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.
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
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
on the outskirts of Québec City. The first departs at 9 am with passengers on
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.
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.
departures give passengers three hours in the town of Baie St Paul, which is
ample time to take part in a local tour. One of the most interesting is a
motorcycle trip in a sidecar that loops around the southern section of the
Charlevoix, en route visiting the attractivechurch of the village of Les
Éboulements situated on Mont des
Éboulements. There is an excellent view from this meteor-created
landmark, looking out over the surrounding mountains and the St Lawrence, with picturesque
fields and villages in between.
Other Baie St Paul
tours include the Flavour Trail, a two-hour circuit of local farms and food
producers. A 90-minute visit to the town’s Contemporary
Art Museum showcases the region’s artistic links, while more adventurous
travellers can enjoy a two-hour kayaking tour along the Gouffre River, which
flows through the town’s centre.
If you want to spend
the night in Baie St Paul rather than returning at 3:30 pm to Québec City, the
train terminates at the Hôtel La Ferme, a newly opened
hotel that is also owned by Gauthier’s Le Massif company. It has its own
theatrical touches, such as a performance space and a restaurant with the
kitchen in the centre, and an airy open design with earthy elements such as old
timber beams incorporated within the modern architecture.
The township of Baie
St Paul is a pleasant walkable area, with cosy eateries such as Orange Bistro where dishes include
a mushroom-topped version of the Québec comfort food poutine, a mess of gravy, French fries and cheese curds. Another
good lunch option is Le Café des
Artistes, with excellent pizzas and atmospheric seating on its front porch.
Along the town’s streets are studios and art galleries, including the Galerie
d'Art Iris, which sells work by young Québec artists. There are also shops selling local
foodstuffs, including the beverages of local cider producer Pedneault.
At the end of the
line, La Malbaie has more earthy pleasures, such as the upmarket accommodation,
dining and casino at the chateau-like Fairmont Le Manoir
Richelieu; while another local hotel, Auberge des Falaises, offers
packages including golf, kayaking, mountain climbing and whale watching.
On the train’s evening
return journey from La Malbaie, which departs at 5:05 pm,
passengers see the St Lawrence Seaway shift through shades of blue into
darkness as night falls. At one point, the table iPads unexpectedly play an
image of flickering candles as the carriages pass through a tunnel. The Cirque
du Soleil theatricality is never far away.