Lots of water requires lots of bridges
Grondines eglise, Chemin du Roy
click on photo once to enlarge, click on it again to enlarge fully
Most of the time we’re HikingCamping. But once in a while we take a break from the trail and become CyclingCamping.
For the first month of this summer, we were in Quebec—road biking nearly every day, camping in every night.
We visited much of the southern half of the province: from Gatineau in the west, to the east end of Gaspésie. Sure, we stopped in Quebec City and Montreal. Other prominent waypoints were Charlevoix, Mt. Tremblant, Saguenay, Lac St. Jean, and the Chic Choc Mountains. But our goal was to pedal quiet, scenic roads, and admire villages en route.
The province trumpets itself as a cyclists’ haven. Promotional materials—provincial, regional, local—work in concert to give the impression Quebec rivals Europe for safe, beautiful bicycling opportunities. Cycling maps are available free-of-charge at most tourist info centres. “Share the road with cyclist” signage is ubiquitous. Bike lanes beside roadways are pervasive. Dedicated bike paths are common.
So, did our experience corroborate the hype? And how did we feel about the scenery we witnessed? The people we met? The camping along the way? What encouragement or warnings can we offer others contemplating a similar journey?
Here you go. 50 impressions of Quebec from a couple of trailer-toting road bikers:
(1) The effort Quebec has made to welcome cyclists and accommodate cycling is admirable. We gratefully applaud.
(2) Quebecois motorists, however, don’t get it. Many are oblivious to cyclists. Some are so intentionally rude it seems they resent sharing the road. Overall, they drive very aggressively—not just in the big cities but throughout the province. 90 kph in 60 kph zones seemed to be the norm. We’ve cycled in many countries, but only in Quebec have cars heading toward us been passed by speeding motorists who could obviously see us riding toward them. It’s an outrage: dangerous and alarming. And it happened to us several times.
(3) Though Quebec is Canada’s second-largest province, it’s the most populous: 8 million people. So the busy-ness, the buzzy-ness of Quebec should not have surprised us. But it did. No place on our entire trip did we escape traffic. Everywhere we drove or pedaled, Quebec is inhabited. Of course, the far north is dominated by forests, lakes and streams, and pierced by few roads. The rest? Plenty of roads, but far too many people, and way too many cars driving much too fast, for it to feel like a cycling haven.
(4) The roads in Quebec are worse than those we cycled in Cuba (http://www.hikingcamping.com/free-cycling-cuba.php). That is to say, they’re positively third world. Long stretches of pavement are so broadly and deeply fissured, it’s as if they’ve been clawed by rampaging dinosaurs. Potholes certain to damage a road-bike wheel are common. Often, the crumbling roads have been “repaired” with patches so rough they too are serious obstacles for road bikers. The quality of the roads here is appalling. In our experience, smooth pavement is rare in Quebec. You’ll find it on some major highways, but only sporadically on the smaller roads appealing to cyclists. Sure, winters are long and cold here. Sure, the weather is hard on pavement. But cycling aside, the pavement in Quebec is in such desperate decay, it must contribute to automobile accidents. How can a province that inflicts such a heavy tax burden on its citizens (15% sales tax!) not have sufficient funds to properly maintain its roads?
(5) Despite reckless drivers, traffic, and lousy pavement (points 2, 3 & 4) we enjoyed the cycling, the province, and the people. We’re glad we invested so much time there. In the end, it was hard to for us to leave.
(6) The Quebecois (in person, not in their cars) are open, friendly, welcoming. Nearly all were kind and helpful. They seemed to laugh readily and easily. We enjoyed them very much.
(7) The Quebecois were always surprised when they discovered we were from Alberta. And not just surprised, but grateful and impressed that we’d made the long journey. Apparently not many western Canadians drive to and throughout Quebec. Our entire time here, we saw only a couple B.C. and Alberta license plates, and none from Manitoba or Sakatchewan.
