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This Quebec train trip is a feast for body and soul

Orange, red and yellow flashed outside my window as our train glided alongside a panorama of forests dressed in brilliant fall leaves.

As I looked out the other side of the carriage, the landscape was a vast blue sky with the wide, gray St. Lawrence River speckled in white caps, its distant shoreline barely visible.

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I sipped a locally brewed beer called La Vache Folle — French for the Crazy Cow — and nibbled on duck pâté, marinated quail eggs and a fresh baguette I had slathered with oyster mushroom pesto, all artisan-created goodies from Quebec’s Provence-like foodie district of Charlevoix, the region we were traveling through. .

“This train is all about feasting your eyes and your stomach at the same time,” said Denis Reid, our server.

(Lou Spirito For The Times)

“This train is all about feasting your eyes and your stomach at the same time,” said Denis Reid, our server.

The Train de Charlevoix follows the St. Lawrence shoreline, traveling 77 miles northeast from Quebec City toward the riverside town of La Malbaie.

I have driven the much-loved inland Charlevoix road many times, a roller-coaster route through centuries-old French Canadian hamlets known for their art galleries, stylish inns, renowned restaurants and small farms producing culinary-crazy Quebec’s cheeses, charcuterie, ciders and more.

But I had never experienced the train’s river views from these rails, laid down in 1919. The journey from Quebec City to La Malbaie takes four hours; the train stops briefly in seven towns and coastal villages along the way. Although you can do the round trip in one day, it’s best to take extra time to get to know one of the province’s most scenic and historic rural regions.

The flexible schedule allowed hopping off and on for a few hours or days, with stops booked in advance. The train runs from mid-June through October (autumn is the peak season) and offers an affordable way to enjoy Charlevoix’s art, music, cuisine and natural environment.

Into the Old World

My three-day trip started in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Quebec, the only walled city north of Mexico.

A shuttle took me from the train station to the Train de Charlevoix’s departure point outside the city alongside the spectacular cascade of Montmorency Falls, almost 100 feet taller than Niagara.

Montmorency Falls and Bridge in autumn with colorful trees, Quebec, Canada
Montmorency Falls and Bridge in autumn with colorful trees, Quebec, Canada (Vladone / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

On board our modern two-car, German-made train we received a handy gazette containing bilingual route information and a menu of gourmet snacks and cocktails. The staffers spoke English and were well informed about the route.

The low profile of Île d’Orléans came into view first, a rural island known for its sweet strawberries. We then passed through the village of Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupré, site of a long list of miraculous cures starting in 1658 that led to the construction of a towering basilica in 1923. Pilgrims still come, and inside is an impressive wall covered with discarded crutches and canes.

The landscape shifted between maple forests hiding quaint sugar shacks and harvest fields dotted with red-roofed fieldstone farmhouses. Silver-spired churches towered above hamlets named for a roll call of saints such as Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, whose tiny station sits at the base of Le Massif, my favorite downhill ski mountain and the highest vertical drop east of the Canadian Rockies.

A little more than two hours after leaving Quebec City, the charming town of Baie-Saint-Paul, my first overnight stop, came into view. The train station adjoined my hotel, the contemporary farm and monastery-themed Le Germain built on a former convent’s extensive farmland.

The charming town of Baie-Saint-Paul, two hours from Quebec City by Train de Charlevoix.
The charming town of Baie-Saint-Paul, two hours from Quebec City by Train de Charlevoix. (Margo Pfeiff)

I spent the afternoon amid the old-world jumble of narrow streets, checking in on the many galleries of Baie-Saint-Paul’s busy arts community. Every August the town hosts an international contemporary art symposium and workshop that draws artists from across Canada and Europe.

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I sipped microbrew tasters at Le Saint Pub, then moved on to sipping coffee in a café beneath the three steeples of Maison Mère, a vast one-time convent converted in 2017 into a creative, innovative space that includes accommodations, a museum and studios surrounded by the nuns’ impressive gardens.

An armed fortress?

The next morning, it was a brief 30-minute train ride to tiny Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive, site of the Charlevoix Maritime Museum and the lovely Papeterie Saint-Gilles, a nonprofit studio and econo-museum where craftspeople create handmade paper, artists' parchment and stationery flecked with dried local wildflowers.

In Saint-Jo, I boarded a free ferry for the 20-minute crossing to Isle-aux-Coudres, a tranquil little island in the St. Lawrence named by Jacques Cartier in 1535 for its thick stands of wild hazelnut trees.

An Isle-aux-Coudres windmill.
An Isle-aux-Coudres windmill. (Margo Pfeiff / Margo Pfeiff)

The island’s steady winds are the reason for the stone wind and water mills — many still in operation — as well as for popular kite-surfing.

I rented a bike and spent the day cycling coastal roads, stopping at tiny boutiques and eating a famous grandma-style meat pie for lunch at the family-run Bouchard Boulangerie.

