Is this Paris or is it Charlevoix?
CHARLEVOIX, QUEBEC — “I wouldn’t bother looking at the menu” says the waiter shaking his head. “Our choices change so much we never have time to update it.” Pausing for a second to refer to his notebook, he adds, “Tonight, we have lamb, ostrich, fresh foie gras and duck, all from farms in the area. But whatever you decide, save room for dessert. You won’t want to miss our local cheese plate and ice creams.”
Charlevoix is that rare rural retreat where getting away from it all gets you more than you ever imagined. While Montreal and Quebec City get the majority of La Belle Provence’s tourists, Charlevoix, which runs from Baie-Saint-Paul to La Malbaie and encompasses the St. Lawrence River and the Laurentian Mountains, is successfully beginning to claim its chunk of the spotlight.
In the late 19th century, the area was a favourite summer escape for both Canadian and Americans of means. In fact, Charlevoix often played host to US President William Howard Taft, who is reported to have said that the region’s enlivening air “intoxicated like Champagne, but without the headache of the morning after.” Taft even inaugurated the golf course at Charlevoix’s historic Manoir Richelieu, which was built in 1899 to accommodate the influx of wealthy sojourners. To this day, the luxury Fairmont accommodation (known as the “Castle on the Cliff”) remains one of Canada’s oldest and most storied hotels.
Charlevoix owes its stunning good looks to a rather violent run-in with a massive meteorite some 350 million years ago. Over time, the resulting crater evolved into a distinctly lush, bowl-shaped valley with vegetation so unique and varied that it earned Charlevoix recognition as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Earlier this year, Vacay.ca travel experts ranked it No. 16 on the list of the Best Places to Travel in Canada for 2015.
“Charlevoix is a work of art brought to life,” explains an agent at the tourism office in Baie Saint-Paul, the area’s largest town. Overwhelmed by the picturesque village’s incredible array of boutiques, galleries and restaurants, I’ve popped in to the tourism bureau to seek guidance.
Culture and Beauty Abound in Charlevoix
It’s fitting that the agent compares the region’s luminous landscape to a work of art. For more than a century, the area has been a siren call to artists from across the globe. Baie Saint-Paul is not only the birthplace of Cirque de Soleil, but it purports to have more art galleries per square kilometre than any other city in Canada. Quite a coup for a town of just over 7,000 residents.
Though I enjoy browsing art galleries, this verdant valley is also renowned for inspiring artists who wield knives rather than paint brushes, and I’ve come here to nourish my stomach as well as my soul.
Lush, unsullied countryside, by virtue of its dearth of industry and populace, is not often home to equally fecund foodie offerings. But not here, where duck fat — not olive oil — is one of the most popular cooking staples. In Charlevoix, thanks to one of the country’s richest agricultural bounties, visitors can have their pastoral paradise and their foie gras too.
In-the-know gourmands have long considered unpretentious Charlevoix to be among the province’s best culinary showpieces. In this region, slow, organic food has always been a mainstay, and the majority of food purveyors, farmers and chefs speak in reverential tones about “le terroir Charlevoisien” and describe themselves as much as guardians of the land as culinary artisans. Here, food is not just sustenance, or even a form of art, it is a totem of terroir.
“The only time I ever see tourists put down their cameras is to pick up a fork,” says a local in line behind me at the Laiterie Charlevoix, where I am waiting to pay for what can only be described as way-too-much cheese.
The popular dairy farm is just one stop on Charlevoix’s lauded Route des Saveurs (Flavour Trail). The route is a delectable paean to artisanal food and the locavore movement (“which is and has always been a way of life here, and not just a fad,” as one passionate chef told me). The trail leads travellers through a diet-defying variety of almost 40 stops, which includes microbreweries, chocolate shops, bakeries, charcuteries, an emu farm and a duck farm that prides itself on the production of humane foie gras.
And where to house us voyageurs and our rapidly expanding waistlines? Once again Charlevoix subverts expectations. For such a small, under-populated region, it has an impressive range of accommodation. This rustic region hosts several of the country’s most luxurious lodgings. As well as the Manoir Richelieu, the area is home to the celebrated inn La Pinsonniere. One of only a handful of prestigious Relais & Chateau properties in the country, it is as famous for its sumptuous meals as it is for its wine list of more than 700 labels.
One of the newest and most anticipated additions to the area is La Ferme, a hotel that bills itself as an “anti-resort” and somehow manages to be cutting-edge contemporary and bespoke-barnyard all at the same time. It’s one of the most authentic representations of Charlevoix’s down-to-earth ethos. Ranked as a four-star hotel, La Ferme nonetheless offers affordable and surprisingly stylized dormitory rooms, as well as more luxurious, fashion-forward suites.
I also discovered that in those rare moments when your mouth is not full, the area affords a wonderful chance to practice your French. Here, in the heart (or some would successfully argue, the stomach) of Quebec, French reigns as the primary language. Though English-only speakers will have no trouble getting around, being greeted with a warm “bienvenue” by shopkeepers, and ordering from menus that are French with English subtitles adds to the region’s charm. As one fellow traveller said, “My eyes tell me I’m in the midst of bucolic bliss, while my ears and taste buds insist I must be in Paris.”
MORE VACAY.CA COVERAGE OF CHARLEVOIX
No. 16 on the Best Places to Travel in Canada for 2015: Vacay.ca Visuals Editor Julia Pelish writes, “Charlevoix is breathtaking. The scenery is some of the most spectacular in the eastern part of North America and much of it is lightly travelled in comparison to places in New England and elsewhere in Quebec. A fine way to enjoy both the area’s beauty and its thrills is with a whale-watching cruise that takes you in search of minke whales who swim through the St. Lawrence. For those who are planning a short stay, consider taking the scenic train from Quebec City. It’s a pleasant ride with luxury dining. You will be dropped off at the foot of the splendid Hôtel La Ferme in Baie Saint-Paul.”