(8) The farther east you go in Quebec, the less English is spoken. It seemed to us that many, perhaps most, residents of Montreal are comfortably bilingual. But we passed entire days in Gaspésie when nobody we met spoke English.
(9) When traveling throughout Quebec, it’s helpful to have at least a small, emergency “tool-kit” French vocabulary. Better yet to have a few French phrases to ease your way through common situations. It’s simply good manners. It shows respect. And sometimes, a little French might be necessary to communicate accurately.
(10) Still, vastly more Quebecois speak English than western Canadians speak French.
(11) Not once did we encounter any resentment toward us as Albertans, or toward us as Anglophones who speak French like drunken oafs.
(12) The ability to read French is essential if using Quebec cycling guidebooks. We found no English-language editions.
(13) The four cycling guidebooks we used and recommend are Le Quebec en 30 Boucles, Le Québec Cyclable ? Pistes Cyclables au Québec, 15 Circuits Autour de Montréal ? Itinéraraires de 63 à 107 km, and Le Québec à Vélo, 20 Circuits Découverte au Québec. All are available online from Mountain Equipment Co-op (www.mec.ca).
(14) Cycling guidebooks like these can be a helpful reference for traveling. They direct your attention to villages you might otherwise miss when motoring and following only a highway map. They also reveal walking opportunities.
(15) The province is wonderfully green, lush, verdant. Small farms are prolific.
(16) Outside the cities and major towns, most of Quebec that we drove or cycled through is inhabited—consistently but not densely. On the bike routes we chose, we were forever passing houses and farms. Typically, each was within sight of another, yet all were surrounded by land (mostly cultivated), thus all possessed a measure of privacy. It seemed to us a very pleasing, rural environment.
(17) Even the smallest Quebecois villages appear to be pinned to the Earth by the gleaming, silver steeple of a Catholic church. Many of these churches are huge. Some are architecturally gorgeous. Towering above blazing-green Quebec, these churches are a frequent, dramatic sight. It sometimes felt that, lacking a map or guidebook, a cyclist could navigate across Quebec by steeples, because they’re often visible from afar. These churches, by the way, are ideal places to start and end a bike ride. Their parking lots tend to be spacious and—Monday through Saturday—empty.
(18) Many Quebecois houses evince old-world craftsmanship, are colorfully painted, and meticulously maintained. They have a charming style that includes steeply-pitched ski-jump roofs, covered porches, and filigree ranging from subtle to ornate. Nowhere else in Canada is there such a preponderance of distinctive, admirable houses. All this fine architecture and pride-of-ownership significantly boosted the reward/effort ratio of our rides.
(19) Much of the southern Quebec countryside ranges from level to gently rolling. There are some monster hills, but we encountered few while cycling. We appreciated not having to face frequent, long ascents. It made the cycling much less onerous and a lot more fun.
(20) Loops. A loop road-cycling route is always preferable to an out-and-back. Quebec is laced with so many roads that loop rides are nearly always possible.
(21) For the many reasons cited above (points 15 – 20), southern Quebec kept us wanting to re-mount our bikes day after day. Despite the considerable drawbacks (points 2, 3 & 4), we believe Quebec offers more and better road biking than does any other Canadian province. That’s largely because we were constantly cycling through countryside where nature dominates yet is generously peppered with scenically-engaging civilization.
(22) Quebec has many appealing villages. A couple that leap to mind are St. Jovit, near Tremblant, and Kamarouska, en route to Gaspésie.
(23) Kamarouska has what surely ranks among Canada’s best bakeries. It’s called Boulangerie Niemand. You’ll find it at 82 Avenue Morel. For details, visit www.boulangerieniemand.com, or call (418) 492-1236. The owners, Denise and Johan, are gracious and hard working. Their German-style loaves are as delicious and healthy as any bread we’ve ever tasted.
(24) Kamarouska also has an excellent, fish-market restaurant: Poissonnerie Lauzier – Bistro de la Mer. It’s located at 57 Avenue Morel. Website: www.poissonnerielauzier.com Phone: (418) 492-7988. We recommend the lobster bisque and the salmon dinner.
