The one-word summary: Amazing.
The longer summary: This was a trip to France without getting on a plane.
Seriously, Canada’s Route Verte is a fabulous network of trails (and, yes, mixed with quiet roads). Each day had a different feel, yet we really didn’t bike more than 30 or so miles (plus any U.S. stretches). And of course there is the food: croissants, pastries and more. Exploring by bike is as much about the serendipitous finds as the route.
The feeling that we really are in France actually started before we crossed the border. Ransom Bay B&B, in Alburgh and where we ended our first day, already has a French twist to its cooking — light meals, French sauces. But breakfast is where it really comes through with homemade croissants — baked fresh that morning and and brought to the table piping hot. And I mean baked from scratch, which means waking up at 4:30 a.m., not pulling them out of a package and heating them in the oven. First there were seven, which we demolished. Then came more, which we could barely touch. Still, four croissants for me, and we hadn’t yet entered Canada.
And we were leaving with a tip to stop at the fromagerie just across the border. That was one recommendation we didn’t have to hear twice.
Crossing the border from Alburgh to Noyan was easy — we were the only ones there. And the Canadian on duty was kind enough to stamp my passport.
First stop: the cheese shop. We took the first right, then first left and there it was: Fromagerie Fritz Kaiser. This may have put us more in Switzerland than in France, given the cheesemaker’s background. And though it’s in the middle of nowhere, closer to the U.S. border than to the next town in Canada, we had been warned that this is a take-a-number sort of place. And on a Tuesday morning, we weren’t the only customers.
Once again, being on bikes meant there wasn’t much we could buy. So after much deliberation and a few samples, we settled on a soft cheese made with garlic and parsely, untasted. And off we pedaled, through Noyan, across a bridge and then north toward Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
Saint Jean has a small “old” downtown, and of course we had to find a bakery. Raspberry tartelette for me, for that first proper taste of France. (Haven’t I always said biking is all about the food?) This town has some bigger, bike-friendly hotels, though we didn’t go by them. We met up with friends living in Canada as we reached the Canal de Chambly, a lovely 12-mile crushed-stone stretch along the waterway, busy with cyclists.
On the Route des Champs
Our friends had already checked out Chambly, but given that we were in no rush now that dinner in Montreal was off the table, we took our time, visiting an old stone fort whose heyday was the 1700s (and it briefly fell to the American rebels early in the Revolution). Fascinating tales of smuggling between New France and New York before France lost Quebec in the French and Indian War!
And, yes, there was another food stop. Our friends had spotted a bakery that had been under one owner or another in that spot for 120 years. I had to get a Schokolatine (oops — make that chocolatine; those years in Germany are coming through) almonde (think pain au chocolat with almond paste as well as chocolate) that, to my surprise, was stuffed with a custardy cream as well. After six (!) pastries in one day, I didn’t think I’d be able to eat another bite. But then there was dinner at the local craft brewery’s restaurant along the river …
We spent the night five miles to the east, at a pleasant hotel in Marieville with a nice roof deck. But in hindsight, I’d have taken my chances at the motel almost across the street from the restaurant. Plus, Chambly has regular bus service into Montreal, though it would have been a lengthy walk to the station.
Day 2’s food adventure was a ciderie, or cidery, just off the “Route des Champs” trail connecting Chambly, Marieville and Granby. Michel Jodoin in Rougemont is a prime study of brand extension with clever names … regular cider, pink cider, bubbly cider, a “mistelle” of apple juice and apple eau-de-vie, an ice cider. And that’s just what we tasted at 10:30 a.m.!
Again, being on bikes means there’s not much room to carry purchases, and nor do you want much weight, or I’d have gone for the mistelle. Instead, we bought a “bottle” (actually aluminum) of cider mixed with hops, so it was like a taste of beer first, then cider. Kind of odd.
Tastings are free, and we could do it in English. Tours of the ciderie are on the hour and cost $5 Canadian. Be prepared to go uphill a bit (and past a winery … closed when we went by) to reach the ciderie.
Note how it is a bike-friendly business, down to a pump and tools on that red post in the background, and apples are right outside:
As you can see, there were no shortage of cider and wine options in Rougemont (a verger is an orchard):
But back to the trail. It reminded me of bike rides in Germany a few decades ago, cutting through the fields on agricultural roads. The Route des Champs isn’t officially the Route Verte; rather it’s a regional trail. Don’t ask me why; I thought it was lovely, and — bonus — much of it had been recently converted to asphalt. Overall, it’s about 20 miles long. There’s a section that uses neighborhood roads, but the two-way bike lane is protected from traffic with simple plastic poles. Some of it is even marked as a school route. I can think of places in the U.S. that should copy this.
And what about this threat of a fine if you don’t stop for pedestrians? Actually, we found motorists along the entire route very polite toward cyclists.
Another Route Verte trail: L’Estriade
We stopped for the night at a bike-friendly B&B in Granby, just outside downtown. Granby is one of those towns where several trails come together, making it a great base. There’s a bike shop that does rentals, located in the old train station along the trail. We saw people of all ages out biking — families with children, the lycra crowd, seniors on mobility scooters. Though I felt I saw people who likely were on multi-day rides, we rarely saw people loaded with panniers.
