With the charm of a Maurice Chevalier seasoned by a lifetime of salt air, Capt. Eloi Perron entertains visitors at his schooner museum on an island in the St. Lawrence Seaway. For a century, until the 1970s, schooners and the St. Lawrence -- the Sea, as it's called by locals -- were the lifeline of Quebec's Charlevoix (shar-luh-vwah) region. More than 300 wooden ships were built there, launching a nautical heritage. They evolved from tall ships with billowy sails and emergency backup systems (men in the hold with oars) to later models of the 1930s with modern conveniences, such as engines.
Captain Perron comes from a long line of Frenchmen on l'Isle aux Dudres ("the Hazelnut Island"), named in 1535 by navigator Jacques Cartier, French discoverer of the St. Lawrence. One of Charlevoix's last seamen, Captain Perron retired his Mont St. Louis in 1975 after sailing it for 51 years. Now dry-docked, she welcomes exploration from hold to wheelhouse -- often with the captain demonstrating how special she was by flopping on the )) extra long bunks, stroking the wheel he carved, beaming as he points out features of this 120-foot, handcrafted ship.
His animated tales flow in an all but extinct French dialect. If you share his affection for the sea, the old schooners and the romance of the life he lived for more than a half-century, you need not understand his words. From underneath thick, white hair and a worn navy blue cap, his twinkling, light blue eyes and impassioned style get the message across in charades.
Indoors at Musee les Voitures d'Eau are generations of Perron family heritage -- logbooks, photos, clothing and equipment chronicling the region's ships and the sailors' lifestyles. Pointing toward a small, red-and-white lighthouse, the captain explains, "After a long time at sea, when a sailor sees a lighthouse it's like seeing a member of his family." To fill that need, those who stayed at home welcomed all seafarers as though they were family. That, the locals say, is how hospitality became an art form.
Until about 40 years ago, the only visitors to Charlevoix came by sea -- wealthy Americans, Canadians and Europeans on cruise ships destined for Quebec City and Montreal, relatives from France and Scotland, and sea-weary sailors. Passable roads finally linked Charlevoix to Quebec City around 1950. Electricity followed by 1960. The last schooner docked about 15 years ago.
But a natural transition eased Charlevoix into a new era. Tourism elements were abundant -- the sea, the nautical heritage, the pastoral coast, the hospitality tradition and those longtime inhabitants who now hold star status, the whales.
Charlevoix quickly became a getaway for city-dwelling Quebecois, a favorite autumn setting for Canadian painters, a long-weekend expedition for European whale watchers and an unspoiled destination for North American travelers.
The highest cliffs of eastern Canada soften into hilly pastures before easing into the sea. The major thoroughfare is a neatly maintained two-lane highway meandering along the St. Lawrence. Every five or 10 miles, between a few small farms and lazy Herefords, are life-size replicas of villages from a child's train set. Tiny, steepled churches; houses and inns meticulously painted in rich colors (seemingly within the last week) -- all with mended fences and tended lawns. It's said this fastidiousness originated as a competition among the women left behind in Cap-a- l'Aigle, Pointe-au-Saumon and other towns, to assure the most attractive welcome home for seafaring fathers, husbands and sons -- not to mention handsome strangers.
That desire to attract visitors has been ably assumed by innkeepers and chefs. In the midst of this French-speaking province, they pride themselves on hospitality that is far from garden-variety American, Canadian or even French. It is indubitably Quebecois -- at a minimum proud, perfectionist, confident and competitive.
That competitiveness is a boon to visitors. Best exemplified in the region's traditional inns, extraordinary suites can be found with canopied beds, marble fireplaces and tubs, silk love seats and private, unobstructed views of the sea. Award-winning cooks (earning award-winning results in province-wide competition) take advantage of the region's fresh game, with fish, duck, lamb and pheasant as frequent focuses of their creative art.
Guests capture the same panoramas as early cruise-ship passengers did at the grand hotels -- the striking, red-roofed Hotel Tadoussac marking the confluence of the Saguenay Fiord with the St. Lawrence, and the castlelike Manoir Richelieu -- both from an era before air and land travel came along.
L But without a doubt, the sea remains the soul of Charlevoix.
