No wonder Quebec is nicknamed La Belle Province. Landscapes bursting with beauty, lively towns and villages, hospitality in heritage homes, a world-class 5,000-kilometre network of bikeways: Quebec is a province that welcomes visitors. We spend seven days cycling between Montreal and Ottawa on bike paths, including the 232-km abandoned railway Le P’tit Train du Nord. Beautiful? Oui!
Stumbling upon street fairs
On the way to the world-famous Schwartz’s Deli we stumble upon a huge street fair along Saint-Laurent boulevard, where musical performances, family-friendly games, food stalls, sidewalk shopping, and happy crowds have taken over the street. After the smoked meat sandwich we make our way to the Mont-Royal summit, where locals and tourists gather for a wonderful view of the city. We encounter another event: the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal, a gruelling event in which world-class cyclists compete.
In September Montreal is still humming with summer energy, but we have only a few hours to savour the experience. At 9:00 the next morning we meet our guides Pete and Ruth, ready to ride on the Montreal to Ottawa Laurentians Bike Tour, our third back-to-back tour with Freewheeling Adventures.
The Laurentian mountains north of Montreal provide the backdrop for a ride through valleys and forests and alongside sparkling lakes and pristine rivers.
Our tour includes Le P’tit Train du Nord linear park, a 232-km cycle path built over an old railway line which closed in the late 1980s. Running from Bois-des-Filion to Mont-Laurier, this easy-to-ride trail offers spectacular scenery, heritage railway stations, and a good assortment of tourist facilities. It is the longest park of its kind in Canada.
Because of its proximity to Montréal, the southern part of trail has a little more bicycle traffic, especially on weekends. Indeed, at Saint-Jerome, we encounter a well-attended bike race, a fund-raising event for the Fondation de l’Hôpital régional de Saint-Jérôme. Doug contributes by buying a P’tit Train du Nord tee-shirt.
First stop: broken pots
Our first night’s stop is Val-David, the place to be for anyone passionate about ceramic arts. The annual 1001 Pots exhibition has finished for the year, but our community-conscious guide Pete arranges a night-time candlelight tour of the Secret Garden, where hallways of broken ceramics are intertwined with branches and plants. At the centre are sculptures and a rock installation with water misting above it. “It’s a metaphor for life,” we are told, but we don’t quite experience that zen moment of discovery.
On day two we cycle through several villages before arriving at the pedestrian village of Mont Tremblant. In the winter, Mont Tremblant is a ski resort, while in summer nature excursions and adrenaline-filled activities are offered. How does it compare with Whistler, which we visited with some of our family in July? Mont Tremblant is smaller, the buildings more colourful and pastel, and the streets more curved and pedestrian-pleasing.
At the Moozoo ice cream shop we experience our only French-English communication problem of the trip. Doug thinks he orders two bowls of gelato; he receives the two bowls, plus a large ice cream cone. Not a problem.
Moozoo we visit on our own. Most of the other meals are included in the tour price, and the Quebecois cuisine is authentic and amazing. Two examples: At Auberge Le Lupin in Mont Tremblant, chef Pierre’s breakfast includes fresh juices, two fruit salads, bread pudding served with creme anglaise, chocolate-pear-hazelnut mini-muffins, french toast that looks like a lemon meringue pie, and a ham-smoked cheese-mushroom omelet. Snails with garlic butter, elk stew, fillet of walleye, and rabbit with prune sauce are some of the dinner choices at Chez Ignace in Nominingue. Tip: skip the appetizer to save room for dessert.
The big finish
On day four we cycle into Mont-Laurier, the northern terminus of Le P’tit Train du Nord. No fanfare, not even a stand selling tee-shirts or trail souvenirs. It’s a Wednesday, mid-September now; perhaps summer is over?
On the trail today, one of our tour group, Barbara, suffers a bike problem: her jacket is completely caught up in her rear wheel. A passing cyclist stops, disassembles and re-assembles the wheel, and Barbara is back on her way. Her jacket is shredded, but it is not needed; we have gorgeous, short-sleeve-warm weather all week. Merci beaucoup to the cyclist who contributed his time, tools, and skill.
At 55 to 60 kilometres per day, our pace on Le P’tit Train du Nord has been easy, but the schedule calls for a day off, so we are transferred to Le Village Windigo, a resort on the banks of the Baskatong Reservoir.
Hiking, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, or simply relaxing are the activities on offer. We take one the (old) canoes out for a spin, stopping at several beaches to sit in the sun. Doug is pre-occupied, because his iPhone has suddenly died. In folklore, the windigo (or wendigo) is an evil spirit; perhaps a windigo did it?
Velo route des draveurs (log-drivers)
The Gatineau River was once an important means of transporting logs to the mills downriver. The Log Drivers Bike Path (Veloroute des Draveurs) wends through the Gatineau Valley along a 72 km rail trail that is part of the Trans Canada Trail (now called the Great Trail).
Just last week the paving was completed, so we are among the first to cycle the tidy, upgraded 21-km section, that which runs from Messines to Gracefield. It is a lovely ride along the Blue Sea Lake, with many rest-stops featured along the way.
On to Ottawa
Champlain Lookout in Gatineau Park is the starting point for our final day. After a group photo and admiring the views of the Ottawa River, we ride through the Park. Spandex-clad serious cyclists speed past us. We detour to have a look at Chemin Belvedere, the residence of Prime Minister Mackenzie King.
This adventure concludes following lunch at the National Gallery. Our guide Ruth, a skilled driver as well as a cyclist, manoeuvers the van through Ottawa traffic and drops us at the Avis lot. We collect our rental car and drive northwest to our next adventure: canoeing in Algonquin Provincial Park.