If you hadn't heard of Charlevoix before now, expect to hear much more as Cirque du Soleil co-founder Daniel Gauthier helps transform this notoriously insular yet infinitely welcoming region into a four-season destination.
Earlier this month he marked the inaugural voyage of Le Massif de Charlevoix, a high-end rail experience that connects the outskirts of Quebec City with the heart of Charlevoix, 1 1/2 hours to the northeast, in a way best described as up close and personal.
Covering 140 kilometres of track in 31/2 hours, the 10-hour round-trip excursion (which is punctuated by a three-hour stopover in scenic Malbaie) echoes the region's unhurried way of life while revealing its charms from usually unseen perspectives. Billed as "a cruise on rails" between mountain and sea, the route often hugs the St. Lawrence shoreline so tightly passengers feel as though they are gliding on water. Although the train follows the same track on the return journey, the landscape is altered by the bold changes in light and tides that have enthralled the local artist colony for years.
The track itself was laid out independently in 1909 by Canadian businessman Sir Rodolphe Forget. Snaking along the Beaupré coast into places the road does not, it delivers privileged views of waterfalls, wildlife and ancestral estates. A highlight is the lowlands and mountains of Cap Tourmente, a pristine nature reserve that hosts 350 species of birds, including the enormous flock of migrating snow geese that accompanied the train from overhead.
Onboard, in bright, airy compartments more Wallpaper-esque than Orient Express, guests feast on an elaborate lunch and dinner created by Jean-Michel Breton, executive chef of Le Fairmont Manoir Richelieu. Guided by a "field to fork" seasonality, Breton's inventive, ever-changing menu takes its cues from local growers and producers. Each course is prepped in the Fairmont kitchens the night before, with final cooking and finishing entrusted to the train's designated sous-chefs. Delicacies on the autumn menu include smoked duck carpaccio, escargot terrine, deer osso bucco and, for dessert, a milk chocolate "meteorite" – an homage to the asteroid that crashed into the region 350 million years ago, forming the crater in which 90 per cent of Charlevoix's population now lives.
True to his Cirque roots, Gauthier has gone to considerable lengths to make the onboard experience as enchanting as the view from the panoramic windows. Each table of four is equipped with an iPad cued by GPS to provide original musical and video accompaniment at key points of interest. In addition to telling passengers about things they can't see from the train – nearby villages, a convent, local artists – the presentation offers some fascinating archival footage of Charlevoix. A favourite of such luminaries as Fred Astaire, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and U.S. president William Taft, the town was once a summer playground for North America's rich and famous. Arriving in Malbaie by steamship, VIPs and their families would check into their chalets and spend their days golfing, dining, dancing and deal-making at the iconic Manoir Richelieu (which can be toured during the stopover). Ironically, the party ended when the advent of railways opened up other travel options.
For Gauthier, who also owns the Le Massif ski area and is putting the final touches on an eco-friendly, five-star hotel in nearby Baie-Saint-Paul, the plan is to create the infrastructure that will allow Charlevoix to reclaim its place as a tourism hot spot. But for now, the train offers a rare and often remarkable perspective of a road less travelled.
Autumn departures through Oct. 23 with service resuming in February, 2012. $249 a person/round-trip; lemassif.com .
Special to The Globe and Mail