If you follow the shoreline of the St. Lawrence River along Charlevoix’s Route 362, you will be on one of the most scenic drives in Canada. The drive is relatively short, a distance of 58 km with some side trips—steep dips, I would call them—and if you’re thinking about doing it in a day you’ll be shortchanging the experience.
The River Drive, as it is called, links Baie-Saint-Paul in the south and La Malbaie in the north, passing through some of Quebec’s most beautiful villages. You’ll be on a mountain overlooking this massive river and then suddenly the road winds down, down, down to the shoreline. It’s breathtaking and you will be sorely disappointed that you can’t stop and take a photo because it’s just too steep.
A giant meteorite landed here about 350 million years ago, forming a crater 5 km deep with high edges. So the landscape is extreme, and spectacular. Mountains also separate Charlevoix from Quebec City, which meant that until fairly recently most people entered and left the region by ship on a river that happens to be frozen for nearly six months of the year. So historically, Charlevoix was a remote district with a rich maritime tradition, filled with rugged, self-sufficient people.
But it is such a charming place that as early as 1840 the luxury Saguenay Cruise Line, and later the Canada Steamship Lines, brought adventurous and well-to-do tourists here, mostly from United States and Ontario. The locals called these boats ‘the white ships’ and the name stuck.
A pier was built at the village of Point-au-Pic, today part of La Malbaie, permitting tourists to go ashore. At first locals took them in and soon inns and hotels lined the streets. They came to bathe in the river’s salt water (believed to be good for you), for the clean air, natural setting, great fishing and local handicrafts. In the 1960s the golden age of cruises on the St. Lawrence wound down, the white ships replaced by automobiles.
I’ve recently made two visits to Charlevoix, primarily to visit Les Quatre Vents, a private garden open to visitors on four occasions between June and August each year. The garden is in La Malbaie at the summer home of the American philanthropist Francis H. Cabot. On both occasions I took Highway 138 to La Malbaie and returned to Baie-Saint-Paul via River Drive 362.
French is the official language of Quebec and many Quebecers (Québécois) do not speak English. This should not discourage you at all from visiting Charlevoix. English-speaking tourists have been coming here for almost two centuries and you’ll probably find that there is someone around who can speak English.
Stops along River Drive (if you travel north to south)
- La Malbaie, including Cap-à-l’Aigle and Pointe-au-Pic
- Les Éboulements
La Malbaie (58 km from Baie-Saint-Paul on Route 362)
La Malbaie and the nearby villages of Cap-à-l’Aigle and Pointe-au-Pic were Charlevoix’s (and Canada’s) first resort community. After the pier was built in 1854 at Pointe-au-Pic the hospitality industry took off. Cap-à-L’Aigle became a small beach resort, summer estates were built along Boulevard des Falaises in La Malbaie, small hotels and quaint inns sprung up seemingly everywhere, and the luxurious Manoir Richelieu was built in Pointe-au-Pic.
Today there is a wide range of places to stay and some great meals to be had. The tourist bureau, located on the waterfront (everything is well signed), has lots of helpful information. I had the best dinner at Le Patriarche Restaurant Bistro, recommended by the B&B where I was staying, and came upon Chez Truchon Bistro Auberge for lunch while out walking and luckily secured the last table. Reservations are recommended.
Visit the Musée de Charlevoix, located near Pointe-au-Pic’s harbour, to better understand Charlevoix’s history and folk art. There was a temporary exhibit when I was there about famed author Gabrielle Roy who had a cottage further down the coast. An earlier exhibit was on the white ships.
Cross the bridge at La Malbaie to get to Cap-à-l’Aigle, a 5 km drive east. I didn’t have enough time to visit the Lilac Village Garden (Village des Lilas) on St. Raphaël Street but I will next time for it is considered be one of the most beautiful gardens in Quebec with more than 200 varieties of lilac in four theme gardens.
The Charlevoix Tourist Train that runs from Quebec City has a station at Pointe-au-Pic’s harbour. It’s an easy place to park your car and wander around.
Saint-Irénée (34 km from Baie-Saint-Paul on Route 362)
The drive along Route 362 down to Saint-Irénée is winding and steep and you’ll undoubtedly want to stop your car and catch your breath when you reach the shoreline. Saint-Irénée is considered to be one of Quebec’s most beautiful villages (l’Association des plus beaux villages du Québec) and the setting is impressive. All kinds of famous people have vacationed here over the years and there is a mix of modest homes and grand villas. Joan DeBlois’s pottery studio, Les Ateliers DeBlois, is perched high on the hill.
A friend first told me about Saint-Irénée after she took her son there to be part of a summer camp for very talented musicians. It is not an ordinary camp but one with an international reputation that’s held in the former summer home of Rodolphe Forget, nephew of Louis-Joseph Forget who built the luxurious Manoir Richelieu in La Malbaie. There is also an annual music festival at Domaine Forget, as it is called, with world-renowned guest artists (dance, jazz and classical music). You can also enjoy a concert over Sunday brunch.
This place is a bit hidden and considered to be one of the best beaches in the area, or at least, a quiet, less public one. It’s about 3 km on a secondary road before you reach Les Éboulements. It was late in the day and the tide was out (yes, there are tides on the St. Lawrence) when I arrived but at least there was a place to park.
