Quebec


8
Apr 13

Feeling at home in Fairmont’s Charlevoix Chateau

Out of all the things I imagined that I’d miss about home, one thing I didn’t anticipate missing was old buildings. Vancouver is such a modern city, it celebrated its 125th birthday in 2011. Gleaming high rises are everywhere and but it wasn’t until I arrived at the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu in Quebec’s Charlevoix region and beamed at its stone exterior and gleaming wooden interior that I had a sudden flash of realisation; I like old buildings, they feel comforting and like ‘home’.

I could not love this more.

I could not love this more.

Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu certainly ticked all my Heritage Building boxes, just an hour or so drive along the stunning St Lawrence river, it was a world away from the funky modern delights of La Ferme. The original hotel was built in 1899, but burned down in 1928. I can’t imagine what dazzling riches the workers who rebuilt the hotel were offered but it was redesigned as a French Chateau and inaugurated in June 1929. Good work, chaps! I loved the huge fireplaces, the lavish lounge which looked out over the river and the spacious comfortable bedroom which came with the only hotel toiletries I ever ‘steal’ – I’m such a fan of the Fairmont’s rose-scented range.

How I wish I'd had time to laze around under the sunshine here...

How I wish I’d had time to laze around under the sunshine here…

Although the hotel has a pleasingly old-fashioned vibe, thanks to a multi-million dollar refurbishment, the facilities are bang up to date; well equipped children’s area, gorgeous outdoor hot pools and and all winter fun activities are catered for, you can hire everything from skates to tubes to go sliding. There is an Amerispa on site too which offers some interesting ice-cider treatments – I love the use of local ingredients – even in the spa.

After reading about the magnificent food that made the Charlevoix region so famous, I was excited about dinner; a tasting menu of the region created by Chef Patrick Turcot. The restaurant works with ultra-local producers, sourcing food within a 50KM radius. I ate  foie gras from a small farm, served with a brandy snap, honied fruit and a dollop of whipped cream, it came served with a glass of Le Pedneault, a local ice cider. At first taste it was syrupy sweet, but it became pleasingly dry with each forkful of foie and was easily a decadent day of calories in a few bites. I’ve found the flavours of the east coast of Canada to be so much richer and sweeter than those of the west coast. After a few days enjoying the riches of their terroir, I’m always just about ready to crawl back to Vancouver’s seafood and kale – no wonder they stock up on winter sports equipment! This is hearty food to fortify the body and soul through bitter winters – but so delicious!

Yes please.

Yes please.

I spoke with Chef in the morning, before I left, he was full of excitement that his plans to create their very own breakfast sausages with local organic suppliers was finally coming to fruition. He’d be making 20kg of sausage over the next few days and looked like a man who couldn’t wait to start. In the wake of the horsemeat scandals in Europe, it’s genuinely refreshing to spend time with a chef who can tell you the name of each and every one of his suppliers and can point to them on a local map. You could taste the care and dedication in every bite.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Charlevoix and Le Manoir Richelieu. As always, my views are 100% my own.

Find out more at Tourism Quebec.

Chef Patrick Turcot

Chef Patrick Turcot


7
Apr 13

All the fun of La Ferme

Looking around, it was hard to believe I wasn’t in in a funky hotel in a major metropolis. Airy spaces, glass and natural materials, clean lines and bold colours screamed ultra-modern design, but cheeky touches like the fabulously decorated life-size cow in the lounge or the farming tools sculpture in reception gave you a clue that Hôtel La Ferme is far from well – anything really – deep in the heart of the Charlevoix region of Quebec in Baie-saint-Paul.

Where urban cool meets painted cow...

Where urban cool meets painted country cow…

The brainchild of Daniel Gauthier, co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, Hôtel La Ferme is the last piece in the puzzle that he’s been building in this beautiful part of the world that’s remained mostly unknown beyond Canada. Ten years ago, he bought Le Massif, a ski mountain, planning to transform it into a world-class four-season destination. The plan to link the area to Quebec City with a luxury private train stopping off at the mountain and then the hotel, offering top-notch accommodation (145 rooms ranging from the nicest dorm rooms I’ve ever seen to stylish doubles) and dining has finally come to fruition and – judging from my experience there – will put the area firmly on the radar of those looking for something new and deliciously cool.

