Eden on the St. Lawrence

by Ilona Kauremszky
The Beaver Magazine - Special Collector's Edition: Quebec at 400

Charlevoix -- Stuck in the ruddy muck that beached his ship in low tide, the story goes how Samuel de Champlain swiftly cursed this unlucky bay, "La Mal Baie." When high tide returned he sailed upriver until the dream spot now known as Quebec City appeared.

While La Malbaie received a bad wrap from New France's first governor and founder of Quebec, the town steeped in the Charlevoix region would later become a favourite among the Gilded Age glitterati, who arrived en masse for pleasure trips and summer retreats to these pastoral valleys between the rolling Laurentians.

They can thank two Scottish highlanders for that. In 1762 officers John Nairne and Malcolm Fraser received plots of land for their service from the Crown. They created lavish estates and named the area Mount Murray and Murray Bay in honour of then Governor James Murray. Fishing and fur trapping were all the rage for guests who were warmly received by their distinguished hosts at what became Canada's first resort community.

Besides the infectious outdoor adventure that tugged at the heartstrings of the rugged set, steamships too plied the "Royal Road" of the lower St. Lawrence during the mid-1800s in a trip described as the "trip par excellence." These floating palaces were packed with moneyed Americans who craved the scenic splendour of fiords and isolated Indian settlements. One frequent traveller, journalist Arthur Buies commented on how the three-day roundtrip Saguenay excursion that anchored at La Malbaie was, "the most picturesque and the most poetic of watering places, Canada's Eden, the poet's dream."

Canada's earliest founders also found solace amid this wilderness refuge. William H. Blake, Upper Canada's solicitor general, arrived with his family in 1884 and returned each year thereafter. His son Edward Blake who was Ontario's premier (1871-1872) and a Liberal leader built a villa here named La Maison Rouge as a tribute to his political party.

Atop a cliff overlooking Pointe-au-Pic, the Canadian Steamship Line erected the luxurious Manoir Richelieu for its well-healed patrons. Opening to much fanfare in 1899, the 250-room hotel was the talk of the social circuit. This prime location even attracted US president William H. Taft who summered for 40 years in a nearby mansion. The 27th president described Murray Bay as a "state of mind" and said, "The invigorating air of Murray Bay exhilarates like champagne without the effects of the morning after."

Rebuilt after a fire in 1928, the manoir still stands as a testament to these glory days and remains the jewel of Charlevoix. The regal corridors bounded by an impressive staircase are set off by objet d'art culled from France with rare collections of Canadiana. The Norman chateau-style property bursts with fanciful turrets and pointed gables that seem to reach beyond the Laurentians. Today patrons can linger by the pool or golf at one of Canada's earliest courses.

Named after a Jesuit priest and Quebec's first historian Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix, the Charlevoix region encompasses 6,000 square kilometres of Canadian Shield along the St. Lawrence’s North Shore and is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Situated in the heart of an ancient meteorite that exploded here over 350 million years ago, the resulting 56 kilometre crater has left bio-diverse treasures from the west of Baie-Saint-Paul to the east of La Malbaie.

This natural paradise harbours a collage of retreats, seven trails and two drive routes to explore. Many day trippers from Quebec City (about a 30-minute drive) escape into this bucolic countryside with its postcard pretty villages set against the rugged beauty of the Laurentians that cascade into the St. Lawrence River seducing you to stay longer.

For spectacular landscapes and vistas, veer onto the River Drive or the new Mountain Drive, a 151-km route between Saint-Urbain and Saint-Aimé-des-Lacs that includes two national parks. An adventure not-to-be-missed is whale-watching along the coastline in which pods of belugas, minkes, humpbacks and blue whales intersperse with the "petit penguins,” a cousin of the tuxedo-clad penguin.

For centuries, towns like Baie St. Paul have attracted artists whose many ateliers are now open to the public. Members of The Group of Seven used to congregate at this historic town dubbed the "artists' paradise." The century-old homestead of artist René Richard overlooking La Rivière du Gouffre (Salmon River) is now an art gallery that showcases contemporary artists as well as Richard's work. While here soak in the sites frequented by renowned painters A.Y. Jackson, Clarence Gagnon, Marc-Aurèle Fortin, and Jean-Paul Lemieux who have all immortalized this magical setting on canvas.

Local painter and author Jori Smith once recounted how as a young woman during the thirties she enjoyed watching the deluge of salmon spawning in the river that dribbled into la mer. From 1957 until her passing, Gabrielle Roy faithfully spent every spring through autumn at a modest home in the dreamy hamlet of Petite-Riviere-Saint-Francois. Here the renowned author would write only during those months immersed in the simple charms of country living amid the isolated paradise.

To retrace these artist's paths, venture onto the Artist's Trail and for culture and nostalgia embark on Charlevoix's Culture and Heritage Trail. The trail features museums and an array of architectural landmarks such as the Saint Placid Covered Bridge in Baie St. Paul, the last of its kind in the greater Quebec City region; the fieldstone constructed Saint Isidore Chapel on Isle aux Coudres; the historic blacksmith shop from 1882, the Forge Cauchon in La Malbaie; and Charlevoix's oldest church Saint Agnes erected in La Malbaie in 1844.

The winding roads through these charming towns reveal the vestiges of the region’s rich history and the unwavering spirit of a culture that remains as alive as the ancient river itself.


photo: Stephen Smith

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