- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 13, 2003

I have often wondered why, when it comes to North American geography, the average American thinks horizontally, that is, this mental map goes from New York to Los Angeles, or vice versa, and does not visually include Canada and Mexico.

I think it has a lot to do with elementary school maps of the United States that print the Lower 48 in color and Canada and Mexico in black and white and television weather reports that do the same. Hence, when Easterners think of cool summer vacations, they think Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Only a small percentage of people take the mental effort to think vertically and include Quebec or the Canadian Maritimes.

But things are changing. The American dollar remains strong against the Canadian, and Canada has a strategic plan to entice Americans to head north. If you are ready to give Canada a chance, or if you want to explore a different part of Canada, I suggest Quebec for the warmth and Old World charm of the French-Canadian culture and its Charlevoix region in particular.

The government of Quebec has made exploring the province easier, at least mentally, by dividing it into 20 designated tourist regions. Charlevoix, one of the smaller regions, extends from the Quebec City tourist region, in the west, to Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, in the north, and Manicouagan, on the east. The roads are great and the area is easy to navigate, especially if you have a few days, like I did.

Devonian surprise

“If a meteorite had not hit Charlevoix,” says Francois Lessard, co-founder of the Natural History Center of Charlevoix, “today the region would still be covered with the High Laurentian Mountains down to the St. Lawrence River.”

Mr. Lessard was referring to a 15 billion ton, 1-mile-wide meteorite that fell to earth along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River in the late Devonian period — about 350 million years ago. The impact created the 40-mile-wide crater that is the heart of the Charlevoix region, ranging from just west of Baie-Saint-Paul to just east of La Malbaie.

The area inside the crater is home to 90 percent of Charlevoix residents and is a very pastoral setting by comparison to what it could have been. For example, the famous ski resort Le Massif lies just outside the meteorite’s impact zone but still in Charlevoix. At Le Massif, downhill skiers enjoy some of the steepest slopes in North America, part of the High Laurentians, and are able to ski to the sea, so to speak.

Meteorites are not the only geological events to have shaped this landscape. According to government figures, Charlevoix is the most active earthquake zone in eastern Canada. The town of Les Eboulements owes its existence to this phenomenon. Its name refers to a gigantic landslide that occurred in 1663 after an earthquake. This event changed the shape of the region, albeit on a smaller scale than the Devonian meteorite. The landslide caused part of the coast to be swept into the St. Lawrence and a tongue of land to jut out into the river.

Although it offers a sweeping landscape and rolling hills, Charlevoix is definitely underpopulated. The average tourist looking at a map might be fooled into thinking that the coastline is deserted, but small farms and villages dot the gently rolling hills that form the north bank of the St. Lawrence. Many of the farms are laid out in their original fashion, with long, narrow strips of land running from the coast uphill to a stand of trees. This 18th-century artifice allows each farmer to own waterfront, arable land, and woodland in one plot and results in a quaint and unique pattern on the countryside.

About 75 percent of the tourists drawn to Charlevoix are fellow Quebecois or other Canadians seeking to learn more about their own roots and culture. As they buy cheese or blueberry wine, they chatter in Canadian French with their hosts and merchants. But don’t be intimidated. This strong provincialism does not detract from the warm welcome accorded to foreigners, including Americans, by the merchants and locals in general — although I did notice that they made an effort not to neglect their Quebecois customers by overattending to us.

Canadians are famous for friendliness, and language is not a barrier in Charlevoix. I observed many slim, young people with dark hair, light complexion and mellifluous English, charming tourists visiting their parents’ or employers’ cottage industries. The natives of Charlevoix exhibit the simplicity and directness of a bygone era. They even have time to talk to you.

Flavor Trail

Home base during my visit to Charlevoix was Le Manoir Richelieu, a world-class Fairmont Hotels resort and casino overlooking the St. Lawrence Seaway at La Malbaie. From the summit of Pointe-au-Pic cliff, the majestic 405-room resort towers over the river. A recent $140 million renovation has given it a complete face-lift, with all the modern conveniences (including high-speed Internet access) in every room. Although seriously tempted to stay at the Richelieu all day to enjoy its swimming pools, three restaurants, a casino, and four-hand massage at the day spa, I was on a mission to travel Charlevoix’s Route des Saveurs, the Flavor Trail.

