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(2011 - Spring/Summer Issue)


Just outside Baie-Saint-Paul, an hour northeast of Québec City, my guide Jean-François pulls off Highway 138 and orders me out of the car.

Instantly, he’s at my side and with a sweep of his right arm announces, “Look! The best place to see it.”

I survey the red roofs and white church spires of the town far below set against dark green mountains and yellow farmers’ fields, not quite sure what I’m looking for. Noting my expression he adds, “The crater! See?”         

Like most visitors, I could be forgiven for missing the 50-kilometre-wide Charlevoix crater. After all, it’s been 350 million years since a 15-billion-tonne meteorite flattened this section of the Laurentian Mountains all the way down to and under the Saint Lawrence River east to La Malbaie. Since then, centuries of erosion have smoothed the edges of the bowl-shaped crater that is home to 90 per cent of Charlevoix’s population.

In addition to creating a picturesque setting, the crater gave birth to such varied topography and ecosystems that the region earned a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve designation in 1988.

Here are the best ways to experience the region.

Hiking and Cycling

Opinions vary as to Charlevoix’s best views, but hikers are the clear winners here. Extensive trails offer the best vantage points for more than 6,000 square kilometres of Canadian Shield topped with mountains, gorges, fjords, jagged shorelines and two national parks.

Parc National des Grands-Jardins offers hikers of all levels 30 kilometres of “big garden” paths carpeted in 200 species of lichen, excellent crater views and a chance to see caribou treading on fragile subarctic vegetation—rare below the 52ndparallel.

Serious hikers tackle the 1,148-metre Acropole des Draveurs trail in Parc National des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie for the best views of the Saint Lawrence. Plan to hit the summit in the evening to watch the belugas swimming out to sea. Bring or rent a walking stick for this trek.

Le Massif Ski Resort, best known for the highest slopes east of the Rockies, transforms into a series of unofficial hiking trails once the snow has vanished. In September 2011, a new tourist train, Le Massif de Charlevoix, will whisk visitors 140 kilometres from Parc de la Chute-Montmorency outside of Québec City to La Malbaie on the eastern edges of Charlevoix. On the outbound trip, passengers will enjoy a gourmet lunch while admiring amazing vistas from newly-refurbished cars outfitted with panoramic windows. The return trip includes a four-course dinner. Both menus are the creation of executive chef Jean-Michel Breton of the Fairmont le Manoir Richelieu and feature local farm products. Return adult fare including meals is $249. In the future, visitors will be able to travel directly to the base of Le Massif.

Le Massif borders Sentiers des Caps de Charlevoix, where seven trails spread over 50 kilometres along the north shore of the Saint Lawrence. These “hiker-friendly” trails ranging from easy to difficult feature log cabin rest stops and wooden picnic platforms hanging over the forest for excellent views of both shores of the river and her centrepiece, Isle-aux-Coudres.

Cyclists and hikers weary of Charlevoix’s lengthy climbs will appreciate Isle-aux-Coudres. The “island of hazelnuts,” coined by Jacques Cartier who mistook the native trees for the nut-bearing ones, is accessible via a free 15-minute ferry from Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive. The island’s gentle 24-kilometre heritage cycling loop includes rest stops at Bouchard’s Bakery—arguably the best bread around—and the Cidrerie et Vergers Pedneault where you can pick apples and sample sweet “Le Glacier” ice cider. Bring your own bike or rent one to tour the scenic Saint Lawrence shoreline.

Water Gardens

Resist the temptation to tackle the salty Saint Lawrence on your own as solo boating here can be downright dangerous and cold. The rough waters rarely surpass 4 C in summer. Fortunately, Katabatik Outfitters, an experienced outfitter based in La Malbaie, offers group and individual canoe and kayaking trips along the mighty waterway.

On the calmer waters of Lac Turgeon, back in Parc National des Grand-Jardins, retrace the routes of early explorers, the coureurs de bois, in a similar rabaska or freighter canoe. Another “Discover the Water Gardens” tour takes in four lakes in as many hours exploring several marine environments. These crystal-clear waters are ideal for self-guided trips and canoe and kayak rentals are available at reasonable rates.

Further east, paddle between the highest cliffs in Eastern Canada on the quiet waters of the Rivière Malbaie for glimpses of the many wildlife habitats along her scenic riverbanks.

Links With a View

Near La Malbaie, golfers too can experience Charlevoix’s natural wonders and superb river and mountain views from two area courses: Murray Bay (La Malbaie), one of the oldest in North America, and Fairmont le Manoir Richelieu, one of the 10 best golf resorts in Canada. This 27-hole course featureswide fairways sloping down to the Saint Lawrence River andtricky putting greens. The Baie-Saint-Paul golf course (a bargain at $22 for a high-season round) features river, mountain, field and forest vistas—just another reason to visit this lively art town and birthplace of the Cirque du Soleil.

You’ll probably discover as I did that all this fresh air will work up your appetite. Fortunately, Charlevoix is home to the Route des Saveurs, a flavour trail with 40-plus accredited restaurants and local food producers of cheese, cider, chocolate, meat, fish, fruits and vegetables. Don’t leave the area without trying local favourites such as chocolate-coated blueberries and the local Le Fleurmier cheese baked and topped with melted honey and roasted almonds, a specialty Jean-François and I wash down with a local blond ale at Le Saint-Pub and Microbrewery, just before I depart Baie-Saint-Paul.

No matter how you explore modern-day Charlevoix, you’ll be sure to appreciate the legacy left by the prehistoric Charlevoix crater. 

Travel Planner

For more information, visit or call:

Charlevoix Tourism: tourisme-charlevoix.com/en; 1-800-667-2276; 418-665-4454

Le Massif: lemassif.com/en; 1-877-Le-Massif (536-2774)

Le Massif de Charlevoix: lemassif.com/en/train

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