Sixty miles from Quebec City, in a land of rounded wooded hills, small villages nestle in pastoral valleys and steep-sided cliffs plunge precipitously to the St. Lawrence River. Some 350 million years ago, a meteor crashed in this area, shaping the dramatic landscape of Canada's Charlevoix, a World Biosphere Reserve.
The culinary front is the real draw here. So pick up a brochure (or print out the map), hop in your car and drive around. You'll soon see why this region is known for its Flavor Trail (Les Route des Savaeurs), a culinary route with farms, restaurants, hotels and artisanal food producers all focused on promoting, growing and serving local food.
As the chocoholic that you know I am, I couldn't resist Chocolaterie Cynthia. Their spicy Aztec hot chocolate strikes a perfect spicy note. And I spent quite some time browsing their individual chocolate delicacies.
I'm also a cheese fan so a stop at Laiterie Charlevoix is a must. Here you'll find an ecomuseum with plenty of information on cheese production. Spend time sampling their products. My favorite was the velvety Fleumier as well as the raw -- yes, raw -- cheddar.
More fine cheeses are to be had at La Maison d'Affinage. The master cheese maker, Maurice Dufour, has been churning out his award winning Migneran for more than a decade. For those who enjoy strong cheeses, I'd also try the La Ciel de Charlevoix, a mild blue. If you've got the time, hang out and enjoy a cheese plate with fruit and a glass of wine. Can you think of a better way to relax?
One reason you'll want to spend at least four days in the region is to have the time to dine at the many locavore-friendly eateries, such as Auberge La Muse. (If you want to stay right in the town of Baie-Saint-Paul, I'd stay in this 19th century upscale accommodation and maybe indulge in one of their stone massages.) Hank Suzuki, the Japanese chef, has designed a menu that has an Asian influence -- you'll find sushi is on the menu, for example. Since I often order several appetizers for dinner (rather than an entree) when I'm checking out restaurants, that's what I did here as well: emu tartare, and salmon prepared two ways: one marinated with chives and another was gravlax with walnuts and olives.
A grand place to stay (and dine in style) is the Fairmont's Le Manoir Richelieu. You can't get a better venue: the castle-like edifice is huddled on a windswept cliff that towers over the St. Lawrence River. Walk in the door and you'll be transported to another era: with French mirrors and iron balustrades. Of their several restaurants, I'd make a reservation at the luxe Le Charlevoix where I ordered these two appetizers: lobster cappuccino and ginger duck with a foie gras risotto.
After all of this high calorie dining, don't even think about feeling guilty. After all, loads of outdoor activities beckon:
• The Fairmont is graced with a 27-hole golf course with drop-dead gorgeous views of the St. Lawrence River. You can also rent a bicycle, play tennis, walk a network of trails on the property or ask about guided sea or river kayaking.
• The 15-mile road encircling Isle aux Coudres attracts many a road cyclist. Renowned for its apple orchards, this tidy island is a short ferry ride from the mainland. Though small, I wouldn't miss it if I were visiting this area again. Here, you'll find a placid land where you'll delight in apple picking (depending on the season), sipping homemade apple cider, sampling apple butters and checking out a an ecomuseum where you can watch grains being milled in a 19th century watermill.
• In Parc National des Grands-Jardins, you'll be plenty impressed by the sheer rocky peaks that rise to about 3,000 feet. Here you'll find plenty of trails that are perfect for hiking or snowshoeing. When I snowshoed here in the winter, I tackled the short and easy Le Gros Pin Trail, which wanders through a dense spruce and white birch forest. It takes its name for the grand old pine tree that stands at trail's end. Cross country skiers who delight in backcountry terrain will enjoy the park's ungroomed trails that meander through some hilly terrain.
• Dotted with half a dozen lakes, Mont Grand Fonds is popular for its small downhill runs. But, since I often prefer cross-country skiing, I found the almost 100 miles of trails -- some perfect for skating -- quite enticing. On my short five-mile loop I was surprised to find two log chalets -- actually warming huts -- with complimentary hot cocoa. Here I took a short break, lunching on the fixings in my fanny pack: fresh bread, proscuitto and cheddar cheese.
It's certainly not a rough life in Charlevoix.