Every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists come to walk the beautiful and historic streets of Quebec City. But most of them leave without knowing they’ve missed seeing one of Canada’s most beautiful and fascinating regions, just an hour or two down the road. It’s called the Charlevoix region, and I took some time to visit on my recent trip to Quebec.
The Charlevoix region is the strip of land that runs east from Quebec City toward the Atlantic along the St. Lawrence, one of the great rivers of North America. This is where the waters of the Great Lakes flow down to the sea, and for centuries people from Europe sailed up this stretch of river for their first look at the New World.
Charlevoix is also the place where the Laurentian Mountains plunge down toward the river, providing a playground that draws skiers to places like Le Massif de Charlevoix. In summer, hikers test themselves in the Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie, where a small river flows between the steepest rock faces east of the Rockies. And in fall, tourists come to see the spectacular changing of the leaves.
But the heart of the Charlevoix region is the River Drive, a stretch of road between Baie-Saint-Paul and La Malbaie that is one of the most scenic drives in all of Canada. And that’s where I began my trip, driving through scenes straight out of the tourist brochures: picturesque towns nestled in green farmland, rolling hills covered with dense northern forest, mountain peaks looming on the horizon. And always, the river in the distance, shining blue or grey or silver depending on its mood.
My destination was La Malbaie, the small town that serves as a crossroads for people headed onward, to the whale-watching hot spots of Baie-Sainte-Catherine and Tadoussac. It’s here that you cross the river to head north or east, but I had a stop to make. Luck was with me, and my hosts, Tourisme-Charlevoix, had arranged for me to stay in perhaps the region’s most iconic hotel, the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu.
A short drive through pretty woodland, and there it was, the former playground of rich New Englanders in the days of the old-fashioned river cruises. And it was just as advertised, a grand, stately building stretching along the river, with green lawns and Adirondack chairs providing the perfect view. It was tempting to just sit down and have a drink, but I had a deadline: I was due for a whale-watching tour in Baie-Sainte-Catherine at 4.
Off again, and as I drove, the landscape became even more spectacular. At the top of each hill, another beautiful vista spread out in front of me: the road winding through endless stretches of untouched green forest, dotted here and there with tiny, stunningly blue lakes where wooden cottages peeked through the trees.
My fingers itched to take photos, but with the steep up and downgrades, I didn’t dare. Finally, I did manage to pull over and take a few.
Happily, I arrived safely, and you can read about my whale-watching adventures in this post. But even as I searched the waves for minke and fin whales, I began to understand a little more about the amazing place I had come to. The St. Lawrence is a river like no other. Not much more than a stone’s throw wide in Quebec City, by the time it reaches the Atlantic, it widens out into a deep, wide estuary.
In fact, the ocean pushes up into the river for many kilometres, mixing salt water with fresh. That unique meeting of ocean and sea brings forth millions of tiny creatures called krill, especially where the Saguenay River joins the St. Lawrence. And that draws whales, both large and small, up into the river to feed.
That also means the river has tides, turning any shallow areas along the banks into wide mud flats twice a day. That makes navigation tricky; in fact, Samuel de Champlain gave La Malbaie its name back in the 1600s when his ship was grounded by the tide. It also produces memorable scenes like this one.
Back in La Malbaie, I settled into life at Le Manoir Richelieu. The food was excellent, the surroundings classic, and after dinner I strolled the grounds to find another iconic scene: the moon through the pine trees, painting a silvery path across the waters of the St. Lawrence. Was this where they painted the picture you see on all the old tourist posters?
My two days in La Malbaie went quickly, with another trip to the whale-watching grounds the next morning. But the trip wasn’t over. There were more sides of the Charlevoix to see on my way back to the city — the region’s unique mix of small-town Québécois life with a thriving arts and crafts culture. Driving back, I caught a glimpse as I passed the Ecomusée du Fromage, showcasing the artisan cheeses that are a Charlevoix specialty.
A few minutes later I arrived in the arts centre of Charlevoix region, Baie-Saint-Paul. From a distance, it seemed like a typical, pretty Quebec town, with its twin-spired church and town hall. And in fact, it’s one of the oldest towns in Quebec, and also the birthplace of the famous Cirque du Soleil.
Stepping onto the main street, Saint-Jean-Baptiste, I found a row of restaurants, gift shops and ice cream parlours, busy with summer visitors. And every few feet, an art gallery operating in a hundred-year-old house.
In fact, Baie-Saint-Paul and the surrounding hills have long been a magnet for artists, largely due to the dramatic scenery and the unique light that illuminates the river and the local hills. And they’re well remembered: the main streets of downtown Baie-Saint-Paul are dotted with statues commemorating them, in a variety of styles.
My final stop, a few minutes away, showed me another side of Charlevoix: Isle-aux-Coudres, an island in the St. Lawrence that seems to exist in its own time zone. After a ferry ride filled with eye-popping scenery, I found myself driving past quaint clapboard cottages, and rustic motels set on the heights overlooking the river.
Along the way, I stopped at a little white building at the side of the road with a sign that said “Bouchard”. Finding a spot among the line of cars, I went inside, and there, among shelves filled with freshly baked bread, was what I had come looking for: tarte aux sucre, or Québécois sugar pie, made from a family recipe handed down by grandmother Bouchard. I ate it on the spot: sweet and syrupy, a bit buttery, and totally satisfying.
That night, I stayed in one of the prime spots on the island — the Hotel Cap-aux-Pierres, sitting on a bluff overlooking the river. The hotel is a popular stop for groups touring the Charlevoix region during the busy summer season. And dining on local pork and vegetables as the sun began to set over the St. Lawrence, I could see why.
Afterward, I strolled onto the front porch to take the night air, and looked over a scene that could make city folk consider moving to the country. Delicate clouds hugged the water line as dim lights shone from the opposite shore, and out on the lawns, a fire crackled in an outdoor fire pit. My time in the Charlevoix region was up too soon — but I have a feeling I’ll be back.
I was a guest of Tourisme-Charlevoix on this trip. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
Photos taken with the Nikon COOLPIX P900 camera