Whale watching, cycling, shopping, golfing, eating…breathing the mountain air. This is how to explore Charlevoix, Quebec.
If you’re from the province of Quebec, you already know the lush, mountainous Charlevoix Region as a place of summer cottages, good food and leisurely weekends away. If you’re from the Maritimes, the region is best known for its incredible skiing opportunities at Le Massif, a winter playground that is easily accessible from the East Coast. What many don’t know is that one of the reasons this region is so lush and mountainous is that it was hit by a meteorite 350 million years ago!
A former playground for affluent Americans (the Kennedy set loved it here), Charlevoix is easily accessible by car from Eastern Canada and New England – the perfect way to explore a culture of fresh, delicious food and outdoor adventure in Canada.
To reach Charlevoix from other parts of the world, fly to Quebec City. Take a day trip to get a small taste of the region, or idle your way through the hills on a leisurely road trip. Whatever your speed, there’s something to see at any time of year along this incredibly beautiful stretch of the St. Lawrence River.
The Charlevoix Train
This private tourist train, which has no affiliation with Via Rail, uses 125 km of track between Quebec City’s Gare Montmorency (at the foot of the Montmorency Falls) and La Malbaie. The journey is stunning, taking you along the route between the mountains and the St. Lawrence River – views that you will never see from the road.
A popular itinerary is a simple day trip from Quebec City to Baie St. Paul or La Malbaie. For an incredible romantic getaway, there are also overnight packages offered in conjunction with local hotels, such as this two-night escape to Auberge des Falaises, a family-run hotel with in-room fireplaces, an award-winning restaurant, and beautiful views over the St. Lawrence.
Baie St. Paul
You could spend a whole day strolling along Rue Sainte-Jean-Baptiste in the quaint town of Baie St. Paul, which is packed to the brim with interesting boutiques, galleries and local artist workshops. Grab a gelato at Fraîcheurs et Saveurs, a well-stocked sweet shop with a cheerful, retro vibe, or step into the past at Boutique Le Joker, a toy shop with every toy imaginable from your childhood including Fisher-Price toys and cool vintage mini-Atari game machines.
Le Germain Hotel and Spa Charlevoix
For decadence in Baie St. Paul, stay at Le Germain Hotel and Spa Charlevoix – an old arts theatre, transformed into a luxury hotel and spa by Daniel Gauthier, co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, originally called Hotel Hôtel La Ferme. With tons of wide open spaces, kids’ play zones, and activities like marshmallow roasting, it’s a great place for families, or a great way to get away from the kids. You choose.
Whale Watching on The Saguenay River
The Saguenay River sits in a glacial valley on the edge of the Saguenay Fjord National Park, surrounded by cliffs, waterfalls and rock formations. It’s location and depth make it a favourite feeding spot for many types of whales, including beluga. Book a cruise from Baie Sainte-Catherine with AML Cruises. Families will want to book a place on the Grand Fleuve, where you can expect floor to ceiling windows, a gift shop, canteen, flush toilets and a superb live commentary from an experienced naturalist. Adventure travellers can book a thrilling Zodiac Tour.
La Goutte de Lait exhibit at Le Laiterie Charlevoix
The Charlevoix region is known for agritourism, but one of the most fascinating aspects of a visit to La Laiterie Charlevoix is a vast collection of dairy farming artefacts in the “La Goutte de Lait” exhibit. This collection was held by a private enthusiast, Robert Benoît, until he donated the entire treasure to La Laiterie. Artefacts date back 1890 and will appeal to those interested in the history of marketing, typography or fonts. And, of course, if you love gastronomy as much as graphic design, you can taste and buy delicious local cheese at this family-run dairy!
A short ferry from the mainland takes you to Isle-aux-Coudres, an island that is only 23 km around, with tons of things to do and see, especially for families. If you love cycling, bring your bike, or rent one from Velo-Coudres, which has a large selection bikes and quads, friendly for all ages.
Also, on the island, kids will be spinning with excitement for the windmill tour at Les Moulins de L’Isle-aux-Coudres. Uniquely, this restored mill can be powered by wind or water, and as a souvenir, you can buy flour that is milled there.
For lunch, grab a quick bite to eat at Boulangerie Bouchard, a bakery with a gorgeous river view. A speciality is the pâté croche – a hearty, meat-filled pastry.
Back on the mainland, the town of La Malbaie has been welcoming tourists for centuries. Some will know it as “Murray Bay,” a place where Canadian diplomats and wealthy Americans both vacationed in “unpretentious estates“, far from the hustle and bustle of Washington or New York. Its splendour remains evident in the scenery of its cliffs, in French, les falaises. The grandest choice for resort accommodation is the historic Fairmont Chateau Richelieu and its golf club, Club de Golf Le Manoir Richelieu.
La Maison de Bootlegger
La Maison de Bootlegger is a totally wild place. Restored into a tourist attraction by entrepreneur, Johanne Brassard, the building itself is a grand, elaborate speakeasy from the 1930’s, full of false walls, hidden passages and secret doors. A tour around this crazy, cavernous maze just shows you how far people will go for a drink. The daytime tour is family-friendly.
In the evening, leave the kids at home, and revel under the rafters while rocking out to Joey Tardif and the Bootlegger house band. You’ll be following in the footsteps of many celebrities and politicians at this intensely popular supper club, where it’s all about good food, good people…and the feeling that you’re doing something slightly illicit.
Whatever your taste, speed or style, you’ll find something amazing to do with the family in Charlevoix, one of Quebec’s most beautiful regions.
Helen Earley is a Halifax-based writer. Her trip was hosted by Tourisme Charlevoix.