Cool, clean lines - pastoral scenes

Cool, clean lines – pastoral scenes

Arriving by train, it’s worth noting that check-in isn’t available till the afternoon, so plan to have lunch and explore the small village of nearby Baie-saint-Paul or perhaps book a treatment in the spa. Farm touches are everywhere, tipping a nod to the 100-year old farm which used to stand here, from cow-coverlets in the spa and farm pictures in the room to the whole farm-to-table ethos of local dining in Les Labours restaurant and the Cafe du Marche where you can snack on soups, sandwiches and pastries as well as stock up on local terroir products to take home.

Quite wonderful to see the train from the spa pool

Jump in… warm up

Perfect for the ski crowd in winter and the relaxation-seekers in summer, Hôtel La Ferme also has a full-service spa. I’m a big fan of nordic style spa-ing, gently heating your body and then cooling down, but it always seems so much better when you can do it outdoors and lying back in the steamy huge outdoor hot pool at the Spa du Verger, with snow all around was heavenly. I’m getting better at the cold bit and managed not to screech as I plunged head-under in the icicle-covered cold tub. An indoor steam room and sauna add to the experience, along with a restful lounge area where you can sip herbal tea and look out over the garden.

Brilliant witty touches in the farm-friendly treatment rooms

Witty touches in the farm-friendly treatment rooms

I tried a candle massage – a deeply relaxing therapy that used the warm melted wax of a  candle as massage oil. You get to keep the candle afterwards – although they don’t provide an expert-fingered therapist to take away too. I wish I could say I remembered a lot about this treatment, but once I’d settled down from cooing compliments over the cow-cover and milk stool in the room, and relaxed into the sensation of warm wax drizzling over my back, embarrassingly enough, what I remember most is snoring through it – which, I guess is probably one of the highest accolades you could give to a relaxing massage, so let’s skate over that…

The best seats in the house...

The best seats in the house…

I woke from a post-massage snooze hungry and ready to tuck into dinner at Les Labours. I sat at the bar, the best view in the house, to watch the chefs do their thing. I had a four-hour, slow-braised shoulder of lamb, which came with the best lentils I’ve ever tasted. I should have asked how they do them, I never seem to get puy lentils right at home and these were so great, they’d be worth flying to Quebec to eat again.

I took time to explore before leaving in the morning, I watched a family ice skating in what would be the garden in the summertime and chatted with one of the staff about the impressive eco credentials of the hotel – sustainable development, geothermal energy, reusing rainwater and reducing food miles by using local suppliers. “It’s all about respecting the environment” she smiled and it makes sense – if you live somewhere as beautiful as the Charlevoix region, of course you want to protect it.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Charlevoix and Hôtel la Ferme. As always – my views are 100% my own.

Find out more: Tourism Quebec


13
Mar 13

All aboard Le Massif de Charlevoix train

I’m a sucker for a good train journey. I fell in love with Canada on a four night, three day, 2,775 mile journey from Toronto to Vancouver onboard The Canadian on the wonderful ViaRail a few years back. It was a transformative journey in so many ways for me; it was the first time I’d been to Vancouver and I just knew that the city and I would get along (and yes, two years later we moved in together…) it was also the first time I met Marie-Julie Gagnon, a French-Canadian blogger, writer, TV travel pro and all-round splendid woman.

The start of a beautiful friendship...

The start of a beautiful friendship…

We’d been at the same travel writers event in Toronto, not met at all and then spent the next few days delightedly discovering that we were absolute sisters under the skin, writer-soul mates with a love of food, spas, cocktails and laughing very loudly. I’ve probably spoken to her almost every day since then and we try to co-ordinate travelling together whenever we can. So yes, I try to see Canada by train whenever I can and if I can see it with Marie-Julie, so much the better. The train which travels to Le Massif de Charlevoix in Québec is quite different from the ViaRail train. This is a privately-owned train which runs on privately-owned tracks, which means, that unlike other train journeys in North America, which are subject to what can be hours of delays as they have to give way to freight, this train runs to a tight timetable. It’s a beautiful shiny, neat train. Huge picture windows so you can watch the impossibly beautiful landscape whizz past. 

 

A few minutes before boarding

A few minutes before boarding

We boarded at Parc de la Chute-Montmorency, just 15 minutes drive from downtown Québec City, at 8am we’d arrive at Baie-Saint-Paul at 1045am. Along the way we were served breakfast and got to see the astonishing sight of the frozen Saint Lawrence river and the beauty of the Charlevoix landscape blanketed in snow.

