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A synergy of nature, culture, and cuisine: a whale of an adventure in Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada

Canada’s largest province is best known for the festivals and beautifully restored historic districts of its two major cities, Montreal and Quebec City. Beyond the charm and excitement of these dynamic urban areas is a world discovered by too few Americans.

Here we find the Laurentians, the oldest mountains on earth. The area’s variation in elevation creates stunning landscapes, an exceptional array of unusual arctic and alpine plants and animals, and a microclimate with an extended growing season.

East from Quebec City along the north shore of the St. Lawrence is the region of Charlevoix, named for Father Francois-Xavier Charlevoix, Jesuit and first historian of New France. The area was shaped 350 million years ago by a 15 billion ton meteorite that left one of the largest craters on earth, extending 56 kilometers, west from Baie-Saint-Paul to east of La Malbaie.

This is the heart of the area known as the Canadian Shield, the world’s oldest rock formation, with national parks, rich soil, farms and rolling countryside, and steep, rugged cliffs. There are whales where the rivers meet, and bear and moose in its protected wilderness.

The southernmost herd of caribou grazes in the area’s boreal forest, and a wealth of marine diversity flourishes in the unique fresh and salt water marine habitat where the St. Lawrence estuary meets the southernmost natural fjord, the Sagueney, the result of the retreat of an Ice Age glacier.

This UNESCO treasure is one of the few inhabited biosphere reserves in the world, with a natural beauty that has inspired painters, poets, writers, and musicians. Charming villages dot the landscape. Ducks, wild boars, pheasants, emus, caribou, ostrich, dairy cows and sheep flourish.

The successful merging of its agriculture, livestock breeding, products, and creative arts combines with a centuries-old hospitality and gourmet dining industry to create an unparalleled vacation destination reminiscent of provincial France.

Little wonder so many artists and Canadian tourists are drawn to the area and that Cirque du Soleil began right here.

Trails for all interests

Maison ReneŽ Richard,Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada
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Maison ReneŽ Richard,Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada

Color-coded pictograms—a palette for the Painters’ Trail, chef’s hat for the Flavour Trail –are signs marking each of the seven tourist routes that also include a Craftspeople Trail, Best Landscapes and Vistas Trail, Maritime Heritage Trail, Religious Heritage Trail, and Culture and Heritage Trail. Follow one and you’ll want to return to experience the rest.

La Route des Saveurs, the Flavour Trail, brings together regional producers and chefs. It’s an opportunity to sample and purchase the best local products—fruits, vegetables, and meats, gourmet cheeses, chocolates, wine, and cider– where they are grown or made. Top chefs of the region use these products to create gourmet experiences that include Quebec specialties at a highly-regarded group of properties along the Flavor Trail—from pubs to 4-fork or 5-star restaurants, and from tiny auberges to grand resorts.

Économusées (economuseums), places to experience a living heritage of crafts or trades, originated here and are found throughout the area. For example, visitors can sample cheese and watch the morning’s cheese making process at the Economuseum La Laiterie de Charlevoix, run by the Labbé family, grandchildren of the founders. Their cheeses include Fleurmier, similar to Brie, made from milk from valley farms. Last year its Le Migneron cheese was judged best in Canada. Local residents flock to the salesroom, which is filled with a wide range of products.

Nearby, a cheese aging house, La Maison d’Affinage Maurice Dufour, known for its Gouffre Valley cheeses — Le Migneron, Le Ciel de Charlevoix, and a sheep cheese, Deo Gratis– offers cheese sampling platters for purchase midday.

Art

Stop at the belvedere in the picturesque artists’ paradise of Baie-Saint-Paul to enjoy the glorious mountain views. Stroll Rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste, known for its boutiques and art galleries, and cafés.

Maison René Richard is where many famous painters gathered. Many of the charming historic homes that line the street are the traditional Quebec style found in works by these renowned artists, including Clarence Gagnon.

Clarence Gagnon Gallery, Maison ReneŽ Richard,Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada
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Clarence Gagnon Gallery, Maison ReneŽ Richard,Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada

Shop for the perfect gift, search for the painting that best captures the essence of your vacation experience, or people watch as you dine outdoors and, if you like, sample a variety of beer, like the one with a crazy cow on its label at La Microbrasserie de Charlevoix.

In Saint-Irénée visitors can stop at Chez Cristobal to visit the art gallery and summer workshop of Juan Cristobal Pinochet, celebrated artist and teacher from a Chilean family of painters. Over a hundred paintings are on display in this hilltop location with a sweeping view the river.

