LA MALBAIE, Quebec, Canada - As first impressions go, no golf course - not even the more famous ones - delivers the goods quite like the 27-hole Club de Golf Le Manoir Richelieu.
Your round starts with a five-plus-minute cart ride from a staging area near the historic Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu up a path as soaring views of the St. Lawrence River are revealed during the climb.
At the top, the clubhouse, driving range and famous first tee of the St. Laurent nine showcase 360-degree panoramas of the river and the surrounding countryside. It's so breathtaking you almost don't want to leave. I felt that way about the entire trip, my first time exploring Quebec City and Charlevoix, a region to the northeast known for its natural beauty, ski runs and quaint mountain towns in the Laurentian foothills. Let's be honest: You don't necessarily come to Quebec for the golf, but you should certainly play some, while experiencing the French-Canadian culture. I was too early to enjoy fall colors, but I'm sure they're exquisite.
Quebec City's European vibe is so unique to North America. French is the local language, although most speak perfectly good English. The local passions mirror that of France. They cherish good food (eat as much cheese and bread as you can), lounging at a cafe for a drink and appreciating art in a museum or local gallery. I was thrilled to find one glaring difference, however: French-Canadians seem to have a deeper connection to golf than the French, who exhibit an apathy to the game I wrote about prior to the 2018 Ryder Cup near Paris. I was thrilled to hear the language of golf is universally spoken and appreciated in Quebec.
"There is a lot of history here of golf in the region," said Jean-Philippe Moffet, the director of golf at the Le Manoir Richelieu.
What's the best part of the region's golf culture? Its best private clubs offer public access, much like the famed links courses overseas.
Laid-back in Charlevoix
The rolling topography of the Charlevoix region was formed millions of years ago when a meteor strike created a 60-kilometer crater. It's an easy two-hour drive from the Jean-Lesage International Airport that serves Quebec City to the Fairmont. Along the way, most visitors stop for the charms of Baie-Saint-Paul, where main street is lined by art galleries and boutique shops.
My golf buddy and I got there by Train de Charlevoix, a singular track that runs along the river from La Malbaie to Baie-Saint-Paul (it actually extends all 125 kilometers between La Malbaie to Quebec City). It's a beautiful, peaceful ride with convenient drop-off points within walking distance of Baie-Saint-Paul's downtown and the Fairmont on other end. We made the most of a rainy day with some cider tasting in a downtown shop and a quick look at the 6,300-yard Club de Golf Le Loup (The Wolf), Baie-Saint-Paul's only golf course.
Back in La Malbaie, we followed the Flavour Trail, a collection of restaurants, chefs and producers who have elevated the region's reputation as a destination for foodies. It started with lunch at Boulangerie Pains d'exclamation!, a popular bakery. Along the trail, you can sample the world's first tomato wine at Omerto or oyster mushrooms grown indoors at Champignons Charlevoix. The mushroom tour was quite enlightening. In layman's terms, the growing process essentially tricks mushrooms into believing that buckets filled with sawdust are trees. The mushrooms eventually sprout out of holes cut in the buckets in climate-controlled rooms, producing 10 tons annually. During the taste test, I almost bought a jar of the tasty mushroom pesto and the mushrooms marinated in an Italian-style sauce. They're great for cooking as additives to your recipes.
Of course, the Fairmont's restaurants are part of the trail. My meal of flank steak and frites (fries) at Table et Terroir soothed my angst on arrival day after a six-hour flight delay in Chicago. The massive dessert sampler knocked me out cold.
The following night, La Maison du Bootlegger proved why it is the go-to for entertaining out-of-towners. This eccentric former speakeasy wraps dinner and a party into one wild night. There's only one evening seating at 6 p.m., so reservations fill up weeks in advance. While dinner is being served, every guest tours the former living quarters of the home, a maze of secret passages and tiny rooms below the restaurant. Live music ignites the dance party at 9:30 p.m. as the real fun begins. Just make sure you don't have an early tee time the next day.
