The main town in Charlevoix is Baie-St-Paul, an attractive, funky community of 7,317 that continues to earn its century-old reputation as an artists' retreat. Some two dozen boutiques and galleries, and a couple of small museums, show the works of local painters and artisans. Given the setting, it isn't surprising that many of the artists are landscapists, but other styles and subjects are represented, too. Work runs the gamut from hobbyist to highly professional. Options include the Maison de René Richard, 58 rue St-Jean-Baptiste (tel. 418/435-5571), which celebrates the Swiss-born artist who made Baie-St-Paul his home until his 1982 death. Richard painted many of his well-regarded semiabstract landscapes here.
During July and August, downtown can get thick with tourists, filling the main street with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Try to avoid driving in midday. Or pop off the mainland entirely to the small island of Isle-aux-Coudres ("Island of Hazelnuts") for some bicycling. The island is accessible by free 15-minute car ferry. Popular paths offer a 23km (14-mile) island loop. From May to October, single bikes, tandems, and quadricycles for up to six adults and two small children can be rented from Vélo-Coudres (tel. 418/438-2118; www.charlevoix.qc.ca/velocoudres). The island also has a smattering of boutiques and hotels. The ferry leaves from the town of St. Joseph-de-la-Rive, along Route 362 just east of Baie-St-Paul.
In winter, the area's largest ski mountain is Le Massif (tel. 877/536-2774 or 418/632-5876; www.lemassif.com). Located in Petite-Rivière-St-François, about 23km (14 miles) south of Baie-St-Paul, it's a growing powerhouse. Its fans wax rhapsodic over its Zen qualities, including quiet ski lifts and runs that give the illusion of heading directly into the adjacent St. Lawrence river, and healthy food options. It has 52 runs, including one that's 4.8km (3 miles). A day ticket is C$64 adults, C$53 seniors, C$48 children 13 to 17, C$35 children 7 to 12, and free for children 6 and under. There's a daily shuttle bus from Québec City to the mountain.
Cirque du Soleil co-founder Daniel Gauthier owns Le Massif and has been working for years to develop both the ski operations and the outlying area. Marketing materials for his Groupe Le Massif call it the largest tourism project in the province. The plan is to build a 150-room hotel; another 400 rooms in a combination of condos, inns, and even yurts at the base of the mountain (and potentially another 50 at the summit); a 500-seat multipurpose venue; a train station in Baie-St-Paul; and finally to build and refurbish an existing railroad track to connect Baie-St-Paul to Petite-Rivière to Québec City. The budget for the project is C$230 million. Trains started carrying passengers September 2011 (return trips from Québec City to La Malbaie cost C$249 for adults, C$199 children 6 to 17 years old, free for kids 5 and under). A lunch is served on the way to the resort, and a four-course dinner on the return journey. The full project is expected to be in place in 2013; go to www.lemassif.com for more info.
Gauthier calls the region "a place where tranquility and energy coexist in perfect harmony." That's true. He also says that the project is necessary for the long-term survival of his mountain. That may be true, too. Whether he'll achieve the second without soiling the first is the essential question. Locals are watching with great interest and more than a little nervousness.
From Baie-St-Paul, take Route 362 northeast toward La Malbaie. The air is scented by sea salt and rent by the shrieks of gulls, and the road roller-coasters over bluffs above the river, with wooded hills and well-kept villages. This stretch, from Baie-St-Paul to La Malbaie, is one of the most scenic in the entire region and is dubbed the Route du Fleuve, or "River Route." It can be treacherous in icy weather, though, so in colder months, opt for the flatter Rte. 138.
In 32km (about 20 miles) is St-Irénée, a cliff-top hamlet of just 704 year-round residents. Apart from the setting, the best reason for dawdling here is the 60-hectare (148-acre) property and estate of Domaine Forget (tel. 888/336-7438 or 418/452-3535; www.domaineforget.com). The facility is a performing-arts center for music and dance, and offers an International Festival from mid-June through early September. Concerts are staged in a 604-seat concert hall, with Sunday musical brunches on an outdoor terrace that has spectacular views of the river. The program emphasizes classical music with solo instrumentalists and chamber groups, but is peppered with jazz and dance. Most tickets are C$22 to C$42. From September to May, Domaine rents its student dorms to the general public. They're clean and well-appointed studios, with cooking areas and beds for two to five people. They start at C$65 for double occupancy, with discounts for longer stays.
Kayaking eco-tours from a half-day to 5 days can be arranged through several companies in the area. Katabatik (tel. 800/453-4850 or 418/665-2332; www.katabatik.ca), based in La Malbaie, offers trips that combine kayaking with education about the bays of the St. Lawrence estuary. A half-day tour costs C$55 adults, C$44 children 12 to 15, and C$36 children 5 to 11. Tours start at various spots along the coast and are in operation from March to October.
From St-Irénée, Route 362 starts to bend west after 10km (6 1/4 miles), as the mouth of the Malbaie River starts to form. La Malbaie (or Murray Bay, as it was called by the wealthy Anglophones who made this their resort of choice from the Gilded Age through the 1950s) is the collective name of five former municipalities: Pointe-au-Pic, Cap-à-l'Aigle, Rivière-Malbaie, Ste-Agnès, and St-Fidèle. At its center is a small, scenic bay. The 8,930 inhabitants of the region justifiably wax poetic about their wildlife and hills and trees, the place where the sea meets the sky.
St-Siméon is where you can pick up the ferry that crosses the St. Lawrence to return to Québec City along the river's south shore. Note: The ferry is out of service through mid-June 2011. After mid-June, confirm the schedule at www.traverserdl.com or tel. 418/638-2856. Ferry capacity is 100 cars, and boarding is on a first-come, first-served basis. One-way fares are C$40 for a car, C$16 adults, C$14 seniors, C$11 children 5 to 11, and free for children 4 and under. Voyages take about 1 hour. Even though this isn't a whale-watching cruise, you may enjoy a sighting from late June to September, when whales are active.
Baie Ste-Catherine & Tadoussac
Teeny Baie Ste-Catherine (pop. 211) sits at the meeting point of the St. Lawrence River and the Saguenay River, which comes down from the northwest. It is at the northern end of the Charlevoix region. Tadoussac (pop. 850), just across the Saguenay, is the southernmost point of the Manicouagan region. Tadoussac is known as "the Cradle of New France." Established in the 1600s, it's the oldest permanent European settlement north of Florida and became a stop on the fur-trading route. Missionaries stayed until the middle of the 19th century. The hamlet might have vanished soon after had a resort hotel, now called Hôtel Tadoussac , not been built in 1864. In those days, a steamship line brought wealthy vacationers from Montréal and points west, and deposited them here for stays that often lasted all summer. Apart from the hotel, there's not much in Tadoussac besides a whaling educational center , a boardwalk, and some small motels. This is raw country, where the sight of a beaver waddling up the hill from the ferry terminal is met with only mild interest.
Route 138 dead-ends at the Saguenay River and picks up again on the other side. Passage is courtesy of a free 10-minute car ferry (tel. 418/235-4395; www.traversiers.gouv.qc.ca). In summer, there are departures every 13 minutes between 8am and 8pm, and every 20, 40, or 60 minutes the other 12 hours and in low season. The ferry is the reason that trucks travel in convoys on the highway -- they pour out in groups after each ferry crossing.
The vista on the crossing is dramatic and nearly worth a trip to Tadoussac on its own. Palisades with evergreens poking out of rock walls rise sharply from both shores. So extreme is the natural architecture that the area is often referred to as a fjord.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.