A Few Days In

Skis, Skates, and Sleds: Having All the Winter Fun in Charlevoix

by Linda Cabasin
Skating at Parc National des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie. Photo by Gaelle Leroyer.

COVID-19 Notes: This is a two-part story about winter travel in Quebec City and nearby Charlevoix county. Contributing editor Linda Cabasin took this trip in February 2020 before the pandemic took hold. As of this writing, the Canadian government is limiting international visitors, restricting them primarily to family members and those traveling for specific reasons. Those who are able to travel should check with hotels because some offerings are limited right now. Those who aren't able to travel should use this to plan future winter adventures on sleds and skis.

QUÉBEC — After a few days in Québec City, I headed east and north for wintry landscapes and adventures in Charlevoix. My exploration took me to parts of the St. Lawrence Route, with appealing small towns and spectacular views of the icy river, and the scenic backcountry Mountain Route, including the peaks of a rugged park. But I wasn’t roughing it: Pampering hotels and delicious food — and even a Nordic spa — awaited after days in the cold. And gourmet living is absolutely an option, especially if you follow Charlevoix’s Route des Saveurs (Flavor Trail) with stops at restaurants, farms, cheesemakers, and pastry shops. Even though some outlets are closed for visits in the winter, products will still be on menus.

Le Massif de Charlevoix. Photo by Pierre Gouyou Beauchamps.
Sledding at Le Massif. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Le Massif de Charlevoix

Less than 90 minutes from Québec City, Le Massif de Charlevoix resort (also called simply Le Massif, like the mountain of the same name) offers skiers a 2,526-foot vertical drop, the longest east of the Canadian Rockies, with steep runs and sparkling, snow-covered forests. Its rugged wildness and majestic views of the St. Lawrence River make it a special place.

Since 2002, Le Massif has been owned by Daniel Gauthier, a co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, which — fun local fact — originated in Charlevoix. The resort has summer and winter activities, as well as accommodations. Big news is that a year-round, all-inclusive Club Med will open on-site in late 2021.

In winter people come to Le Massif to ski and snowshoe, but I was here for a thrilling, 4.6-mile sled run. After a tasty lunch in the Summit Chalet cafeteria, I took a ride on a snowcat to the starting point on Mont Liguori. A guide instructed us (we were a group of nine) on riding the Austrian-style, single-person wooden sleds with comfy woven seats. Putting my feet in the snow served as effective brakes, and leaning left or right guided the sled through exciting, tight turns. I loved the ride! Sledders can reach speeds of 25 mph (faster than it sounds when it’s just you balancing on a few slivers of tree), but my feet kept things in control. I appreciated a mid-run stop for hot chocolate. The gondola ride back to the top of the mountain added more spectacular views to my memories of this adventure.

Baie-Saint-Paul

Just 30 minutes from Le Massif, this small city of 7,000 at the mouth of the Gouffre River draws artists, art lovers, foodies, and others to its pretty downtown filled with old houses and to explore the countryside. The plain and surrounding hills are part of the crater formed by a meteor that crashed to Earth 400 million years ago.

Even in winter, restaurants, boutiques, and the town’s abundant art galleries provide a warm welcome on a stroll. Charlevoix Pure Laine on the main street of rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste sells attractive hats, socks, and more made by craftspeople from the wool of local sheep. Galerie d’Art Iris has two locations on the main street and represents more than 80 artists. Musée d’Art Contemporain de Baie-Saint-Paul is a good place to see 20th- and 21st-century works by artists from Charlevoix and Québec.

Hotel & Spa Le German Charlevoix pool — and cattle view. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Hotel and Spa Le Germain Charlevoix. Photo by Andre Quenneville.

Where to Stay & Eat in Baie-Saint-Paul

Hôtel and Spa Le Germain Charlevoix
A short walk from the center of Baie-Saint-Paul, this stylish complex on expansive grounds consists of five modern buildings that pay homage to the site’s history as a farm. Some animals still live on-site. The 145 rooms in buildings with names like Le Moulin (The Mill) and La Bergerie (The Farm) include dorm- and loft-style lodgings. Rooms feature different designs, but many have elements of farmhouse or industrial style, as well as some furnishings made in Québec. I enjoyed this mix of past and present: My modern gray, white, and red room had a view of downtown as well as a photo-wall of historic farm scenes. The main building holds two restaurants and a train station for Charlevoix’s summer tourist train.

Winter adventurers should experience the Spa Nordique Le Germain, open to non-guests, at the hotel. A complete Nordic circuit starts with the indoor Finnish sauna (very hot!) or the eucalyptus steam bath. It continues outside with an invigorating dip in the small cold pool or snow fountain, and then on to the hot pools. Going outside early one evening in a robe, flip-flops, and bathing suit required courage, but after entering the warm pool, I relaxed completely into the dark Canadian night. The circuit ends in a relaxation room, though the spa suggests that the circuit is even more refreshing if repeated two or three times. The spa also has body treatments and massages, including Swedish treatments.

