Travel

Five ways to fall in love with winter in Quebec’s Charlevoix region

From snowshoeing on a frozen river to soaring over snow-covered mountains in a helicopter, here’s how to make the most of a family winter getaway in this spectacular region on the north shore of the St. Lawrence 

  • Mar 21, 2024
  • 1,477 words
  • 6 minutes
Nestled in an ancient meteorite crater between the Laurentians and the St. Lawrence, Quebec’s Charlevoix region is a winter-lover’s playground. (Photo: Alexandra Pope/Can Geo)
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In the middle of a half-hearted and historically warm El Niño winter, I took my family to Quebec’s Charlevoix region and found the wonderland we’d been missing — well, that one of us had, anyway. 

I grew up skating and skiing and have always had a deep affinity for snow and cold; my husband Jason is more of the “sit in the lodge with a book and a hot toddy” type. Our son, Marcus, is only three, but I’m doing my best to turn him into an all-weather kid. As we drove the steep, winding highway northeast from Quebec City, past picture-perfect habitant farmsteads and pines with their arms full of fresh snow, I figured if any place could kindle a love of winter, it would be this spectacular region nestled in an ancient meteorite crater between the Laurentians and the St. Lawrence River. 

Charlevoix is best known for its ski area, Le Massif, which boasts the biggest vertical drop east of the Rockies and heart-stopping views of the St. Lawrence. But it’s also a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve with two provincial parks, villages dating back to Champlain’s time, and a thriving agritourism scene. Here are five standout winter activities to enjoy with the whole family.

Stay in the heart of history

The Châteauesque Fairmont Manoir Richelieu is perched atop a high cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence and offers a luxurious stay steeped in history. (Photo courtesy Fairmont Manoir Richelieu)
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Beginning in the 1840s, the village of La Malbaie on the north shore of the St. Lawrence became a summer hot spot for wealthy Americans drawn to its charming inns and fresh, salty air. In 1899, the imposing 250-room Manoir Richelieu was opened to serve the influx of tourists. Destroyed by fire at the end of the summer season in 1928, the Châteauesque property was quickly rebuilt and today operates as a five-star hotel under the Fairmont brand, complete with four restaurants, a golf course, a spa, indoor and outdoor heated swimming pools and an adjacent casino. 

We arrived after dark, in the midst of a winter storm, so the view from the dormer windows of our room consisted of whirling snowflakes and not much else. A bluebird sunrise the following morning revealed the true story: the Manoir is perched atop a high cliff above the river, with stone patios and promenades perfect for taking the famous air. We could have easily spent two days just wandering between the pools, but the hotel also offers a range of outdoor winter activities, including ice skating, guided hikes, and ice fishing on a private pond a short drive from the main property. Our family photo album will show Marcus proudly holding the trout he “caught” — with significant help from our bemused guides. (Not pictured: the mad scramble to remove his wet boots and socks after he accidentally stepped in one of the fishing holes.)

Need to know: For an unforgettable meal, make a reservation at Restaurant Le Saint-Laurent, which showcases Quebec producers in delicious, sustainably sourced and beautifully-plated dishes like lake walleye in a sumac hollandaise sauce and Charlevoix guinea fowl with fondant potatoes. The “aurora borealis” dessert is as ethereal as its namesake, featuring maple leaf-shaped buckwheat crisps arranged around an airy sponge cake topped with sweet clover foam. 

Play in the snow 

A family portrait — complete with napping preschooler — on the Malbaie River in Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie. (Photo: Alexandra Pope/Can Geo)
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Tubing onto the frozen Malbaie River in Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie. (Photo: Jason Tucker)
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A short drive north from La Malbaie, the Malbaie River cuts a deep, meandering path through the Laurentians. The Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie (literally “high gorges of the Malbaie River”) have been protected as a provincial park since 2000, and their sheer rock walls are a jaw-dropping backdrop for a day of winter fun. 

Upon arrival, we headed straight for the tubing slide behind the Draveur Visitor Centre in the heart of the park, our screams ricocheting off the cliffs as we sped out onto the ice of the Malbaie River. Then, after a short break to eat our packed lunches and dry our mitts by the roaring fire inside the visitor centre, Jason and I strapped on snowshoes and set out down the frozen river, dragging Marcus in his sled behind us. Burritoed in a fleece blanket and lulled by the steady rhythm of his dad’s steps, Marcus quickly fell asleep, leaving us to enjoy the crunch and swish of the freshly-fallen snow beneath our feet as we watched the wind chase cloud shadows across the ancient faces of the mountains.

