Charlevoix: There’s a spotlight on this region east of Montréal and Québec City
"Intoxicating like champagne without the next day’s hangover.” This was how US President William Howard Taft described the air of Murray Bay in La Malbaie, a town on the edge of the St. Lawrence River.
Today, La Malbaie looks much like it did a century ago, when Taft and other American luminaries made this village in the Charlevoix region of Québec their summer playground. Stately old mansions still overlook the grand waterway and clapboard cottages dot the shoreline. And this pretty-as-a-postcard place is where Canada is hosting the 2018 G7 Summit, June 8–9 (g7.gc.ca/en/).
The region will be under a bright spotlight as foreign dignitaries and world leaders convene at Le Manoir Richelieu (fairmont.com/Richelieu). The chateau-like hotel (part of the Fairmont chain) is the hotel in the area, and while it won’t be accessible to the public during the G7, this year-round retreat (about 80 km east of Québec City and 380 km from Montréal) is a posh base from which to explore Charlevoix’s “champagne” character.
First, there’s cheese. Ciel de Charlevoix (ah, a blue like the sky), Le Migneron (buttery and hazelnut-like), L’Hercule (strong like its namesake), 1608 (named for the only-here Canadienne cow that dates back to that same year). Agritourism is a big deal here (not only cheese, but beer, cider, wine…all part of the so-called “Flavour Trail of Charlevoix”; routedessaveurs.com). Bon appétit!
And then there’s the surprising art scene. Something in the scenery and light has attracted artists since the days of Taft et al. West of La Malbaie is Baie-Saint-Paul, which is said to have the most art galleries per capita in Canada. A stroll down the main street, rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste, takes you past artists’ busts (the Group of Seven were among past painters here), galleries (there’s even a modern-art museum, Musée d’art contemporain de Baie-Saint-Paul), gift shops, cafés and charming vignettes like fluttering garments on a clothesline. Just about every corner could be framed. And each fall, the town brings in artists from around the world as part of Rêves d’Automne, a festival of painting (revesdautomne.com).
This is also where the world-famous Cirque du Soleil was hatched, one of the founders of which went on to convert a local monastery into a chic resort hotel that’s now Le Germain Hotel & Spa Charlevoix. At lunch in the hotel’s Restaurant le Bercail it’s all about terroir products: local microbrew (La Vache Folle), wine (Le Charlevoyou) and, of course, cheese (Le Migneron, s’il te plait et merci).
Then, right outside, take the Train de Charlevoix that skirts the St. Lawrence (some 125 km between Québec City and La Malbaie) to Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive, where a ferry crosses the river to Isle-aux-Coudres. The island, with its scenic 23-km circuit, is a popular bike destination. Rent and ride (velocoudres.com), coasting past sweet little chapels and orchards, stopping to refuel for cider at Cidrerie et Vergers Pedneault (vergerspedneault.com) and then sugar pie at Boulangerie Bouchard (boulangeriebouchard.com).
It’s all bucolic to the Nth degree. This region does, after all, contain a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. La Réserve de la biosphère de Charlevoix, rising from the shores of the St. Lawrence to dramatic gorges and plateaus at 1,150 metres, is best seen by venturing deep within the reserve in Des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie park. It’s as a T-shirt in the park’s gift shop says: La vie en plein air: ma seconde nature. “Outdoor life: my second nature.” Must be that champagne air… — Barb Sligl
More: Check out tourisme-charlevoix.com