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- Le Massif de Charlevoix: Well below zero and well above just plain fun
- There’s a surprise at the bottom of the run
- The Flavor Route in Charlevoix
- Snow Cat Shuttle, Fatbikes, Nordic Skis, Snowshoes in Parc-National-Des-Haute-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie
- Sights around Parc-National-des-Haute-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie
- Hard to get Québec dogs to understand English commands
- Un promenade dans Baie-Saint-Paul
- The Art of Quebec
- Celebrating Winter in Quebec
- Getting to the Charlevoix Region
- Dressing Appropriately for Winter Wonderland of Québec
- Related articles
The group has the Austrian luges on the ground. Several have already plopped down on the sled. Others are still looking askance at the traditional wooden sleds with a little apprehension showing on their faces, including me.
We’re about to start a 7.5km (4.7-mile) sled run that drops nearly 700 meters (2,300 feet) down the face of Le Massif near Petite-Rivière-Saint-François in the Charlevoix region. Located in North America, about two hours east of Ville de Québec (Quebec City), Québec, it’s one of five family activities that celebrate the Canadian winter in Charlevoix region.
Disclosure: The writer was hosted for this trip.
Le Massif de Charlevoix: Well below zero and well above just plain fun
A brisk wind from the Canadian Fleuve Saint-Laurent chills the -30 Celsius (-22F) temperature at the summit. Just stepping off the snowcat that ferried our group to the summit, wool hats pulled low, my Buff headgear is snugly covering my ears and neck. I pull the lower portion up so it’s over the nose to create a balaclava. Gloves sealed tight. Nerves steeled. It’s time to go. We’re at a ski resort, but we’re going to sled.
With the swoosh of our toboggans’ Teflon-coated wooden rails on hard-packed snow, we’re racing on sleds down the slopes. For the brave sledders, the luge can hit speeds as fast as 40km/h (25 mph). I drop my foot into the snow to slow and a spray of white powder covers my face. Canada is on the metric system, so this winter, we’re trying to use “meters.”
“Remember, put your entire foot down flat into the snow,” shouts Maude Barrette Desjardins, marketing director for Le Massif de Charlevoix, and our tour guide for the roughly one hour run down the side of the mountain. “These traditional wooden Austrian luges were made for us. The sled run is a unique family outdoor activity.”
It’s not the high-tech carbon fiber skeleton used in the Olympics; the Austrian luge has a woven seat. The remainder of the toboggan is wood. A Teflon strip is added to the rails. The luge is controlled by dropping a left or right foot into the snow to turn left or right, or lean the opposite way, right or left to turn left or right. Remember, feet are the opposite of leans. This is a cross-country run in a winter wonderland.
There’s a surprise at the bottom of the run
Le Massif is a multiple-use year-round Canadian outdoor experience filled with a variety of winter activities. It has a ski run, a luge, cross-country and snowshoeing trails, snowmobiling and lodging. The only thing missing is snow tubing. A major expansion is underway by owner Daniel Gauthier, the founder of Cirque du Soleil.
Once at the bottom, we headed for the line waiting for gondola’s back to the summit where we will feel winter in the wind chill.
“Follow me,” said Maude. “We have a surprise for you.”
Thinking the surprise was to be avoiding the line, we were quite surprised to find ourselves watching the gondola tenders place two red checkered cloth-covered tables in the car and load up the table with chocolate fondue, cheese, fruit and marshmallows.
There wasn’t a bite left once we got to the top 20 minutes later.
The Flavor Route in Charlevoix
We slip into Famille Migneron de Charlevoix, a fromagerie – cheese maker – between the villages of Saint-Urbain and Baie Saint-Paul, where Québec routes 138 and 381 meet between the two towns. This is the true land of the Quebecois.
Robert was working the counter and brought out several of the local Canadian cheeses crafted at the fromagerie. Cut into bite-sized cubes; he shared the various cheeses we could see stacked in the climate-controlled cheese cave. We sampled three of the white, tangy cheeses. Le Migneron, Le Ciel (Heaven) de Charlevoix and Le Tomme d’Elles. Then he brought out Le Secret de Maurice, a creamy, spreadable cheese that compares quite favorably with French brie.
“We don’t usually share this at the tasting counter,” he says, cutting away the top of the thick rind to reveal the creamy, spreadable white cheese inside. Taking small spoons and dipping them one-after-the-other into the cheese, Robert says, “Here, try this. You’ll love it.”
La Route des Saveurs (The Flavor Trail) is a region-wide loop connecting passionate producers of food and beverage across the area. Along the Flavor Trail, some artisan producers are closed or have reduced hours in winter. However, that shouldn’t discourage the beautiful scenic drive. Charlevoix region is a place to savor locally produced, created and crafted foods and wines.