Need to know: Snowshoes and fat bikes are available for rent from the Draveur Visitor Centre from Dec. 1 to March 31. Inflatable tubes are provided onsite. There is no cell service in the park, so check trail and ice conditions on the website before you depart. 

Rise above it all

Much of the impact structure left behind by the Charlevoix meteorite lies beneath the St. Lawrence, but it’s still possible to see evidence of the ancient cataclysm on a sightseeing flight with Héli Charlevoix. Strapped comfortably into what felt like a flying sofa enclosed in a glass bubble, we soared north into the mountains, at times coming so close to the peaks it felt like I could reach out and brush the snow from the pines. Then, we doubled back to the mighty fleuve, following a trail of broken ice downriver to the city of Baie-Saint-Paul. From the air, the tilted bowl shape of the region is visible and spectacular in the snow. For perhaps the first time in his young life, Marcus was speechless during the flight, only coming on the radio once to point out snowmobiles braiding tracks on a field of white far below. 

Need to know: Flights are available throughout the winter (be sure to dress accordingly, as the helicopter isn’t heated!) and can be bundled with other activities, including hiking, dog sledding, or even a picnic atop a Laurentian peak.

The view from the cockpit on a helicopter flight over the mighty St. Lawrence with Héli Charlevoix. (Photo: Alexandra Pope/Can Geo)
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Tasting wine and cheese at Famille Migneron in Baie-Saint-Paul. The farm’s Migneron de Charlevoix cheese helped put the region’s cheeses on the map. (Photo: Alexandra Pope/Can Geo)
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Eat well, stay warm

Going into the trip, the big question on my mind was, could Jason and I convince Marcus to eat something besides macaroni and cheese? Charlevoix is renowned as a foodie destination, and we were equally excited to sample the region’s bounty and concerned that our kid might starve. Our fears turned out to be not entirely unfounded; he slept through the local charcuterie board, beef tartare and moules frites at Bistro Local 245 in La Malbaie and suffered a catastrophic apple juice spill in the middle of the candied Arctic char appetizer at Le Mouton Noir in Baie-Saint-Paul. However, he also devoured an adult-size portion of Belgian waffles at Arômes et Saveurs, ate his weight in spaghetti bolognese at Le Bercail inside the tony Le Germain Charlevoix Hotel and Spa, and even tasted some of the locally-made, provincially-famous Migneron de Charlevoix that helped put the region’s cheeses on the map. 

Need to know: A visit to Famille Migneron in Baie-Saint-Paul is a must. Maurice Dufour and Francine Bouchard started making cheese in 1994 — “out of craziness,” laughs daughter Madeleine Dufour. Madeleine and her brother Alexandre have since taken over the business but still use milk from the same six local producers. They’ve also expanded into organic wine and spirits, including a vervain liqueur that will transport you to a warm, sunny patio. 

Glamp in a dome

Picture this: You’ve spent the day skiing at Le Massif or snowshoeing in one of the provincial parks. You drive up a snowy mountainside above Baie-Saint-Paul and park beside a narrow footpath that leads to a large geodesic dome with its own wraparound deck. Inside the dome, you pad across the heated floor and light a fire in the woodstove, then change into your swimsuit and head back out to your private hot tub. You subside into the bubbling water and soak until the stars appear and your fingers turn to prunes. This is, without exaggeration, my idea of heaven on Earth, and it exists at Nørdika Charlevoix. With just three domes onsite, Nørdika is as exclusive as it gets, but thoughtful touches like plush robes and slippers, bean bag chairs, a telescope and even a Jenga set make this unique accommodation feel like a home away from home. 

Need to know: Winter glamping in a dome is practically the definition of hygge, but the coziness amps up even more with a takeaway fondue from Ah la vache! in Baie-Saint-Paul. Simply heat up the cheese-filled bread bowl in your ensuite kitchen, pour the wine, enjoy — then settle in for a long winter’s nap. 

Each glamping dome at Nørdika Charlevoix comes with a private hot tub and stunning views of the mountains and river. (Photo: Alexandra Pope/Can Geo)
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So, did our Charlevoix jaunt turn my highly domesticated husband into a cold-weather convert? “It made me see that winter can be fun,” he says, “so let’s go with a guarded ‘yes.’” As for Marcus, he keeps asking when we’re going back. I’ll call that a winter win. 

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