The railway from Quebec City runs along the shoreline and the government, in an effort to discourage visitors from copying the rather dangerous habit of famous painters who painted with their easel positioned over the track, erected this sign that says, “There are other places for this.”
Les Éboulements (19 km from Baie-Saint-Paul on Route 362)
This, another one of “Quebec’s most beautiful villages”, sits 768 m above the St. Lawrence on a mountain ridge that was formed by the meteorite. The English translation of the name is ‘rockslide’; the village was called this after a 1663 earthquake caused a massive rockslide. Be sure your car’s brakes are in good working order before you make your way down to the river’s edge. Here you’ll find Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive and the pier that will take you to Iles-aux-Coudres.
Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive (25 km from Baie-Saint-Paul on Route 362 and a secondary road)
This village is sometimes subsumed under Les Éboulements but it really is a very distinct place and one you should visit. The drive down the mountain to get here is spectacular and I actually saw people doing it on a bike (crazy). If I were to stay for a week, I would certainly consider this place, although I’d be sure to bring all my supplies with me so that I wouldn’t have to go back up that mountain too often!
Right across from the pier where you catch the free ferry to Isle-aux-Coudres there is a line of cottages where people were just sitting around with a drink and enjoying the late afternoon air. It would have been an ideal place to stop but there was nowhere to park, a continuing problem and one of the reasons you need to stay put for awhile.
So instead I headed into the village, which is charming, and to Le Musée maritime de Charlevoix (Charlevoix’s Maritime Museum), which is filled with exhibits about Charlevoix’s maritime history and a reminder of what an important shipyard this once was. Outside the museum is a schooner dry-docked for restoration, and a sign that reads: “In 1946, twenty residents of Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive founded the Chantiers maritimes de Charleboix Limitée to ensure the village schooners would be well protected during the wintering periods while making it easier to refit them. They each invested a $1,000 in the company, which was a considerable sum at the time. In spring and fall the activities associated with hauling boats as well as refitting and launching them, provided work for around twenty people, most of whom practiced other trades.”
There are several inns and restaurants here and those small hand-painted clay figurines known as Les Santons de Charlevoix.
An old film playing at the Musée de Charlevoix in La Malbaie shows fishermen from Ile-aux-Coudres out on the ice in a canoe in the winter. They take turns jumping out of the canoe onto an ice floe, pushing the canoe forward, jumping back into the boat. They do it over and over. The image is a strong one.
The painter Jean-Paul Lemieux, whose work I adore, spent summers here. There was a wonderful display of his art in the Gabrielle Roy exhibition at the Musée de Charlevoix in La Malbaie when I was there.
Explorer Jacques Cartier gave the island its name after he found so many hazelnut trees (“coudres”) there. The crossing is free and you can take the 23 km road that circles the island. The island craft is weaving.
When you take the 6 km drive down the mountain from Baie-Saint-Paul to the St. Lawrence River you’ll come upon Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, one of the oldest villages in the region. The setting is spectacular, with the St. Lawrence in front of you and the high peaks of Le Massif de Charlevoix forming the backdrop. Celebrated author Gabrielle Roy had a summer cottage here from 1956 until her death in 1983. The exhibition about her at the Musée de Charlevoix says it was here that she found the inspiration and calm to write.
I could imagine staying here for a while.
Baie-Saint-Paul (93 km from Quebec City on Route 138)
Finally back to Baie-Saint-Paul, whose claim to fame came later than the places further north, but when it did lots of famous people came such as the Group of Seven painters who considered Baie-Saint-Paul a favourite summer retreat.
Baie-Saint-Paul sits in a valley. It’s one of those picture-perfect places: century-old homes, narrow streets, quaint boutiques, and countless art galleries. It may be one of Quebec’s oldest towns but it is not ‘provincial’; Andy Warhol’s posters were on exhibit at the museum of contemporary art (Musée d’art contemporain de Baie-Saint-Paul) this summer. Guest artists from different parts of the world come every August to create works of art encompassing many art forms (painting, sculpture, engraving, photography, design, multimedia) as the public looks on.
A live band was playing music on a large stage on church grounds in the center of town when I was there. This is a foodie’s paradise.
There is more to Charlevoix than the River Drive along Route 362, of course. If you take Highway 138 (an excellent road with frequent passing lanes), think about stopping at Notre-Dame-des-Monts (take a secondary road 22 km before La Malbaie), a village surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the Laurentian Shield and offering a spectacular view of the Charlevoix landscape. On a clear day you can see the silhouette of La Noyée, the lady who drowned, in the mountains.
Give yourself even more time and continue up Highway 138 to Saint-Siméon, considered to be the gateway to Charlevoix and where you catch the ferry across the St. Lawrence River to Rivière-du-Loup.
I’d hoped to go up to Baie-Sainte-Catherine, 70 km north of La Malbaie, to see the Saguenay fjord and perhaps whale watch, but ran out of time. There’s also birding, biking, climbing, hiking and fishing. Little wonder USESCO named Charlevoix a biosphere reserve.
I’m already planning a third visit.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2014