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Perfect pedalling on a rail trail in Quebec

Published in TheRecord.com, a news paper located in Kitchener and Waterloo, Ontario.

Imagine a bike trail that runs for 200 kilometres on trails through forests, across bucolic farmland and along babbling brooks and sparkling rivers. The path is paved for 80 of those kilometres, has packed gravel for the rest and never once includes a roadway. You pedal past green mountainous scenery without having to tackle a steep incline.

It is hard to believe such a trail exists in Canada — yet it does, in the gorgeously stunning Laurentian Mountains of Quebec, just north of Montreal.

Parc Lineaire Le P'Tit Train de Nord, a linear park and recreation trail following an old railway line, seems to be one the best-kept vacation secrets in the country.

When my husband, Gary, mentioned biking in the Laurentians as a potential summer holiday last year, I must admit I was skeptical and brushed it off with a, "Sure, honey. That would be great," and then didn't give it another thought.

He slyly left an article about the trail lying around the house for awhile, but I didn't take the bait until some warmth had entered the spring air. Only then did I read the article.

"There must be something missing," I declared.

"I don't think so," my husband countered, so I read some more.

"It can't all be on a trail," I rallied.

"Sounds like it is," he patiently responded.

My concerns continued: "We don't speak French . . . I can't bike up mountains . . . Won't it be cold that far north? . . . How tough is it to bike 200 kilometres? . . . Do you really think we could do this?"

Eventually, however, we both decided we had nothing to lose by checking it out and booked a four-day cycling trip for late July last year and hoped for the best.

And it was the best — in every way.

It really is a flat, easy-to-pedal, completely-protected 200 kilometre route of paved and packed gravel trails. The auberges (inns) we slept in each night were lovely quaint places beside the trail and our hosts were friendly and welcoming. Instead of the vacation being about the biking, it became a gastronomic experience with a little biking thrown in that helped to work off all the flavourful cuisine each auberge provided.

Getting to our starting point, at the southern end of the trail in Saint Jerome, just 50 km north of Montreal, was an easy drive from Waterloo. From there, a transportation company takes cyclists by van to the north end of the trail in the village of Mont-Laurier. We found the company's St. Jerome base in an old railway caboose beside a parking lot that was filled with vehicles holding every size, shape and type of bicycle rack imaginable.

Our bus to Mont-Laurier didn't leave until the next morning, so we checked into the nearby Comfort Inn, then went for a ride to sample part of the trail. Soon we had left the town and were meandering along beside a clear river that was shaded by pines and maples. Before we knew it, we had travelled 10 km.

That evening we nervously packed our bicycle panniers, not sure what to expect or what to take. The forecast was calling for rain on two of the next four days so we put our few items in waterproof bags. In the end, as always, we had packed more than we would need, even though we only took things we thought were essential — camera, cellphone, wallet, toiletries, two changes of clothing for evenings, sweatshirts and windbreakers.

We never did wear the sweatshirts, but only because we lucked out with warm and sunny weather for the entire trip. There was less than a half-hour of rain, on the first day, and the windbreakers sufficed for that. For an extra fee, the transportation company will carry your luggage ahead to the next auberge each day, but we didn't need that service.

The Comfort Inn kindly allowed us to leave our car in their parking lot, so on the first morning of our trip we biked down to the caboose and arrived at 7:15 a.m., just as the three mid-size vans, each pulling a two-level bike trailer, were pulling into the lot. We boarded one of the vans while the crew loaded our bikes and soon we were off.

As it turned out, the vans would stop at various towns along the way, according to how much of the trail people wanted to bike. We had opted for the full 200 kilometres and were a little worried at first that we might be the only ones. We definitely were not.

About 30 people gathered at the starting point for the ride in Mont Laurier.

There were six women travelling together — ages 79, 76, 71, 68, plus two in their 30s. As well, there was a family of four with two boys about 10 and 12 years old. They proceeded to load up their bikes with an array of camping gear.

One young couple was geared up and on their way before the rest of us had even begun to attach our packs to our bikes. Another couple, who appeared to be in their 40s, headed out in their beach shorts and sandals. Two more couples in their 50s pushed off wearing professional biking gear. Two men wearing trail patrol shirts were filling their water bottles at the station and happily answered questions and shared maps with anyone who asked.

First day

Our route took us 58 kilometres from Mont Laurier to Nominingue. We began pedalling shortly after 11 a.m., with no idea how long it would take. The first kilometres reminded us of Algonquin Park and slowly the scenery evolved into rolling pastoral settings with cattle lazing and horses grazing along fence lines. We passed babbling brooks and marshes and saw towering forested hills in the background.

The trail was built on an old rail line and the original train stations have been renovated to offer clean restrooms and fresh drinking water. Most are located in charming little towns and some hold small museums with artifacts and photos. About every five kilometres there are wooden shelters, outhouses with compostable toilets and picnic areas.