By late afternoon, I was back on the train for the one-hour trip to La Malbaie. We passed fish shacks, where patrons waved at the train from behind their fish and chips. A parade of cargo ships passed distant lighthouses beyond the St. Lawrence River’s expansive tidal flats.

Debarking at the end of the line at La Malbaie’s lovely Pointe-au-Pic Pier, I strolled uphill to the grand Manoir Richelieu overlooking the river.

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The hotel so resembles a castle that during World War II the Union Jack was removed and ornamental antique cannons were covered in case a stray German submarine mistook the château for an armed fortress.

The grand Manoir Richelieu overlooking the St. Lawrence River at La Malbaie's lovely Pointe-au-Pic Pier, the end of the line for the Train de Charlevoix.
The grand Manoir Richelieu overlooking the St. Lawrence River at La Malbaie's lovely Pointe-au-Pic Pier, the end of the line for the Train de Charlevoix. (Margo Pfeiff)

This picturesque part of the Charlevoix has been a popular holiday spot since the 1880s, especially among Americans who built summer mansions around La Malbaie in the 1920s and '30s. President Hoover spent so much time at his Pointe-au-Pic summer home it was nicknamed “White House North.”

Many manors have been converted into country inns, and the Manoir has been lavishly refurbished with a casino and a dining room specializing in regional cuisine.

A musical trip back

The next day, I headed back on the train to Quebec City, making one final stop at Sainte-Irénée. It’s known for its seven-mile white-sand beach as well as for Domaine Forget, a 604-seat concert hall.

The jazz and classical musical and dance academy hosts an international summer music festival from June to September. On some summer Sundays, you can disembark from the train for a few hours to enjoy a musical brunch.

I passed dozens of sculptures on my way to a late-season violin concert as an autumn chill rolled off the river, sending fog mingling with the fall-colored trees on the 150-acre property.

Then I was back on board one last time, marveling that this little-known rail line turns out to be one of Canada’s top train trips.

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO QUEBEC CITY

From LAX, Westjet, Air Canada, United, Delta and American offer connecting service (change of planes) to Quebec City. Restricted round-trip airfare from $475, including taxes and fees.

WHERE TO SLEEP

Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, 1 Rue des Carrières, Quebec City; (800) 257-7544. Iconic 1893 castle-like hotel perched atop the center of Old Quebec City. Doubles from $380 per night.

Hôtel Le Germain Québec, 126 Rue Saint-Pierre, Quebec; (888) 833-5253. Chic boutique hotel in a 1912 heritage building. Doubles from $289 per night with deluxe continental breakfast.

Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, 181 Rue Richelieu, La Malbaie; (866) 540-4464. Elegant 1929 château-style hotel overlooking the St. Lawrence River. Doubles from $303 per night.

Le Germain Charlevoix Hôtel & Spa; 50 Rue de la Ferme, Baie-Saint-Paul; (844) 240-4700. Stylish farm-themed hotel with lofts, studios and a dormitory. The train conveniently pulls in alongside the hotel. Doubles from $187 with deluxe continental breakfast.

WHERE TO EAT

Aux Anciens Canadiens, 34 Rue Saint Louis, Quebec City; (418) 692-1627. This popular spot, housed in a historic 1675 home, offers traditional Quebec cuisine. Dinner for two from $80.

Le Saint-Pub, 2 Rue Racine, Baie-Saint-Paul, (418) 240-2332. Baie-Saint-Paul. Relaxed gastro pub with homemade bar bites and local microbrews. Dinner from $40 per couple.

Le Diapason, 1 Rue-Sainte Anne, Baie-Saint-Paul; (418) 435-2929. French bistro cuisine using local products and produce. Dinner for two from $80.

Table et Terroir, 181 Rue Richelieu, La Malbaie; (418) 665-3703. Locally themed fine dining in the Manoir Richelieu. Dinner for two from $75.

WHAT TO DO

Train de Charlevoix, (418) 240-4124 or (844) 737-3282. Trains runs two or three times daily, seven days a week from mid-June through October. Adult fare from Quebec City to La Malbaie is $97 per person. Stops must be booked in advance.

Domaine Forget, 5 rang Saint-Antoine, Saint-Irénée; (418)-452-8111. International music festival at a music and dance academy in rural Saint-Irénée, one of the train’s stops. Concerts take place June to September and feature well-known international artists. Book tickets in advance. From $20 per person.

Isle-aux-Coudres ferry: Free 20-minute ferry with frequent departures from Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive to Isle-aux-Coudres Island.

Vélo-Coudres, 2926, Chemin des Coudriers, Isle-aux-Coudres; (418) 438-2118. Wide selection of bicycle rentals May to October. From $10 per hour, $31 per day.

Suroît Aventures, Isle-aux-Courdes, (418) 600-8368. Stand-up paddle boarding, kite-surfing and more.

TO LEARN MORE

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