The 405-room Fairmont (dating to 1899) is celebrating its 120th birthday this year after the highlight of hosting the G7 summit of world leaders in 2018. The terrace in front, where children marvel at the decorative cannons, overlooks the river. There's much to do on property - walk the trails along the river, gamble at the casino connected by an underground tunnel for safe passage in winter, and swimming in the outdoor pool and hot tub.
All the world leaders gathered for a photograph at that magical spot near the clubhouse and elevated tee. I'm surprised U.S. President Donald Trump didn't bang a ball off the first tee. I'm sure he was tempted. Everyone plays the St. Laurent loop no matter which other nine is part of their round. Sometimes, it's the first swing the day. Sometimes, it's the 10th tee box. It's always the most scenic and interesting loop. A great drop-shot par 3 comes at no. 2, followed by a weirdly fun third hole, a downhill par 5 that plays over a row of hedges dissecting the fairway on the second shot. Every combination plays less than 6,200 yards, but that number is deceiving with so many uphill holes that seem to play 20-30 yards longer.
Just down the road sits Club de Golf Murray Bay, which dates to 1876. The semi-private club is the oldest course still on its original site in North America, according to Moffet. I would have loved to play the 5,600-yard course just for the nostalgia of it all, and a real chance to break 80 at that distance.
Culture in Quebec City
Less than 24 hours certainly wasn't enough to see all of Quebec City, but it was enough to convince me to come back (I don't say that often about big cities). Staying at the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac turned the walled city of Old Quebec into our personal playground. Walking out the front door of the iconic hotel, we could ride the river ferry, dine at a cafe, walk the riverfront or watch a street performer entertain crowds in the shadow of the Samuel De Champlain monument. The Plains of Abraham, site of a 1759 battle during the French and Indian War, played a critical role in the British takeover of the country the following year. It's now a popular park and tourist attraction.
The majestic 611-room Fairmont (1893) itself is a landmark, perhaps Canada's most beloved hotel. Its flamboyant copper roof and turrets evoke the sentiment that it is a real life castle. Tourists flood the lobby for pictures and to savor a drink at the really cool circular 1608 Bar. Our dinner at the Bistro Le Sam started off with stunning views of the river at dusk and the best charcuterie board ever. The hotel does have its own walk-in cheese fridge and bar, after all. It only got better from there.
The next morning, we watched the sun rise above the city en route to Club de Golf Royal Quebec, a 36-hole private club considered the city's best. Royal Quebec hosted the 1956 Labatt Open won by Billy Casper, the only time the PGA Tour ever visited Quebec City. The PGA Tour Champions had a short-lived local run, too, visiting in 2014 before financial trouble shut the Quebec Championship down. The good news is the host private club, Club de Golf La Tempete in Levis across the river from the city, recently announced plans to build a second course.
It's a blessing that tournament-caliber private clubs like these allow some public access. Public rates for La Tempete are $135 Canadian before June 15 and $175 afterward. Royal Quebec allows the general public to play before 8 a.m. and after 3 p.m. Monday through Friday and after 3 p.m. weekends and holidays. General Manager Mario Bouchard acknowledged a call from a concierge from the Frontenac or some other high-end hotel could unlock a couple tee times a day. It's a worthy pursuit. The Royal course we played is a classic, tree-lined test. Slippery greens provide its best defense.
We raced around our 7 a.m. tee time in roughly three hours, leaving time to explore the nearby Montmorency Falls Park. You can zipline across the waterfall, which is 30 meters higher than Niagara Falls. Walking the suspension bridge above the falls is thrilling enough for most adults.
On the way to the airport, we couldn't resist stopping at one more golf course. The Club de Golf L'Albatros is literally right across from the main terminal. To our surprise (and delight), the parking lot was packed. The range was crowded, probably because it is Quebec's only "practice lake." Who doesn't love smacking balls at targets floating in a pond?
The 5,287-yard course isn't on anybody's bucket list, but just the fact it existed, and was being used by all ages and handicaps, was more proof that French-Canadians love their golf. Turns out, I love their golf, too.