Surfing the St. Lawrence in Montreal, Quebec

Surfing in Montreal

When I was a kid, I was just dead sure I could surf.

In fact, as far as I could see, the only thing stopping me was my parents’ incomprehensible refusal to quit their jobs, sell the family home and move to Malibu so I could catch a wave. 

So uncool of them! 

I’d watch old reruns of movies like “Beach Blanket Bingo” and picture myself grabbing a board, paddling through the surf and triumphantly riding a curl all the way to the beach.   If Annette Funicello could do it in those geeky bathing suits of hers, so could I.

Fairmont Queen Elizabeth in Montreal, QuebecI’m an adult now, but no more realistic.  When I read about surfing in Montreal – just a few hours’ train ride from my St. Catharines, Ontario home – it seemed my time had finally come.  So what if there wasn’t an ocean in inland Quebec?   Surf’s up, dude!

Part of an innovative guest treat from Fairmont Hotels is known as the Apprentice Program that introduces travellers to interesting, activities specific to the local scene.  The Surf and Turf getaway in Montreal – just one of many worldwide – was made for surfer-chick-wannabes like me.  It was time to unleash all that talent that had been beached for so long!

I think Annette probably slept with Frankie Avalon on a beach towel in the back of their dune buggy, but my accommodation was considerably more upscale.  The Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel’s ( Apprentice Package included not only a full day of professional surfing instruction on the St. Lawrence River, as well as all equipment, but also two nights in a lovely room at the Queen Elizabeth in downtown Montreal where I could flop after a long day of riding the surf.  As I booked the trip, I visualized myself exhausted, but triumphant!

Find out more about staying at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel and surfing in Montreal with the Trip Builder.

Surfing and Turfing in Montreal

My surf and turf day began with a quick cab ride from our downtown hotel to the shores of the St. Lawrence River.  There, on the riverbank, we met our instructor from Kayak Sans Frontières ( who gave us an introductory safety rundown.   It was late May, so wetsuits were key, as were helmets and neoprene booties.  After a quick once-round-the-circle to ensure that everyone was a competent swimmer, we were handed our life vests and our marching orders.  We struggled into our wetsuits – think of stuffing meat into a sausage skin – and were grateful for the zippers up the backs!

Surfing in Montreal with Kayak Sans Frontieres

Suited up and now more than slightly sweaty, we headed down the hillside to the shores of the St. Lawrence River.  There, in all his glory, was Big Joe, a crest formed by three permanent waves in the rapids, that keeps Montreal surfers happy all season.

Annette and all those other surfer chicks would die to see this, I thought.  Ocean waves that roll onto a beach offer even the most experienced surfer only a minute or two of actual riding.  Big Joe, on the other hand, is a perma-wave that never loses his surfing power, thanks to the rapids at this point in the river.  According to our instructor, Montreal’s best surfers could stay on that wave for 10 minutes at a time – or longer!  In fact, during peak summer surf season, an unspoken time limit rule applies – after three or four minutes, you have to jump in and let the next surfer have a turn.

I figured I wouldn’t be a show-off right away.  Three or four minutes would be enough for me as a start. 

Our instructor gently explained that learning to surf was a process – one that started with balance.  As we clipped on the ankle straps that attached us to our boards by a long leash, I felt certain that the learning curve would be short and sweet.  I could windsurf, after all, and waterski.  How hard could river surfing be?


Somewhat harder than I’d expected.

Surfing in Montreal with Kayak Sans FrontieresLearning to slither up on the board so my arms would be free to paddle was step one, followed by a quick but frantically important lesson in currents and eddies – the powerful forces that move the water around in the river. 

“Think of it like a moving sidewalk,” said our instructor.  “The current takes you downstream and the eddy moves you back up.”

The trick is swimming from one into the other, while lying on your surf board.

I’d never before wished for shoulders twice as broad as the ones Nature gave me, but they sure would have come in handy.  Paddling the board into, through, and occasionally against the rushing water was challenging and my arms didn’t reach fully over the sides of the board.  I wondered briefly if the hotel had a massage therapist…

Once we’d mastered (?!) the art of paddling up and down stream, and learned to do a Hawaiian roll, lifting our boards over our heads to change directions mid-stream, we were ready to meet Big Joe.

“So,” I asked, flexing my disappointingly narrow shoulders, “how do we stand up once we get into the rapids?”

Our instructor smiled kindly.

“It can take a whole summer to learn to do that,” he explained.  “Today, you’re going to lie on your board.  That’ll be adventure enough.”

“Ha!”  I thought silently.  “He just doesn’t know how many times I’ve watched ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’!”

Not so much.

As our ever-patient instructor stood on his board, riding Big Joe like the pro he is, I paddled gamely through the current and the eddy and instantly found myself swept into and then – just as quickly – out of the rapids.  No standing up, no kneeling…nothing resembling even a tiny measure of control on my part.  Just a huge rush of adrenaline, accompanied by some crazed laughter as I swirled madly around.

It wasn’t pretty, but it sure was fun!

And that’s how it went for the rest of the day – and how it goes for most first-timers, I guess – and probably second and third-timers too.  Contrary to my confident expectations, you don’t get to be Annette overnight!

What you do get is an absolutely great day of fun in the St. Lawrence River – and some seriously tired shoulders at the end!

Best of all, you get to ride back to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel – one of the most venerable in the Fairmont chain – to loll around your lovely room while you email friends and family the photos of yourself in all your gear, looking far more competent than you actually were.  After you wash the river out of your hair and slip into something a little more elegant than a wetsuit, you can make your way downstairs to the Beaver Club for a much-deserved dinner.  Skip the vegetarian and other healthy offerings and go for the house-specialty roast beef.  After all, you need red meat after your day of challenging Big Joe!

If you go: The Fairmont’s Apprentice Surf and Turf Packages are offered on weekends only until September 1 and include two nights accommodation, the surfing lesson and equipment, breakfast for two and a boxed ‘surfers’ snack’.

Liz Fleming is an award-winning Canadian travel journalist who specializes in adventure, health and wellness and learning travel. For more from Liz, go to: Liz Fleming’s Travel Tales

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