Baie-Saint-Paul and beyond in Charlevoix, Quebec’s charming holiday destination

It starts at a small train station looking out at a magnificent waterfall.

When I arrive at the station 12 kilometres outside of Quebec City I smile when I see Canada’s Montmorency Falls.

Just a few days earlier I was on a zip line crossing the face of those falls, which at 30 metres higher than Niagara Falls are quite a thing to zip line past.

Now I was waiting to catch a small train to another part of Quebec, one that I’d heard very good things about and one that was fun to say – Charlevoix.

The Train de Charlevoix crosses Saint-Lawrence's shore to travel between Quebec City and La Balbaie

The Train de Charlevoix runs from June through October and travels around 125km from the falls to Charlevoix to La Malbaie, with stops at seven towns and coastal villages on the way.

A soundtrack including Enya’s Orinoco Flow and Beth Orton’s Stars All Seem to Weep are hitting the right spot for me as I look out onto fields of wildflowers and become fascinated with the patterns in the riverbank as I watch the St Lawrence River stretch into the distance.

By the time we arrive in my stop of Baie-Saint-Paul I’m feeling very relaxed indeed. I’m also rather warm as the train doesn’t have air conditioning and my seat on the right hand side was in direct sunlight. So it’s a good idea to wear layers you can easily remove and have some sunscreen on hand for this train journey.

But despite feeling the heat at times, the view was worth it, as was the town waiting at the other end.

Charlevoix’s charming Baie Saint Paul

Baie-Saint-Paul may be called a city, but with a population of around 7,000 it feels like more like a village or town. A charming, colourful, bohemian town where you can get enjoyably lost pottering around in art galleries, cafes and boutiques.

The pretty streets of Charlevoix town of Baie Saint Paul, Quebec

The first thing you see when you get off the train is a stylish hotel that happens to be built right beside the train station.

Created by one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil, Daniel Gauthier, Le Germain Hotel Charlevoix plays host to a weekend farmers’ market through the summer and is home to a top spot for lunch, Restaurant Le Bercail.

After having a little look inside a couple of the hotel rooms this design hotel one is definitely on my list to stay at another time, but for my first Baie-Saint-Paul stay I was at a sweet family run hotel in the heart of the town.

La Maison Otis is an ancestral stone inn that feels like staying at a lovely grandparent’s place. I loved my four-poster bed and the homey feel to the whole hotel, not to mention the way I could step out my front door and be in the midst of the art galleries and boutiques.

That said, it’s quite easy to walk around the main part of town and to pay visits to local historic attractions including the Espace muséal des Petites Franciscaines de Marie.

This museum takes visitors through the origins and evolution of the Little Fanciscans of Mary, which unlike most religious congregations doesn’t have one but instead eleven founding sisters.

Their original request to form a religious community was rejected by Bishop Patrick Thomas O’Reilly in 1890, but then in 1891 when all seemed lost, one of the foundresses, Mother Marie de Bon Secours, prayed before a Virgin statue. She heard the words “Go ahead, my little sisters, you will succeed!” and it lifted the faith of the entire group.

That statue is now known as Our Lady of the Little Franciscans and stands at the entrance to the beautiful Sacred-Heart Chapel.

The museum has all sorts of memories from over the years, including something I hadn’t seen or heard of before. The lesser known Marvel comic book, Francis, Brother of the Universe. Yes, that’s real.

Our Lady of the Little Franciscans at Espace muséal des Petites Franciscaines de Marie

 

The lesser known Marvel comic book, Francis, Brother of the Universe

After an afternoon of soaking up the town it was time for dinner, and I headed for Chez Bouquet eco-bistro, which focuses fresh and homemade dishes using Charlevoix products.

After getting a lovely corner spot on the terrace where I could people watch over dinner, I perused the menu and spotted something unexpected.

This was the first time I had seen Emu carpaccio on offer, and at first my waitress didn’t understand why I was so fascinated with the emu option, not realising they were Australian. After she told me they were from a farm nearby I pulled up a picture of the Australian coat of arms to show her the emu and kangaroo, explaining that yes, we do eat our coat of arms. Just not usually carpaccio style.