We came across no towns or restaurants for the first part of our day and at kilometre 178 (each kilometre is marked on a post beside the trail) the clouds moved in and it began to sprinkle, followed quickly by rain and flashes of lightning and crashing thunder. One of them made us jump off our seats. Lucky for us, there was a shelter at kilometre 175. The storm quickly passed and a mix of sun and clouds accompanied us for the rest of the day.

We arrived in Nominingue, a small country town, at 3 p.m. and cycled about for a short tour. Our accommodations were an easy two-kilometer ride south of town, right on the trail, and we had no trouble finding the delightful Chez Ignace.

We were warmly welcomed by our host, Yolande, in a cosy wood-panelled room filled with stuffed creatures of all manner — bears, boars, fish. There was a garage for our bikes and a nearby lake if we chose to have a swim. Our third-floor bedroom had a lovely vista of the surrounding hills, an electric fireplace and an updated bathroom.

We chose the hot tub over the lake to soothe our fatigued muscles. Supper that evening was a gastronomic feast that began with choices of smoked salmon and Mediterranean salad, followed by a thick and luscious leek soup that had a tantalizing spicy zip to it.

My husband savoured the rich roast elk for the main course and I enjoyed a perfectly cooked filet of dore. Other menu options included roasted rabbit, lamb, chicken or mussels. We learned later that Yolande's husband, Ignace, is a trained chef. For dessert we shared a light flan with maple and a slice of melting chocolate cake with a mousse filling.

We had no idea such a supper could be followed the next morning by an equally sumptuous breakfast that would power us the entire day. At 8 a.m. we were greeted in the sunny breakfast room with coffee, fresh croissants and buns, along with a light fluffy omelette and a crepe stuffed with sweet strawberries, plus a rolled slice of ham and a small wedge of creamy brie.

Second day

This was another 59-kilometre day so we headed out by 9 a.m. and comfortably made our way toward Mont-Tremblant, stopping at L'Annonnciation for coffee and a rest. Again, any inclines we encountered on the trail were hardly noticeable.

The town of Labelle provided a good water stop. It was also the point where, after 93 kilometres, the trail switched from pavement to packed dirt and gravel. After continuing on our way, we stopped occasionally to pick some of the plentiful wild blueberries. The trail was a little busier now, with people of all ages using it for biking, walking and running. We even passed horseback riders.

When we reached the lovely village of Mont-Tremblant, we felt as if we had entered a Swiss town. The buildings were all chalet-style, with gables and scrolled trim. We enjoyed an ice-cold beer from the grocery store and watched the people go by while we rested our legs.

A local man told us about a nice bike path of about five kilometres that would take us to the base of the ski hill. We decided to try it, as it was still early afternoon and we only had another 11 kilometres to our auberge. The trail turned out to be a combination of challenging uphill climbs with some long and fast downhill hairpin turns. We questioned the sanity of doing this extra trail, but we kept going. At the base village, we felt we had entered another world. It was like something out of Disney World, with wall-to-wall people, manicured gardens and exactly-appointed new buildings resembling a ski village. People were lined up at the gondola for a trip to the top of the ski hill, but the hill itself could not be seen for all the buildings.

Lucky for us, we found a bus that could carry two bicycles back to the old village, so for $2.25 each, we avoided the difficult ride back.

The Auberge LeVoyageur B&B in Mont-Tremblant resembled an old auberge, but the interior was sparkling and new, with lovely dark wooden floors, stone fireplace, verandas and stained glass.

Our welcoming host, Linda, explained that supper was included with our tour fee, but it was a certificate for a restaurant in town, a one-kilomete walk away. Her husband, Jean-Claude could drive us there, she said, but we chose to walk and enjoyed the stroll, in spite of our weary legs telling us otherwise. We ate outdoors and enjoyed the view of the vacation town's bustling main street. The menu offered many Italian choices and our appetites were sated with a delightful salad, seafood linguine and a vegetarian pizza. After walking back we were content to enjoy an evening on the veranda at the auberge.

Third day

Thursday dawned sunny and warm. This day's ride was to include a 14-kilometre uphill climb so we were sure to eat all of our hearty breakfast. The meal began with a creamy yogurt with granola and wild blueberries, a bubbly juice smoothie, followed by the breakfast choices of a traditional French Canadian tourtière (meat pie) with a small bowl of baked beans or French toast on cinnamon bread filled with strawberries and custard. A basket of fresh croissants, toast and pate accompanied the meal.

Our ride began with an easy two-kilometre warm-up ride. The eventual incline did go on for quite some time, but it was easily manageable by switching down just one gear level. About five kilometres into our climb, two teenage boys flew by on their road bikes and inspired us to work a little harder. When we reached the first rest stop, the boys were lazily resting their legs there and enjoying fresh cold water from the tap on the gazebo.

We stopped again at the kilometre 67 sign that marked the summit, surprised that the section we had been most concerned about was over. Keep in mind that we are not cyclists and had not trained at all for this trip.