Frozen waves

Frozen waves

I’ve never seen a frozen river before; the waves had carved the ice into tiles, scattered on the frosty surface. It seemed unthinkable, impossible, that a river so wide – so vast that I couldn’t see the other side – could freeze, but here it was. The houses on the other side of the river told a story of warm summers ahead though; almost every home had a round blue swimming pool, topped with white snow. Little wooden porches with benches below told me that it got so hot they needed shade and sat out often. We trundled along and I sipped hot coffee and thought about the people who lived out here, far from the city, under this thick blanket of snow, in a climate that was cold enough to freeze waves in a vast river, but had a summer of soft nights and long meals outdoors and all the good food of the region to look forward to.

A syrup-y sweet breakfast

A syrup-y sweet breakfast

You can stop off at Grande Pointe and ski, or, do as we did, and get off at La Ferme, a modern gem of a hotel that made me feel like I was in the heart of Soho in London, rather than miles from anywhere in the frozen east of Canada. If you don’t want to stay, you can hop back on board at 330pm. Plenty of time to explore the quaint little town of Baie-Saint-Paul, stop to taste its craft brewed beer at MicroBrasserie Charlevoix, have a bite by the fireplace at Chez Bouquet or pick up some art at one of the many galleries and still be back in Québec City by 645pm.

A few miles beyond Baie-Saint-Paul

A few miles beyond Baie-Saint-Paul

I’d love to see how it changes in the summertime, to follow the curves of the tracks as the sun sets, there’s a great twilight gourmet dinner package which runs from May till August, with an ‘exquisite terroir meal’ created by the kitchens of the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, picking the finest, freshest produce of the region.

We arrived bang on time. That’s the pity of the private track, I’d happily have sat there, watching this natural wonder for hours. Stunning scenery, great company and no need to worry about driving or getting lost.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Québec – my views are 100% my own

Find out more:

http://www.lemassif.com/en/train

Hotel La Ferme


12
Mar 13

Carnaval in Québec City

In my head, the Caribou candy canes were not so big. Oh, I’d heard about them; a cute Carnaval attraction, filled to the brim with ‘Caribou’, a kind of souped-up mulled wine, spiked with brandy or vodka or both. Perfect for keeping out the icy chill and keeping up the party spirits, I thought a small stripy pipe o’ booze would be just the ticket, but when I was handed what looked like a walking stick, rather than the compact little twig I’d anticipated, I realised I was out of my depth. I was swimming in French-Canadian waters now but it wasn’t like I hadn’t been warned… “They know how to party in Québec” everyone had said and oh boy, do they ever…

I was mesmerised by the skill of the ice and snow statue carvers

Just… wow.

I’d been so excited about attending the Carnaval. For years I’d heard about the bikini-clad snow bathing, the ice sculptures and I’d dreamed of seeing people genuinely enjoying the cold weather rather than cowering away from it as we do in Britain. And it was everything I’d hoped that it would be; parents towed their red-cheeked, snowsuit-ed infants around in lightweight plastic sleds, couples held hands and ice-skated around the park, children shrieked with laughter as they played on the slides and begged to queue up to meet the star of the show, Bonhomme.

Ah, Bonhomme, the spokes-snowman of the Carnaval, who is idolised and adored in a positively Bieber-like fashion. Unlike most mascots, Bonhomme speaks (here he is meeting the Canadian PM), throughout Carnaval he has a hectic schedule gracing parties and doing his trademark high-kick dance at endless photos calls. I walked past a queue of some 100 people, waiting to get a photograph with him.

Queuing to see Bonhomme

Queuing to see Bonhomme

Even entry to the Carnival is with a cute little Bonhomme ‘effigy’, I tied it to my trusty Canada Goose and walked through the lyrically-named Plains of Abraham, straight into a winter wonderland. I’d been given a ceinture fléchée to wear, a sash with an arrowhead design, part of the traditional outfit of the French-Canadians in the 19th century.  I tied it around my waist, its ends peeking out under my parka. This was my first clue that this wasn’t just a party, the Carnaval had its roots in a more interesting place. Over the speakers, traditional French folk songs played, everywhere, the heavily-accented Québecois French was spoken, make no mistake – when you are in Québec City, you are in the heart of French-speaking French-Canada. You really need to try to speak French. It’s their language and it’s who they are. Québec baffles and fascinates me in equal measure. It feels like another country and its winter celebrations, the wearing of the ceinture fléchée, the pride in its long historical culture and traditions are all part of cherishing that uniquely French side.

Bonhomme's cheeky snow bath party

Bonhomme’s cheeky snow bath party

It was the last weekend of Carnival when I attended, I’d missed the ice canoe racing and snowboarding, but the ice sculptures from around the world still held their shape and Bonhomme’s Ice Palace continued to shine in the sun under the impossibly blue sky. They’ve built an ice palace each winter since the late 1800s, I stroked the glossy walls  of the latest incarnation and thought about how lucky I was to have a warm centrally-heated hotel to go to later and gratefully wriggled my toes in my  thermal socks.

