The drive from Québec City along the majestic St. Lawrence River through the province's Charlevoix Region to La Malbaie is one of Canada's most scenic drives. With the Laurentian Mountains on the north and the river on the south, this drive takes you up and down rolling hills, through picturesque villages and along the riverfront with many interesting places to stop along the way.
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Anyone visiting Québec City should try to spend at least a day driving through the idyllic Charlevoix Region. The region, which stretches alongside the St. Lawrence between Petite-Rivière-Saint-François and Tadoussac, actually sits inside a crater that was formed by the impact from a meteorite that hit 350-400 million years ago and has been named a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. It's an all-season destination that is known for its awe-inspiring landscapes, outdoor activities and agritourism.
The distance from Québec City to La Malbaie is approximately 150 km (94 miles) or about 2 hours of driving time. We didn't get away from Québec City until close to noon so opted for fewer stops along the way in order to be sure to arrive at our hotel well in advance of our dinner reservation. We visited Montmorency Falls, Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré and Saint-Irénée on our way to La Malbaie and Les Eboulements, Baie St. Paul and Montmorency Falls again on our way back to Québec City. It would be possible to visit all of these in one day with an earlier start but you could also take your time and spend 2-3 days exploring the region in greater depth.
We headed out of the city on AutoRoute 440 East toward Parc de la Chute-Montmorency which is one of the province's top attractions and only about 15 minutes from downtown. Montmorency Falls is visible from the highway but stopping for a closer look is a must, even though this road trip is mere minutes old. The breathtaking waterfall, located at the mouth of the Montmorency River where it empties into the St. Lawrence River, is 83 metres (272 feet) high - that's 30 metres (98 feet) higher than Niagara Falls!
The park is open to visitors year round and there are a number of activities available including zip lining, a suspension bridge across the falls, panoramic stairs, a cable car ride, via ferrata hikes and ice climbing during the winter months when the falls are frozen. Less adventurous types, or those pressed for time, can just stroll to the base of the falls along a paved walking path. If you are taking the cable car to the top of the falls then consider dining on the outdoor terrace at Manoir Montmorency for the spectacular view. Depending on what you decide to do in the park you could be here less than an hour or you could easily spend half a day.
The second stop on our road trip from Québec City was the Basilica of Ste. Anne-de-Beaupré, just a few minutes farther down the highway in the town of the same name. The Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, dedicated to the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus, is the second oldest pilgrimage site in North America. Pilgrims have been visiting here for more than 350 years since the first reported miracle of healing happened during the construction of the original church in 1658. The site was declared a historic monument of Québec's heritage in 2001 and today the shrine welcomes annually more than a million people of all faiths from around the world.
It is worth stopping to see the architecture and design of the Basilica even for those with no interest in visiting for religious reasons. The architects of the Basilica were inspired by Roman-style cathedrals and the building is as stunning as any of the grand cathedrals that we have seen on our travels in Europe. The building features gorgeous stained glass windows and mosaic tile work as well as many works of art on display including a stunning marble reproduction of Michelangelo's La Pieta. Guided tours are available, however, we chose to walk around the Basilica ourselves using the Visitor's Guide to locate the many points of interest.
Our next stop en route to La Malbaie was Baie-Saint-Paul, a charming village known for its art galleries, quaint boutiques and restaurants. Baie-Saint-Paul, located at the mouth of the Gouffre River on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, is one of the oldest communities in Québec dating back to the mid-17th century. The natural beauty of the area has always drawn painters and it has come to be known as an artist's paradise. It's also the birthplace of the world famous Cirque du Soleil which started here as a troupe of street performers in the early 1980s.
On our way to La Malbaie we drove through and stopped at a scenic lookout on the outskirts of the town to take photos looking out at the St. Lawrence and back at the town in the distance. On our return trip we parked and spent some time shopping along Saint-Jean-Baptiste Street which was bustling on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in July.
From Baie-Saint-Paul you should exit the highway and take scenic Route 362 (known as the Route de Fleuve or St. Lawrence Route) along the river to La Malbaie. The 58 km (36 miles) drive from Baie-Saint-Paul to La Malbaie is one of the most scenic drives in Canada and will be the highlight of your trip. Heading toward La Malbaie, the mountains will be on your left and the river on your right and as you drive through the rolling hills you will be treated to magnificent views of the St. Lawrence River.
We meant to stop in Les Éboulements on our way to La Malbaie but somehow missed the turn-off so made a point of checking out the views overlooking the St. Lawrence here on our way back to the airport. Les Éboulements, which is considered to be among the most beautiful villages in Québec, got its name from a landslide that occurred as a result of an earthquake here in 1663. If you have time for some exploration then follow the sloping road down from Les Éboulements to the waterfront in Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive (formerly known as Les Éboulements-en-Bas). There's a ferryboat which leaves from here to transport passengers to Île-aux-Coudres, a tranquil island in the St. Lawrence. There's also a historic mill in town, the Seigneurial Mill of Les Éboulements (built in 1790), which is open to the public and an alpaca farm that you will pass by on the Route de Fleuve where visitors can view some of the animals and shop the boutique for alpaca products crafted by the region’s artisans.
The Village of Saint-Irénée
After leaving Les Éboulements, the road winds down toward the riverfront in the village of Saint-Irénée where there is a beautiful sandy beach and a long pier which extends into the St. Lawrence. The village is also home to Domaine Forget, a music and dance academy that holds an annual international music festival during the summer months. There weren't many people around when we stopped late afternoon on Thursday on our way to La Malbaie but on our way back to Québec City on Sunday afternoon it was obvious that the beach here is the place to be on summer weekends.
About 5.5 hours after leaving Québec City, we arrived in La Malbaie to spend three nights at the historic Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu. La Malbaie, formerly known as Murray Bay, was one of Canada's first popular tourist destinations as wealthy English Canadians and Americans began spending summers at resorts here in the 1800s. The area has always been known for its natural beauty and abundance of outdoor activities but now there is also a casino located right next to Le Manoir Richelieu. It is also within easy driving distance (75 km or a 1.5 hour drive) of the resort village of Tadoussac which is popular for whale watching cruises on the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay Fjord during the summer months.
We rented a car and drove from Québec City, however, it is also possible to travel here on the Train de Charlevoix which runs alongside the coast for 125 km from Montmorency Park to La Malbaie.
Where to Stay
In Québec City we stayed one night at the Hilton Québec located on Boulevard Réné-Lévesque East across from Parliament Hill just outside the walls of the old city. It is only a short walk from the Hilton to the historic Old Town, the restaurants and cafés of the Grande Allée and the Plains of Abraham urban park. This is the second time that I have stayed at this hotel (I stayed previously during the Winter Carnival) and both times I have been pleased with the convenient location and the stylish, comfortable rooms. The hotel features rooms with floor to ceiling windows and breathtaking views over the city, a modern fitness centre, a heated indoor/outdoor pool which is open year-round, two restaurants on site and complimentary WiFi for Hilton Honors members.
In La Malbaie we spent three nights at the historic Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, a luxurious family-friendly resort hotel overlooking the St. Lawrence River. The Fairmont features spectacular views, spacious accommodations, three restaurants on-site ranging from casual buffet to fine dining, and free WIFI for Fairmont President's Club members. The resort offers year-round activities and also makes a great home base for exploring the region.
The Tourism Charlevoix website is a great source of information about visiting the Charlevoix region.