Five days was not enough time to visit all 29 producers and restaurants on the trail. Each morning, I was up and out on a new culinary expedition. All kinds of gourmet foods are produced within the region, especially by the purveyors showcased on the Route des Saveurs.

Protected by the surrounding hills, the fertile fields around Les Eboulements and extending down the river to the town of St. Irenee enjoy a microclimate with an additional three-week growing period.

I witnessed the benefits firsthand at Les Jardins du Centre, a family farm that produces a bounty of organic fruits and vegetables to sell to the public and area restaurants. “At the small town of Cap-aux-Oies on the St. Lawrence, until recently you could even find fields of corn and tobacco,” says Bertrand Dion, the regional director of tourism.

One of my favorite stops was Le Ferme Eboulemontaise, located on the hill above the town. The farm’s impressive organic garden, managed with integrative pest management techniques, was home to 45 kinds of sunflowers and the source of most of the ingredients for an on-property restaurant called Les Saveurs Oubliees, or “forgotten flavors.” Chef Regis Herve took us on a tour of the gardens and invited us back to eat one of the house specialties — a Charlevoisienne broad bean soup.

Another stop on the Flavor Trail was the Laiterie Charlevoix. This economuseum is part of another network of businesses in Quebec, each of which specializes in a craft or trade. In this case, the craft is cheese making. I was so impressed with the raw-milk cheddar cheese that we went out of our way the next day to go back for more. Just a few doors away was the affinage, or aging house, of Migneron de Charlevoix, a cheese often listed on restaurant menus throughout Quebec.

One morning, we visited Clifford Smith’s fish farm. Although not a great proponent of fish farming, I was impressed with his system of cold freshwater ponds for raising Yukon arctic char and speckled trout using a minimum of chemicals.

Other interesting artisanal efforts included emu farming at the Centre de l’Emeu de Charlevoix; Les Serres Lacoste, an enterprise that specializes in growing hothouse organic tomatoes for local use and export; and the Fumoir Charlevoix, a smokehouse for salmon and other fish that also produces a fine foie gras.

Just off the coast near Les Eboulements lies Isle-aux-Coudres, a charming island that makes a perfect day trip. A ferry takes visitors and residents back and forth from the mainland. Jacques Cartier named the island in 1535 when he noticed a kind of hazelnut growing there. (The old French word for hazelnut is “coudre.”) The island is perfect for bicycling and is a favorite of families.

The Flavor Trail stop on the island is the Ciderie, Vergers Pedneault, famous for its vinegar and cider. In addition to apples, the orchards contain cherries, plums, and pears. While at the cider mill, locals were arriving with buckets of handpicked wild amelanchier. Some of the purplish berries would be made into fruit drinks enhanced with distilled spirits called “mistelle,” some were to be frozen for future use, and some would be sold to kitchens such as those at the Richelieu.

The hinterlands

Charlevoix has 2,300 square miles to explore. The hinterlands, a wilderness of forest, mountain, and wildlife preserves, begin 30 miles inland from the river. Cross-country skiers have unlimited options in the valleys and on mountainous trails such as the Sentier des Caps, a 30-mile trail interspersed with lodges that is accessible for hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. Another popular and well-organized winter sport is snowmobiling, with local clubs responsible for maintaining the 250-mile network of routes across field and forest.

While I spent most of my time driving the Shore Road, a different experience awaits in the hinterlands and its two huge parks: the Parc National des Hautes-Gorges, with its valleys slicing through the mountains, and the Parc National des Grands-Jardins, which boasts both taiga and tundra.

Caribou, wolves and other animals may be encountered in this region.

Since it was summer and far from snow season, I settled for lunch in the hinterlands. With map in hand, I set out for Auberge de la Miscoutine. Close to both parks, it exemplifies outback comfort. “Our guests, some presidents and CEOs, have been known to come to breakfast in their pajamas,” says Philippe Davigo, the Breton owner. I wouldn’t be surprised. The log cabin architecture inspires relaxation, and the property is linked to one of the main snowmobile trails.

Lunch was really only one item, a plate-size Breton pancake made of buckwheat flour filled with thinly sliced Canadian bacon and Swiss cheese that was served with local beer. It was absolutely delicious.