Music

Music and tranquility are found along with inspiring natural beauty at Domaine Forget, a prominent summer music and dance academy, staffed by renowned musicians from around the world. From mid-June through August, the International Music Festival offers over 30 concerts in a hall known for its superb acoustics. Sunday musical brunches are on a terrace overlooking St. Lawrence.

The experience of a lifetime

Clarence Gagnon Gallery, Maison ReneŽ Richard,Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada
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Clarence Gagnon Gallery, Maison ReneŽ Richard,Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada

The section of the Saqueney-St.Lawrence Marine Park at the mouth of the Sagueney Fjord, where the two rivers meet and salt and fresh water merge, is an area rich in nutrients. Several species of whales– including belugas, blue whales, finbacks and minke–migrate to feed along the Charlevoix coast from late May to October before returning to the sea to give birth.

Croisières Charlevoix offers a variety of awe-inspiring tours departing from Baie Sainte-Catherine and Tadoussac. Their larger boats offer observation cruises. For a closer encounter with nature, certified zodiac boat tours are offered. With up to twenty-four passengers, these boats maneuver quickly to provide unforgettable close-up views of these giants of the deep.

zodiac, Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada
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zodiac, Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada

This is an extraordinary opportunity with experienced nature guides who follow strict park and environmental regulations that protect the marine life in this national park. Dolphin dart by, playful seals keep a watchful eye on visitors, and a variety of sea birds bob along. But it is the sight and sounds of these gentle giants that will remain forever in your heart.

Hospitality

Accommodations are available in a full range of price and description, and two of the best options are the romantic and intimate inns known as auberges and luxurious grand resorts. The village of Pointe-au-Pic area offers some top choices.

Auberge des Falaises, harlevoix, Quebec, Canada
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Auberge des Falaises, harlevoix, Quebec, Canada

L’Auberge des Falaises is high on a road with other summer homes built by wealthy families in the golden age of Charlevoix. Rooms in the main house are uniquely decorated, and those in the pavilion offer a whirlpool bath, fireplace, and balconies overlooking a cedar forest and the St. Lawrence. The dining room has been awarded the government’s top four fork rating. A breakfast favorite is delicate crepes topped with a mountain of mouth-watering fresh local berries and dollops of whipped cream.

golf at Manoir Richelieu, Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada
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golf at Manoir Richelieu, Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada

Nearby, the original Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu was built for guests arriving on the luxury steamships known as floating palaces. Today’s grand 5-star castle-like stone structure is filled with antiques, original works, and regional art. Plates in the dining room were painted by local artists and depict local scenery; centerpieces were forged by a local blacksmith. Former President William Howard Taft, seasonal resident of this Pointe-au-Pic region, was the first to hit a ball on the award –winning golf course. Adjacent is the Charlevoix Casino.

Auberge des Peupliers, zodiac, Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada
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Auberge des Peupliers, zodiac, Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada

For superlative dining, visit the cozy Auberge des Peupliers, in the town of Cap-à-l’Aigle. Award-winning Dominique Truchon, chef since 1983, is considered to be one of the best in Quebec. A founder of the Flavor Trail, he has been instrumental in promoting the kind of gastronomic experiences of the area that meet his quality standards. Dinner might include the auberge’s traditional liver pâté, a cream soup or salad, a liquor-apricot sorbet to cleanse the palate, Charlevoix veal fillet with lobster and green asparagus sauce, regional cheeses, and a dessert of crème brulée on white chocolate ganache or symphonie of flowers ice. Or you may simply want to opt for the chef’s inspirations of the moment. Coffee or tea is traditionally accompanied by maple and chocolate fudge.

The Great Escape

A trip to the picturesque Charlevoix region of the province of Quebec is an opportunity to renew the spirit, to restore the mind and body, and to experience first-hand treasures of our earth. The centuries-old hospitality industry provides a warm and welcoming environment, combining the best of what nature has produced with the skills of talented chefs.

There’s a reassuring sense of harmony between man and nature, development and the environment, between food producers, chefs, and innkeepers, visitor and resident. Language is not a barrier, and the pace is decidedly more relaxed. It seems a step back to a time when people took the time to converse with one another.

This escape to the countryside is a feast for the senses, a chance to rest or to play, to explore or to contemplate, and to experience as much adventure as you choose.

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