A theatrical journey into Canada’s Charlevoix
Canada’s Le Massif de Charlevoix runs 140km from Québec City to the town of La Malbaie. (Le Massif de Charlevoix/Benjamin Gagnon)
Standing in the Charlevoix region of Québec in eastern Canada, it is hard to miss the enormous meteorite crater. More than 300 million years ago, a rogue asteroid plunged out of the heavens and landed here, gouging a great hole in the earth.
On the horizon are the crater walls, now a ring of tree-covered mountains and national parks. Within its slopes are dotted small towns and farms. And in the centre of the impact zone is the Mont des Éboulements (Mountain of the Landslides), a 768m-high mountain that was thrown up by the collision, just as a drop of water rebounds after a stone is thrown into the sea.
Wealthy Americans summered in this scenic region from the 19th Century onwards, as did many artists including the famous 20th-cntury Canadian painter Alexander Young Jackson. For the modern traveller, however, the Charlevoix has been overshadowed by the plentiful historic attractions of Québec City, the provincial capital.
But that is all set to change thanks to Daniel Gauthier, co-founder of the internationally acclaimed circus Le Cirque du Soleil, which began life in 1980 in the Charlevoix town of Baie St Paul as the touring troupe Les Échassiers. And his newest and equally exciting enterprise is Le Massif de Charlevoix, a luxury train that runs 140km northeast from Québec City via Baie St Paul to the town of La Malbaie.
Constructed in 1889, the Charlevoix Railway carried passengers along a single track on the same route until 1959. Fifty years later, Gauthier wanted to give something back to the region that had kick-started his success, and, assisted by the Canadian and Québec governments, he upgraded the line to make it viable for a luxury train, hoping to encourage travellers to visit the Charlevoix from Québec City.
Two versions of the Le Massif train leave each morning from a suitably dramatic locale, the spectacular Montmorency Falls on the outskirts of Québec City. The first departs at 9 am with passengers on the Escape to La Malbaie tour, which runs the length of the railway. The second train, departing at 9:45 am, is the Baie St Paul Discovery tour, which terminates at Baie St Paul.
The train carriages, each carrying 62 passengers seated at comfortable booth-style tables, are surprisingly lofty, with large windows and a dash of industrial chic via the solid metal crossbeams near the ceiling. The trains are former two-level 1960s commuter carriages from Chicago, refurbished and redecorated in white, and opened to provide greater natural light and easy sightseeing.
There is plenty of opportunity for scenery gazing on the 2.5 hour journey From Montmorency Falls to Baie St Paul, with the leg to La Malbaie running a further 75 minutes. On one side, the train passes small towns such as Château Richer and Petite Rivière Saint François, with their pitched-roof homes and silvery-steepled churches. On the other, the broad St Lawrence River is a steely grey-blue, its opposite bank a distant misty outline.
Gauthier’s theatrical origins come to life via the iPads that are placed on each table. At first these display table numbers, but once the train departs they show a constantly updating route map, interrupted by carefully timed bursts of music and video that match an attraction appearing alongside the train.
About a third of the way to Baie St Paul, the impressive stone church of St Anne de Beaupré in the village of the same name is highlighted by the sound of church bells; while further on, as the train clears the northern tip of Île d'Orléans offshore in the St Lawrence, the protected birdlife promontory Cap Tourmente is accompanied by a video of flying snow geese. Cleverly, these short sequences have no commentary, but are aimed at amplifying the mood.
Food is another focus of the luxurious journey, with gourmet dishes emphasising regional ingredients. On the outward trip from Québec City, breakfast might include eggs stuffed with asparagus and maple syrup crepes. Dinner choices range from a smoked duck carpaccio with spices from the local duck farm La Ferme Basque de Charlevoix to escargot terrine with locally-grown oyster mushrooms from Champignons Charlevoix, the snails a nod to Québec’s French heritage. And a dessert of macaroons and field berries uses an apple mistelle (a fortified wine) from local cider producer Pedneault.