Travelling Quebec's autumn trail
The trip from Quebec City to Charlevoix and Saguenay Lac-Saint-Jean delivers a variety of delights
It's a hot late-summer afternoon and I'm geared up, crouching down protecting myself from the cold briny spray from the wind and rough waters of the mighty St. Lawrence. Although I've been whale watching many times at home on the West Coast, it's seemingly always more exhilarating on the East Coast with the vast array of marine mammals in the area. I caught my high-powered zodiac (another reason I'm soaked!) at the dock on Tadoussac Bay, one of the best known areas for whale watching in the Quebec Maritime region, where the icy fresh water from the famed Saguenay Fjord meets the brine of the St. Lawrence estuary.
The day is a disappointment to a few of my fellow passengers, some having travelling from across the pond from Europe as well from the southern states, as they were hoping to catch a sighting of a cetacean, from the gargantuan Blues and massive Humpbacks, but I was still pleased at seeing pods of pristine white belugas with their perfectly arched backs diving in their native wild surroundings. Afterwards, its home to warm our chilled bodies in our rustic rooms at the historic Tadoussac Hotel which for the past 70 years has become an important landmark with the building's distinguished red roofs. I find out later that many of the waterfront homes seen on my visit have red roofs as they were also used as land markers long before today's modern GPS era.
I've only been in Quebec for a few days and I'm already enthralled by the sheer beauty of the landscape and the variety of La Belle Province's agriculture and dairy farms, from the Charlevoix's award-winning cheeses to the famed aromatic blueberries of Saguenay. Although I've visited Montreal and Quebec City numerous times, upon arrival I sped up Hihgway 138, past the majestic Montmorency Falls and the farm-rich IIe d'Orleans (famed for their aromatic strawberries an cideries!) onward to Charlevoix and Saguenay Lac-Saint-Jean.
Unfortunately, my flight arriving a tad late, I missed experiencing one of Quebec's newest rail routes, The Train of Le Massif de Charlevoix. Owned by Le Massif Ski Resort, the successful conglomerate has opened a year-round holiday operation with the most scenic rail excursion in Eastern Canada, offering stunning vistas of the Charlevoix coast. Beating the two-hour rail cruise, I arrive to the charming artgallery-filled township of Baie Saint-Paul and to Le Massif 's stunning new Hotel La Ferme which opened in July 2012. A well-executed contemporary design, La Ferme is situated on an footprint where the largest free-standing wooden barn once stood. The hotel complex, comprising several small free-standing buildings, includes 145 rooms and lofts; a railway station; a public square showcasing rotating art exhibits; the Spa du Verger, a Nordic-inspired spa; all amid beautiful natural and farmland landscapes.
The main building also features the hotel's open-kitchen Les Labours Restaurant, and its wonderful culinary wizardry of Quebec-City-native chef David Forbes. The seasonal and daily menus constantly change based on items available from local farms and purveyors. My meal opened with a glorious warm wild mushroom salad with kale, chèvre and multi-hued radishes and included a main featuring a superbly seared wild striped bass set over a succotash of delicate favas, snow peas, golden beets, chanterelles and pea tendrils, ending with a fromage frais soufflé garnished with Charlevoix blueberries and shards of fragrant honeycomb. It can't get more local than this!
A 15-minute drive south along the coastline brings you dockside for a short ferry ride to Isle-aux-Coudres, a popular haven for cyclists, and tourists looking for a remote retreat or to visit some of the island's renowned historic sites. A 26-km road encircles the island and makes for excellent sightseeing with its countless views of the St Lawrence. Along the way, you can stop for superb cider at the family owned Ciderie et Vergers Pedneault (apple ecomuseum) or the island's historic wheat and buckwheat watermill, Les Moulins de I'Isle-aux-Coudres, built in 1836.
Leaving Baie-Saint-Paul I head up the coast to the waterfront town of La Malbaie, but along the way, I discover some of Charlevoix's Flavour Trail (Routes des Saveurs), a distinguished list of over 40 regional farmers and producers from cideries, artisan microbreweries, bakers, cheeses, foie gras to chocolates. Some highlights included the Boulangerie La Rémy, a 19th-century working watermill where local organic wheat is still milled and used in the bakery's wonderful breads and pastries and La Ferme Basque, a duck farm that produces foie gras in the traditional Basque method, demonstrating that gavage doesn't have to be cruel or stressful to the animals. And it wouldn't be a visit to Quebec without a tour of a fromagerie such as the Laiterie Charlevoix Ecomuseum that makes superb cheeses as well as carrying out a project to save certain cow species from extinction and the award-winning Maison d'Affinage Maurice Dufour with its excellent blue vein to delicate washed bries.
Onward to LaMalbaie, a quaint town where the Malbaie and St. Lawrence meet. When Samuel de Champlain visited in 1608, he couldn't find suitable anchorage for his ships so he named it Malle Baye (archaic French for "a poor bay"). As bad as the bay was for the early explorer, it's become quite the happening town today. To cater for the growing popularity of sport fishing as well as relaxing in the natural surroundings, the original Manoir Richelieu Hotel was built in 1899, featuring 250 rooms atop the cliff of Pointe-au-Pic, overlooking the majestic St. Lawrence. After a disastrous fire brought the luxurious building to ashes in the autumn of 1928, a new French Chateaux- styled hotel was built months later and reopened in June 1929 with an award-winning 27-hole championship golf course. After an impressive $140-million renovation and expansion of a casino, sport centre, guest rooms and a ballroom, it reopened in 1999 as an addition to the renowned Fairmont properties. Although the hotel is up to date with modern facilities, this extensive property still retains the old-world charm from stone fireplaces, soaring vaulted ceiling public spaces to stunning manicured gardens and a grand promenade overlooking the mighty river.
It's the start of autumn, one of the most beautiful times to be in Quebec with the stunning and vibrant autumn colours. It's the perfect time for the splendid cornucopia of the autumn harvest and what better place than Quebec City and the bounty of the Charlevoix region.
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