The Laurentians: a Biker’s Heaven
During a trip to Eastern Canada, we thought Montreal was the most biker friendly place we’d visited. But after spending three nights in the Laurentians, we changed our mind.
Starting in St-Jérôme, and ending in Mont-Laurier, the Laurentians offer a 200 km bike path—“P’tit Train du Nord” Linear Park—that follows an abandoned rail bed. It meanders through several villages, recreating the experience of riding the rails earlier in the 20th century.
The “P’tit Train du Nord” made its last passenger journey on November 15, 1981. The Linear Park was inaugurated in 1996, and in 1997 it became part of “La Route Verte,” a cycle path that crosses Quebec from east to west and north to south. Quebec now has a network of over 3,000 km of trails.
When we left Montreal, we meandered from village to village, either by bike or car, discovering that each one has its own character and charm. St-Sauveur has a distinctive, magical quality. Lots of old buildings, mansard style (curved roof and dormer windows), line the streets. Some resemble gingerbread houses, tall, narrow, and with steeply sloping roofs. A few Victorians are there as well with a French twist.
Most of the old houses on the main drag have been converted to restaurants, shops, or galleries, and it’s a busy town, a favorite of many. While a large, very impressive church stands in the center, St-Sauveur offers a sophisticated weekend refuge for Montrealers whose main focus isn’t on religion.
We finally reached our inn, located on the outskirts of Ste-Adèle, a little farther from Montreal than St-Sauveur—about one and a half to two hours by car. We had booked into L’Eau à la Bouche for three nights, praised in our guide both for accommodations and its restaurant.
When we arrived at Ste-Adèle mid-afternoon, we decided to stop for a late lunch at Chez Mamie Nature before checking in. Most French Canadian restaurants feature a table d’hôte. Chez Mamie Nature is no exception. We had a delicious soup, a main course, and dessert. I chose a tasty duck salad, and the dessert—made with egg whites—also was tasty. A glass of local wine topped it off.
Ste-Adèle is a pretty village after you leave the main drag. It’s built around a lake, as many of the towns are, and is hilly, the rising and falling giving interesting vistas and adding to its charm. Lots of stone houses and sweet chalets and year-round residences line the streets.
L’Eau à la Bouche also is pleasant. Rooms are large, and ours had a king-size bed with a white wicker headboard. A tasteful couch, chair, and circular table created a sitting area. The huge bathroom had double sinks.
Our ground-floor room overlooked the pond in front with a fountain in the center, and we had our own private deck with lawn chairs and umbrella table. One drawback: the inn is situated on a busy road, a main thoroughfare. With the windows open, we could hear cars whooshing past, not my idea of relaxed country living.
Otherwise, it has a vista of a mountain across the way. The lovely breakfasts, included in the room rate, make up for whatever inconvenience the traffic causes, and it’s possible to request rooms at the back of the inn. (We can enthusiastically recommend the restaurant, listed in the Relais and Châteaux, where we enjoyed a leisurely, three-course dinner in their non-smoking dining room.)
The next day we drove into Val David, another village, and got information on the bike trail. The young woman in the tourist office said we had to pay $10 per person to ride on it, though we might want to take our chances that we wouldn’t run into the bike patrol.
She didn’t make it clear that it’s $10.00 per person for the season and not for each day. A Scot through and through, I didn’t want to pay that much for a bike ride, so I suggested to my husband that we take our chances. (After we left the Laurentians, when I was rereading the tourist guide, I discovered my mistake. The well-maintained path, surfaced with fine gravel, is well worth the cost of $10.00 per person for the season.)
We started our ride from the center of town, following the Rivière-du-Nord for a good part of the way. We had lovely views of the water and of lawns running down to it, and we were never far from food or other amenities. Wild flowers lined the trail—blue, purple, yellow, white—giving their last gasp before winter (it was almost mid-August).
We passed firs and maples, some leaves starting to turn. Blueberries attracted berry pickers, and we also stopped for a taste. Back on our bikes, we glimpsed distant mountains through the trees. At times the foliage cleared enough that we could take in the whole vista.
The following day we decided on a shorter ride since rain was threatening, our destination being Ste-Agathe Nord. A charming old train station has been renovated, now containing a bistro and public bathrooms. But we wanted to see the town, so we followed our map’s directions and headed towards the downtown area and Lac des Sables.
Several benches face the lake, and we sat there, enjoying the view, munching on an apple, watching storm clouds brew on the horizon. It started sprinkling, so we headed back to our inn. The return ride was much easier, downhill (there was a two percent grade going there), the wind at our backs.
The next day, we drove north to the town of Mont-Tremblant, a major ski area, stopping first at Mont-Tremblant Park, ready for a different biking path. (The Natives named the mountain tremblant because the earth trembles when we don’t obey her laws.)
A map we picked up at the visitor information center gave several possibilities for bike rides in the park. We took a trail that goes to the Chute Croches (falls) near Lac-Monroe, a more demanding ride than the abandoned rail bed. It had many large rocks, tree roots, and branches that we had to dodge, and it was hilly, too, in places.
But we made it safely to the falls, and we didn’t see any black bears, though we’d been warned to watch for them. We did see a fat mouse, peeking out from under the wooden benches overlooking the falls, looking for food. It took a grape from us and ran off, returning a few minutes later and staring beseechingly, clearly wanting more.
Later, we went into the village of Mont-Tremblant, a charming mix of Swiss, German, and French structures. Flowers bloomed everywhere, hanging from street lamps, adding color to private residences. And Lac Tremblant extends for miles, the biggest lake we’d seen so far, forming a picturesque backdrop for the area. (There are over 400 lakes in the park alone plus three rivers.)
The two waitresses who served us on the terrace at the Hôtel Mont-Tremblant were very friendly, interested in us, wanting to be helpful. Even the mountains are gentler, softer, because they’ve been eroded by glaciers—totally unlike the dramatic peaks of the Rockies that I’d grown up with. Quebec itself seems to be a kinder, gentler France.
Full of old world charm and new world conveniences, the Laurentians have much to offer. Many bikers, including families, use the “P’tit Train du Nord” Linear Park and other trails, yet the paths never seemed crowded.
And what of the bike patrol? We never did run into it.
A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in her early years, Lily Iona MacKenzie supported herself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored her into the States). She also was a cocktail waitress at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco; briefly broke into the male-dominated world of the docks as a longshoreman (and almost got her legs broken); founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County; co-created THE STORY SHOPPE, a weekly radio program for children that aired on KTIM in Marin County; and eventually earned two Master’s degrees (one in Creative writing and one in the Humanities). She has published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 140 American and Canadian venues. Fling, one of her novels, was published in July 2015 by Pen-L Publishing. Bone Songs, another novel, will be published in 2016. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011. She also teaches writing at the University of San Francisco, is vice-president of USF's part-time faculty union, paints, and travels widely with her husband. Visit her blog at: http://lilyionamackenzie.wordpress.com.
Photo courtesy and copyright Lily Iona MacKenzie