Le Bercail
Open for lunch and dinner, this restaurant at Hôtel and Spa Le Germain Charlevoix channels a casual, après-ski vibe with its wood tables, fireplace, and large bar. Pizzas and flatbreads taste great in winter, or go for charcuterie and cheeses, including local Famille Migneron options.

La Jetée des Capelans in Sainte-Irénée. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Team Mush! Photo by Linda Cabasin.
The view on the dogsled. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Le Draveur Visitors Centre. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

La Malbaie and Vicinity

The scenic resort town of La Malbaie on the wide St. Lawrence River has been popular with Canadian and American vacationers for years, including President William Howard Taft in the early 20th century. Several homes from that era are now inns, and the town, about 30 miles northeast of Baie-Saint-Paul via scenic Route 362 along the St. Lawrence, makes a good base for winter activities like skiing at Mont Grand-Fonds and dogsledding. One worthy stop en route to La Malbaie is La Jetée des Capelans, a jetty on the river in the town of Saint-Irénée. A lively beach in summer, it has a stark beauty in winter.

Descente Malbaie
Based in Saint-Aimé-des-Lac north of La Malbaie, this outfitter offers guided dogsled trips from a half day to two days through stunning, mountainous backcountry about eleven miles from the Parc National des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière Malbaie. My guide for a half-day ride — the company’s owner, André Heller — gave us information about the huskies and advice on how to mush, from proper French commands for the dogs to how to brake. Soon pairs of us were off, with the exuberant dogs racing through sparkling snow on empty forest roads and trails with snow-covered trees and mountain views. We took turns mushing, and although I was happy sitting in the sled for part of the ride, driving it was exhilarating.

Parc National des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie
Just 40 minutes north of La Malbaie, this almost 87-square-mile park includes the Malbaie River and valleys that slice into mountains with some of the highest rockfaces east of the Rockies. The dramatic, wild setting is ideal for outdoor adventures year-round, and I got a taste of those near Le Draveur Visitors Centre by the river gorge. (Draveur means "log driver," a nod to logging days when trees would be moved on the river.) The frozen river was cleared in places, good for ice-skating and for riding fatbikes. Visitors can hike, cross-country ski, and stroll the footbridge over the river to take in the scenery. The center has gear rentals, including crampons and snowshoes, and a snowcat shuttle takes visitors deep into the park’s Équerre section for more snowy activities.

Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu. Photo by Andre Quenneville.

Where to Stay & Eat in La Malbaie

Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu
Arriving at the comfortable, castle-like hotel on Pointe-au-Pic overlooking the St. Lawrence River makes a wonderful end to an active winter day. Constructed in 1899 for a navigation company that ferried guests and goods to the area, the hotel was rebuilt in 1929 and has 405 rooms with dark wood furnishings and patterned fabrics that feel cozy and right for the countryside setting. Public areas are grand in size but not too formal. Winter activities at the year-round resort include snowshoeing, sledding, ice fishing, and a hockey and ice-skating rink. (They charge a resort fee of C$25 per room per day for access to activities.) Off-site, skiers can hit the slopes at Mont Grand-Fonds, a ski resort twenty minutes away that has miles of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails in addition to downhill runs. The hotel is also next to the Casino de Charlevoix. I passed on the indoor pool and went outside in the late afternoon to relax in the heated outdoor pool, another magical winter experience.

Le Saint-Laurent Restaurant
Broad views over the river enhance the country manor-like ambience of this restaurant at Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu. The hearty but sophisticated fare uses some local products: In winter, onion soup with cheese, striploin steak, and mushroom and truffle risotto may be on the menu.

Pains d’Exclamation!
This popular bakery makes delicious croissants, pastries, and coffee, as well as lunchtime soups and salads. It’s easy to pick up a sandwich on fresh-made bread with meat and Québec cheeses, or sit at a table and try a grilled cheese option.

Plan Your Trip

How to Get There
Toronto Pearson Airport (YYZ) and Montréal–Trudeau International Airport (YUL). Taxis to downtown Québec City (flat rate of C$35.10) leave from near the baggage claim; Uber is another option.

Québec City is an 8 1/2 hour drive north of New York City via I-87 and Autoroute 20.

Getting Around
A car is needed for winter travel around the coastal Charlevoix region, which begins about 90 minutes northeast of Québec City. Roads are well cleared of snow, from the faster Route 138 to the scenic coast Route 362.

The scenic summer tourist Train de Charlevoix runs from Québec City (Montmorency Falls) to Baie-Saint-Paul and La Malbaie.

What to Pack for Winter
Winter is serious in Québec City, where average winter temperatures from December through February range from lows in the single digits to highs of 25° Fahrenheit without the wind. A 30° day will feel warm. Good clothing ensures being comfortable for outdoor adventures, though.

Any packing list should include a winter jacket, snow pants (essential), sweaters or fleeces (dress in layers), and warm, waterproof winter boots. A scarf, hat, gloves and mittens, and wool socks are good, and toe and hand warmers are a useful addition. Sunscreen and sunglasses are handy. Finally, pack a bathing suit and flip-flops for indoor pools, spas, and yes, heated outdoor pools.

Keep the winter spirit alive: Linda's adventures continue in nearby Québec City.