BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“The air of Murray Bay is as intoxicating as champagne, yet without the hangover.” -President William Howard Taft
From the long verandas of Gilded Age summer villas looking out on the St. Lawrence River, sparkling at sunset, and the Laurentian mountains mellowing to a lavender tone out the back, one can almost make out the ghosts of summer residents past. These seekers of summer solace, President William Howard Taft and his friends, the Sedgwicks, Minturns. Tiffanys, Fishes, and Vanderbilts, flocked to what was once called “the Newport of the North” in the early 1890s. Many of these grand houses remain on what is simply known as the “Boulevard” or on a cape by the river in the region of Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada.
The summer residents often changed outfits six times a day to look their best for the variety of social and outdoor events that filled their days. While they followed such Victorian rules when it came to clothing, they eschewed the ornate designs of the era found in their homes in Newport and New York, filling these estates instead with local handicrafts. This included everything from wooden furniture to the region’s legendary colorful textiles: rugs, covers, and placemats crafted at hand wheels and looms with local vegetable dyes.
Now known as La Malbaie, meaning “the bad bay”—an unflattering moniker bestowed on the area by the explorer Samuel de Champlain back in 1603 when his ships became stranded at low tide—today’s visitors feel find nothing mal about it.
Though many years have passed, pleasures from those gilded days have not lost their luster. Picnicking along the banks of the St. Lawrence (where the bravest go swimming in the 54-degree water), fishing for pink trout, sampling tarts of delectable wild strawberries and freshly picked blueberries, hiking on a newly discovered trail (where you might spot a moose in the distance)—these are among the many activities that can fill a sunny summer’s day.
On days when the weather is wet and dark clouds sit heavy above the water, there are some not-to-be-missed places to visit: a museum showcasing the area’s arts and crafts; a church dating back to 1867, featuring a radiant Tiffany window; and the Boutique de Charlevoix, for handmade placemats, bedspreads and other gifts.
Though the pace can be as slow and relaxing as you like once you arrive, getting to Murray is not the easiest—its closest large city is Quebec City, which stands over two hours away by car. But once you are in Murray Bay you want to stay, like in Brigadoon, forever.
In the summer months, you are dazzled by the blues of the water and the green all around you. In July and August, gardens burst forth with towering delphinium and hydrangea blossoms the size of a child’s head.
September and October offer spectacular foliage and crisp sunny days. B&Bs in historic homes, as well as the Manoir Richelieu—once a grand hotel of the Canadian Steamship lines—offer wonderful lodging.
From Chicago, fly to Quebec City and take a day to explore the old city, visit the Plains of Abraham, and sample the French food. Departing the city, you drive along the beautiful St. Lawrence coastline. You pass through Baie St. Paul—the small city where the Cirque du Soleil was started by two street performers in 1984—and by the beaches of St. Irénée before the splendid golf courses of the turreted Manoir Richelieu announce that you have arrived in Murray Bay.
You will enjoy practicing your high school French with descendants of the people who sailed with Samuel de Champlain and the Scots whom they married.
While we’ve already mentioned a few things we most enjoy, we’ve put together a Top Ten List of things you might enjoy on a Murray Bay visit. Because it’s a great family destination, we’ve added a few beloved grandchildren to this collection. How fortunate I am to have photographers who capture the story of Charlevoix so magnificently: Rene Bouchard, Suzette Bross, Luc Antoine Couturier, and Peter Taft.
1) Hike, picnic, or ride a waterfall
A spectacular 20-minute drive along the St. Lawrence takes you to Port au Persil, given the name by Samuel de Champlain over 400 years ago. A botanist and artist, he had sailed close to shore and thought that the vegetation reminiscent of parsley fields in France.
After exploring the chapel, enjoy a picnic on the rocks—perhaps you’ll spot a minke or blue whale.
More adventurous explorers can slide down the smooth rocks, propelled by a waterfall, on a large trash bag for speed, a rite of passage for many summer visitors. The tiny town offers freshly made sparking cider for your picnic (most Canadian cider is alcoholic) and an opportunity to purchase donkey milk soap and walk around the donkey farm.