Back at the Richelieu

Although I ate well throughout Charlevoix, some of my most memorable dining experiences were at Le Manoir. Let’s start with breakfast. The resort serves the basic American breakfast — bacon, eggs, orange juice, and coffee — with a twist that I couldn’t get enough of, thin pancakes filled with maple cream. Since visiting Quebec in August precludes experiencing a typical spring sugaring party, when the farmers start to collect and boil down the maple sap, eating these sweet morsels was the next best thing.

Did I mention the accompanying bowl of blueberries? August is wild blueberry season in Quebec. Countless roadside stands advertise blueberries for sale, or simply bluets. Natives pick them on their properties and other secret spots in the wild, and sell boxes for a few dollars.

A tour of the Richelieu’s main kitchen with French-born executive chef Jean-Michel Breton ended with an invitation to dinner that night at the hotel’s upscale restaurant. I was seated at a table overlooking the St. Lawrence just as the sun’s rays were disappearing. The dinner began with an absolutely sumptuous and unforgettable nettle soup (creme d’orties).

Sous chef Nathalie Leduc, who was tending the kitchens for the evening shift, described the simple ingredients — butter, onions, cream, young nettle tops gathered from the hills, and salt and pepper. At my request, the main meal was beef tenderloin served with an amelanchier sauce. Dessert was creme brulee accented with bourbon blueberry jam.

A trip to Charlevoix would not be complete without a whale-watching cruise on the Saguenay River, a fjord that forms the northern border of the tourist region. Because the Labrador Current oxygenates the water, the confluence of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence teems with wildlife. Humpback, minke, and beluga whales are what everybody hopes to see.

Cruises leave every morning from the towns of Baie-Ste. Catherine or Tadoussac on the shore of the Saguenay. I wasn’t lucky on the day I cruised — no whales in sight— but when I got back to shore, I assuaged my sorrows with a good wine and more heavenly Charlevoisienne cuisine.

To the lake

If time allows, plan to extend your trip into Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean. Although farther north, this tourist region is 10 times as populous as Charlevoix due to industrialization, especially a huge Alcan aluminum factory on the shores of Lac Saint Jean in Chicoutimi. Because the area lacks accommodations like Le Manoir Richelieu, I recommend staying in bed-and-breakfasts or other small inns such as Auberge des 21 as you explore the region.

One of my favorite places was the Site de la Nouvelle-France. Here, on the grounds created for the filming of “Black Robe,” actors re-create scenes of 17th-century daily life of the region’s first settlers. The enthusiasm of these down-to-earth local people was delightful.

Other interesting sites were the Pulperie de Chicoutimi, an old pulp mill that has been transformed into a museum of regional history and contemporary art, and the Zoo Sauvage de Saint-Felicien, which showcases North American wildlife including moose, wolves, and beavers. Many of the animals roamed free in the parkland, and the visitors encountered them in buses, which provides a much more dynamic experience than the average zoo. As you circle Lac Saint Jean, be sure to take a swim — by August the iron-colored water is a wonderful temperature.

The town of Dolbeau-Mistassini is home to one of the largest blueberry festivals in the world, as well as some creative blueberry-themed lawn sculptures. Although I missed the festival by a week, blueberries were still in season, and many stores were selling a regional delicacy — chocolate-enrobed fresh blueberries made by local Trappist monks. Another nearby attraction was Magie du Sous-Bois, a pick-our-own farm where blueberries grow in carpets under a forest canopy.

Just north of Dolbeau-Mistassini, the last roads trickle through small villages and then drop off into dirt roads that lead to outback fishing camps. Here at the edge of civilization (and the edge of my map), I came upon L’Oree Des Bois, an organic berry farm run by a young Quebecois couple who specialize in selling their jam and homemade bread to fishermen heading into the hinterlands. I envied their idyllic setting and way of life until I starting imagining the long, cold winters. With that image firmly in mind, I settled for buying a few jars of their splendid jam and pointed the car south.

• • •

For more information:

• Charlevoix Tourism, 800/667-2276; www.tourisme-charlevoix.com; www.bonjourquebec.com

• Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, 181, rue Richelieu, La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada G5A 1X7; 418/665-3703

• Natural History Center of Charlevoix, 444, boulevard Mgr-De Laval, Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec, Canada G3Z 2V3; 418/435-6275; charlevoix.net/rando

• Tourism Saguenay Lac Saint Jean, 455, rue Racine Est, Bureau 101, Chicoutimi, Quebec, Canada G7H 1T5; 418/543-9778

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