Richard Carreño[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
La Malbaie, Quebec
Think the Gold Coast of Florida. Without the palm trees. Think the Cote d'Azur. With a similar French flair. For almost a century, this riparian town, part former fishing village and now year-round tourist mecca, has been the coastal centre of what may be the closest thing that Quebec, even Canada, has to a European-styled Riviera. Including the rich and famous.
To be sure, the rich and famous here tend to be more like Canadian and American captains of industry than Hollywood movie producers and French starlets. Indeed, given the vagaries of north country weather and Malbaie's location of the north shore of the St. Lawrence, about 90 minutes by car from Quebec City, clothing of choice here is more often than not a snow bunny's fleece and mittens rather than that of a bikini-clad Cannes beach. If you can conjure the likes of ex-President William H. Taft, who was Malbaie fan, you can get the idea.
That said, these staid attractions in this Charlevoix region of Quebec have been enticing visitors more than 200 years. In the late 1700s, two Scots feudal lords, John Nairne and Malcolm Fraser, maintained landed estates in the area, and kicked off the tourist boom by inviting friends back in the Old Sod for prolonged visits, involving golf, salmon fishing, and whale-watching.
Even now, visitors still revel in these activities -- and in more modern summer-oriented water sports.
I came for the whales.Thanks to George Frazier.
Frazier, the late, great columnist for The Boston Globe, was also a writer for the old Holiday magazine. Whales -- the ocean-going variety, as well the plump, overly-stuffed society matron type (Margaret Dumont, anyone?) from the Lower-Forty-Eight -- Frazier reported way back in the 1950s, were reason enough for a visit. Over the years, I kept that in mind.
I also kept in mind Frazier's admonition to observe Malbaie's conservative lifestyles. At least, those back in the day when he was writing. Mostly, this was quiet, family-oriented place. Mostly, modest. Though deep in the heart of liberal French Canada, revelry in these parts still has some of the vibe of Scottish prudery.
That is, with the notable exception of one of the world's marvels of contemporary craven excess, Sagard-Lac Deschenes. Tucked away on seventy-six square kilometres just north along the river, Sagard is 120,000-square, $46-million pile that's supposed to resemble a 16th century Italian villa. Since it was built, ahem, just a little-more recently by a consortium of Canadian fat cats, the place has more of the ring of William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon castle. Except that Sagard, interestingly enough, located in the village of Saint-Simeon, is a working, real-life hide-away for plutocrats, oligarchs, and just plain movers and shakers.
In all, according to newspaper reports, the Sagard is like a Koch Brothers mansion on steroids. With Sheldon Adelson as the yard boy.
Since I hardly fit that Sagard demographic, I wasn't on the dance card to get in. Not surprisingly, Canadian prime ministers, like Brian Mulroney, Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, and Jean Chretein; former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton; Sarah Fergusson, the duchess of York; and King Juan Carlos of Spain all have been granted access over the years. Tiger Woods gets to play on Sagard's golf links. Oh yeah, they all fly in to Sagard's heliport.
Jean-Nicolas Blanchet, a reporter for Le Journal de Quebec, calls Sagard 'a veritable fortress of secrets' and a play land for rich lobbyists to entertain on behalf of the 'powerful.'
For most others, the height of sumptuousness on public display here is the Fairmont Manoir Richelieu, another wedding cake-like, fairy-tale neo-chateau, built as a 250-room hotel in 1899. Manoir Richelieu, in nearby Point-au-Pic, was President Taft's home-away-from-home and where, in 1925, he inaugurated the hotel's now-widely-heralded eighteen-hole golf course.
When I came here recently, I arrived from the north, driving from Saint-Simeon and my misadventure with Sagard. I had landed there by ferry from the south shore town of Rivere-du-Loup, where a friend and I had set out for the hour-long cross-river voyage.
We had hoped to sight whales. No such luck. And in modern-day Malbaie, I learnt later, even the Margaret Dumont-variety are now hard to find.