Have you ever had the travel experience of looking at a place on a map and thinking that you only needed a day to see it, only to arrive and wish you had planned for a week? Isle-aux-Coudres is one of those rare places.
Only 90 minutes east of Quebec City, Isle-aux-Coudres is located in the picturesque region of Charlevoix. Take Highway 138 through rolling hills that offer a panoramic view of the widening St. Lawrence River until you reach Baie-Saint-Paul. From here, you take the coastal Highway 362, and then a steep side road that goes to the postcard village of Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive, the departure point for the hourly free ferries to the island. It's only a 15-minute ferry ride, so keep your camera handy, as stunning vistas toward the mainland, as well as the island, are to be had.
The sixteen-kilometer island was the scene of Canada's first mass when Jacques Cartier visited it in 1535 and named it for its abundance of hazelnut trees. Today, visitors come for the idyllic beauty and drive or cycle the 26-kilometer perimeter road that connects the island's three villages, St-Bernard, La Baleine and St-Louis. Art galleries and craft shops display the works of local artisans. The roadsides and fields display a spectacular proliferation of wildflowers.
If you have the time, the best way to tour the island is on a bike. Three companies rent cycles ranging from touring and mountain bikes to tandems and quadricycles that can accommodate four adults and two children. On a sunny day the roads are thick with cyclists, but motorists drive slowly and give them a wide berth.
Three museums in the village of St-Louis are worth a look. Les Moulins consists of a restored 1825 water mill and 1836 windmill that took turns grinding flour depending on which energy source was in greater abundance. Guides explain the milling process, and the displays depict rural life in the 1800s. Right beside the windmill is a field full of wildflowers that offers a great photo opportunity. Plop your kids or partner in the middle of the field and get a picture that is a riot of color with either the windmill or the river in the background.
The Musee d'Isle-aux-Coudres is small in square footage, but large in volume of material related to the island's history. Much of the display features wood carvings done by the owner's father, Alfred Desgagnes, who was a master carver and carpenter. Carvings, artifacts and newspaper clippings describe major events from the Vikings to present day. Upstairs is a display of flora and fauna found in the Charlevoix region.
Most apparent in this museum is the owner's pride in his father's legacy and his own addition to it. He was happy to explain the various displays in detail, relate island lore, and answer questions. The attached gift shop features the usual assortment of souvenir items, but at the back are some amazing samples of rocking chairs, some with intricate carvings, crafted by the owner, himself an accomplished carver and carpenter. They can be custom ordered, and these exquisite chairs are found in countries around the world.
Finally, the Musee de Voitures d'Eau contains a host of authentic boats and related items that recount the history of navigation on the St. Lawrence River. A fully restored goelette (schooner) sits on the grounds and can be wandered through. There are displays of ship's engines, bell buoys, and compasses. Everything is signed in French, but the explanations are so clearly done that even I could pick up the main gist with my very limited French.
To get a further glimpse of the history of the island, visit the historical houses, churches, monuments and the two tiny sailor chapels. Many of these date from the 1700s.
If browsing through shops is your pleasure, there are six arts and crafts shops, an art gallery and a boutique. For food, there's an excellent bakery, four grocery stores and several fine restaurants and snack shops to choose from. Accommodations range from camping through to auberges, motels and hotels.
We stayed at the Auberge la Coudriere, which offered relaxed accommodations in large motel-style rooms, with beautiful views over the St. Lawrence toward the Charlevoix Mountains. A large refreshing pool was just perfect for the hot summer day. The kitchen serves up excellent breakfasts of your choice and the dinner was superb. Many nights the lounge offers live music and dancing. The Auberge also sponsors live summer theatre four nights of the week. Jean-Paul, the proprietor, and his staff, welcome guests very hospitably and seem to want to ensure that everyone has a good time.
Combining stunning beauty with historical significance and plenty of things to see and do, Isle-aux-Coudres is a perfect place to spend a vacation. But when you do it, plan for more than a day.
If you go to Isle-Aux-Coudres
For more information, contact the Charlevoix Regional Tourist Association, 630 Boulevard de Comporte, C.O. 275 La Malbaie, Quebec, G5A 1T8. Telephone: (418) 665-4454 or 1-800-667-2276, Fax: (418) 665-3811.
For complete tourist information on Quebec, call (514) 873-2015 or 1-800-363-7777 or see: www.tourisme.gouv.qc.ca.
L'Auberge La Coudriere, La Baleine, Isle-aux-Coudres, Quebec, GOA 2AO.
Prices range from $55 to $79/person/day depending on occupancy and includes breakfast and dinner. Phone: (418) 438-2838 or toll-free 1-888-438-2882.
Author: Jeff and Cathy Lukovich