It's official: Bonhomme's beach is open...

It’s official: Bonhomme’s ‘beach’ is open…

The big event of the weekend was the bain de neige, one of our group, a Lonely Planet reporter, Regis, decided to take the plunge – it looked like so much fun! I cursed my sprained ankle… next time. Although my consolation prize was a sleigh ride, something I’d never have done if I wasn’t limping. The bells jingled, the ponies stamped and we were off;  I burrowed under the fur throw as we trotted through the snow, up and around the park. I felt like I was in the most romantic of fairy tales, and yes – it was schmaltzy and cheesy and I absolutely loved it.

Cheesy, yes. Fun, definitely

Cheesy, yes. Fun, definitely

Later that night we watched the Carnaval parade, a whirl of lights and colour, dancing and music. The cold bit brutally at our fingers whenever we de-gloved to take photos. I was amazed to hear French versions of Mary Poppins songs as a float with a flying Poppins wheeled past, accompanied by a dozen dancing sweeps.

Parade time: it got a trifle weird

Parade time: it got a trifle weird

The final treat of the night was dancing at Bonhomme’s ice palace. Of course, dancing with a badly-sprained ankle is a terrible idea… but an irresistible one after a few Caribous. I’m still limping three weeks later. I can’t help thinking dancing in the snow, zipped up in my coat, having a blast in the minus-whatever-it-was temperature, the lights bouncing off the ice, the music so good and loud and the company so much fun probably has something to do with it… Oh, and that damn candy cane. The size of a hockey stick and full to the brim of hot, sweet, deceptively-strong Caribou… We shared it between us, waved the stick in the air to the music and by the time the hot drink was cold I somehow didn’t care so much about the sprain and the pain.

I think this just about sums things up...

I think this just about sums things up…

But I got it; when winter is so cold and harsh, when the weather beats you down every day with its intensity, you have to go out and embrace it. Celebrate being alive and enjoy all the good things that living in that climate can bring, connect with your inner snow-bathing, high-kick dancing Bonhomme.

Bonhomme's Ice Palace

Bonhomme’s Ice Palace

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Quebec, however – as always – my views are 100% my own.

Find out more:

Carnaval de Québec

Quebéc Tourism

I travelled as a guest of Québec Tourism and stayed at the Hilton.


4
Mar 13

Thrills and Spills at Valcartier Sliding Park, Quebec

Ow. The spill that came after the thrill...

Ow. The spill that came after the thrill…

I lay on the ground, my ankle crumpled beneath me, pain so sharp I pressed my face into the snow and tried hard not to throw up. No dazzling ski injury for me though. No heroic face-planting after some daredevil antics on the slopes, nope – typically, for a klutz like myself, I had fallen awkwardly and sprained my ankle trying to get up from an inflatable rubber ring at a ‘tubing’ park.

So much fun. Sit back and enjoy the view!

So much fun. Sit back and enjoy the view!

Injury aside, if you’ve never been tubing before, I cannot recommend it enough. We drove 20 minutes north of Quebec City to visit Valcartier and I loved everything about it; in the summer you splash around, having fun in water under the blazing sun. In the winter, when the temperatures plummet and the snow lies thick on the ground, they turn it into a sliding park so you can whizz down the slopes on huge rings, zoom around an ice track in mini-racers and enjoy treats like gravy-soaked poutine and fresh-made maple syrup lollies poured over snow to set.

Snowy-chewy super-sweet maple syrup lolly

Snowy-chewy super-sweet maple syrup lolly

They have 35 snow slides, an insane snow raft run where you hurtle down an icy slope at alarming speeds flying out of your seat as you sail over bumps and a crazy circular ‘tornado’ raft which spins you around as you power down the hill. For 50 years, this park has been making kids and adults screech with excitement and they recently welcomed their 13th million visitor. It’s old-fashioned, unashamedly low-tech fun with a family-friendly vibe and if you’re ever visiting Quebec, it’s an absolute must-do.

Madness. But terribly addictive!

Madness. But terribly addictive!

So, it’s two weeks later now and I am still limping after my bad sprain, but you know what? Worth it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Next time I’ll just fall out of the ring, rather than trying to get up…

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Quebec. As always – my views are 100% my own.

For more info:

Valcartier Village

Visit Quebec

Quebec City Tourism

 

 

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