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.