Thanks to an enhanced repertoire of attractions and activities, Quebec’s 6,000-sq.-km. Charlevoix region is enjoying an exciting revival. By Donna Carter, September/October 2008
In the early 1900s, the Charlevoix region began attracting the upper crust of North American society, lured there by its unspoiled beauty, tranquility, clean air, fishing and other outdoor pursuits. Among the elite drawn to the area two hours north of Quebec City was then-president of the United States, William Howard Taft, who once remarked that the air was “as intoxicating as champagne yet without the hangover.” He and wealthy contemporaries built grand summer homes there, but eventually, the area’s heyday passed. A century later, however, the region is enjoying a full-blown revival, with an enhanced repertoire of attractions, activities and forward momentum. “The Charlevoix was a sleeping giant for quite a few years, but it’s now wide awake,” says Jean-Jacques Etcheberrigaray, general manager of the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu. “The Charlevoix is a secret, year-round paradise where a relaxing tradition helps make it a perfect place to host meeting and incentive groups.”
The Charlevoix is a pristine, 6,000-sq.-km. region that hugs the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. Its picture-perfect landscape – frequently rendered by artists and lauded by poets – was largely shaped by a violent act of nature that occurred 350-million years ago, when a mammoth meteorite plunged to earth, creating a 56-km.-wide crater. Over time, Mother Nature transformed the effects of this catastrophic collision into a visually dramatic setting defined by a mix of rolling terrain, forests, fjords, lakes and the plunging slopes of the Laurentian Mountains. The Charlevoix crater is one of the biggest in the world and is host to a wide diversity of flora and fauna, conditions that led to the region’s 1988 designation as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Today, a host of small towns, villages and hamlets punctuate the landscape where no high-rise buildings or sprawling cities interfere with magnificent scenery and the natural authenticity of the place.
In February, 2007, Lynda Barrett, conferences director for the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, took 450 members to the Charlevoix for a three-day annual meeting. “We took over the entire Le Manoir Richelieu and everything from food to meeting space, accommodations and service was as impeccable as we expected,” she says. What sold Barrett’s group on the region was the availability of a Fairmont hotel, together with nearby ski opportunities. Indeed, Le Manoir is close to two of Quebec’s finest ski hills, Mont Grand Fonds and the famous Le Massif, boasting the highest vertical drop east of the Rocky Mountains. In addition to skiing, the group’s other optional activities included snowmobiling and ice fishing. Attendees’ spouses were offered a trip to the nearby town of Baie-Saint-Paul, a postcard-pretty community renowned for its art and artisan studios and restaurants specializing in local cuisine.
“The only negative feedback from a few members was the two-hour bus trip north from the Quebec City airport,” says Barrett. For some groups, the transit time is an issue, says Etcheberrigaray, but the pay-off at the end of the road is a perfect paradise in summer and a fairytale wonderland in winter.
With no dedicated conference centre and mostly smaller hotels, the Charlevoix is ideal for small to mid-size groups. The largest property is the 405-room Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, in the charming town of La Malbaie. Situated on a cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River and resembling a grand French chateau, the former Canadian Pacific hotel has 21,993 sq. ft. of meeting space, three restaurants offering gourmet cuisine, a spa with 22 treatment rooms and 27 holes of championship golf. Just steps from the main entrance, the Casino Charlevoix has 800 slot machines, 20 gaming tables and a recently unveiled 150-seat show and nightclub venue.
Le Manoir is joined by a plethora of smaller properties, such as La Malbaie’s 49-room Auberge des 3 Canards, the 42-room Auberge des Falaises and the 30-room Auberge La Maison Otis, at Baie-Saint-Paul. A small executive or reward group will find the five-star La Pinsonnière is the crème de la crème of the region’s boutique hotels. Overlooking the St. Lawrence, at La Malbaie, this is an 18-room, luxury Relais & Chateaux property that boasts the best wine cellar in the region, with up to 12,000 bottles imported from around the world.
Arguably the region’s best asset is its great outdoors, where there’s a host of activities suited to group entertainment and team-building. Between May and October, whale watching on the St. Lawrence is a big attraction. Christopher Spear, Le Manoir’s sales and marketing director, says that in the unlikely event tour participants fail to see whales, local outfitters offer a second excursion free. “Summer activities include kayaking, fishing, sailing, golf, canoeing, biking and rock climbing, which can all be tailored to meet team-building objectives,” says Francois Gariépy, Tourism Charlevoix’s international representative. When winter turns the region into a snowy wonderland, activities that top the popularity list are snowmobiling, dog-sledding, snowshoeing and cross-country and downhill skiing. Some outfitters even offer winter kayaking on the St. Lawrence among ice floes and seals.
