Touring the Charlevoix

Story by Ron Keys// Photos by Ron Keys
March 1 2011

As the wind churns up the silt-laden, brackish waters at Rivière-du-Loup, we watch the approaching ferry in the mist and rain as we huddle quietly in our rain gear trying to stay warm and dry. We have been buffeted by crosswinds, smitten by blowing rain, and generally spat upon by the weather gods all the way from Saint-Jean-Port-Joli. The heavy grey clouds hang low over the river, suspended by unseen powers. The distant mountains, enshrouded in shades of grey and white, along with the rain and wind, create a netherworld feeling.

As unsettled as the day is, our destination sounds far more appealing, by description at least. The Charlevoix – the name rolls off the tongue like melting French chocolate – is a region of Quebec named after father François Xavier de Charlevoix, a Jesuit priest who was appointed by the King of France as the area’s first historian. The Charlevoix region nestles beautifully between the magnificent Laurentian Mountains and the north shore of the mighty St. Lawrence River. A lovely blend of nature and culture, Charlevoix is renowned for its picture-perfect landscapes. Located just 90 minutes east of Quebec City, the area has been celebrated by painters, writers, poets and musicians from around the world.

The ferry docks, but the wind and rain continue. I carefully ride down the oily, wet grating onto the ferry and park the bike, leaving it in gear in the hope that the stormy weather won’t relocate it. The elevator takes us to the upper-deck cafeteria for the hour-and-fifteen- minute crossing. Peering through rivulets of rain cascading down the windows, I search for a beluga or a mighty finback whale, but it is not to be, even though this is one of the best whale-watching areas in the world.

I stretch my wet leather gloves, one finger at a time, over my prune-like skin as we approach the dock at Saint-Siméon. The ferry rocks back and forth in the surf, and riding across the wet steel surface is an unnerving experience. We climb the hill into Saint-Siméon, trying to follow the verbal directions from my GPS. Route 362, the River Route, will take us to our final destination of Baie-Saint-Paul.

Scientists believe a 15 billion-tonne meteorite impacted the earth here 357 million years ago, give or take, and the resultant crater, some 56 kilometres across, stretches from La Malbaie to Baie-Saint-Paul. Ninety percent of the residents in the Charlevoix region live within the crater. It’s obvious that something catastrophic took place, as evidenced by the very large dent in the earth’s surface. With the blue saline St. Lawrence to the south and the majestic Laurentian Mountains to the north, this area is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site and still undiscovered by many motorcyclists.

I gingerly terrace down the wet serpentine highway into the quiet little hamlet of Saint-Irénée, and my mind wanders as I imagine being awakened to the echo of torpedoes and depth charges. The Second World War brought the enemy dangerously close to our shores. German U-boats sank several Canadian supply ships in these very waters without losing a single submarine of their own. The mixture of brackish and fresh water confused the sonar, rendering depth charge attacks ineffective.

As we leave Saint-Irénée, we catch fleeting glimpses through the mist of the river far below. The lush green fields are full of wildflowers, and the silhouettes of cattle grazing in the fields reflect the tranquillity of rural Quebec. Every home and outbuilding stands freshly painted and gloriously embellished by manicured lawns and flowerbeds, all proclaiming pride of ownership across the generations.

As I coast down from the hills past the tidal flats, a sign welcomes us to Baie-Saint-Paul. We turn right at the asymmetrical twin steeples of the town’s cathedral onto Rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste, a street lined with shops and homes with the ever-popular habitant second-story balconies overlooking the street. Suddenly on our left is our destination, the Auberge La Muse, a beautiful Victorian mansion, resplendent in its delicate fretwork and symmetry. We tread wearily up its freshly painted steps to the welcoming entranceway.

The next day dawns rainless but with a forbidding sky, and I peer anxiously at the puddles under my window, free of telltale raindrops. After a hearty breakfast, we walk slowly along Rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Next door to La Muse we find the MicroBrasserie Charlevoix, well known for its excellent brews. A stroll through Chocolaterie Cynthia nets me six chocolates, and I exit $11.00 lighter – but the taste is worth it.

We pack up and head east out of town. Wild rose bushes adorn the roadside, and their fragrance carried in the air offers a pleasant bouquet to the senses. Just before the town of Les Éboulements, built on top of the rebounding dimple at the centre of the crater, the Route du Port takes us down an 18% grade to the river below and Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive. This quaint little hamlet has several auberges, B&Bs, a maritime museum and the ferry terminal for Isle-aux-Coudres. As we retrace our path, I see an opening in the trees hiding a street that meanders up a steep hill. We are led through a series of tight uphill twists and turns, a veritable tunnel of trees and greenery. Although short, it’s a great little gem called Côte-à-Godin, which ascends steeply up and out of the valley and back onto Route 362 a few miles west of Route du Port.

The weather has cleared a bit, and as we ride through Les Éboulements, I can’t help but notice all the artists’ signs outside their homes. We turn north at yet another chocolaterie onto Rang Sainte-Catherine, and although not challenging, it’s a beautiful road through some great scenery. We climb into the mountains, and again the weather turns gray and foggy. We meet up with Route 138, the Mountain Route, at Saint-Hilarion. The rain has settled in, and we take a slow ride on Route 138 back to Baie-Saint-Paul, following logging trucks that are slowly winding their way down the mountain.

We have a different place to stay each night, and it’s time to ride east through town, out on Route 362 and to make our way to L’estampilles. On a promontory on the River Route, our room offers a glimpse through the trees of Baie-Saint-Paul. Regis, a world-travelled chef from the south of France, and his wife, Claire, a tourism professional from the Champagne region of France, opened L’estampilles in March 2010. We indulge ourselves with New York steak, done to perfection, and a salad that I’m sure required a building permit from the local municipality.

With the windows open wide to the sounds of night and rain, I awake in the darkness to the lingering resonance of a ship’s foghorn in the distance. Eerie and melancholy, it echoes off the cliffs as the ship slowly plies the channel in the heavy morning fog. Later, as the rising sun appears in my window, I pray that this day will bring us fine weather for our visit to Isle-aux-Coudres. Jacques Cartier first set foot on this island during his second voyage in 1535 and named it Coudrier after all the hazelnut trees he found there. I guess he must have run out of names of saints.


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