I’ve stayed in some high-class hotels over 25 years of travel, from Paris to Panama City to Peru. So it may be a surprise that to me, the hotel that beats them all is right here in Canada: the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, in La Malbaie, Quebec.
The world is full of shiny new glass towers with 1,000 rooms and rooftop bars. But I like a hotel with history and character, in a setting that makes you feel you’re staying in one of the world’s most special places. So I was excited to find that during my recent visit to the Charlevoix region, I’d be spending two nights in one of Canada’s classic hotels, Le Manoir Richelieu.
It’s hard to imagine a hotel with a more romantic setting. Sitting grandly on a cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River, surrounded by picturesque towns and the dense Canadian woods, Le Manoir Richelieu was once known as “the castle on the cliff”.
And it has a history to match: from 1899 until the 1950s, famous people like Fred Astaire and Bob Hope took the Canada Steamship Lines’ “white boats” down the river from Montreal to spend a week here. They played golf, drank cocktails on the terrace and mixed with the industrialists and politicians who filled the guest list. Former U.S. President William Taft spent his summers in the area, and inaugurated the hotel’s golf course.
By the 1960s, the Canada Steamship boats stopped running, and there were some uncertain times. But the hotel was reborn in 1999 as a Canadian Pacific (later Fairmont) hotel, joining its collection of grand, château-style hotels like the Château Frontenac and the Château Lake Louise.
It’s the kind of place where a confirmed commoner might feel a little out of place. But walking through the hotel’s vintage front doors, I felt right at home, as if I were stepping into a little piece of the past. The feeling only grew as I walked through the long, wood-beamed lobby, past 100-year-old furniture and historic paintings, to the great stone fireplace under the Richelieu coat of arms.
The welcome was warm, with a friendly Quebec accent, and soon I was looking out the windows of a well-appointed guest room to an expansive view of the St. Lawrence. The hotel had left me a very French welcome: a setting of four macarons sat in front of the flat-screen TV. But the real surprise was waiting in the bathroom. While arranging my toiletries, I noticed four small bottles of shampoo and body lotion on the shelf. I looked a little closer: my name was printed on them. Now, that’s personal service.
That night, arriving late from a whale watching trip, I ate in the St-Laurent buffet restaurant. And afterward, I strolled onto the terrace to take the air and came upon a scene that evoked the hotel’s heyday. Wood fires crackled in fire pits to warm the guests gathered in Adirondack chairs. And as I walked down toward the river, there was the classic picture from the old tourist posters of the 1920s: a full moon shining through the pines, painting a silver trail across the water. I tried to capture it with a camera, but it’s one of those things that can only be saved as a memory.
Around the corner, a stream of guests headed into the casino, in a historic building that once housed the pool and dance hall. With the hotel lit up for the Saturday night crowd, it was a festive scene. Fred Astaire may not dance here any more, but on a clear summer night, Le Manoir still draws a happy crowd looking for a good time.
The next day, I had a chance to really see the hotel in detail on a guided tour, and it was an impressive sight. Built in 1929 after the original hotel on the site burnt down, Le Manoir Richelieu is indeed a grand place. The hotel towers over the river like one of the French châteaux after which it’s modelled. And all along, the open patios and green terraces afford a spectacular view of the river.
That’s also true of the three restaurants, particularly the four-diamond Le Charlevoix, which offers a special tasting menu featuring food from the local terroir. While you’re not admiring the view, you can admire the original painting on your plate, depicting one of the four seasons in the Charlevoix region.
The rooms are modern, but always with a vintage touch – dark wood headboards, old-style pictures and classic-looking drapes. There are luxury suites, and spa rooms where you can lie in the whirlpool tub and look out on the lawns sloping down to the St. Lawrence — where else can you say that?
The newer Pavillon wing houses a very tranquil spa and three swimming pools, including an outdoor pool that’s heated during winter. And there’s a sports centre, with equipment for the amazing variety of pastimes on offer.
You can play golf on the hotel’s 27-hole course, with spectacular vistas of the countryside (Le Manoir Richelieu was named the seventh-best golf resort in the world by Condé Nast magazine). Or you can play tennis, badminton, volleyball or shuffleboard, go mountain biking, ride horses or even take a carriage ride.
That’s in summer. But the hotel also stays open in winter, for the ski season at Le Massif. And for those who prefer other winter sports, there’s snowmobiling, snowshoeing, ice skating and sleigh rides. In the old days, there was even a bobsled run. I’m not a fan of winter, but even I can imagine spending time here when the woods are covered with a blanket of snow and there are hot toddies waiting in the lounge.
After my tour, I spent a little time exploring the trails that lead through the woods along the river. In summer they were beautiful, and in fall they must be spectacular. And as the sun began to set, I looked out on iconic scenes of the Canadian wilderness. You could shoot a calendar here in a day.
I left Le Manoir Richelieu with a few regrets. There was more to see in the Charlevoix region, and not much time. But I would have gladly stayed a few more days, to visit the Haute-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie national park, explore the nearby village of Cap à L’Aigle, maybe take a horseback ride on the forest paths.
Still, I felt lucky to have spent some time in one of Canada’s most iconic hotels, in one of Canada’s most iconic landscapes. While the golden age may have passed for hotels like this, they’re still special places, and well worth the trip at any time of year. Maybe, if my luck holds out, one day I’ll get to come back.
Photos taken with the Nikon COOLPIX P900 camera