When the starting point for your train ride is right by cascading waters even higher than Niagara Falls, you take it as a sign of spectacular things to come. My two-and-a-quarter-hour ride on the Train de Charlevoix, which runs seasonally from June to October, does not disappoint. I board at Parc de la Chute-Montmorency, 15 minutes from Quebec City, and get cozy in a window seat on the Saint Lawrence River side. The scenic journey over cliff-lined landscapes and bucolic farmland ends up being as memorable—and relaxing—as the two days I spend at my destination, Baie-St-Paul, in Quebec’s Charlevoix region.
Our two-car train was in a past life a commuter train in Berlin, before being shipped to Canada and refurbished to take passengers on what’s considered one of the world’s great train journeys. The little train snakes across the meteor-carved landscapes past ponies nibbling clover in the fields, apple orchards in blossom and painted houses with ski-slope-steep roofs. Kids pause from splashing in their backyard pool to wave bonjour with wet and sparkly arms. All us passengers have our cameras at the ready as we pass the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica, whose white steeples glints in the sun, and as we power through the Cap-Rouge tunnel.
Le Germain Hotel and Spa Charlevoix
The train de Charlevoix lets me off on the doorstep—literally—of my hotel in Baie-St-Paul. The Le Germain Hotel and Spa Charlevoix is built on what was once the largest wooden farm in Canada. And while the architecture today is modern, it nods to the peaceful rhythms and activities of life here in the past.
The bed linens are embroidered with the ‘bright star of Charlevoix’ by local craftspeople; medicinal herbs and flowers bloom by the hot and cold pools of the Nordic spa; and farm animals moo, bleat and cluck around the property. Waking up to the sight of Highland cattle and llamas, from my bedroom window, is one of my biggest joys each morning—that and the housemade granola with fruit compote and creamy yoghurt from the breakfast buffet.
Borrowing a bike at the reception, I check out the birds and butterflies in the peaceful French gardens on site before riding to the water’s edge through an alley of trees.
In the evening, my dinner at Les Labours, one of two hotel restaurants, brings together East Coast ingredients and global touches. Plump New Brunswick oysters and kimchi paired with a buttery Quebec Chardonnay are followed by sea urchin and scallops and a delicate accompaniment of cucumbers and tomatoes with the mild heat of wild ginger.
Then tender beef with crispy kale and sweet and creamy fingerling potatoes is topped with melted Hercule de Charlevoix, a raw-milk alpine-style cheese made locally with the milk of Jersey cows. Later, in the hotel lobby, a couple of singer-songwriters sing playful songs about life and old-shacked-up-couple love. It’s a charming end to a wonderfully soothing day.
Streets Made for Strolling in Baie-St-Paul
The next day, a five-minute bike ride takes me into Baie-St-Paul to check out the antique stores, art galleries and boutiques. The town is known as a place where artists and makers come to enjoy the peaceful life and create. Its main streets are lined with colourful buildings and criss-crossed with pennant flags—with window boxes of flowers everywhere. Brocante à Perron*, a multi-room antiques store is super-stuffed with all things kitsch, from Elvis discs and Quebec Carnaval pins to sled-dog tapestries and vintage hockey gear. (They have creepy porcelain baby heads galore too!)
At Charlevoix Pure Laine*, I find the coziest socks, mitts and felted slippers in town—all made from 100% Quebec wool. Fun fact: The owner of Charlevoix Pure Laine also happens to work part-time on the train de Charlevoix, pointing out highlights of the route to passengers along the way. Twist has fabulous poutine and maple tree designer dish towels, and cheeky racoon- and chipmunk-emblazoned tableware. The store stocks one-of-a-kind products by more than 100 Quebecois and Canadian designers and crafters.
Slow Food to Savour
In the afternoon I stop in at Cidrerie et Vergers Pednault* to sample sparkling pear cider and apple ice cider (a honied dessert drink with a beautiful sweet-tart balance). The tasting room and store has more than 20 varieties of cider, but it’s also well stocked in other local delicacies. I buy honey, pickled quail eggs and a mason jar of cassoulet de canard—traditional Quebecois duck and bean stew—to take home as souvenirs.
I have my evening meal at Bistro Le Mouton Noir*, an ivy-clad European-style bistro with a riverside patio. My hanger steak comes with crispy-edged Brussels sprouts, vegetable gratin and a rich reduction. After a day of indulgences, I’ve no room for dessert, but nonetheless eye the maple crême brûlée and the Quebec cheese platter that my neighbours order, resolving to come back on my next trip.
And there will be a next trip! As I leave by train the following day, taking in the rainbow that appears over the Saint Lawrence once the morning showers ease up, I realize I haven’t felt this relaxed in a long time. Travelling by rail on such a spectacular route and experiencing the region has been a reminder to slow down and take the time to soak up life’s pleasures.
Stopovers in Quebec City
To maximize your time in Charlevoix, stay overnight in Quebec City and go out on the morning departure, and then return from your Charlevoix getaway on the early evening train. The night before heading for Charlevoix, I stayed at Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, where a highlight was the art on display, created from salvaged pieces of the 100-year-old copper roof. On my return, I checked into the century-old Hotel Le Germain Quebec. The elegantly restored property is surrounded by excellent restaurants in the Old Port. I dined at Bistro L’Orygin, where Executive Chef Sabrina Lemay works exclusively with organically farmed, sustainably fished and foraged northern ingredients.
Photos by Valerie Howes
*Websites in French only