The villages of Baie-Saint-Paul and La-Malbaie anchor the trip and make great places for spending the night. Many of the producers have shops on site between the two villages. Travel eastbound on Québec 362, Route de Fleuve, hugging the shore of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, and return westbound on Québec Route 138 through the mountains.
Stop at the Jetté des Capelans on Québec Route 262 at Saint-Irénée-les-Bains and walk out to the picnic area in the Fleuve de Saint Laurent. In winter, you can hear the song of the ice flows in the seaway.
Snow Cat Shuttle, Fatbikes, Nordic Skis, Snowshoes in Parc-National-Des-Haute-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie
“This is a lot harder than it looks,” said Linda Cabasin, one of our group of writers, as she pushed her fatbike, a fat-tired bicycle, through the thickening snow. “You really have to get rolling to keep upright.”
Heidi Gollub, another writer in the group, was moving slowly on the snow-packed trail. The two were trailing Jessica Napier, whose tires threw snow into the air as she passed us at quite a clip. “This is fun,” she yelled as she flew by.
In the distance, a cluster of three fatbike riders was rolling smoothly over the trail heading upriver towards the frozen Russeau waterfall. Their laughter echoed off the adjoining sides of the deep gorge holding the Le Draveur Visitors Centre in Parc-National-Des-Haute-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie. The park is quite the destination for a get-away winter or summer.
Sights around Parc-National-des-Haute-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie
A snowcat shuttle takes visitors to La Chute-du-Russeau-Blanc, an ice-encrusted waterfall with flows under the ice, places for ice climbing and scenic trails deep into the forest. Shuttle reservations are required. The snowcat loops twice daily. At the end of the ride is a stunning landscape, the froze waterfall, and he very committed winter sports enthusiast can ice climb.
Starting at the visitor center, there are trails for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and the fatbike rides. The park clears a portion of snow off the ice on Rivière Malbaie for the Canadian national sport, hockey. If a game is not underway, the area is used for ice skating.
Just under an hour northwest of Village La Malbaie, Le Draveur Visitors Centre sits in a deeply carved gorge on Rivière Malbaie. A thick coating of ice clears the way for ice skating, hockey, backcountry skiing, Nordic skiing and fatbike riding. It’s a day-use park during the winter, but the shuttle, the bikes and just walking around can keep a family busy for most of a day.
“You stand on the brake with both feet and say ‘doucement, doucement,’ to make the dogs stop,” the gravelly voice of André Heller explains as he demonstrates bringing six eager dogs to a halt as our quick lesson in dogsledding. Heller spoke English with a thick Quebecois (Québécoise in french) french accent. We were getting ready to send five teams dogsledding into the wilderness. He looks like central casting’s prototype for the role of a consummate outdoorsman in the woods.
His “office” is the great outdoors, and we stand in the snow overlooking a small lake with its cluster of ice fishing huts.
Heller’s Descent Malbaie takes riders on half and full-day expeditions into the forest about 45 minutes northwest of La Malbaie. Getting set up, the dogs are playful, anxious and noisy. Once they go to work, they are quiet, so the only sound is the swoosh of the dogsled on the trail and the “bon chiens” (good dogs) and commands from Heller.
“À gee! À gee!” Heller says more firmly. That’s the command for a dog team to make a right turn.
“Are you okay?” he asks, in English, after the dogs make the sharp right and the sled nearly tips. “This is a new trail for the dogs, and they don’t quite have it learned.”
Hard to get Québec dogs to understand English commands
The team behind us with Heidi and Jessica aren’t so lucky, their sled slashes in the steep side of the track and falls, tossing Jessica into the snow and leaving Heidi hanging on to keep the dogs from continuing to run. Their laughter lets all know they are okay, and she can’t remember the french commands. She’s shouting, “Stop! Stop!” but the dogs are not bilingual.
Heller says to our team and the other, “Doucement! Doucement!” while standing on our brake. He sets an anchor in the snow and ties a rope around a tree to keep the dogs from running off with me in the sled and goes back to help the other two American writers.
The team of dogs can hit speeds into the 30 to 40 km/h (18 to 25 mph) on this trail. Heller takes riders deep into the snow-covered forest. If you’re riding, you’ll be bundled up in a heavy blanket watching the dogs pull the sled down the trail.
For our half-day ride, we covered nearly 20 km (12.5 miles) on a forest road, a backcountry trail and a segment of Le Traversée de Charlevoix, a 56.8 mile (91.5km) regional hiking trail. Descent Malbaie also offers a full day ride.
