Charlevoix, Quebec, runs four seasons for good reasons: skiing, snowboarding, and sledding at Le Massif de Charlevoix; shopping in the galleries and sipping in the microbrew pubs along Baie-Saint-Paul’s narrow Saint-Jean-Baptiste Street; and scanning the water for seals while sea kayaking in the Parc Marin du Saguenay-Saint-Laurent. Whatever the time of year, sample Charlevoix-made specialties from some of Canada’s finest artisanal cheesemakers along with house-made pâte, smoked salmon, and chocolates. Drive along the St. Lawrence River coast and then follow the rolling hills of the aptly named Flavour Trail, dotted with more than 40 farms, mills, and breweries open for tastings and tours.
"You can kind of collect food along the way and then just picnic," says Sue Riedl, cheese writer and columnist for the Globe and Mail. "I was with my three-year-old son and we just wandered over and picked a bunch of wild blueberries. Crazy silly—like out of a storybook." Bring a cooler packed with ice in case you want to take some goodies home.
When to Go: Plan a summer or fall visit if driving the Flavour Trail. Hours and activities vary with the seasons, so check the trail’s website for the most up-to-date information on each location. Spring is best for whale-watching, as minke, beluga, and humpback whales migrate from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In summer head to the region’s two national parks—Les Grands-Jardins and Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie—for hiking, biking, camping, and kayaking. And you don’t have to be a skier or boarder to hit the snow at Le Massif de Charlevoix Ski Resort. Ride a snow taxi up to the summit and sled down on the 4.5-mile "rodeling" (sled) trail opened in 2012. Choose the traditional wooden, Austrian-style sled to sit up and enjoy the scenery, or go for speed and zip face-first down the mountain on a luge-like steel sled.
How to Get Around: Rent a car from Quebec City’s airport and drive 90 minutes northeast to Baie-Saint-Paul, a good base from which to explore. Thirty miles farther north along Route 138 is La Malbaie, which has some of Charlevoix’s best hotels. Buses run between all major centers. Alternatively, board the Train de le Massif de Charlevoix in Quebec City. This 87-mile, one-day journey to La Malbaie features fine dining in eight refurbished railcars. The train offers stopover sightseeing packages and returns to Quebec City each evening.
Where to Stay: Baie-Saint-Paul’s two-room Gîte TerreCiel, the location (20 minutes from Le Massif ski area and within walking distance of a local-favorite Gouffre River beach) make the restored 1890s brick home a convenient, off-the-tourist-radar option. One of the hosts is a baker, so don’t skip breakfast (included), which could be waffles made with flour from the local La Remy mill, a Hercules cheese omelet, or fresh sourdough bread served with an assortment of Charlevoix cheeses and jams.
What to Eat or Drink: There are only about ten tables at Restaurant Bistro Le Patriarche, tucked in a little yellow house (the chef lives upstairs) next to the wharf in La Malbaie. Make a reservation, arrive hungry, and try the three-course table d'hôte for a seasonally fresh assortment of regional dishes like bouillabaisse and scallops, beet mousse, and baked brie. In Baie-Saint-Paul, snag a chair at the counter of Joe Smoked Meat for a hand-sliced, smoked meat sandwich on rye. Wash it down with a bottle of La Vache Folle, the creamy milk stout from local MicroBrasserie Charlevoix Beers, named 2012 Canadian Brewery of the Year by beer blogger and critic Stephen Beaumont.
Along the Flavour Trail, Riedl recommends Le Migneron soft cheese (one of Canada’s first artisanal cheeses) and La Ferme Basque’s duck foie gras. At Laiterie Charlevoix, arrive early to savor a warm, fresh pain au chocolat for breakfast and to watch them make cheese curd.
What to Buy: Go to the mustard yellow Poterie de Port-au-Persil barn near St. Siméon to shop for earthenware, stoneware, and fine porcelain vases, bowls, and sculptures crafted by 50 of Quebec’s leading ceramists. The Musée de Charlevoix's gift shop in La Malbaie showcases original art and gifts by regional artists including jewelry made from antlers, stained glass, and traditional woven placemats.
Helpful Links: Charlevoix Tourism
Fun Fact: Charlevoix rests inside a 33-mile-wide crater formed by a massive meteorite that slammed into North America 350 million years ago. Hiking the edge from the Canadian Shield side offers spectacular views; however, it’s helpful to understand the scientific backstory. Learn how the meteorite shaped the region’s terrain and natural diversity on a guided crater trek with Randonnée Nature-Charlevoix (available in English on group and custom tours).
Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is author of the Great Canadian Bucket List and was the host of the Nat Geo Adventure TV series Word Travels.