(25) Quebec has many small cities that struck us as desirable places to live. Victoriaville, for example, southeast of Montreal. Or Magog, in the eastern townships.
(26) Magog has a superb Mexican restaurant. It’s called Guacamole Y Tequila. The meal they served us was wonderful—and that’s coming from a pair of discerning, life long, Mexican-food afficianados. The restaurant is in the heart of town, at 112 Rue Principale Ouest. Phone: (819) 868-0088.
(27) In Magog, across the street from Guacamole Y Tequila, is Bar Laitier la Lichette, where they make gelato with as much dedication, creativity and passion as any gelateria we’ve sampled during many months in Italia. Their address is 25 Rue Principale Ouest. Phone: (819) 919-0972.
(28) Our favourite Quebec beers are Alchemist, Belle Gruelle, and St. Ambroise. We always kept a bottle in our trailer fridge, tucked up high against the freezer, so we could split an ice-cold one with our post-ride dinner. (We’re also partial to Original 16, brewed in Saskatoon, and we brought a dozen of them with us on our eastward “crossing.”)
(29) In Quebec, we were often near water (rivers, lakes, the St. Lawrence, the Atlantic Ocean), so the air was usually moist. It was soft, fragrant, soothing. Perhaps because we’re usually in dry environments—big mountains, desert canyons—we were always aware and appreciative of the gentle air in Quebec.
(30) Camping is expensive in Quebec. Many times we turned away from campgrounds where it would have cost us $40 or $50 for a single night. (The price included only water and 15-amp electricity, no sewer hook-up.)
(31) We camped free-of-charge more than half the time we were in Quebec. (By “camp,” we simply mean we parked late in the evening, stayed in our trailer there that night, then drove away early in the morning.) It was easy. It helped that our car and trailer are small. It also helped that our trailer is endearingly innocent. We camped behind churches, beside cemeteries, in school parking lots. We restricted ourselves to inconspicuous spots where we were unlikely to be noticed and, if noticed, would not cause concern. Nowhere that we free-camped did we feel threatened or in any way uncomfortable. Nobody ever questioned us. Nobody ever gave us a suspicious or resentful glance. A couple times we asked permission to “park” for a single night on the uncultivated edge of a farmer’s field and were kindly welcomed.
(32) An astonishingly high percentage of Quebecois own enormous 5th-wheel RVs. We saw them everywhere. Often it seemed one of these white whales was parked beside every rural home we passed. RV dealerships are widespread. We saw hundreds of used 5th wheels for sale by owner. We were told the owners of the used ones were selling them so they could buy bigger ones. The buzz in one Gaspésie village was that a local had recently purchased a 5th wheel comprising two storeys.
(33) There are a couple reasons for the Quebecois 5th-wheel craze. (a) They use them as base camps for hunting in the winter. (Quebecois are fanatic hunters, we were told. Apparently the province nearly shuts down at the start of hunting season.) (b) Many Quebecois keep their monster 5th wheels at campgrounds, where they use them as weekend cottages in summer.
(34) Private, lakeside campgrounds in Quebec are typically crammed with these humungous 5th wheels. The RV owners pay to keep their rigs at campgrounds year-round, so they can visit them whenever they want.
(35) We can’t fathom the attraction of constantly going to the same campground where your 5th wheel is slotted in with others as if in an RV sales lot. And for us—tourists towing a tiny trailer—these campgrounds held no appeal. They really aren’t campgrounds. They’re 5th-wheel ghettos. And they have very little space to offer true travelers. The big rigs hog all the prime real-estate. We stayed—out of necessity only—at a couple of these “campgrounds.” It was early in the season. The white whales were mostly empty. We were nearly alone. Still, we found these fiberglass ghost-towns weird, ugly, creepy.
(36) In Quebec, provincial parks (sometimes called “National Parks”), and genuine (federal) National Parks do not allow seasonal occupancy in their campgrounds. So they’re not blighted by 5th-wheel ghettos.
