Wilderness Grandeur in the Newport of the North
Covering 6,177 square miles in Quebec’s Laurentide region, Charlevoix is an area of astonishing natural beauty, its mountains bearded with fir, cedar, and spruce forests and its St. Lawrence River shoreline dotted with small villages and resorts that were once the vacation province of wealthy American families and international celebs like Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and the king of Siam.
A young William Howard Taft visited here in 1892, remarked that its air “exhilarates like Champagne, without the effects of the morning after,” and made it his vacation destination for the rest of his life. The French-Canadian villages known collectively as Murray Bay were the nexus of the “Newport of the North” and enjoyed a lively heyday from the 1870s into the 1950s. The arrival of the railroad made guests’ own arrival easier, if somewhat less romantic, than aboard the Canadian Steamship Line’s old bateaux-blancs.
Today the gilding is still on the lily, though guests no longer have to dress up in evening wear for dinner at the clifftop Manoir Richelieu, a 405-room resort opened in 1899 and once frequented by the most footloose of the summer swells. A 1998 renovation brought back much of its early majesty, reflecting Charlevoix’s blend of quiet countryside charm, wilderness grandeur, and world-class resort life. For miles around, mountain and forest coexist with a sparse year-round population of around 30,000, a number that swells to two and a half times that size in summer, yet makes little impact on the area’s backcountry solitude and wildlife. Ecotourism is the word of the day, with myriad opportunities for hiking, biking, kayaking, and canoeing at two nearby national parks, Parc des Grands Jardins, 20 miles inland from Baie St.-Paul (home to a vigorous arts scene), and Les Hautes-Gorges of the Rivière Malbaie, an hour’s drive north of St.-Aime-des-Lacs. Twenty miles north from Murray Bay, the waters where the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers meet are home to beluga, minke, humpback, rorqual, and blue whales in summer. For the less wilderness-minded, Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu’s golf club offers a world-class 18-hole, par-71 course on a bluff above the river near La Malbaie.
Also in La Malbaie, La Pinsonnière is the area’s finest hostelry. It’s a gleaming white, twenty-six-room country inn offering personal service and refined elegance, with flower-bedecked terraces, in-room fireplaces, and oversized whirlpool bathtubs in its best suites. Topping it all, though, is the hotel’s famous restaurant. Chef Jeannot Lavoie prepares an ever-changing menu of innovative cuisine and oversees and award-winning wine cellar that contains more than 12,000 bottles.