Charlevoix, QC

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.

Flying over the UNESCO recognized Charlevoix Biosphere Reserve. Photo By Barb Sligl.

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! 

Vignette off the main street in Baie-Saint-Paul. Photo By Barb Sligl.

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).

Le Migneron de Charlevoix; Local wine, Le Charlevoyou. Photo By Barb Sligl.

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).

Bike stand, Cidrerie et Vergers Pedneault on Isle-aux-Coudres; Tiny roadside chapel on Isle-aux-Coudres. Photo By Barb Sligl.

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).

Sugarpie; T-shirt at Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie. Photo By Barb Sligl.

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

Chengdu, China

Unmasking Chengdu: Sichuan’s capital city embraces its ancient roots and modern renaissance

Photo by Janet Gyenes

I watch the transformation of a man’s face reflected in a long, horizontal mirror. He dips a thin brush into a blue-and-white dish, then methodically paints the makeup on his eyes. He murmurs to another man in this green room at Shufeng Yayun Teahouse while stippling colour on his lips with a fingertip, drawing the character he’ll embody in tonight’s Sichuan opera performance.   

Nearby, a younger man’s metamorphosis is complete. He’s wearing a blue-and-gold costume embroidered with dragon motifs and accessorized by a headpiece that has pink pompoms springing forth from its crown. The actor’s face is a stone mask of Chinese graffiti tagged with swaths of pink as he menaces a sword. His black Nike shoes break character. Seconds later, so does he, letting loose a broad grin.

Photo by Janet Gyenes

Here in Chengdu, casually dressed people of all ages start to settle into red rattan wing chairs as a woman places pots of jasmine tea and glassine bags stuffed with spicy-sweet popcorn on the tables. Red lanterns dance overhead. The breezy teahouse is a traditional venue for the Sichuan opera, which was born in Chengdu, and whose folkloric performances have endured since the 16th century.

In this megacity of 16 million people (capital of the Sichuan province in southwest China), markers of Chengdu’s evolution are everywhere. Architects have re-drawn the landscape with structures writ large. Extra large. Like the New Century Global Center, the world’s largest building by volume. It’s a futuristic Xanadu for the masses who cavort in this 140,000 square-metre pleasure dome brimming with 3,000-plus shops, hundreds of hotel rooms and even a beach. Although the idea of spending a day at the “seaside” in a landlocked megalopolis is paradoxically compelling, I continue to explore the cultural side of Chengdu, which has a rep for its chill factor.

Photo by Janet Gyenes

“You’re my hero!” a dinner companion gushes  when I fish another pork ball out of a volcanic pot of soup spiked with lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. We’re at a restaurant called Huangcheng Laoma, indulging in a leisurely meal of hotpot—one of the some 6,000 dishes that earned Chengdu its status as UNESCO’s premiere City of Gastronomy. Earlier that day, I got delightfully lost in the city’s ancient (and recently refurbished) alleys. Like the silk threads that form the Shu brocade for which Chengdu is famed, Kuan Xiangzi (Wide Alley) and Zhai Xiangzi (Narrow Alley) are intricate strands where knots of artisans hammer silver into jewellery, carve names into stone “chops” and hawk snacks such as glistening fried duck and rabbit, dried yak meat and skewers of sticky doughnut-like sweets.

Photo by Janet Gyenes

Naturally, there are scads of panda-themed souvenirs, too. I also visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and watched a handful of the 150 black-and-white bears, along with raccoon-like red pandas, in their natural habitat. Situated in a lush bamboo forest just 10 km outside the city core, the research base is emblematic of Chengdu’s strong ties to its history (the giant panda has lived in the region for 4,000-plus years), connecting its natural wonders to those shaping its future.  — Janet Gyenes

More: Check out gochengdu.cn

New Orleans, Louisiana

NOLA: The Big Easy beckons

Bourbon Street

“Up here! Up here!” Everyone on the balcony was shouting to parade revellers below, arms outstretched to catch beaded necklaces flung up into the air. I wasn’t even there during Mardi Gras, but in New Orleans (also known as NOLA), there’s always a reason to celebrate and on Bourbon Street, there’s always spontaneous bursts of revelry and music.

But unless you’re a university student on break, don’t linger on Bourbon Street. Instead, walk a few blocks over to Frenchmen Street, a decidedly more charming and quintessentially New Orleans experience. This is where I found a poet-for-hire, moodily lit by neon, telling his tale of how he ended up in NOLA with his typewriter. But the live music was calling—a jumble of jazz and hip hop and rockabilly, spilling out onto the street and tempting me in. The Spotted Cat (spottedcatmusicclub.com) and Snug Harbor (snugjazz.com) are favourites among locals.

Char-grilled oysters; The land of crawfish

But my main goal was to eat my way through New Orleans—the best way to explore such a culturally diverse city with regionally specific cuisine. Char-grilled oysters are a staple in this town, introduced over 20 years ago by Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of Drago’s Seafood Restaurant (dragosrestaurant.com). I’m used to the fresh, briny scent of delicate raw oysters, so the smell of garlic, butter and cheese was inconsonant—until the first bite. The rich sauce that bubbles over during grilling to create caramelized, chewy edges works beautifully with the Gulf’s larger, meatier oysters. Equally delicious but far trickier to eat are crawfish. Seafood boils are a tradition in which crawfish comes steamed in a bucket and dumped over paper in a heap on the table in front of you. Forget the cutlery, dig in with your hands. When you face your first boiled crawfish (it’s inevitable), remember this: pinch the tail, twist the head and pop the meat out.

Liuzza’s shrimp po’boy

Try Bevi Seafood Company (beviseafoodco.com) or Schaefer’s Seafood, which has been around for over 40 years. And don’t leave without trying a po’boy (traditionally fried oysters on baguette-like bread). On a hot tip, I ventured outside the French Quarter to Liuzza’s for her famous BBQ shrimp po’boy (liuzzas.com).

Willa Jean’s cookies

After all that seafood, wash it down with a frosé: frozen rosé. While these adult slurpees can be found in most restaurants throughout New Orleans, this sophisticated version is rumoured to have originated at Willa Jean (willajean.com), a contemporary southern-comfort-food eatery specializing in exquisite baked goods. The cornbread and tartines are just about as famous as the frosés. And if that’s not enough, try a beignet, a French take on a fritter, another sweet treat that NOLA’s known for.

Crypts in one of NOLA’s cemeteries; Go-to spot for voodoo souvenirs

The best place to walk off all this food and drink is through one of New Orleans’ hauntingly poignant cemeteries, nicknamed “cities of the dead”. The most famous is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and its most famous vault belonging to the voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau, an occult and voodoo practitioner during the mid-1800s. Whether or not she had special gifts, she did hold great power over residents who both feared and respected her. Her influence continues today, evidenced by all the “X”s covering her vault. It’s rumoured that you can invoke her spirit by marking an “X” on the tomb, turning around three times, knocking on the tomb, telling her your wish, then returning later to circle your “X” and leaving Laveau an offering. If that’s too complicated, you can always buy a voodoo doll at Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo (voodooneworleans.com) in the French Quarter. Which is what I did. — Catherine Tse