terra firma of the Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux, a deeply wooded park overlooking Saguenay Fjord. Anyone who had to get up in the middle of the night needed a flashlight and a sense of adventure.

WHEN YOU GO

For information about the Saguenay region: www.tourismesaglac.net

Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux: www.capjeseux.com

Village Historique de Val-Jalbert: www.valjalbert.com

Zoo Sauvage de Saint-Felicien: www.zoosauvage.org

Aventuraid/Parc Mahikan: www.aventuraid.qc.ca

To get to the Saguenay/Lac-Saint-Jean region, I flew from Phoenix to Montreal. I overnighted in Montreal at the downtown Omni Hotel and then the next day caught an Air Canada flight to Bagotville. After five days of sightseeing, kayaking, hiking, camping, seeing wildlife, biking, canoeing and cruising on (and circumnavigating) Lac-Saint-Jean, I arrived back in Bagotville for a flight back to Montreal. I stayed at the Fairfield Inn at the airport — pretty tame considering where I had been!

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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