History, variety define Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu

The first hole on the St. Laurent nine at Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu.

The first hole on the St. Laurent nine at Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu.

LA MALBAIE, CHARLEVOIX, Quebec – The golf clubhouse at the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu sits nearly a mile above the hotel, on a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River. At first blush, this might seem like a logistical headache: Golfers exit the hotel, which sits on the western bank of the river, hop in a cart and spend the next several minutes heading skyward toward the first tee of the St. Laurent nine.

“That has by far the most challenging transportation element, but it gets the best feedback,” says Justin Wood, executive director of golf and retail operations for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.

It’s easy to see why. The winding ascent serves as an appetizer for what’s to come, as guests enjoy the stunning long views of the river before reaching the clubhouse. The vistas drew an audible gasp from my playing partner on our initial ascent.

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The Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu sits on the banks the St. Lawrence River. Starting in June 2011, a luxury train service from Quebec City to La Malbaie will operate on the tracks shown just below the hotel.

The mighty St. Lawrence River defines not just the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, but the entire region, as it flows through the heart of Quebec. Thanks to some rather clever routing, it is omnipresent on Le Manoir Richelieu’s 27 holes, making the experience all the more pleasant.

The golf course, located about a two-hour drive north of Quebec City, wastes no time showing off its best asset – and I’m not referring to the utterly ambrosial crepes with maple butter that are served for breakfast in the clubhouse. The range, one of the prettiest on which you’ll ever beat balls, and five of the first six tees on the St. Laurent nine play sharply downhill, with the river usually framing the backdrop. While pleasing to the eye, it takes its toll on newcomers. The river and hills frame the course, resulting in some of the most cryptic greens you’re ever likely to encounter.

The St. Laurent nine, opened in 2002 as part of a $15 million expansion of the golf club, is the most popular of the resort’s three nine-hole layouts – not long, but high on the fun factor. That includes three par 3s ranging from wedge to long iron, and the reachable, par-5 third, perhaps the resort’s most entertaining golf hole.

Each of the three nines – including Tadoussac and Richelieu – have a distinctive feel, likely a natural reflection of the property’s evolution. But they’re linked by the constant swings in elevation as the holes play up and down the hills above the resort.

The folks at Le Manoir Richelieu like to remind visitors that former President William H. Taft regularly vacationed in Charlevoix in the early 1900s, and on June 18, 1925, christened the resort’s original course, designed by Herbert Strong.

Le Manoir Richelieu dates to 1899, and following a 1928 fire, was reimagined as a French castle perched above the river. The entire property received a $170 million makeover 11 years ago, and this winter Fairmont will pump $3.5 million more into upgrading the already cushy four-star accommodations. (Plans also are on the board to lengthen the practice range in the next two to three years to accommodate metalwoods.)

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A room at the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu.

The resort will become even more accessible next summer; Groupe Le Massif plans to begin operating a high-end train service between Quebec City and La Malbaie on June 18, 2011, using the tracks that hug the coastline and pass just below Le Manoir Richelieu. Groupe Le Massif’s president, Daniel Gauthier, was the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, which started as a street theater in the early 1980s in nearby Baie-Saint-Paul.

Golf is just one of the attractions that has made the bucolic region of Charlevoix a popular retreat for Canadians and Americans for decades. The resort includes a casino, though I found the whale watching an hour to the north, near Tadoussac, far more entertaining.

And then there’s the food. About 80 percent of the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu’s food is supplied by local producers. This being a predominantly French-speaking region, the natives take great pride in their Epicurean delicacies, which are showcased on the Charlevoix Flavour Trail. Visitors looking for a break from golf and gaming at Le Manoir Richelieu could spend several days visiting the farmers and restaurants on this 89-mile trail. It’s sort of like Napa Valley for foodies; rather than tasting Cabernets and Chardonnays, you’re sampling chocolates, fois gras, cheese and craft beers.

No matter where you stop on the Flavour Trail, it feels very much like a French village populated by modest farming operations and niche producers. But don’t be fooled. Maurice Dufour, who operates a farm just outside of Baie-Saint-Paul, can barely speak a word of English. But his Le Secret de Maurice, a soft, milky cheese that spreads like butter, has earned international distribution. One taste and you’ll know why.

Nearby, at Microbrasserie Charlevoix, company president Frédérick Tremblay jokes, self-effacingly, “I learned my English watching ‘Seinfeld.’ ” His beers, however, are no joke. Those include the elegant Brut, which is fermented with champagne yeast and served in a wine glass, and a stout so sweet that he mixes it with chocolate ice cream and serves it in a milkshake at his pub.

I made a mental note to try that concoction on my next visit.

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