There’s a counter for pedestrians;
And the flip side tallies cyclists:
As you can tell, it’s popular with everyone.
Admittedly, downtown Granby feels like it’s caught in a bit of a time warp, perhaps the 80s, if not the 70s. The Fete des Mascottes, with mascots of all kinds representing who knows what, felt like a perfect fit for the old East Germany. Foodie Quebec seems to have generally passed it by; perhaps we should have tried the Polish-Quebec fusion restaurant (Kapzak) instead of the Vietnamese place that wasn’t. On the other hand, the chains haven’t invaded; even Tim Horton’s is just outside downtown.
I will recommend the Cafe de la Brulerie a block off the bike trail for its solid range of pub food (down to some variations of poutine) and the Monsieur Grizzly ice cream place, also near the bike trail. And in hindsight I wish we’d ended up one night at Chez Trudeau, a restaurant whose sign includes a Gumby-looking character and that was just packed with locals. Just because it was so busy.
Granby does have some fun sculptures along the trails, but also some odd ones:
On Day 3, we followed a combination of trails to loop around the Yamaska regional park (even if Quebec calls it a parc national to make it sound grander). This was our forest ride. Although we carried paper maps (and, yes, phones), you really can’t get lost because the signage is good. It does help, though, to know the names of your trails. The route to Waterloo — part of the Estriade trail — was paved and, yes, I had some of that Abba song going through my head (though I barely know some of the words). Waterloo’s a tiny town, and it took some looking to find food choices that were acceptable to all (across a few shops).
This, perhaps not surprisingly, was my choice (I settled on pie):
Here’s how Waterloo does art … when cyclists and motorists don’t mix. When someone opens the car door without looking just in front of a cyclist who then takes a tumble, it’s called being doored.
We switched to the unpaved Campagnarde and then to the equally unpaved Piste du Parc national de la Yamaska. Just watch for the signs. You’ve got two choices on where to pick up that loop; we opted for the first one, going deeper in the woods. We past a winter warming hut that was unlocked and still smelled of a winter fire. There’s an honor system for paying park admission, but we were never asked for proof that we’d paid, even as we exited by the main entrance. Near the entrance is the picnic and sandy beach/swimming area. I’ll wade in past my ankles, but it seems too far north for me to just jump in!
And though the trails were unpaved, my road bike (with more trail-friendly tires) did just fine.
Following the Route Verte back to the U.S.
On our fourth day in Canada, it was time to head back to the U.S. and the car in St. Albans. Our route took us south to the border, then southwest on a U.S. rail-trail to St. Albans (my next post).
The Canadian part was a mix of paved trails and pretty quiet roads, and hillier than anything we’d had on this trip. I was glad I’d taken the road bike instead of the hybrid! Aside from a small stretch from Granby along the route toward Waterloo, we were on Route Verte 4 to the border. Again, it’s well signposted when you need it (and those distances are kilometers, not miles):
We went past the outlet mall at Bromont, then onto Brome, with outlines of ski slopes visible in the distant mountains. Our map showed only one double arrow — and luckily for us it was a descent!
Less than 10 miles before the border is the small town of Sutton. We’d seen so many road cyclists out, and my guess is this is a popular base. Based on a quick glance, it seems like a good overnight option, certainly with a more modern feel than Granby. We, though, were distracted by the sign for the Saturday market. It turned out to be more bric-a-brac than farmers’ market. But tucked in the very back with the vegetables was the bakery — and our final pastries of the trip. (Mine, no surprise, is the chocolatine almonde.)
(And yes, I actually lost a pound on this trip. All that pedaling…)
Here’s what we experienced once we crossed the border back into Vermont.
Some tips on a DIY Route Verte ride:
I picked up a lot of maps and information from the giant Quebec/Route Verte stand at Bike New York’s Bike Expo held just before the 5-Boro Ride. I also used the Route Verte website, which can generate cue sheets and will list some bike-friendly accommodations (including some that will transport your luggage), and picked up a few more maps along the way. (I’m still a fan of paper maps.)
One tricky part about the website is that you need to know the name of the Quebec region you’re interested in. No worries — there is an English version of the site (just look in the upper right for your language choice).
The paper maps often include suggestions for one-day loops.
For various reasons, our daily mileage in Canada was about 30-40 miles a day. The trail network makes it easy to tailor distances to your ability. And remember — it’s light til really late in July, so you could easily keep riding until 8 or 8:30 p.m.
We made all our reservations before leaving home given that it was the summer tourist season, even though we were bicycling during the week.
I was surprised at just French this area is, or perhaps I should say just how little English there is in official signs. We used our French in many places, and the primary language in Quebec really is French. I wouldn’t call it bilingual. The implications of that is a whole other discussion, though.
The Frenchness extends to the businesses you’ll see. We didn’t see many that an American would recognize. But that’s part of the adventure.
Finally, we touched only on a small part of this huge and ever-expanding network. There is so much more to explore.