"The fin whale," Martine explains, first in French and then in English, "can dive for 20 to 30 minutes." Some listen, some stare at the water hoping for more. "They're eating all the time, so they are very, very active . . . "

And then: "Whooooh" . . .

The whale excursions use boats as small as eight-passenger zodiacs up to cruise vessels capable of carrying enough passengers to successfully invade and occupy New Hampshire.

That all the above--whales, plus dazzling foliage and the villages and lakes and hiking trails and Quebec-French cuisine and all the rest--is nicely do-able on a quick (say, two-day) excursion out of the Americas' most European city is an embarrassment of possibilities.

Valerie Andree Authier grew up in Charlevoix. Today she is second-generation owner-manager of La Pinsonniere, one of the premiere auberges in all Canada.

"This region," she said, looking out past the reds and golds of the maples toward the Saint-Laurent from a deck of the inn, "has inspired so many painters and so many artists with its beauty. And this river is beautiful. And the mountains ..."

Another artist, Michel Boisvert (no relation to Jacques) of Baie-Saint-Paul, put it all into an artist's perspective.

"The color," he said, "is very special in Charlevoix."

And never more so than in nature's most colorful season.

If you go

GETTING THERE

The Charlevoix region begins about an hour's drive northeast of Quebec City via a mix of residential streets and expressway; the first significant town, Baie-Saint-Paul, is 30 minutes farther. From Baie-Saint-Paul to Baie-Sainte-Catherine (and the whale-watching) at the far end is another 65 miles. United Air Lines offers non-stop service to Quebec City from O'Hare; we found a weekend round-trip fare of about $544 (including taxes and fees, subject to change).

WHEN TO GO

While no date for "peak color" is a sure thing anywhere, Charlevoix's variable altitudes--from sea level to mountains in minutes--mean if there's no color one place, there may be fabulous color somewhere else. That said, try early October.

GETTING AROUND

You'll need a car. The good news is distances are reasonably modest; you can base in La Malbaie and be within an hour of most anyplace in Charlevoix. And while not essential, away from the tourist centers a little basic French won't hurt.

STAYING THERE

The classic Charlevoix lodging is the auberge--the inn--often a vintage property that serves dinner (and sometimes lunch) along with breakfast, the latter usually included in the rate. Prices range from about $80 into the hundreds; average is about $150. Less expensive B&Bs (locally, gites) are just about everywhere. Though less common, motels--almost all of them independents--can be found in and near the larger towns.

Note that in September and October, in many lodgings some rates may inflate a bit, and minimum stays can kick in.

In Baie-Saint-Paul, where auberges abound, I didn't regret choosing Auberge La Muse (doubles from about $110, subject to change; 800-841-6839; www.lamuse.com), with nice rooms and an ideal location. Of the "destination" lodgings, two stand out: The castle-like Fairmont Manoir Richelieu (800-257-7544; www.fairmont.com) in La Malbaie is on the St. Lawrence with its own golf course, casino and spa. Smallish doubles in leaf season start as low as $199. The other, La Pinsonniere (800-387-4431; www.lapinsonniere.com), in Cap-a-l'Aigle just outside La Malbaie, is a luxury auberge: 18 rooms, all fine, some sumptuous, most with marvelous river views, plus a full spa and one of the most honored kitchens in all Quebec. Low-season doubles start at $285; during leaf season, it's $335.

DINING THERE

Along with the region's natural beauty and artists, this is a prime reason people come to Charlevoix. The tendency is French, the emphasis is on freshness. Most of the better dining is in the auberges, whose dining rooms are generally open to the public (reservations strongly advised, especially on weekends). Sampled two auberge meals on this trip, and neither disappointed: La Pinsonniere lived up to its rep (and hefty price tag); and chef Hank Suzuki's dinner at Auberge La Muse was a cross-cultural delight.

INFORMATION

Tourism Charlevoix, 800-667-2276; www.tourisme-charlevoix.com.

--Alan Solomon