Un promenade dans Baie-Saint-Paul
Après déjeuner—a few days in Charlevoix and it’s easy to start picking up french words—after breakfast, we walk from Hôtel St. Germain to the center of Baie-Saint-Paul, a charming Charlevoix village where Rivière du Gouffre meets Le Fleuve de Saint Laurent in Baie Saint-Paul. See, in one paragraph, 16 french words have become part of the vocabulary. Loosely translated, it’s where the Gouffre River meets the St. Lawrence River in Baie Saint-Paul.
“There was a convent here for many years,” explains Camille Tremblay, our guide from Tourisme Charlevoix. “The city has preserved it and converted into artists studios and public uses.”
The brick building hugs the sidewalk for almost an entire city block on Rue Ambrose-Fafard (Québec Route 362). A block further up the street is the modern Musée d’Arte Contemporain du Baie-Saint-Paul. The museum has not yet opened, so all we can do is look in the windows.
The Art of Quebec
Still craving a chance to see the work of local artists, we’re satiated visiting galleries and craft stores along within the historic buildings and shops that make up the main street, Rue-Saint-Jean-Baptiste, a block further towards the river.
We stopped in Gallerie D’Arte Iris and talked with Stephan, the gallery owner. Featuring work from local artists, as well as an international selection, his gallery has a broad selection of price points from the casual tourist looking for quality souvenirs arts and crafts to the serious collector.
We wander past a microbrewery, restaurants, and a long sequence of galleries. Baie-Saint-Paul is a working town, and the quaint visitor-oriented shops and galleries are set side-by-side with the main street businesses important to any active village.
Celebrating Winter in Quebec
What’s exciting about a winter vacation in Quebec, and winter runs into late April and early May, are the variety of experiential travel opportunities awaiting a family. Quebec City, la Ville de Quebec, is an attraction of its own. The only walled city in North America, the old city (Vieux Quebec) goes bonkers for Carnaval each February. The winter celebrations run from mid-December through mid-April.
Old Quebec spins out from the Fairmont Château Frontenac. This iconic hotel towers over the old city. There are many auberges or inns, and about 45 minutes north of Quebec is the only ice hotel in North America, the Hôtel de Glace. Located in Valcartier, Hôtel de Glace and its hand-carved ice bar is a unique experience surrounded by an indoor water park, snow tubing and a chance to skate. Throughout the city, highly detailed ice sculptures stand in front of stores and restaurants.
In Quebec City, one of the big attractions is the ice canoe race. Teams from all over the province compete in hand-built, 250-pound (114kg) flat-bottom boats that are a cross between a canoe and a rowing scull. The skill and stamina required to paddle against the Saint Lawrence Seaway current and push the canoes across ice flows is clearly evident watching the race.
Carnaval itself used to take place on the Plains of Abraham, but it now is spread throughout the city. The international snow sculpture contest is no longer part of the event, but there is much to see and do along the cobblestone streets of Old Quebec. Even in winter, this is an experiential getaway the family can enjoy.
Getting to the Charlevoix Region
Major airlines serve Lester B. Pearson International Airport (YYZ) in Toronto and Montréal-Trudeau International Airport (YUL). Connecting flights land in Ville de Québec Jean Lesage International Airport (YBQ). There are international flights to Québec from Newark-Liberty International Airport (EWR), and seasonally from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) and Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), Miami International (MIA) and also direct flights to cities in Mexico.
Charlevoix is about two hours east of Québec City. There is seasonal train service to the region. Beginning in 2021, the train will run year-round. Québec Route 138 is not an expressway or freeway along its full length. The highway paralleling the St. Lawrence River is a divided road in many areas and as easy to drive as a major U.S. highway, even when just one lane in each direction.
Dressing Appropriately for Winter Wonderland of Québec
While the winter is beautiful in Québec, it does require some planning and layering to stay warm. Winter temperatures in Charlevoix range from -5C to -20C (23F to -4F). A highly unusual cold spell with wind off the water dropped temperatures while we were there to the -20C (-4F) to -42C (-40F) range with the windchill. We were never cold, and the temperatures didn’t stop our outdoor activities. That includes heading outside on a -30C night in a robe and bathing suit to soak in the St. Germain Hotel’s Nordic Spa hot tub. When planning an active day, avoid cotton and plan to layer up. Watch the Quebecois around you to see layering in action.
Layers of clothing that transpire perspiration and block the wind are perfect. I wore Knocker men’s polyester long underwear every day, an REI Co-Op Stacked shirt with a sweater. Sometimes I wore a breathable fabric sweatshirt. With my ski parka, a Buff multi-functional headwear over my neck and ears, wool cap and ski gloves, I was never cold. I also wore a glove liner to give my finger the dexterity to use my Canon EOS 80D camera.