Just over 10 years ago, the Charlevoix region gave birth to The Flavour Trail, a drive route that highlights 21 producers of such items as cider, cheese, beer, pâté de foie gras and chocolate products – all made by craftspeople who, for the most part, have been practicing their art for several generations. “The trail can be worked nicely into a group programme where an off-site visit to some of these facilities can include hosted tours and tastings. Some of them, like La Maison d’affinage Maurice Dufour, a highly regarded maker of artisanal cheeses, have an on-site dining room that can seat up to 45 people,” says Gariépy. The route is also punctuated by 23 participating restaurants whose menus focus heavily on the region’s locally produced fare. Several are equipped to host off-site dinners.
The Flavour Trail also extends to the Charlevoix region’s Isle-aux-Coudres, a 23-km-long island separated from the mainland by the St. Lawrence River. “Groups can be taken on buses for the 10-minute car-ferry ride to the island,” says Gariépy. “The ferry from Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive is free and the island presents ample opportunities for a group day trip.” Alternatively, in addition to several small properties, Isle-aux-Coudres has two pleasantly modest hotels in a captive-audience setting ideal for multi-day programmes that concentrate on work and planning sessions. Hotel Cap-aux-Pierres accommodates 98, while Hotel La Roche Pleureuse has 87 rooms; both feature corresponding meeting space. “Although the island is a peaceful place for work sessions, it is not without attractive opportunities for leisure-time activities,” says Gariépy. A 26 km scenic road circles the perimeter of the island; consequently, one of the most popular pursuits is bicycling, an activity that can be tailored to a team-building event. Ile-aux-Courdres (an island discovered by Jacques Cartier in 1535) also offers many of the same activities found on the mainland: kayaking, whale watching, snowshoeing, artisan shops, historic museums and Flavour Trail sites.
Massif Inc., a company headed by Daniel Gauthier (former president of Cirque du Soleil), is developing a $250-million tourism-related project that will, among other things, add to the region’s lodging capacity. The most industrious tourism initiative in Quebec, the undertaking is slated to unfold in phases during the next five years. “The project will connect to the activities currently available in the region and will position the Charlevoix as an integrated destination offering diversified activities throughout the year,” says Gauthier. Together with expanding the Le Massif ski area by 30 per cent and plans for expanded leisure activities such as the establishment of a 10 km. luge sled run, the concept of the multi-million-dollar project is designed to offer outstanding four-season experiences for groups and vacationers alike, he says.
Integral to the project and scheduled for completion by December, 2009, is a $35-million, 150-room, four-level hotel at Baie-Saint-Paul, with a multi-functional showroom for 500. The project will result in approximately 400 new units that encompass the primary hotel plus low-density lodging, including a collection of inns and chalets from Baie-Sainte-Paul to Le Massif, 20 km away.
Moreover, the plan calls for the introduction of a tourist train that will depart from Quebec City and follow a scenic, 137 km. route alongside the St. Lawrence River to a Baie-Saint-Paul depot that will be mere minutes from the new hotel and Le Massif ski station. Existing tracks need only restoration work, and the overall plan is to have the train running the entire route from Quebec City to Baie-Saint-Paul and on to La Malbaie by summer, 2010. “The train is wonderful news for Charlevoix and also for planners organizing trips to the region,” says Barrett. “Not only will the train be convenient, it will further enrich the region’s attractiveness for both groups and vacationers,” says Gariépy. split-venue
Lise Garneau, director of sales with JPdL, a Quebec City-based DMC, says she frequently pitches a split-venue programme to clients that offers two nights in Quebec City and two nights in the Charlevoix region. “Quebec City is a must-see, must-do destination that works beautifully with a post-trip to Charlevoix. In their own different ways, the two venues are quite exquisite and unique to eastern Canada. Pairing them up, particularly in an incentive programme, is a win-win situation,” she says. “The bus ride east from the city to Charlevoix is absolutely breathtaking and you can see a group’s stress melt away.” Garneau says planning two days in Quebec City before heading east is the ideal way to organize a split programme, a plan that eliminates stepping off a plane or train before loading onto a bus. Even if a group rejects the split programme, Garneau says she often encourages clients to do a one-day bus trip to Charlevoix. “It’s well worth the ride and is a definite plus for any programme. Groups that visit Quebec City and do not include a Charlevoix visit are missing out on something very special.”