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A gift from on high

Charlevoix is said to be one of the most beautiful regions in the world for nature and adventure buffs. Kitted out with hiking boots and camera in tow, I drive northeast along Highway 138, impatient to sink my teeth into this massive playground.

Charlevoix is said to be one of the most beautiful regions in the world for nature and adventure buffs. Kitted out with hiking boots and camera in tow, I drive northeast along Highway 138, impatient to sink my teeth into this massive playground.

Four hours after leaving Montréal—including one spent along the coast of the St. Lawrence River—I see the sign that was put up by the Société des établissements de plein air du Québec (or “Sépaq”, as they call it here, which translates to the Québec Society for Outdoor Establishments). It tells me I’ve reached the Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie National Park. This is where my first adventure begins.

Photo: Alexis Saint-Pierre

Where the road ends

They say I can’t miss it. “There’s no more road after that,” the gas station attendant in Saint-Aimé-des-Lacs says simply. At the Le Draveur Visitors Centre, nestled at the foot of impressive mountains, the young girl at the reception desk tells me these cliffs are “among the highest rock faces this side of the Rockies.” The Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie National Park gets its name from the valleys carved out of its mountains. The gorges are the result of the impact from a 2 km (1-mile) diameter meteorite that crashed here 350 million years ago. The entire region, designated a World Biosphere Reserve” by UNESCO, owes its topography to a piece of debris that fell from the sky and dug a crater 54 km (34 miles) in diameter.

Once in the park, I choose to tackle the Acropole-des-Draveurs trail. An 11 km (7-mile) round trip with a 2,625-foot ascent, this trail is the park’s longest and most demanding, but it’s accessible both to athletes and novices alike. The first minutes of my hike set the tone: despite a pretty steep climb, the trail winds around the mountain ridge in the shape of an “S”, so it’s not too difficult. On the path that crosses through the forest, I happen upon a few families who, for the most part, stop at the first peak. I keep going toward the second ridge. The higher I go, the fewer trees I see. The ground gets rockier, the wind becomes more insistent, and the vegetation grows stunted. I figure it’s proof I’m getting somewhere!

My efforts are rewarded when I get to the top. The view is spectacular. Between the Mont des Érables mountain and me, the Malbaie River valley stretches 2,625 feet down, looking like a stream from up here. And further afield, all around I can see every one of the region’s mountains, like vestiges left behind by the meteorite.

It’s hard to break away from this view, even after 30 minutes of contemplation. Eventually I head back down, retracing my steps past windswept boulders, sparse flora, and a gradually thickening tree line. Six hours after beginning my journey, I’m back at the bottom of the mountains, where to my delight, my refuge for the night awaits me.

These past few years, Huttopia ready-to-camp tents have sprouted like mushrooms in the forests of Québec. I must admit that tonight, I’m more than happy to not have to set up a tent, and to be able to sleep in a real bed. Starving, I heat up the soup I brought on the electric camping stove, and spoon it up while listening to the gentle rippling of the Malbaie River.

Photo: Francis Gagnon

Off the beaten path

It’s a good thing I got some decent sleep, because today I’m taking on my biggest challenge yet: the Mont des Morios mountain trail, a favourite among outdoorsy types who like to tread off the beaten path. There isn’t any welcome centre here, and there are few tourists. Just 30-odd kilometres (18 miles) of landscape to explore.

I leave Hautes-Gorges Park behind and pull up 30 minutes later in front of a red building: the Dépanneur du Lac Brûlé convenience store. A friend from around here’s let me know I’ll have to pay a small fee to access the trails, which are maintained by volunteers. I visit the recommended store, where I’ve been prompted to say hello to the very kind Ms. Fortin and grab one of her delicious sandwiches for the hike.

Packed with supplies, I begin my walk towards Mont du Lièvre, passing around the north side of Mont des Morios. I’ve been cautioned it’ll be challenging, and soon enough, this warning is confirmed. This path is steeper, and the climb
is more demanding than yesterday’s. But the setting is so spectacular, my body willingly agrees to continue.

At the summit, I really get a sense of how vast Québec is. Charlevoix is, by all accounts, a “small” region, nestled between the St. Lawrence River and the regions of Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean and Manicouagan. Yet it stretches out in front of me as far as the eye can see.

In the distance, the river widens, and here, it’s almost as wide as a sea. No wonder the people of Charlevoix are proud to call this place home. “We have everything here: the river and high mountains. No need to choose,” they tell me, trying to sell me on the region during my short stay here.

Photo: Hôtel & Spa Le Germain Charlevoix

Sustainable accommodation

I’m excited about the next stop on my trip: I’m staying in one of the most beautiful hotels in Québec. The ultimate prize after such a physical ordeal!

No matter the season or my reason for coming, I get the same rush of pleasure every time I set foot in the lobby of the Hôtel & Spa Germain Le Charlevoix. The bar, where there’s a fireplace and comfy couches, is the perfect place to hunker down after a day spent exploring the area.