Emu carpaccio with caramel balsamic blueberry lavender at Chez Bouquet eco bistro,Baie Saint Paul, Charlevoix

Hiking the Meteorite Crater of Parc national des Grands-Jardins

Canada has some rather special places to go hiking, and Charlevoix is among them.

The Parc national des Grands-Jardins is one of the core zones of the Charlevoix Biosphere Reserve, a status given to the region by UNESCO.

Having heard the Mont du Lac-des-Cygnes hike was pretty spectacular I had that one in mind when I arrived, and asked just how hard it was and whether I would need walking poles.

I was assured this wasn’t a walking poles situation and that I’d be fine and so off I set with a picnic in my backpack and a smile on my face.

Hiking in Parc national des Grands Jardins in Charlevoix, Quebec

It was beautiful walking along through this glacier worn landscape with soaring rockfaces looking over me. But I soon realised that my version of a moderate walk is a little different to a Canadian who works in a national park.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t crazy hard or anything, but when some other hikers with walking poles overtook me up one of the hills I wished I’d been more prepared and had some too.

While I had planned to have my picnic up the top I decided I needed a little blood sugar boost and had an impromptu picnic on a rock looking out over the valley. And that’s when I met a furry little friend.

At first I thought it was a chipmunk, as I’ve never seen one in real life before. I later discovered he was a kind of squirrel. I’d only met tree squirrels on my travels before, but this was a ground squirrel with cute stripes and I was so excited to meet a new creature and sat still as he came over to give my shoes and phone a curious sniff.

Making ground squirrel friends Parc national des Grands Jardins in Charlevoix

I loved my picnic spot but after continuing up the mountain I then discovered another top spot. One that’s so obviously the place to rest that it has its own picnic table.

Lac Georges is described as a glacial oasis which was created when the ice retreated and meltwater filled a hollow. Today it provides food and shelter to beaver, spruce grouse and brook trout, though I failed to spot any when I was there. Instead I just saw and felt a whole lot of calm as I sat beside the lake and breathed it all in.

As I continued up the pathway changed and included wooden stairways and rough steps made out of rocks.

Despite knowing the main language is French I didn’t realise there would be no signs in English, and with no cell reception to Google translate at times I wondered if the signs were telling me to stop and go back, or some other useful piece of information.

But the physical map in my hands seemed to suggest it was right to keep going and so on I went until I reached the top, where I took a whole lot of deep breaths, sat down for a little while to soak it all in, and then made my way back down, down, down to head off to my next Charlevoix experience.

Rest stop at Lac Georges on a hike through Parc national des Grands Jardins in Charlevoix

Lac Georges high in Parc national des Grands Jardins in Charlevoix

La Malbaie and the Charlevoix Observatory

As well as having beautiful scenery, my Mont du Lac-des-Cygnes hike was also a great way to look out over a special meteorite crater.

Not that it looks like a crater today, but when I visited Charlevoix’s Observatory, or rather, the Observatoire de l’Astroblème de Charlevoix, I had a chance to learn more about the massive meteorite that formed the 54km wide crater that Charlevoix nestles in today.

As my guide explained no one realised a meteorite created area the area until 1962, as it was in the early 60s that the world realised that nuclear bombs and meteorite create same sort of rocks, shatter cones, which are found around the crater and which they have on display in the observatory.

As well as learning about really really big meteorites I was able to hold parts of much smaller ones in my hand, and also see how beautiful some of them can be inside. When the light shone behind a segment of one crater at the observatory parts of it shined like amber and I was transfixed.

Looking inside a pallasite meteorite at the Observatoire de l'Astrobleme de Charlevoix, Quebec

As I mentioned earlier, French is the official language of Quebec but what I didn’t realise until I visited this area is how many people don’t speak any English at all. In Quebec City most of the people I met were bilingual but here I felt like I’m in a small town in France.

My friendly tour guide at the Charlevoix Observatory told me she was so happy to have a chance to practice her English as she almost always does the tours in French, and a few times I found myself in stores or cafes where none of the staff spoke English. Even if I was bilingual (which I’m sadly not) I’d have no problem with people only speaking their native tongue, but it’s worth noting that you should know a few words and easy access to Google translate or some other form of translation.

