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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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