Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017

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La bike province

The Route Verte allows you to hop on two wheels and explore Quebec's hidden corners

For kilometres, I’d had the serene cycling path through the woods all to myself. Suddenly, I came across two deer grazing the yellow, pink and blue wildflowers that carpet the fringes of the gravel route. I myself had just finished nibbling a warm almond croissant and could still taste the luscious café au lait I had sipped on a terrace conveniently perched trail-side.

The deer moved reluctantly into the bush and I pedalled on through classic Québec countryside: red-roofed chalets reflected in bright blue lakes and silver church steeples rising above villages. I rounded a curve and saw a red wooden covered bridge and then an old railway station converted into a mini-museum and B&B.

That was my cue to pull off for lunch at the riverside Kayak Café (tel: 819-686-1111; kayak-cafe.com) where a balcony overlooks a small waterfall in the middle of the village of Labelle. Then I rented one of the café’s kayaks for an hour to paddle the Rouge River before jumping back on my bike.

Van-tastic touring

Earlier that morning I had been shuttled in a van from Saint-Jérôme, just north of Montreal, and dropped, along with my trusty bicycle, at the lakeside village of Nominingue about 200 kilometres further norht. I set off with only a daypack and water bottle on a three-day cycling trip south through the rolling hills of the Laurentians.

At the end of the day I pulled off the path near the hamlet of La Conception into a forest where the cosy Auberge à la Croisée des Chemins (tel: 888-686-5289; alacroiseedeschemins.com), a rare straw-bale inn, is tucked among the pines. I was parking my bike at the rack out front when the owner, Claude, opened the front door with a big, welcoming “Bienvenue!” He led me to a room overlooking the forest where I was reunited with my luggage, courtesy of the shuttle drop earlier in the day. “Can I offer you a cold drink?” Bike touring just doesn’t get any better than this.

The route is one stretch of an abandoned 1920s railway line called the P’tit Train du Nord (the “little train of the north”) that has been converted into a biking and walking path. The southernmost point is Saint-Jérôme in the northern suburbs of Montreal and it winds for 230 kilometres north to Mont-Laurier. The entire route is car-free, but close to the highway with more than 20 vehicle access points with parking. The path is hard-packed gravel and the going is easy — luckily for us cyclists, trains can’t handle more than a three-percent grade.

Ride far and wide

With about 500,000 hikers and bikers using the path every year, the P’tit Train is one of the most popular stretches in a vast and diverse cycling network called the Route Verte (tel: 800-567-8356; routeverte.com). This “green route” wanders across 4300 kilometres of the Québec urban and rural countryside, a web of new and existing bike and walking paths, resurfaced roadways and country roads that were officially linked up in 2007.

The Route Verte meanders from the Ontario border in the west to the windswept Magdalen Islands in the east, passing through Montreal and old Québec City. In some places, it follows the nation-wide Trans-Canada Trail. You can pick a route and pedal through vineyards, have your bike shuttled between islands on pontoons, sleep in yurts en route, take in art galleries and boutique chocolatiers or head into the wilderness with two wheels and a tent for some off-piste hiking, climbing and canoeing in your adventure. No wonder National Geographic was so excited about the Route Verte that they ranked it #1 in their top 10 bike routes in the world.

The network exists largely due to the perseverance of a Montreal-based advocacy group called Vélo Québec (tel: 800-567-8356; velo.qc.ca) which organizes multi-day biking trips, encourages bicycle commuting and is the province’s premier biking activist. They pushed hard and convinced the Government of Quebec and the Ministry of Transport to jump on board.

Vélo Quebec has created a handy designation called Bienvenue Cyclistes, whose member B&B and campsites won’t freak out if a mud-covered cyclist shows up at their door. They always have a covered, locked place to store your bike, a pump and tools for minor repairs and know about bike repair centres and rental outlets nearby. And at member campsites, cyclists are guaranteed a space even if they don’t have a reservation.

Follow the bottle

There are plenty of sections of the Route Verte that are within easy reach of Montreal and Quebec City. South of Montreal, I love the Montérégie region’s 600 kilometres of bike paths, pedalling through the orchards of one of Canada’s biggest apple-growing areas on the Cider Route, visiting cideries to taste ice cider, a luscious dessert wine made from frozen apples. The banks of the Richelieu River are another perfect place to spend a summer weekend, stopping in to sample micro-brewed beers in Chambly alongside the old fort at the Chasse-Galerie Tavern (tel: 888-447-6370; fourquet-fourchette.com).

In the Eastern Townships, southeast of Montreal, I've ridden and sipped my way through wine country every fall on the Wine Route. You can taste artisanal cheeses made by Benedictine monks and overnight in Magog, a charming town on Lake Memphrémagog.

I've left from Lévis, opposite Quebec City, and headed east along the south shore of the river to Montmagny. There’s a quirky accordion museum there and a ferry ride takes you across to L'Isle-aux-Grues. Cycle the island’s tranquil farmland and drop in at the small local cheese co-op with a big reputation that makes a killer cheddar and some of some of my favourite Quebec triple-cream cheeses including Riopelle and Mi-Carême.

On most routes almost anywhere in Québec you can pick up picnic lunch staples at bakeries and gourmet shops or stop in at cafés or casse-croûtes (snack bars) serving Québec specialties like warm sugar pie, tourtière (meat pies) and poutine, a local "delicacy" of French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy.

After a hearty breakfast at the auberge, I was off again on my P’tit Train du Nord trip. I stopped for coffee at the Restaurant le Pont Couvert, a covered bridge-turned-café-bistro where you can hear local bands in the evenings. I detoured towards the short Mont-Tremblant cycling circuit for a Scandinavian spa treatment, finishing with a plunge in the Diable River.

That evening, I cycled into the artist community of Val-David which each summer hosts 1001 Pots, the biggest ceramics exhibition in North America, and I fell asleep in the riverside Le Creux du Vent Inn (tel: 888-522-2280; lecreuxduvent.com) to the sound of rapids burbling outside the window.

The following afternoon, I finished up my trip in Saint-Jérôme. Loading my bike into my car, I was relieved that the shuttle allowed me a one-way cycle. It beat the heck out of turning around and pedalling back.

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