Beguiled by Belugas and Charlevoix’s Charm – Part 1
Photos courtesy of Charlevoix tourism.
The colours of autumn are once again upon us, and while many flock to Gatineau Park for a taste of the glory, a short drive east will truly get you away from the fray of life. In about the same time it takes to drive to Oakville, you can be surrounded by Quebec’s divinely stunning Charlevoix region. Everything about this area is astounding. The people, the splendour of nature, the food, the activities and the vibe make it the perfect weekend escape.
For starters, there is the spectacular and almost indescribable natural diversity of Charlevoix. The area was designated a Word Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1989 for very good reason. The area has a rich variety of ecosystems. Look to one side and there are mountains, with patches of clouds in between the peaks, the smell of salt in the air from the mighty Saint Lawrence River and its magnificent coastline. Then there’s the multitude of trees and vegetation and boundless beauty. Quaint, charming towns and villages populated with people with a joie de vivre and pride for their area are scattered along the coast and in the mountains.
Charlevoix is an expansive territory that owes much of its magnificence to a meteorite that landed in the area some 350 million years ago. The collision resulted in a large crater (56 kilometres in diameter) making it one of the largest inhabited craters in the world.
Whale watchers will be familiar with Tadoussac or Baie-Sainte-Catherine as it is a superb area to launch into the Saint Lawrence to experience those giant, graceful creatures. Any trip to the region during whale season should include a jaunt, there is still time to get out and see them. Croisières AML will take you out for a three-hour expedition with a biologist onboard to provide interesting facts about the Saint Lawrence, the mammals and the geological and geographical details of region. It is fascinating and awe-inspiring as the whales come very close to the boat. AML also offers the same experience in a zodiac. You will see countless whales (if you are lucky, which you probably will be) and literally hundreds of seals. AML will then take you to the Saguenay fjord for an incredible view.
While skiing and whale watching are definitely great things to do in the area, there is much, much more to enjoy and experience.
Baie-Saint-Paul and Isle-aux-Coudres
About an hour and a bit from Quebec City, along the 138, head to Baie-Saint-Paul. You will immediately see why the Group of Seven fell in love with the region. It is a quaint town with art stores, boutiques and cafes. It’s worth a stop to look around before heading to Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive Harbour to take the free 15-minute ferry to Isle-aux-Coudres, where you will immediately feel your stress melt away. The island thrives on tourism but it is not touristy in the cheesy, gouging kind of way. Also, the island basically shuts down mid-October for the cold months, so try and book soon.
Jacques Cartier found the island and named it after the abundance of coudres, hazelnuts, he found there. It is an oasis of a place with a pace that reminds you there is more to life than hustle and bustle. It is a cyclist’s, runner’s and walker’s paradise. The 24 km circumference of the island offers incredible scenery. There are also paths in the island’s interior that are beautiful as well. No need to pack your bike, rent from Vélo Coudres. It has a number of options, including mountain bikes, bicycles built for 2, even quadricycles.
As you explore the island, grab a sweet or savoury snack at the Boulangerie. Their bread is phenomenal, as are the pastries and pies. About 10 km down the road, wash it all down at the Cidrerie Vergers Pedneault. It will provide sweet hit of a different kind. The ice storm of the late 1990s may have been disastrous for many, but one good thing came out of it: ice cider, and it is incredible. They have a wide variety of other alcoholic ciders, (including apple, pear, plum and Saskatoon berry) but also have non-alcoholic types. You can also pick your own apples and visit the orchard.
Les Moulins de l’Isle-aux-Coudres is the only site of its kind in Canada and it’s on the island. This museum houses a fully functional watermill (1825) and windmill (1836), as well as a miller’s residence. It’s worth a stop.
Bed and breakfasts abound, as do more resort-type accommodations. With an indoor swimming pool, ping pong, mini putt, a bar, a beautiful fireplace in the lobby, the Hôtel Cap-aux-Pierres has plenty of ways to keep everyone busy. It is also the perfect place to relax. The staff has a calming presence, and they do everything they can to make your stay comfortable. The food is incredible. The Osso bucco is fantastic and the full breakfast is a great way to start the day. With two kids under the age of 13 as travel partners, I can say with certainty that the hotel is very accommodating to young palates.
Experiencing the tide come in and out can be exciting for the younger set who may not have had the chance to see it before. It’s amazing too, even if you are big kid. It never grows old.
Anyone curious about the maritime history of the area, and even those who are not, will appreciate a stop at the Maritime Museum of Charlevoix once back on the mainland. It offers a detailed look at the once vibrant schooner history of the area.
On the Road to La Malbaie
Along the road to La Malbaie from Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive, about an hour along the scenic highway, you will come to Sainte-Irénée. If you need to
stop for a bite along the way, there is not a lot of choice, but La Table offers delicious sandwiches and soups made with local ingredients, including lamb. Head up the highway a further 15 kilometres and as you come into Sainte-Irénée, climb up rue Saint Antoine to Les Écuries Entre Monts et Marées for a trail ride in the clouds and a view of the Saint Lawrence in the distance. In the summer, you can actually ride on the beach but for now and into the winter, you will trail ride in the peaceful surroundings of the mountainous trail.
A ride is a great way to break up the journey to La Malbaie, the perfect homebase as you explore more of the region.
Read Part 2 Here.