The view out the window keeps changing and it’s spectacular. I’m enamored of excursion trains and have been waiting over a year to board this one, but first it had to be built.
We gathered at Montmorency Falls just outside Quebec City on Tuesday morning waiting for the train to arrive. This would be the inaugural run of Le Massif de Charlevoix train with regular service to commence a few days later on September 9th. For those who had been working on this project for the past couple of years this trip will be a celebration. The rest of us were invited along for the ride.
The train arrived, mandatory speeches made, and photo ops taken against the dramatic backdrop of a waterfall that is higher than the one at Niagara. We boarded and engineer Tanis Peterson powered up one of the two 1800-hp, RS-18 Diesel-electric locomotives and we rolled out of the station. A dream was about to be realized.
Back in 1984 two street performers in Baie-Saint-Paul organized a troupe and performed as Le Grand Tour du Cirque Soleil. One of those street performers was Daniel Gauthier. These days Daniel Gauthier is the Chairman of the board of Groupe Le Massif and the company train is the opening act of a much larger production: allowing the Charlevoix region to become four-season destination.
The Massif de Charlevoix train is not basic transportation: it is a rail cruise complete with a 3-course lunch and 4-course dinner designed by Chef Jean-Michel Breton, the executive chef for the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu. The menu is designed to showcase the gastronomy that the Charlevoix region is famous for. Food is a passion here and the design of these railcars incorporates an ultra-modern kitchen with “intelligent” ovens installed in each of them.
The train rolls along the north bank of the St. Lawrence River passing Isle d’Orleans and next to cathedral in Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupré. Gregorian chants somehow filter through the din of a railway car filled with journalists and TV cameras. It’s followed in turn by the noise of thousands of snow geese as the train passes through the national wildlife area of Cap-Tourmente.
The cars have been set up to accept different lighting, including projections on the ceilings. Each table has an iPad that conveys information ranging from assigned seats to fascinating video presentations about areas being passed and the current position of the train. Lit candles appear on the screen when passing through the two tunnels. Music compositions have been created especially for the train and WiFi Internet service is planned, but not yet instituted. All this should come as no surprise as various creative talents that have previously worked with Cirque du Soleil were contracted as part of the development team.
The railroad right of way was acquired in January 2009 and a 20-million dollar investment replaced 22 km of track, 28,500 railroad ties, 90 culverts, upgraded 25 bridges, and allowed for extensive work on the embankment over a 22-month period. Owning the tracks allows for both creativity in the layout of train stations and the flexibility of scheduling to meet the needs of passengers, not time tables as required on public rail.
The scenery is gorgeous, the finest available on any North American railroad east of the Rocky Mountains. Most of the 140 km excursion–from Cap-Tourmente to LaMalbaie—is inaccessible by roads. Route 138 runs inland, as does most of scenic Route 362 from Baie-St-Paul to La Malbaie. The railway runs along the edge of the river, presenting views of the distant Adirondacks on the south shore and two beautiful islands: Isle d’Orleans and Isle-aux-Coudres. There are ships on the St. Lawrence Seaway and birds along the shore. I notice an unusually high concentration of Great Blue herons, but next week the Snow geese will begin to arrive on their annual migration. I can only imagine how spectacular the ride will be once the leaves turn into their fall colors.
Politicians are riding in one railcar; journalists and the “A” list in two others. I’m sitting with two other journalists at table for four. This becomes an unanticipated stroke of luck when Daniel Gauthier joins us. For him this is more than a just a business deal or corporate profits: it is preserving and revitalizing his favorite ski hill and providing sustainable infrastructure for his community. He’d like to see the region become a year-round tourist destination and the economic stability that would help to insure to the artists and food producers. It’s a story that has come full circle, and now he has the opportunity to contribute to the place that offered him such a creative start. He is also determined to make every aspect of the expansive Le Massif project eco-friendly regardless of the cost. After all, the Charlevoix is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and recognized as being a unique spot on planet Earth.
There is no stop yet the base of Le Massif, but by winter the train station will be completed near the base lodge skiers will be able to get on the new gondola at for a ride to the summit. In Baie-St-Paul Hôtel La Ferme and its rail spur are still under construction, but in the spring of 2012 the eco-friendly 150-room, five-star hotel is scheduled to open. It will incorporate a train depot, restaurant, café, a public square, local food market outlet, and a venue space with a capacity for 500 guests. A light-rail shuttle will transport people between Baie-St-Paul and the base of the ski mountain. The Le Massif project, of which this train is one element, is still a work-in-progress that is not scheduled for completion until 2014.
The 1950’s era scenic rail cars were completely striped and renovated by C.R.O.I. in Saguenay according to designs drawn up by Michel Morelli of Quebec City. The expansive windows were an “impossibility” according to conventional designers –that was solved by incorporating a truss system as part of the interior design. Most of the features are subtle and unobtrusive, but from the kitchen to the multi-media systems and even the varied color themes are all were designed to allow passengers to focus on the two special features of this rail cruise: the extraordinary views and the gastronomy.
At the Pointe-au-Pic depot in La Malbaie another tent has been erected and more speeches are made. Charlevoix Éco-Mobilité is on hand. This is just one of the entrepreneurial ventures that has spun-off from the Le Massif project. They offer electric bikes for rent and local tours in pedi-cabs (rickshaws) or motorcycle sidecars. Héli-Charlevoix has moved one of their landing pads to the site for those who would like a bird’s eye view. After the speeches buses shuttle visitors to Le Manoir Richelieu for a tour of the five-star resort and various scheduled interviews.
There are 27 departures scheduled for the fall and they are 75% booked; 4 of the dates are sold out, including Thanksgiving weekend. This is before initiating a direct mail campaign in Quebec! The company is looking to the American, French, and British markets with Japanese tour companies having expressed a very strong interest so I suggest making a reservation as soon as possible.
This is just the opening act. In 2012 passengers will be able to stay overnight–and even all week—in the Charlevoix before returning to Quebec City. How they are going to juggle such passengers scheduling is beyond my comprehension, but these are the same people who have created Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas so I have complete faith in their abilities.
If You Go:
The train departs from Parc de la Chute Montmorency, which is easily reached by taking Aut. 440 east –whether from Quebec City or the termination of Aut. 40—and taking the exit by the bridge to Isle-d’Orleans, then left at the traffic light. Parking at Parc de la Chute Montmorency is $10, which includes tickets for the gondolas.
This winter there will be 10 departures at 8AM with arrival at the base of the mountain (and the new gondola lift) at 9:30. The train will continue on to La Malbaie arriving around noon with a three-hour layover. It will arrive back at mountain at 5PM and the Montmorency station at 8PM. The $229 ticket during the winter includes the Le Massif lift ticket and there will be a baggage car fitted with ski racks.
At this time reservations and tickets are available only by calling 877-536-2774. Additional information is available online at http://www.lemassif.com/en/train.