2) Feast: from grilled fois gras to frais du bois, blueberry tarts to poutine
Spend a morning picking wild blueberries. If you are lucky you can master the delicate pie crusts that will surround them.
At the Ferme Basque in nearby Saint-Urbain, you can purchase amazing fois gras, magret de canard (duck breast), cassoulet, and other delicacies. But for casual fare, consider a hot dog garnis or poutine (French fries topped with brown gravy and cheese curds) at a casse-croute such as La Goelette, Chez Chantal, or Chez Ginette in nearby St. Irénée.
Most summer residents entertain family and friends at home but Murray Bay restaurants are outstanding. Chez Truchon offers a grilled foie gras with fries cooked in duck fat and both are delights to local diners. Trois Canards features the fine lamb of Charlevoix. Both restaurants are also hotels throughout the year.
Quebec beer, with names like Belle Gueule, La Fin du Monde, and Maudite prove why they win international awards with just one sip.
3) Learn about local crafts
Take a rug hooking lesson at the Musee de Charlevoix (see #4 to learn more about this venue) or visit carver Ernest Villeneuve, painter Louise Bellay, or fabric artist Claire Thibeault, all who demonstrate traditional techniques and offer their artistry for sale.
Whether it’s a carved rooster, horse, or even an ostrich, Ernest’s work is sprinkled throughout the houses of Murray Bay. Paintings by Claire Thibeault and local scenes by the marvelous Louise Belley are also well-represented in the homes that line the Boulevard.
4) Visit the Musee de Charlevoix
Many of Quebec’s most outstanding artists have come to Murray Bay to paint and this museum has an excellent collection of their work. Next summer, the Musee, headed by the very clever Annie Breton, will offer an exhibition on Charlevoix families.
5) Learn about the area’s history at the Murray Bay Protestant Church
Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017, the little church (which was clad in stone in 1910) has been a center for worship in the community for just as many years, placing emphasis on bringing together the French, English, and American communities. President Taft, Justice Harlan, Rose Tiffany, William Hume Blake and Henry Dwight Sedgwick are among the parishioners you will learn about inside. Each year, in connection with the Musee, the church offers house tours of famous homes, open just for the day, to visitors as a joint fundraiser.
For more on the church, read this story on Edith Minturn we ran back in May.
6) View spectacular gardens
Open only for several summer Saturdays, Les Quatre Vents, created by the late Francis Cabot over the course of a 20-year period, is considered by many to be the finest garden in North America. His son, Colin Cabot, heads the garden today.
Just driving along the Boulevard, you can glimpse beautiful gardens bursting bursting forth with color in July and August.
7) Visit Haut Gorge National Park
Go camping, “glamping” in a Hutopia, kayaking on the Malbaie River, or hiking along trails from straight to straight up all in this national park. Local writer William Hume Blake wrote his legendary fishing book Brown Waters about this river.
8) Play golf or go fishing
The only person who served both as US President and then Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, President Taft said that the job he loved the best was serving as President of the Murray Bay Golf Club, where he spent much of his time in Murray Bay. If you are limited in time, try the “baby nine” course there. The Manoir Richelieu offers panoramic River views and three nine-hole courses.
Tip: Trout from local rivers is particularly delicious when cooked with bacon.
9) Explore St. Irénée
Beaches, concerts, a sculpture garden, and an evocative antique store featuring Quebec treasures are all just 15 minutes away from Murray Bay. Set in magnificent surroundings, the Domaine Forget provides concerts and shines as an international music festival as well as a music and dance academy. A sculpture garden features 25 pieces by artists from Quebec and beyond.
Down the road, you can ride horseback on the beach to build up your appetite for a visit to Chez Ginette, the most famous casse-croute of the region.
After your meal, stop by a nearby farm with your children or grandchildren to pet the alpacas.
10) Enjoy the sunsets and rainbows
Although not officially documented, Murray Bay has more double rainbows than any place in the world. You are sure to find one when you visit, and some have even said that Murray Bay is the end of the rainbow.
Take the advice of returning visitor, Jack Geary, owner of Geary Contemporary Gallery in New York with his wife, Dolly: at the end of an adventure-packed Charlevoix day, sip a Belle Gueule and take in all the colors of the sunset, reflecting on the adventures of the day.