BAIE ST. PAUL, QUEBEC – As a friend of mine, Allan Ryan, used to say: “Ooh. And la. And la.”
I’ve been to some pretty spiffy hotels in this land called Canada. But Le Germain Hotel Charlevoix is my new favourite; a sleek and stylish spot that has so many wonderful touches and small surprises. It’s also a remarkable combination of hotel, restaurant, bar, art gallery, train station, spa, a skating rink, snowshoeing, fire pits, an outdoor swimming pool for summer and a performing arts centre; a crazy combination anywhere in the world but perhaps a bit unexpected for folks who don’t know about the Charlevoix region.
For those unaware, Charlevoix is a lovely area on the St. Lawrence River a mere one-hour’s drive east of Quebec City. A meteor slammed into the area millions of years ago, creating a wide valley surrounded by rumpled hills (mountains if you’re from Ontario) that seems to cast a magical light. At least that’s what artists in the area have told me during my two previous visits to the Baie St. Paul/Charlevoix region.
Le Germain was formerly Hotel La Ferme and was built by Donald Gauthier, the man behind a small entertainment troupe called Cirque du Soleil (created in Baie St. Paul, I’m told). It’s now run by the folks at Le Germain, who operate fab hotels such as Le Germain Toronto on Mercer St., a wonderful Germain property in Calgary and the Alt Hotel group, which is expanding across Canada and recently announced they’ll be building in Saskatoon.
The hotel is located about two blocks from the main action in Baie St. Paul and has plenty of space around it. The exterior is quite modern, with lots of sharp angles that make a real architectural statement.
Inside you’ll find a series of extraordinary rooms in a series of five buildings; each with a different name and feel. I had a room in the main building that featured plenty of crisp, light-coloured wood and natural light; a winning combination in my book. There was a fantastic blanket/throw on the bed with a cool, Canadian-looking feel that I would’ve taken if I thought I could get away with it, as well as a nice, retro photo of a winter scene.
They have all the amenities you could want, too, including a Nespresso coffee machine I used quite a bit (I would’ve liked it if Penelope Cruz had served it to me, but that’s another story, a clock radio with iPod dock, FREE Wi-Fi (thank you ), lovely bath amenities and a wonderful shower. They also have an umbrella in each room and I had a heated bathroom floor, not that I needed it during a nice spell of weather last week.
Other rooms are equally delightful, and enormously varied. THey have dorm rooms that would be great for a group or for families with kids who want their own space, as well as bunk bed rooms. There are rooms with lovely green rocking chairs, rooms with slanted ceilings, rooms with four-poster beds, rooms with old-style claw bathtubs and rooms where the door handles are outlines of chickens; one of many nods to the fact that the hotel sits on the site of what used to one of Canada’s largest farms. There are so many small delights to the place I couldn’t possibly describe them.
“You could come five times and have five completely different rooms and different experiences,” I was told.
The full, outdoor swimming pool obvoiusly isn’t open in winter, but they have a great outdoor spa with one huge hot tub you can almost swim in, and a smaller, warmer one. They also have a cold splash pool for folks who like that kind of thing (I only got in up to my knees, thank you). Inside you’ll find a dry sauna and a great steam room that’s perfect on a winter’s day.
I didn’t see a performance, but they have a wonderful theatre complex in the main building. There’s also a train station for when the train runs between Baie St. Paul and Quebec City, not to mention an art gallery with some of the wonderful, locally produced art.
The lobby is extremely chic, with tons of light and comfortable seating with bold colours and a fireplace, to boot. The downstairs restaurant and the lobby more or less meld together, making it seem all the more dramatic and spacious and lively at the same time.
I had a fantastic dinner of local lamb with deep green broccolini and cherry tomatoes with just a kiss of garlic, as well as a nice salad with watermelon radish and quail eggs (not something I’d normally eat but pretty good), as well as smoked salmon with pine-infused oil and great macarons and carrot cake with chocolate truffles on the side for dessert. A lovely winter’s meal, for sure, and the upstairs restaurant does a great job with breakfast, and they have a nice selection of Scotch at the bar for $9 or $10 a shot.
One night I took advantage of their free snowshoes and did a walk in the dark with the folks from Katabatik, a local adventure travel company. It was very cool; with buckets of stars hanging in the dark sky and utter silence all around us on the shores of the St. Lawrence. I’d like to say my skating was equally impressive, but I’m a truly horrible ice skater and barely made it around the circuit without falling.
Much more to my liking were strolls through Baie St. Paul to admire the galleries and try the local micro-brewery products. Not to mention a terrific dog sled ride with the folks from Chenil du Sportif (I mentioned this in my Postmedia/ Sun Media column on Wednesday) and a truly fabulous luge/sled run of rougly 8 km’s at Le Massif, the ski hill just west of town.
The luge run is a real hoot and not at all hard, especially if you use your boots to dig into the snow and slow yourself down while you take photos and/or video. My guide for the day, Andre Groulx, did a great job showing me how to navigate the sled (they’re beautiful wooden jobs, hand-made in Quebec) and manage the turns.
We did a first run about halfway down the hill, then paused for hot chocolate and chicken broth. We then did the lower half, which featured magnificent views of the semi-frozen St. Lawrence River and a short hike over a bridge that crossed a mountain stream.
I didn’t get a chance to ski, but Le Massif is a beautiful place for it. The cafeteria does a nice job at lunch, too.
I was a bit nervous about the sled/luge run, to be honest. But it was easy to learn and quite intutitive, and I probably got up to about 25 or 30 km an hour towards the end. Groulx, on the other hand, can go up to 76 km’s an hour, which certainly put me in my place! (For a video, folow this link: https://youtu.be/ltRlc-0nhRc)
But he’s a lovely guy and I highly recommend him or the other guides for the experience; a new one for me and one I’d gladly try again.
Charlevoix is a wonderful part of a great Canadian province. Highly recommended…
For more information: http://www.tourisme-charlevoix.com/en/
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