Opened in 2012 on the old site of the largest timber-built farm in Canada, this hotel charms tourists from Québec as much as those from abroad. Possibly due to its idyllic location between the lovely city of Baie-Saint-Paul and the river, or the decor which pays tribute to the region’s history and is entirely locally sourced, from the bedsheets to the furniture, this establishment has had much success. 

Of the hotel’s five pavilions, I chose Le Clos. It is at once rustic and modern, and the barn wood it’s built with is painted white. Combined with a pristine view of the surrounding fields and gardens, this makes for a pretty soothing atmosphere.

In the Les Labours restaurant, I sit at the counter, which looks into the open kitchen. Before my smoked salmon appetizer arrives, chef Alexis Jegou explains that 70 per cent of his products come from Charlevoix—the herbs, vegetables, and fruit are all picked in the garden located mere feet from the kitchen, honey is provided by the hotel’s apiaries, and the sheep, ducks, chickens, and turkeys are sourced from neighbouring farmers. But there are also products from the region’s artisans, with whom the hotel works very closely. “Every Sunday in the summer, we set up a market in the town square for visitors and residents featuring local producers and artisans,” Annie Wagner Bouthillier, the hotel’s customer service manager, tells me.

This concern for sustainable practices doesn’t only manifest itself in the hotel’s kitchen and decor. The use of geothermal energy, installed electric charging stations, as well as the reduction of light pollution are only part of the Hôtel & Spa Le Germain Charlevoix’s many environmentally friendly initiatives. Last year, the establishment was granted a “carbone-paysage” certification, which means it is committed to offsetting its greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees.

Photos: Hôtel & Spa Le Germain Charlevoix

Recharging your batteries

At Le Clos, there’s no need to count sheep to get a restful night’s sleep. When morning comes, I decide to make the most of my health benefits by taking advantage of Le Germain’s nordic spa. On offer: body care and a memorable thermal spa experience in saunas, hot and cold pools, and a steam bath—perfect for those of us who climbed Mont des Morios the day before.

After eating lunch in Baie-Saint-Paul at Micro-Brasserie Charlevoix’s famous Saint-Pub, I go for a walk through the streets of this region’s touristic and cultural gem. The charming downtown of Baie-Saint-Paul is pretty well-known for its museums, art galleries, shops, and cafés, so I don’t feel like leaving this magical place or the comforts of my hotel in a hurry, but one final adventure calls.

CHARLEVOIX BY TRAIN

Since 2015, it’s now possible to travel through Charlevoix on the most beautiful railway in the province, between towering cliffs and the river, from Québec City, all the way to La Malbaie. You can stop along the way—to, for example, go for a walk around Les Éboulements, bike on L’Isle-aux-Coudres, or kayak in Saint-Irénée—the journey alone is worth the detour. If you’re looking for an environmentally friendly and original way of discovering Charlevoix, the train’s for you.

Artisans and caribou

It was Vincent Grégoire, the Hôtel & Spa Le Germain Charlevoix concierge, who recommended that I spend the afternoon at the Grands-Jardins National Park. Originally from Montréal, he moved here with his family four years ago, in order “to have easy access to the outdoors after work.” And he’s not the only one: many urbanites have settled in Charlevoix after falling in love with the region.

It’s Vincent who suggests that I make a few stops along the way, between the hotel and the park, to visit artisans that are part of Charlevoix’s Flavour Trail. And that’s how I pick up a still-hot loaf of bread from the À Chacun Son Pain bakery, a bag of cheese curds from Laiterie Charlevoix, and a small piece of foie gras from Ferme Basque.

Photo: Francis Gagnon

When I get to Grands-Jardins Park, I’m ready to tackle the via ferrata circuit built into the rock face of the Lac des Cygnes Mountain. I join a group this time and choose the 2,132-foot route, which involves crossing three beams and one bridge, all in advance of the final push to the summit. The whole route takes me about six hours. We make gradual progress while, once again, taking in the spectacular sights.

Between two boulders we need to clear, our guide advises us to keep our eyes open. This is the best part of the whole region to spot caribou! The caribou had originally disappeared from Charlevoix due to excessive hunting, but in the 1960s, 48 woodland caribou were captured near Labrador and relocated to Grands-Jardins National Park. Because of this initiative, there are now 75 individual caribou living in the region, especially around the park, where many of them were born.

Despite paying close attention, I didn’t see any caribou. Oh well! On the way back, I tell myself I’ve driven alongside a river leading to the sea, spent time in a place with a rich history, met committed artisans, climbed magnificent peaks carved out by a prehistoric meteorite, and discovered one heck of a wild playground. I can save the caribou for next time. 

Thank you to Vincent Grégoire for his tips.

 

tourisme-charlevoix.com    |     germaincharlevoix.com

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This article was initially published in Issue 02 of BESIDE Magazine.

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