JEFFERY TAYLOR explores the riverside of southern Quebec and is impressed by its enthralling cities and new 'rail cruise' experience
THE train almost seems to be paddling in the shallows of the mighty Saint Lawrence River as we click-clack along at a gentle pace.
To one side, the endless expanse of blue water, its surface disturbed by the occasional plume from a passing whale. To the other, fairytale villages slipping silently by.
I settle back in comfort and prepare for a visual and gastronomic feast.
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I'm in southern Canada exploring a 200-mile strip of the river's north shore that offers, in microcosm, a taste of the country's extraordinary diversity.
There are the fascinating but contrasting cities of modern Montreal and antique Quebec City, the sleepy, Unesco-protected region of Charlevoix and, linking the two, some wonderful scenery spectacularly showcased by the new Le Train du Massif de Charlevoix.
First up is Montreal.
Long before New York's Wall Street, this was the hub of North America's money markets and the New World's first skyscraper city. No wonder there's a grandeur about the place.
Despite its size Montreal still feels on a friendly, human scale. The city is a charming collection of districts.
My favourite is the Italian, with its iron staircases snaking up the fa§ades of the tenement buildings.
Here you can get some of the best bagels in the world. Try Fairmount Bagel for "Old Country" recipes.
The Formula One circus comes to town in early June when the Notre Dame track will be revving up for the Canadian Grand Prix.
I get a (slightly more sedate) taste of the action with a taxi ride around the circuit before heading back to Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth hotel, which housed our Crown Jewels during the Second World War.
I'm allocated room 1714, the suite famously occupied by John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their 1969 peace demonstration.
Less than 140 miles down river from Montreal is Quebec City, my next stop. There's nothing quite like a sunny Sunday morning in Place d'Armes.
Overhead the bells of the Anglican Holy Trinity Cathedral peal out a noisy welcome while the 1640 Auberge du Tresor broadcasts its own homely invitation with the delicious aroma of freshly ground coffee.
Charles Dickens would feel so at home.
I completely succumb to the city's Victorian charm and civilised pace.
Have a chat with print maker Jean Philippe Vogel who has clocked up 25 years on the same pavement spot in a narrow, twisting artistic alley.
Nor must you miss M Giguere's tobacconist on the Rue De Bruard.
A century old, the shop refuses to hide away its tobacco products as required by draconian new legislation.
Fearful of the wrath of the Giguere family, let alone its customers' fury, the powers that be turn a blind eye.
The cities are exhilarating but the highlight of my trip is waiting at the breathtaking Montmorency Falls on Quebec's outskirts.
Le Train is all gleaming silver carriages and contemporary white decor with interactive features, including iPads, to help passengers interpret the sights. We follow a single track that winds along the freshwater Saint Lawrence as it balloons into a seawater estuary.
I order my haute cuisine lunch and the silver service is instantaneous in the elegant dining cars. The sun floods through the generous picture windows and bounces off the high ceilings and crisp white linen.
The two other guests at my table are the Flauberts from Toronto on a family-funded 50th wedding anniversary treat.
My French is as pidgin as their English so we have a hilarious conversation giggling over our attempts to communicate with more hand gestures than bookie John McCririck on Derby Day.
The 85 miles drift by in a leisurely three and a half hours, delivering us to La Malbaie, the idyllic capital of the Charlevoix region. My base is the enormous riverfront hotel Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu.
"Welcome to paradise," gushes Catherine, my host, as we step inside. I soon discover that what I initially interpret as professional hyperbole is no more than simple truth.
Le Manoir is a 405-room extravaganza, a turreted grey stone structure extending elegantly up the hill with a private dock along the riverbank.
The region is a protected Unesco Biosphere, a landscape formed millions of years ago by a rogue meteorite and pretty well untouched by man since.
Just north of La Malbaie is Cap-Aux-Oies (Cape Goose), with a row of pretty riverside timber houses boasting surely one of the most memorable views in the world, across the vast estuary to the distant Charlevoix Massif mountain range.
To the south of Le Manoir, I visit the village of Baie-Saint-Paul, Charlevoix's Montmartre and Canada's Cultural Capital 2007.
Surrounded by cafes, shops and art galleries to fit every purse, I sit on the terrace of the iconic, Victorian-style Auberge La Muse restaurant and inn and soak up the ambience.
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La Muse boasts that a stay here will "soothe your soul". Following a week on the St Lawrence riviera, that neatly sums up my state.
Canadian Affair (020 7616 9999/canadianaffair.com) offers six nights in Canada from £1,199pp (two sharing), B&B.
Includes return flights from Gatwick to Montreal, two nights in Montreal, one night in Quebec City, three nights in Charlevoix, VIA Rail transfer from Montreal to Quebec City and Le Massif train excursion from Quebec City to Charlevoix.
For departures between June and October 2012. Quebec Tourism: 0800 051 7055/bonjourquebec.com.uk