The deceptively gentle St. Lawrence eases inland four times a day with tides up to 18 feet. Tricky navigation requires regional captains for the steady stream of freighters and cruise ships from the Atlantic. Even automobile travel usually includes a ferry ride or two. Excursion cruises into the Saguenay Fiord explore capes and coves amid the cliffs (a kingdom of gold, according to Indian stories told to explorer Jacques Cartier).
But today's celebrities are the sea's gentle giants. Ten species of whales feast on the plentiful plump plankton stirred up where the fiord's fresh water meets the sea. Several hundred endangered white beluga maintain permanent residence there, complete with a marine research facility to study them. Whale-watching probably is the summer's most popular activity.
Charlevoix, though, does not forget its heritage -- the tall-ship sailors and their classic vessels.
The French ship Pelican, armed in 1697 with 50 guns and 246 crewmen, was famed for victories over the British in Hudson Bay. Its reconstruction, under way in la Malbaie, uses 17th century techniques and is open to the public.
Here and there along the coast are the weathered, sometimes skeletal remains of derelict schooners, leaning to port or starboard in a final, marshy resting place, flakes of rusted white paint clinging to gray, rotted boards.
Exposition Maritime, a museum in St.-Joseph-de-la-Rive on the grounds of what was a shipyard for construction and wintering of Charlevoix schooners, also salutes the lifestyle. In the grasses and sand just out of reach of the tides rest the Mont Notre-Dame and the Mont Royal, both scheduled for complete renovation, and the yard's last creation, Mont Sainte-Marie, too worn out for anything but admiration.
Railroad tracks, now rusted and curled as they lead into the sea, launched the ships. The workshop building that bustled with construction during icy Canadian winters displays much of the original shipbuilding equipment used to fashion ships that carried heavy loads in turbulent water. Scale models show schooner construction from design through launching.
Cargoes were pine, oak, cedar and maple. But just a ferry ride away is Captain Perron who adds (if the old French dialect was translated correctly) that there usually was a carefully stowed supply of premium brandy, too -- evidently, a time- tested way to warm a Canadian night. Snifter in hand, watching the moonlight reflect off the St. Lawrence, it's easy to understand why Charlevoix regards itself, like the captain, an old sailor telling tales of the sea.
If you go . . .
The Charlevoix region of Quebec is an hour's drive northeast from Quebec City (three hours from Montreal). It stretches about 75 miles along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, extending inland up to 30 miles.
Although skiing and other winter sports are increasing, most tourism occurs from June through the fall. Major activities are whale-watching and other excursions, such as the Saguenay Fjord cruise; prices are $30-$40.
The schooner museums usually are open only in summer, too; admission to most is $4 per person or less. Inland about 20 miles is Parc Regional des Hautes Gorges (High Canyon Regional Park), where activities include mountain biking ($15 a day rental), canoeing ($18 a day rental), fishing, hiking, camping and sightseeing on an excursion boat ($18). Price quotes are in Canadian dollars; rates often are less for children and seniors.
Several packages are available at inns. Most include breakfast and dinner and usually tickets for select activities. Typical themes are whale-watching, mountain exploration, holiday festivities and snowshoeing or cross country skiing.
For memorable cuisine, try anything -- but especially the pheasant -- at l'Auberge des 3 Canards (Inn of the 3 Ducks) in Pointe-au-Pic, an award-winner in provincewide competition. For a 10,000-bottle wine cellar combined with luxurious accommodations and a private view of the St. Lawrence, try la Pinsonniere in Cap-a-l'Aigle.
For a comprehensive, 85-page Tourist Guide or a Package Guide, write the Charlevoix tourist office:
Association Touristique Regionale de Charlevoix, C.P. 275, La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada G5A 1T1; telephone (418) 665-4454.
If you don't speak French, be sure to ask for English versions of the guides. The official language in Quebec is French, and by law all outdoor signs must be in French, so it's a good idea to learn a few key words and carry a phrase book. Become familiar with road signs because, with effectively no public or tour transportation, a car is necessary. In most inns and restaurants, someone usually speaks English. When requested, naturalistsand guides will narrate excursions in English as well as French.
Americans do not need a passport to enter Canada, but must have proof of citizenship.