Imagine if one of the Cirque du Soleil founders had the idea of reinventing what a hotel ought to be, and decided to build it in one of Quebec’s most charming villages, pair it with one of the province’s best skiing mountains, and link it with a scenic train ride to Quebec City. Sounds too good to be true? Well, it happened.
Daniel Gauthier, who founded the Cirque du Soleil with Guy Laliberté, bought the Massif, a ski mountain 70 km east of Quebec City 10 years ago. He had a dream to transform the low-key mountain into a world-class four-season destination. His project was to unfurl in three phases: the mountain would get a major overhaul, a train would link Quebec City and the ski resort using abandoned rail tracks running along the St. Lawrence River, and a hotel would be built, providing elegant accommodation and meals made with the best local ingredients.
Hôtel La Ferme (literally, The Farm) is located in Baie St-Paul, in the heart of Charlevoix, a region renowned for the beauty of its scenery, the diversity of its outdoor activities and attractions, and its outstanding food producers (some of the province’s best produce, cheeses and meats are made here). The hotel was built on a huge piece of land on which there used to be, you guessed it, a farm. The farm, an impressively large 100-year-old building, was one of the largest wooden structures in Canada and it was, in fact, supposed to be part of the project before it was lost to a fire in 2007. The project was then reinvented as a five-pavilion complex inspired by the land’s history.
What struck me first when I arrived at La Ferme is the building’s modern but understated appearance. The hotel is literally in the heart of Baie St-Paul, which is a small 7,000-soul village, but you wouldn’t suspect it. The wooden and glass structures seem to blend into the scenery, and the low buildings don’t clash with the surrounding historic homes. As I entered the main pavilion, I took one look at the fireplace, the repurposed vintage wooden crates, the light fixtures made with glass milk bottles and the natural materials (felt, leather, wool and wood) and I knew I would love the place.
As I toured the premises with director Richard Germain, he explained how they had managed to carry out such an ambitious project in the heart of such a small village. “I won’t lie; at first, residents watched us arrive with our big investors and our big plans and they were understandably doubtful,” he said, “but we have involved the community from the very start and the people of Charlevoix are becoming our best ambassadors.”
Indeed, local artisans have left their mark here. Early on, the idea of using fancy imported furniture and accessories was ditched and local designers were asked to create unique items for the hotel. The lobby’s impressive glass and mesh lighting fixture, created by Antoine Laverdière, is a striking example, and Anne-Marie Hamel’s beautiful weaving work, as seen in the lobby and the guest rooms (throws and pillows) and in the main restaurant (incredibly soft, dish towel-sized napkins) is partly responsible for conferring such a warm and welcoming feel to the place. Most of the hotel’s furniture and accessories were made either locally or in Quebec and this “local philosophy” applies to more than the interior design. Chef David Forbes, leading the kitchens of the hotel’s three restaurants, helps local producers, not only by ordering in bulk from them but by buying whatever they have left, for example, hard-to-sell cuts of meat. The menu at Les Labours, the main restaurant, simply states “Select Cuts of Grilled Beef” and you get whatever’s available that day. One day it can be a brisket and the next, chuck. The menu is diverse but short, ensuring that everything’s always fresh and made to order. My meals at the restaurant were outstanding but I’ll tell you more about those in a future post.
This openness to the surrounding region is truly what makes La Ferme so unique. The “anti-resort” philosophy allows visitors to mingle with locals, who feel welcome to come to La Ferme, either to have a delicious meal (the weekend brunch is especially popular), to visit the farmers’ market, hosted every Sunday in the hotel’s courtyard, or to attend a show in the hotel’s 500-seat auditorium. For lack of a better way to qualify such an intangible feeling, I’d say there’s an authentic “spirit of sharing” to the place, which makes it unpretentious, accessible and comfortable.
The train’s coming!
Each of La Ferme’s five pavilions has a distinct personality and the rooms range from dormitories to luxurious suites. I thought the dormitory rooms were especially clever: each room has four single beds equipped with the same comfortable bedding used throughout the hotel. A guest can share a room with strangers for $49/night or a group or family can rent a whole room for a reduced rate. The goal of these rooms is to “democratize” the hotel, making it accessible to younger guests, back-packers or budget-conscious travelers.
We loved our room in the main pavilion. Facing the courtyard, the fields and the St. Lawrence River in the distance, I figured the immaculate scenery would be especially spectacular in the winter. The bed is exceptionally comfy, the heated flooring in the bathroom is a plus, the work desk is nicely sized and as a business traveler, I loved the “connectivity hub,” which allows you to easily plug your computer in and connect it to the TV. The furniture is cleverly designed and nothing feels superfluous.
Nice detail: a vertical window allowing daylight to shine into the bathroom.
More bonus points: bathroom counterspace, huge shower, refillable bottles.
There is so much more to write about: the people, the food, the environmental values, the activities, the surroundings, the train, the mountain,…! The fact that I have so much to say is proof that La Ferme is a truly inspiring place. The hotel is unlike any other destination in the province, and I would now be hard-pressed not to say it’s mandatory for a visitor to Quebec City to hop on the train or drive over to La Ferme. You will fall in love with beautiful Charlevoix, live in a place so welcoming and comfortable that you wish it were your home, and have some of the best meals you’ll enjoy in the region.
For more information:
- Hotel La Ferme
- Le Massif de Charlevoix, the mountain, one of Quebec’s finest ski resort
- The Train, for a unique, scenic and delicious trip from Quebec City to Baie St-Paul (many packages available, including gourmet meals served on board)
- Tourisme Charlevoix, for more information about this beautiful region
A big, heart-felt thank you to Frédéric Poitras, director of restaurant services at La Ferme, for inviting me to visit and experience the hotel first hand, and to Richard Germain, general manager, David Forbes, executive chef, and Philippe Laperrière, events manager, for generously spending time with me to explain their philosophy and vision.Yum