Cirque du wheels

Gourmet excursion ... Le Massif train journey from Quebec City to Charlevoix.
Gourmet excursion ... Le Massif train journey from Quebec City to Charlevoix. Photo: Tim Richards

Tim Richards takes a new train ride with a gourmet twist through the scenic hill country of Quebec.

On my left are lofty mountains, covered with greenery and occasionally interrupted by villages. On the right is the vast blue-grey St Lawrence Seaway, its distant opposite shore barely visible through the morning mist.

Directly opposite me, across a table, is Pierre, an avionics engineer from Montreal. Pierre and I get on like a maison en feu (that'd be a house on fire), politely offering each other dibs on the last muffin while chatting about the difficulty of taking photos through the carriage windows.

Pierre is a fellow passenger on the luxury Le Massif train that runs from Quebec City north-east into the scenic Charlevoix region of Canada. This gourmet excursion by rail is the brainchild of Daniel Gauthier, one of the founders of the famed Cirque du Soleil.

Although the scenery is beautiful enough to need no enhancement, Gauthier has added theatrical spice with food and technology. On each journey the passengers are served a special meal that emphasises Charlevoix ingredients. On this outward journey, Pierre and I are tucking in to a breakfast of asparagus embedded in egg, accompanied by a crepe stuffed with apple and maple syrup, with a bowl of muesli topped by a strawberry.

At the window end of each table sits an iPad, showing a map of our route. As we progress, it plays snatches of video and music aimed at heightening the sightseeing mood. At the village of St Anne de Beaupre, church bells play as we pass the stone church on a pilgrimage site credited with miracles. Further on, the nature reserve at Cap Tourmente is highlighted by a video of native birds in flight.

The renovated carriages we're riding in were once split-level workhorses on Chicago's commuter railway, but now they have high ceilings, comfortable seating and broad windows. There's plenty to see as we head deeper into the region. In winter this is skiing country, blanketed with snow, but in the warmer months it's a tableau mixing villages and nature. As is often the case in Quebec, the scene is more reminiscent of the pastoral landscapes of Europe than those of North America.

The 2½-hour journey terminates at Baie St Paul. Passengers can choose to return to Quebec City after a few hours in the town for tours and lunch, but I'm staying overnight in the Hotel La Ferme, Le Massif's newly opened inn just outside the town.

Built on the site of a former farm, it's a collection of low-lying buildings that combine contemporary design with natural materials. My room has plenty of timber with spare modern lines, and there's a deck that overlooks green fields.

Not that I have much time for gazing at fields, as I'm joining a tour offered with the train journey - a motorcycle sidecar introduction to the Charlevoix. Helmets on, my guide Francois zips off with me low and tight in the sidecar, halting first at a mount above Baie St Paul. From here we can see the bay from which the town takes its name, with fields and slopes beyond.

Further on, we pause at the village of Les Eboulements, with an expansive view across the region. It's here that Francois mentions the prehistoric event that created the Charlevoix - a massive meteorite strike that hollowed out the area around us, forming what is now a lush semi-circular region between the mountains and the sea.

Back at Baie St Paul for lunch, I order Quebec's signature dish, poutine. I've never been fully sold on poutine - it is, after all, basically a pile of chips, gravy and cheese curds - but the version at the Orange Bistro is classy.

The bistro is in an attractive timber building, with a big deck, a tiled upper storey and a small porticoed balcony. Along the street are many eateries and art galleries in similarly pleasant premises, the latter a reminder of the town's past fame as an artists' retreat.

Artisanal food businesses are a key attraction of the Charlevoix, underlined by the Route des Saveurs "flavour trail" signs outside the eateries and food shops, and over the next two days I visit several. In Baie St Paul is the cellar door of Pedneault, a cider maker. Its store is filled with products made with fruit from local orchards, including a popular sparkling pear cider.

Outside the town is Laiterie Charlevoix. Originally a dairy supplying the locals with their milk, in recent decades it's specialised in cheese. Its homemade varieties include the brie-like Le Fleurmier, made from milk from cow breeds dating back to the original French settlement of Quebec. If all this browsing and tasting sounds too genteel, then the Maison du Bootlegger has the antidote. In 1939, this traditional 19th-century house was transformed into a speakeasy by a sharp US businessman to get round a local version of Prohibition. At ground level, a maze of hidden passageways and concealed doors allowed gambling and alcohol to be enjoyed by the venue's guests.

Nowadays the house is best-known for its animated dinners and live music on the upper floor, where each night a band rocks a dining room festooned with antlers and old farming implements.

Over a beer with Francois Simard, who is the bar manager and a singer in the band, I ask him why he likes living in the Charlevoix.

"Because it's like a big playground," he grins. "People come here to have fun."

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

 

Trip notes

Getting there

Air Canada (1300 655 767, aircanada.com) flies to Quebec City, from $2600 economy return from Sydney or Melbourne.

Staying there

Hotel Manoir Victoria, 44 Cote du Palais, Quebec City. +1 41 8692 1030, manoir-victoria.com. From $C135 ($130) a night.
Hotel La Ferme, 50 Rue de la Ferme, Baie St Paul. +1 87 7536 2774, lemassif.com/en/ferme. From $C175 a night.

See+do

Le Massif train, +1 877 536 2774, lemassif.com/en/train. Return from $C119 adult, $C95 child, plus taxes.
Charlevoix Eco-Mobilite Motorcycle Tour, 50 Rue de la Ferme, Baie St Paul. +1 41 8633 2712, charlevoixecomobilite.com. From $C90 an adult.
Orange Bistro, 29 Rue Ambroise-Fafard, Baie St Paul. +1 41 8240 1197, orangebistro.com.
Pedneault, 74 Rue St Jean Baptiste, Baie St Paul. +1 41 8240 3666, vergerspedneault.com.
Laiterie Charlevoix, 1167 Boulevard Mgr de Laval, Baie St Paul. +1 41 8435 2184, fromagescharlevoix.com.

More information

tourisme-charlevoix.com, routedesaveurs.com.

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