Photos :: Courtesy of Tourism Charlevoix
An hour east of Quebec City, where the slopes meet the sea, there’s a world-class outdoor playground that has remained off the radar to Ontarians for too long.
My family has been fortunate to visit the Charlevoix region several times, in all seasons, and on each trip we discover new adventures and destinations, from thrilling outings in the abundant vertical terrain to tranquil afternoons beside the tidal, ocean-like St. Lawrence River. Defined by the impact of a meteorite around 400 million years ago, which created a ring of tree-covered mountains and towering Mont des Éboulements in the elastic-rebound uplift zone in the middle, the landscapes are stunning: rocky ridges, rolling hills, postcard-perfect villages and pretty habours. But mostly, it’s the ability to immerse ourselves in the great outdoors that keeps us coming back.
Le Massif de Charlevoix, one of Charlevoix’s signature attractions, is open all year after establishing itself as a ski resort. The site is so nice that Club Med Québec Charlevoix — Club Med’s first outpost in Canada — will be launching in December. With a vertical drop of 770 metres, the biggest east of the Canadian Rockies, alpine runs and glades descend toward the shinning blue of the St. Lawrence. Those same slopes now feature 20 kilometres of mountain bike trails slaloming through the forest and over streams, with the mileage set to double by the end of 2022. Atop high-end Rocky Mountain rental bikes from the on-site shop, we choose a beginner-friendly series of green and blue trails and spend nearly 45 minutes whipping around banked hairpin turns and across wooden bridges, pausing every few minutes to enjoy the view. At the bottom, we wheel our bikes into the gondola for a relaxing ride back up to the summit chalet and round two.
Canyoning Quebec, which partners with Le Massif de Charlevoix, offers another way to experience these slopes that’s slower yet no less exhilarating. Carrying wetsuits, helmets, ropes and climbing harnesses, Éric Légaré and Roselie Laroche lead us up a steep trail through the woods from Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, the town at the base of the resort. After half an hour, we stop at a footbridge over a creek, gear up — and then leap off a five-metre ledge into a deep pool of clear, cold water. For the next few hours, amid the roar of cascading water, with expert guidance and coaching, we rappel, slide and jump our way down the narrow canyon, including a 20-metre rappel down a sheer cliff snug tight to a waterfall. “It’s easy enough for anyone but still exciting,” Légaré says about the sport he’s been addicted to for 15 years, pioneering a couple dozen canyon descents throughout Quebec. “I like vertical activity, I like water and I like to explore. This combines all three.”
You don’t always have to go down a mountain to get the adrenaline pumping. There are several via ferrata courses in Charlevoix — the term is Italian for “iron path” — allowing people without climbing experience to clip into bolted cables and spider along cliffs and ledges. The one we did, Project Vertical’s four-season via ferrata at the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu in La Malbaie, takes us over the lip of a riverside lookout point and onto a succession of metal rungs and log bridges, as well as a short zipline, suspended between the misty St. Lawrence and the green canopy above.
With its iconic chateau-style roof, fine dining, terraces and casino, Le Manoir is the region’s grand hotel; in 2018, it hosted a G7 summit. After our three-hour via feratta outing we lounge at the outdoor pool for a couple hours, resting up for the next adventure.
If you prefer lower-octane methods of seeking solace in nature, hiking abounds in Charlevoix. Mont Grand-Fonds, a ski resort near the town of La Malbaie, is also newly opened from spring through fall, with a trio of trails taking visitors up to 360-degree summit views. And further inland from the St. Lawrence, Parc national des Grands-Jardins and Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie have dozens of options, from easy, flat walks to the legendary Acropole-des-Draveurs trail in the latter park, which looms over a 600-metre cliff, one of the largest rock faces in North American east of the Rockies.
All of this activity makes you hungry, of course, and Charlevoix shines on the culinary front as well. Local farms and producers offer superb cheeses and organic meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, and to wash it down, cider, beer and spirits. The region’s chefs respect the flavours and provenance of this bounty and you can have a memorable meal at any bistro or boulangerie. The colourful main street in Baie-Saint-Paul, a charming seaside town in a valley that tumbles down into the St. Lawrence, is lined with gourmet restaurants, boutiques and galleries — an ideal stop for a taste of the area’s vibrant cultural scene.
There is so much to do and see (and eat!) in Charlevoix that a short visit doesn’t do the region justice. A multi-day stay, especially when the autumn leaves turn crimson, is a must. And that might just be a beginning of a long-term relationship with one of the most spectacular places in Canada. A hidden gem, just a short hop from home.