P’tit train du nord: Checking out the bike and B&B scene in Quebec

Having a friend who likes biking and also owns a car comes in really handy when you’re planning a bike trip from Ottawa to Quebec and there’s no way to get your bike on the VIA train*. (*Yes, you could take a small folding bike.)

We had the P’tit Train du Nord trip idea for a while. It’s a converted rail path that spans just over 200km from Mont Laurier to Saint-Jerome. It’s a pretty relaxing bike trip to do, mainly flat-ish, no cars, and plenty of rest stops and food along the way. If you’ve never done a multi-day bike ride, it’s a great place to start. Or if you just want a social bike trip with lots of riding side by side? This is also a great option.

Day 1: Driving to Saint-Jerome
We left after work on Thursday and got to experience driving across the bridge to Gatineau at rush hour. Wow, how do people do that every single day? It was a carjam. We eyed the bike counter and wistfully watched the cyclists go by on the path. They are the best ad for bike commuting.

Many car tunes and kilometres later we checked in at the just-off-the-highway Best Western. Aside from being a convenient location to stop for the night, we hadn’t given much thought about the hotel. It is what it is, right? Well, as soon as the clerk saw our panniers, she asked if we had our bikes (yes!) and asked if we’d like to park them indoors securely. We sure did.

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This was the first of the nice surprises of the trip. The hotel is part of VeloQuebec’s Bienvenue Cyclistes program. It lived up to the sign.

Day 2: Bike bus to Mont-Laurier and the first day of biking
We had a limited timeframe for this trip, so we were only riding the trail in one direction. We left the car in a week-long parking lot and reserved seats on the daily bike bus that would take us to Mont Laurier to start our ride.

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They carefully load all the bikes and your gear onto the trailer. It’s a great system. Two and a bit hours later, we were ready to start biking.

The Mont-Laurier train station / restaurant / visitor centre / fix-it station gives you a taste of what to expect at each of the major towns. We had our B&Bs already booked, so we got right to the business of biking.

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For the first day, we did a comfortable 57km. Of the three legs we did, the Mont Laurier to Nominingue stretch is the least populated and well, a little boring on the scenery. It’s tree-lined and paved as well as mostly flat. Great for social biking.

The paving has suffered in places from the undergrowth. The bumps and ruts are well marked with spraypaint and sections have been repaved. I was glad to have invested in my set of Arkel panniers with the clasps that lock the bags onto your racks. It was pretty bumpy in some places.

We arrived in Nominingue and picked up some wine and a post-ride beer at the joint SAQ/grocery store (shield your eyes, Ontario). Chilled wine was next to the fruit section.

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I have only super positive things to say about our stay in Nominingue. Our B&B (Le Provincialart) was stellar.

The owners, Guy and Diane, met us with ice water on the screened in porch and gathered our water bottles. They put them in the freezer with a bit of water so we’d have cool water for the next day. Details. We parked our bikes in their roomy garage that is locked overnight.

Once we got our bags into the room, we took advantage of the offer to swim in the lake. A lake swim after a day of biking? Who says no to that?

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We relaxed with our post-ride beer on the lawn and enjoyed the view of their huge home garden. We chose to have the dinner prepared by Guy and Diane and afterwards we desperately wanted to know their background? Former chefs? Serious foodies? Gourmands? Their cooking rivalled any fancy restaurant. And we assumed that most of the ingredients came straight from the garden.

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Vegetable potage, crispy stuffed tortellini, baked stuffed pasta shells with zucchini and the zucchini blossom and finally a raspberry tart. Phewf. I’m full just typing that menu.

Day 2: Nominingue to Saint-Faustin
Breakfast the next morning was equally filling and delicious.

And best of all, the forecast had changed and it looked like we would be able to out-bike the impending rain. Well done, Nominingue.

It was a scenic 70km ride with some nice water views, birding habitats and views of the hills. And one rogue rain cloud that teased us every time we took our rain coat off. Coat on? No rain. Coat off? Rain! Go home cloud, you are drunk!

Stopped in Labelle for lunch and a Mason-jar beer. Another cute refurbished train station / café. We discussed how nice stops like these are along the trail. Labelle station? You were very nice.

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Leaving Labelle, the stonedust path begins and everything felt a little slower. Maybe it was the gravel, maybe it was the beer. Let’s say it was the gravel.

We hustled through the paved section that leads into Mont-Tremblant. It was much busier and we couldn’t ride side by side. We did see our first non-feathered and non-chipmunk wildlife here. Hello deer.

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We stopped in the old village of Mont-Tremblant for an ice cream and a small bike repair for me. Lost a nut on a fender and duct-taped it back together.

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The gravel, beer and ice cream did not really seem to work in my favour for the last long uphill slog to Saint-Faustin. I was mentally ordering a new bike as I huffed slowly into our destination.

At our B&B, they recommended popping over to the joint SAQ/grocery store for wine to accompany dinner. We stopped at the local pub for a wind-down pint and got to enjoy the company of the neighbourhood pub cat. Clearly knowing we are cat ladies, he settled in for a long grooming session and head scritches.

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Tweeting this also led to my discovery of the Pubcats twitter account which has been a beacon of furry sunshine in my Twitter stream. Thank you Pubcats!

We had another very nice B&B dinner. I went for the French onion soup, duck on a salad of asparagus, almonds and cucumbers and a slice of tarte tatin for dessert. Again, we were barely hungry for breakfast the next day. But being a cycling friendly B&B, you get loaded up on healthy and filling foods to keep you going for the day.

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We started off in the warm mist having escaped the rain overnight. The forecast was fairly certain there’d be rain on this leg of our trip, but we mostly escaped it again save for a few rogue clouds.

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We were so well-fed that we decided to skip lunch. Well, skip having a beer lunch. A croissant and coffee lunch? Totally acceptable. We stopped in Val-David, the “arty” village stop on the ride. It certainly was… hmm.. different.

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We couldn’t quite figure it out. Super hippy (artists, drapey dress shops), hipsters and hipster babies doing brunch, and a mix of sports outfitters and super posh cafes and restaurants on the main street. Yet, the main street had no bike lanes!? I thought that was sort of the default for arty districts? Also, most of the towns we rolled through had bike lanes (bidirectional or painted) – even little Nominingue!

Val-David, you may have wooed us with your artisanal croissants and fruit compote, but you need some bike lanes to secure your arty hipster status.

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We continued on and watched the kilometre signs count down our return to Saint-Jerome (and dinner at St-Hubert). But not before one final beer and gare stop in Ste-Adèle. So bikey, so beery, so patio-y!

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Just before this we rolled through massive black bug clouds so it was nice to de-bug.

As we rolled into our final destination, the last few kilometres are also popular walking paths so there are lots of markings to walk on the left in order to see oncoming cyclists. I wonder if that would solve some of our Ottawa “pathway conflicts”. In Ontario, walkers are told to stay right which means bikes “sneak up” on them. The Quebec rule made sense.

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We biked under the bunting we saw on the first day and contemplated biking straight through the fountain. I’m sure lots of people do. The idea of de-bugging and de-gritting in one fell swoop was attractive.

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Maybe it was our Ontario ID cards that held us back, but we opted for a respectable leg and foot wash before changing into our finest St-Hubert dining clothes.

With the bikes loaded up, we headed back to Ottawa. A trip well done. And then it rained.

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