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The Charlevoix region's Laurentian Mountains setting comes alive in the fall as the leaves change colours.

krblokhin

The Group of Seven meeting in Canada last June shone a spotlight on Quebec’s Charlevoix region. The world’s presidents, prime ministers and a chancellor checked into the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu in La Malbaie for a few days of indoor meetings and outdoor photo ops set against a backdrop of verdant rolling hills and the St. Lawrence River.

“This vibrant region captures everything that our country is about – from bilingualism, to cultural diversity, to stunning scenery in every season,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in welcoming his guests.

If the globally publicized summit opened some international eyes to the region’s existence, it merely confirmed what Canadians, especially Quebeckers, and in-the-know Americans have understood for decades – that Charlevoix is among the country’s most idyllic retreats from the bustle of city life.

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Dotted with quaint villages, mountains, Canadian Shield outcroppings, national parks, farms that open their gates to visitors, country churches with soaring spires, boutiques and art galleries, Charlevoix is northeast of Quebec City on the north side of the St. Lawrence.

About an hour away from the Quebec capital, it’s an easy day trip. Those starting out in Montreal, four hours away (optimistically speaking, given the city’s notorious traffic congestion), can reach the region in time for lunch.

Hikers who make it to the top of a summit in Hautes-Gorges national park are rewarded with spectacular views.

Steve Deschenes

It’s not even a stretch to launch a road trip from Toronto, as I did last summer, not long after the world leaders had gone home. My road warrior days are behind me so I divided the 10-hour trek in half, stopping in Montreal overnight to enjoy a stay at another Fairmont property (the recently and spectacularly renovated Queen Elizabeth) and dinner in historic Old Montreal before pressing on the next day to my final destination of La Malbaie.

Sure, the first eight hours of driving were tedious, as I stuck to multilane highway motoring on Ontario’s 401 and Quebec’s Autoroute 20, but once the road narrowed to two lanes after Quebec City, the joy of the journey emerged and became palpable. As the car climbed and descended the hilly passage I took (Route 138, or the Mountain Road), with nature flashing by in my peripheral vision, I found that peaceful easy feeling that comes with immersion in a bucolic setting.

The end of the road for me was Le Manoir Richelieu, not necessarily to walk in the footsteps of the world leaders but more so to tread on the hotel’s highly regarded golf course. (ScoreGolf magazine ranks it at No. 72 in the country. Full disclosure: I’m on the magazine’s ranking panel.) Golf is my passion and I think nothing of throwing the clubs in the trunk, filling the car’s tank with gas and setting off for some distant course, even one 10 hours away.

The high quality of the golf at Le Manoir Richelieu’s 27-hole, hilltop facility made the effort to get there worthwhile. The tee shot alone on the opening hole, with its fairway plunging toward a distant green that’s framed on the sides by trees and behind by the blue waters of the St. Lawrence, will remain in my memory banks. But to describe my road trip as merely a golf trip would do it injustice. It was so much more.

Manoir Eastward.jpg Cutline: Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu in La Malbaie sits on a cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River, impressive in any season.

Le Manoir Richelieu itself was equally impressive. The grand, 405-room hotel, built in the Châteauesque style in 1929, sits on the edge of a cliff and overlooks the St. Lawrence. Some of my fondest moments during my stay were simply gazing out the window of my fourth-floor room – on one of the two mornings I was there, a shroud of mist hung over the water, obscuring the far shore – or taking dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants that also offer river views.

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It’s fair to say Le Manoir Richelieu is the epicentre of La Malbaie (population 8,000), and maybe even all of Charlevoix, in terms of accommodation, but it’s not the only light on. Indeed other upscale brands commingle (Le Germain, for example) and the region is a haven of smaller inns and bed and breakfasts that ooze with Québécoise country charm. Tourisme Charlevoix’s website provides a rich guide to the overnight options for all budgets.

While my summer visit was skewed to warm-weather interests (I also swam and hiked), it’s worth stressing that the region does not shut down after Labour Day. A few locals told me that true connoisseurs prefer autumn and even winter, as it’s then that the madding crowds die down a bit and the region’s main draw – nature – is on full display.

With the rolling hills of the region’s Laurentian Mountains covered in trees, all of Charlevoix pops with striking colours as the days grow cooler and the leaves change their hues. Through September and October, the foliage is at its brightest. A hiker in mountainous Parc national des Hautes‑Gorges-de-la-Rivière‑Malbaie who reaches a summit will be rewarded with a breathtaking panoramic view.

(For the less adventurous, even a car tour offers terrific views. I found this out on my return to Quebec City along Route 138, which hugs the St. Lawrence River and winds through charming towns such as Saint-Irénée and Baie-Saint-Paul, which brims with artists and chefs plying their trades.)

For visitors who like to travel on their stomachs, Charlevoix offers the Flavour Trail, a collection of growers and restaurants that specialize in local food.

As the weather turns even colder, snow descends to create further outdoor opportunities, including skiing, dog sledding, skating, kayaking among the St. Lawrence’s ice floes (check out Katabatik), ice fishing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling (check out Aventure Laurentienne, as well as Le Manoir Richelieu).

Le Massif de Charlevoix is said to have the region’s best skiing, featuring the highest vertical drop east of the Canadian Rockies, and Mont Grand-Fonds is a family favourite for downhillers.

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All such activities require sustenance, and the hungry will certainly not go unsatisfied as the region is a gastronomic paradise. It’s hard to single out any one place among many, but the best options are chef-driven enterprises that show off local, farm-fresh and organic ingredients in classic dishes.

One strategy to sample the region’s best food is to simply follow the Flavour Trail, an agrotourism collective of about 40 food producers, growers and eateries. Lamb is a regional specialty; local cheeses, beers and ciders abound.

So Charlevoix is a feast in so many ways. My stay was too brief. I’ll have to return someday to dive deeper into the entire region’s fabric. Whether that’s in the warm or cold months, it won’t matter. Charlevoix, as the Prime Minister suggested, is a destination for all seasons.

Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu covered the cost of the writer’s round of golf. It did not review or approve this story.

Le Manoir Richelieu played host to the 44th G7 summit in June of 2018.

Jeff Brooke

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