Discovering the region of Charlevoix: A Rock Climber’s Playground
By Jeff Rutherford
I was 100 meters up a steep, sheer rock face, secured to a metal cable via two carabiners on the harness secured to my waist. The goal was to climb across rock walls, cliffs and ledges of the Mont du Lac des Cygnes for the next two hours.
My guide kept instructing me that I needed to turn and put my back against the rock face, and face outwards. I just couldn’t do it. I kept hugging the rock face. Finally, I headed down and hiked back to the equipment shed.
I lost out to my fear of heights, but what I didn’t lose out on was exploring and discovering Charlevoix – a Canadian region brand new to me. If you’re a fan of Montreal (who isn’t?) or Quebec City, and you’ve never ventured north of Quebec City, you’re missing out.
Charlevoix, 90 miles due north of Quebec City, covers six thousand square kilometers that include amazing farm-to-table restaurants, quirky boutique hotels, and many outdoor activities and pursuits – kayaking, mountain climbing, bike riding, hiking, cross-country and downhill skiing in the winter.
The Charlevoix region is accessible via car or train from Quebec City.
Charlevoix’s history is well mapped since the region was formed 350 million years ago when a 15 billion ton meteor crashed into the Earth.
The collision created a 56-kilometer crater in diameter and made Charlevoix one of the largest inhabited craters in the world.
That meteor formed the sheer rock wall and ledges I unsuccessfully tried to climb in the Canadian national park – Parc National des Garnds-Jardins. The climb was a via ferrata climbing system (Italian for “iron road) common in the Alps.
A steel cable runs along the route and is anchored to the rock. Small metal steps, smaller than your foot, are anchored into the rock as well for support. Hiking up to the entrance, I tried to ignore my fear of heights, determined to scale the cliffs for two hours.
But, alas, I was unsuccessful. On my hike down, despite my frustration with my own fears, I couldn’t help but enjoy the beautiful forested mountainous views of the Parc National des Grands-Jardins
If you can conquer your own fear of heights, the via ferrata system is perfect for non-experienced mountain climbers who visit Charlevoix and would like a challenging, outdoor experience. You’re anchored to the metal cable with two carabiners attached to your harness.
More Outdoor Activities
In addition to mountain climbing, I spent the rest of my visit to Charlevoix enjoying more of the outdoor activities available to visitors. I kayaked down the Riviere du Gouffre, a gentle river that meanders alongside Baie-Saint-Paul, a town filled with cafes, art galleries, and restaurants.
The gentle river is accessible to even the most novice kayaker, and the Katabatik guides can arrange a morning trip of varying distances depending on your kayaking skills and interests.
If you enjoy riding a bike, my favorite Charlevoix activity was a bike ride around the Isle-aux-Coudres. You reach the island via a 30-minute ferry ride across the St. Lawrence River.
The ferry accommodates cars, motorcycles, bicyclists, and walkers. All of the island residents are used to bike riders, so you don’t have to worry constantly about biking safely.
Drivers will give you a wide birth. It’s very relaxing to pedal around the island, smelling the scents of the St. Lawrence River as you bike along the shoreline, the wind in your face or on your back.
You can stop and enjoy various sites along your bike ride, including the Cidrerie Vergers Pedneault, an artisan cider house that makes apple, pear, plum ciders as well as ice wines.
Visitors can taste many of the ciders and wines before purchasing from a well-stocked retail store.
In addition, the island is home to Les Moulins de Isle-aux-Coudres, a museum that features a fully functional watermill from 1825 and a windmill from 1836.
Visitors gather as the guides release a torrent of water into the watermill and begin grinding flour.
During my travels in Charlevoix, I ventured out on my first whale watching trip. Riding a high-speed boat on the St. Lawrence River, the guides repeatedly explained that they couldn’t guarantee any whale sightings. Obviously, they have no control over the animal’s feeding habits that day.
However, we were in luck. Our boat was soon surrounded by blue, fin, right whales, and even some belugas. Later that day, when we were riding a train along the St. Lawrence River, back to Baie-Saint-Paul, we watched as beluga whales surfaced, their unmistakable white bodies outlined against the blue water.
Food and Lodging
As I mentioned earlier, one of the attractions of Charlevoix is the many farm-to-table restaurants and the amazing food. Like Montreal and Quebec City’s many fine restaurants, Charlevoix chefs’ passion for food prepared with fresh, local ingredients is unmistakable.
Memorable Charlevoix meals included the Restaurant le Bercail at the Hotel le Germain Charlevoix in Baie-Saint-Paul, dinner at Le Saint-Pub Microbrowery in downtown Baie-Saint-Paul (all dishes prepared with regional ingredients and washed down with the brewery’s selection of beers), and the Le Charlevoix restaurant inside the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu hotel (which featured amazing smoked foie gras as one of many exquisite appetizers).
What would a great trip and destination be without great hotels? Charlevoix doesn’t disappoint.
A unique hotel we stayed in was the Le Germain Hotel in Baie-Saint-Paul. Originally funded by one of the original co-founders of the Cirque du Soleil which got its start in Quebec, the Le Germain Hotel is a modern hotel designed to reflect the region’s farming and rural past.
Rough-hewn beams line the hotel’s hallways accurately capturing the feel of a barn. But the rooms are modern and comfortable with sleek design.
In contrast, I also stayed at the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu hotel, a luxurious hotel filled with luxury and ambience. I was thrilled to stay in one of the select rooms that has a two-seater jacuzzi tub overlooking the St. Lawrence River. You can sit in the tub and bask in the amazing views.
In addition to an 18-hole golf course that also overlooks the St. Lawrence River, the hotel also offers a heated pool that is open 365 days of the year, even when the snow is falling during the Quebec winters.
While my fear of heights prevented me from finishing the rock climbing excursion, the many other Charlevoix activities and restaurants more than made up for my disappointment.
I might not have conquered my fear of hanging over a steep, rocky cliff, but the many other Charlevoix treats guaranteed that I’ll be making a return visit to the area very soon.
Jeff Rutherford is a voracious reader, quilter, podcaster, and CrossFit cultist, who has worked in the digital marketing industry for 17+ years. He lives in Western Massachusetts.