With the flavors of café au lait and chocolate croissant lingering on my tongue from breakfast, I steer my bike toward the banks of the St. Lawrence River. My tires chatter across the cobblestoned alleyways of Old Quebec city, through the ramparts of the only walled city north of Mexico and on to the port. It's early morning, but the ferry is already busy with commuters heading on the 10-minute trip across the river to the hilltop town of Lévis on the opposite bank. With the bright sun and a warm breeze on our faces, we disembark right onto a paved cycling path and set off eastward, deep into the heart of rural Quebec..
In 2005, I chose a cycling trip in Vietnam to celebrate a landmark birthday and made two good friends, Anne Zakula and Cheryl Smith, both from Toronto. We had vowed a cycling reunion, and now, as another daunting birthday loomed, we chose an easy two-day, 75-mile route on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence, along a country highway with detours dipping toward idyllic French riverside villages with cafés and inns renowned for their local cuisine, art and friendly people. The Chaudières-Appalaches region is popular with Quebeckers but is little known outside the province, a great place to delve into traditions close to the provincial capital. Though most folks in the area speak some English, this is a great chance to drag out your rusty high school French. The effort will be greatly appreciated.
A tangle of wildflowers lines the dedicated bike route that gives way after 10 miles to the wide shoulder along Highway 132. It's not riverside riding, but there are great views over the water and of the northern bank. After 40 minutes of easy rolling terrain we turn onto a winding road through our first village, Beaumont, and smell fresh baking bread from a 1921 mansard-roofed mill. The main street is lined in classic steep, red-roofed Quebec-style houses and shops, many crafted from fieldstone. There is the ubiquitous silver-steepled Catholic church that rises above every town center in this once ardently Roman Catholic part of Canada. Nearby, inside a tiny 1733 whitewashed chapel-turned-art gallery/studio, two local women work on watercolors.
We are traveling part of a province-wide cycling network called La Route Verte, the green route, that meanders across more than 2,555 miles of urban and rural countryside. Quebec has always been a bike-crazy place, and in 2007 a web of new and existing bicycle and walking paths (including the national Trans Canada Trail) and bike-friendly country roads were officially linked up. This created easy two-wheeled access from the Ontario line in the west through Montréal and Quebec city all the way to the wind-swept Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the east.
THE BEST WAY TO QUEBEC CITY
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The driving force behind the vast network is a unique, Montréal-based group called Vélo Quebec. It organizes multiday biking trips, carries out bicycle commuting studies for the city, runs a great little bike-centric shop and café on Parc Lafontaine in Montréal and is also the province's premier biking activist. It persuaded the government of Quebec and the Ministry of Transport to jump on board, and today the Route Verte consists of 40% bike-path and 60% on-road routes.
You can sip and cycle through vineyards and cideries in the Eastern Townships southeast of Montreal, shuttle your bike between islands on pontoons near Ottawa's Gatineau Hills, sleep in yurts within provincial parks, or take your two wheels and a tent on remote roads into the wilderness to add hiking, climbing and canoeing to your adventure.
One of the most popular cycling routes is along a former 1920s railway line called the P'tit Train du Nord (Little Train of the North), whose southernmost point is St.-Jérôme in Montreal's northern suburbs. It winds north on hard-packed gravel at a grade of less then 3% for 144 miles to Mont-Laurier. The route is so bike-oriented that some local taxis even have bike racks for shuttles.
We pedal through village after village on our route along the St. Lawrence. Quaint and beautifully manicured St.-Michel-de-Bellechasse is one of three dozen officially designated Most Beautiful Villages in Quebec; we will encounter three on this ride alone. We stop for coffee at the three-table Le Petit Café run by retired schoolteacher and avid photographer Jocelyn Lauzier, who tells the stories behind his excellent photos adorning the walls. It will be our best brew of the trip.
St.-Vallier is another postcard village, then Berthier-sur-Mer, with perfect gardens along the riverfront. Traditional Quebec culture is everywhere: old rocking chairs on front porches, clay outdoor bread ovens, sugar shacks and chainsaw-carved bears and garden gnomes for sale.
By late afternoon, after 40 miles, a cheer goes up when we spot the silver church spires of Montmagny, our destination for the night. At the family-run mansion Manoir des Érables, we quickly shower and make a beeline for its fine dining room, where we are greeted by passionate chef Frédéric Cyr, who explains the inn's Table Champêtre designation. It means the inn specializes in traditional cuisine using local ingredients when possible. House-smoked local sturgeon, maple-citrus sauce, Quebec foie gras in a crab bisque, Matane shrimp, local quail perfumed with cinnamon, homemade charcuterie, and shrimp and seaweed from the nearby Gaspé Peninsula…. "People show up at the kitchen door with boxes of fiddleheads and mushrooms they picked," Cyr says.
Hitting the pedals early the next morning, we head toward the waterfront to catch a 25-minute ferry across to L'Île-aux-Grues, a tiny island in an archipelago accessible only at high tide. The boat is filled with cyclists who come to ride the island's 11/2 -by-41/2 -mile rural landscape of corn and hay fields, where the breeze is scented with clover and wildflowers. Visiting L'Île-aux-Grues is a bit of a pilgrimage for me because this is the birthplace of some of my favorite Quebec cheeses: delicious triple cream Riopelle (named after the famous contemporary Quebec artist who lived here), Mi-Carême and a Tomme de Grosse-Ile. Unfortunately, no tastings are offered at the fromagerie, although a café near the ferry dock served cheese plates and wine on an ocean view deck.
Back on the mainland, we continue east past the quirky Accordion Museum, then stop for samples at a traditional apple cider maker in Cap-St.-Ignace. Chiming church bells usher us into L'Islet-sur-Mer, another official beauty spot with a popular maritime museum, where we order Middle Eastern- and Asian-influenced tapas on a deck overlooking the river at La Salicorne Café. By now, we've learned that even fast food places using local ingredients are identified with a red Arrêt Gourmand sign. We are never disappointed.
By midafternoon, we arrive on the outskirts of our final destination, the vacation town of St.-Jean-Port-Joli. We stop in at two local museums. The Épopée de la Moto is a splendid tribute to motorized two-wheeled riding with a collection of more than 125 historic motorcycles — most in running order — including a 1903 Clement Auto Cyclette and other rare gems collected by brothers Francois and Jean Gagnon. The Anciens Canadiens sculpture museum celebrates local wood carving. It's a sometimes-cheesy, sometimes-magnificent collection that includes wood carvings of Norman Rockwell paintings as well as life-size real and fictional celebrities as varied as Pierre Trudeau and Harry Potter.
We check into the waterfront Auberge du Faubourg and stash our bikes, which will be shuttled back to Quebec city with us the next afternoon. We are lucky to land one of the resort's rustic cabins perched with a deck just above the river's rocky bank. No sooner do we finish dinner in a dining room that evokes a Catskills "Dirty Dancing" atmosphere than the heavens burst. "For two days, we dodge forecasted thunder and rainstorms," marvels my friend Cheryl as lightning rips across the sky and whitecaps dance across the St. Lawrence, "and now we get to watch it as an after-dinner show."