At this point, we only had 67 kilometres to go and knew we could complete the trek with ease. The trail was not as nice in this section, often passing just 100 metres from a noisy highway. In some areas, we were surrounded by nothing but low scrub.

Soon enough, however, we eased into the gorgeous tourist town of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts. We left the path and walked our bikes along the crowded main street before stretching out on the grass in a park by a lake where a theatre performance was being set up on the band shell stage.

When we returned to the trail, we found it was now very busy with all kinds of riders. Two electric scooters went by, carrying three seniors who were out for an afternoon ride. There were several cyclists pulling baby trailers. This day's ride was 10 kilometres shorter than the previous two, but we were anxious to get to Auberge de la Gare, our inn for the evening, and didn't make any other stops.

La Gare, in the village of Sainte-Adele, was an old home, built in 1891, that sat wedged between the trail and a highway, complete with creaking pine floors, a wide old veranda and a dining room with six antique tables and chairs. Our room was not as sumptuous as on the previous two nights, but the welcome was definitely just as warm.

We washed off the dust and dirt and while relaxing on the veranda we met a couple from Montreal we had seen frequently on the trail. We joined our tables for the two-hour fondue supper and enjoyed the conversation as much as the meal — politics, careers, retirement dreams, vacations, skiing in Quebec.

We were the only people in the dining room and Linda and Yvon, new owners of La Gare, were very attentive, treating us to a hot and creamy carrot and pumpkin soup, warm crusted Parmesan, salad greens with apricot dressing and a fondue consisting of thinly sliced beef and chicken, delicate small potatoes and an assortment of vegetables to spear and cook in the flavourful broth. All of this was followed by a dessert of custard, ice cream and delicious Rainier cherries.

Yvon told us he had purchased the auberge just a few months earlier after working in a variety of occupations, most recently as a funeral director. I must admit he did have the demeanour of a funeral director and often seemed to just appear from nowhere. He had a warm personality and a great sense of humour.

After a very enjoyable day we were asleep by 9:30 p.m. and ambled downstairs for breakfast at 8 a.m., to be met with huge steaming mugs of rich coffee. Another power-up breakfast and we were on our way by 9 a.m., under overcast skies.

Fourth day

The first part of today's 32-kilometre final ride was all downhill and we simply coasted along, in no rush to end the trip. We began a short side trip to see the village of Saint Saveur, but gave up when we saw it required a long and steep uphill climb.

After a relaxing ride we arrived back in Saint Jerome at noon to the sound of the bells pealing in the belfry of the huge cathedral in the heart of town. We were in high spirits on completing the trail — but also a little glum because our trip was now over.

We bicycled back to our car at the Comfort Inn and used a hose there to rinse off our bikes and dust-covered panniers. The hotel was also kind enough to let us use its washrooms to change — and their computer to send a couple of quick emails. As we pulled away, we felt relaxed and healthy, knowing we had just experienced something very special. We will most definitely go again and encourage friends to accompany us.

Barbara Ayre is a Waterloo resident.

If you go . . .

Get more information and book accommodations for the Parc Lineaire Le P'Tit Train de Nord through Cyclo-Gites Voyageurs B&B in Quebec. Phone 1-819-429-6277 or (toll-free) 1-800-205-7173.

Online: www.bbvoyageur.com/cyclo-gites-a.html

Price: Package (three nights, three dinners, three breakfasts and four luggage transports) is $340 per person (double occupancy) or $501 (single occupancy). Without luggage transport the price is $306 (double) and $433 (single). Taxes and services are extra.

To read the entire article with photos in TheRecord.com, please click here

The Gazette: "Go north for Belgian cuisine"

The charm of the Laurentians isn't just attracting vacationers;it's also making the area a destination for Europeans settling here in Quebec.

This summer when scouting out the 200-km linear park known as Le P'tit Train du Nord,which runs from Saint-Jérome to Mont-Laurier, I discovered a mini-invasion of four Belgian chefs and innkeepers who have recently arrived with their families.

They have opened inns along or near the park and are enriching the region with their European-style hospitality and cuisine.

When Ignace and Yolande Denutte stepped inside the old general store in Lac Nominingue in the Upper Laurentians last year,they instinctively knew this was where they wanted to establish their restaurant and home.

After extensive renovations that included installing a modern kitchen,the couple,from the Ardennes region in Belgium,opened the cozy,casual Restaurant Chez Ignace and two-room auberge last December.

Ignace,a trained chef, mans the kitchen while Yolande looks after the restaurant. Well-prepared game,lamb,beef,mussels and fish dishes are featured.Four-course table d'hôte dinner menus range from $19 to $23.

The restaurant is open year-round for lunch and diner but is closed Wednesday nights and Sundays at lunchtime.The restaurant is small;it's best to call ahead to reserve.

Chez Ignace is located at
1455 Bellerive sur le lac-Nominingue,
Nominingue.
Québec, Canada  J0W-1R0

Phone: (819) 278-0689
Toll free: 1-877-278-0677