As there’s very little light pollution in the area this is a great spot to join the observatory’s night time events and to look through their telescopes at the planets above.

The Observatory is near the town of Malbaie, which means ‘bad bay’ as it is where explorers got stuck.

I stayed in a sweet guest house overlooking the Saint-Lawrence River called Maison des Rives which is in the Pointe-au-Pic area of La Malbaie.

While my room was simple and had a bit of a spongy bed there was a small sun room at the back to look out over the water, and a large balcony with tables and chairs in front that gets the afternoon sun. As I happily sat here doing a little work I loved the way locals would say hi as they walked by to the owner and his daughter who, dressed in her Pretty in Pink style dress made me think of a very young Molly Ringwald, and at night the sounds of a guitarist singing a few bars up floated by.

The breakfasts here are also worth a mention with a mix of continental and sinfully good. Freshly cooked crepes shared the buffet with fruit, cereals and pastries. There was also a delicious pie I can best describe as a cross between dulce de leche and apple pie. Called Sugar Pie it was addictive and I’m sure calorie free. (Just let me tell myself that one okay?)

Maison des Rives was happily a very short walk from some good bar and restaurant options including Restaurant Allegro, while another spot I enjoyed dinner at was a little drive away, over the river to Auberge des Peupliers. While the first had more of a boisterous and lively atmosphere the second was more refined and part of one of the oldest guesthouses in the area.

Wildlife spotting and visiting Charlevoix’s Fairmont hotel

I already mentioned meeting my first ground squirrel, but in Charlevoix I saw a few other creatures I’d never seen in real life before.

After heading out on a Croisieres AML whale-watching cruise off Baie-Sainte-Catherine I saw my first Beluga whales, which was pretty exciting for this gal, and then on the drive back I also saw my first porcupine when he walked out in front of my car.

Fortunately he was far enough ahead for me to slow down and let him go by, marvelling at how much bigger they are in real life, while being grateful I didn’t have another speeding up car behind me which would have made his afternoon walk a big problem for us all.

I then popped into a sweet spot for lunch where you can also check out some homegrown creations from local artists. Sagnah et les Geants de Pierre showcases traditional and contemporary arts by Quebec artisans working with local and recycled materials.

They’ve also created a small walking trail out the back where artworks and signs share some of the history and legends of the area.

And after having already visited the Fairmont Le Chateau Frotenac in Quebec and the Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa I just had to visit Charlevoix’s Fairmont hotel, the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu.

Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu

Just as the other Fairmonts I had visited in Canada had a rather dramatic beauty about them, the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu is known as the Castle on the Cliff and feels rather romantic to visit.

The hotel was originally built in 1899 but was destroyed in a fire in 1928 as the hotel was being closed for winter. When Canadian architect John Archibald was given the task of rebuilding the hotel he embraced the style of a French castle and the hotel we see now was opened in 1929.

As well as loving some of the big grand design moments in the hotel, I loved unusual touches like the astrology themed lights. They were a little tricky to take a photo of but I have to share this shot anyway as I love them so much

The astrology light features in Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu

Even if you’re like me and are not staying at the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu you can still go and enjoy a spot of lunch or dinner or a treatment in their spa.

For me it was a lovely spot for lunch, and as I sat in the sunshine on the terrace of the Le Bellerive restaurant with a Kir Charlevoisien, a hotel speciality of sparkling wine and verger pendeault pear liquor, I raised my glass to Charlevoix and all of her charms.

Amanda Woods travelled as a guest of Tourisme Charlevoix but all opinions remain her own.

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Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, image coutesy Fairmont

About the Author

As a journalist who loves to travel and is fond of a chat I'm oh so happy when I'm sharing travel tales and tips through my blog and on my weekly travel segment on Sydney Radio 2UE. When I'm not travelling or writing about it I can be found out and about with friends, curled up at home with a good book or watching an addictive tv show promising I'll stop after one more episode. Amanda on Google +

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  1. How funny to see emu on the menu. How did it taste? It looks very lusciously textured!

    • I know, right?! It was actually really tasty and have to say I’ll be ordering the emu carpaccio from now on. Not that I’ve seen it since!

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