(37) Reading about the history of Quebec while traveling the province made our experience there substantially more meaningful than it would have been had we remained ignorant tourists.
(38) Learning about the history of “New France” enabled us to understand why some Quebecois would want independence from Canada. Quebec really is a nation within a nation.
(39) Nevertheless, we believe Quebec should not call provincial parks “national parks.” Not as long as they’re still part of Canada.
(40) Pulling a trailer was essential to making our Quebec journey enjoyable. We don’t like having to find accommodation each night, and constantly haul our gear in and out of different spaces. And we prefer living outdoors as much as possible. Plus, our little trailer enabled us to often camp free-of-charge (point 31), which helped us afford us a long stay in Quebec.
(41) That said, we cannot enthusiastically recommend driving the entire breadth of Canada—a task we’ve now completed twice. For us, it was just that: a task. An excruciating task. Partly that’s because we dislike sitting and never sit for long periods, so having to sit in our car day after day after day was torture. Even if you can tolerate sitting in your car that long, most of the drive is a cruel experiment in scenic deprivation. Between the Rockies and western Manitoba, there is no topographical relief—nothing to alleviate the monotony of horizon-to-horizon prairie. The granite outcrops and highway-side lakes near Kenora are a welcome diversion—at last, something to see!—but shortly beyond, the highway plunges into dense bush and remains there most of the way across Ontario. Not until we reached the west edge of Quebec—for us, a five-day drive from southwest Alberta—did the motoring become pleasurable. From there, the eastern tip of the Gaspésie Peninsula was still several days distant. And the entire time we were in Quebec, the inevitable, return drive hung in our mental sky like an ominous cloud. We began referring to it as “the crossing,” because it seemed epic, like a trans-ocean voyage.
(42) Driving across Canada, we witnessed perhaps a dozen others doing the same, but on bicycles. To us, a trans-Canada bike trip looked miserable and dangerous; a spectacular waste of time and effort. Most of the way, the cyclists were pedaling on the major trans-national highways. Not in bike lanes, but on the road edge where often there wasn’t even a paved shoulder. Roaring transport trucks constantly passed within a few feet of the cyclists. The noise, as well as the threat, seemed great and nearly constant. On highways walled-in by forest, there’s no more to see from a bike than there is from a car. The distance just takes weeks longer for cyclists to vanquish. In rural Ontario, cyclists must often contend with an onslaught of mosquitos when they dismount. And much of the way, they’re far from any trace of civilization when they stop for the night, which explains why they’re laden with massive panniers that slow them to a crawl on the long, steep hills. Those who’ve cycled across Canada are proud of their accomplishment. Many consider it a pivotal event in their lives. We understand and respect that. We certainly admire their tenacity and endurance. But with so many beautiful and thrilling places to cycle on this planet, grinding across Canada doesn’t strike us as an option worth considering.
(43) We also saw many long-distance cyclists working their way around the Gaspésie Peninsula. This seemed to us a worthwhile venture. At times we envied them.
(44) Camping every night as we drove across Canada, we sometimes found ourselves flailing and slapping at an onlaught of mosquitos. For us, Ontario was the worst. The mosquitos were a nightly torment: a dozen or more would slip into our trailer whenever we entered or exited. Before going to sleep, we’d spend half an hour hunting each one down and swatting it. Kathy finally said, “This is too tedious. Let’s just get a vacuum, wave it around, and suck ‘em all up.” We both thought that was a brilliant idea. So, in Deep River, Ontario we stopped at a Canadian Tire store intending to buy a small, portable, battery-powered vacuum. We actually tested every model they offered. We walked up and down the store aisles, looking for bits of detritus, trying to gauge each vacuum’s mosquito-sucking power. But they were all too weak and most were way too expensive, we decided. Not such a brilliant idea after all. So our nightly swat-fests continued until we arrived in Quebec, where we were relieved to find the mosquitos generally weren’t such a nuisance.
(45) The famous Quebec cycling path known as the “Route Vert” is often unpaved. Sometimes it’s just the rough shoulder of a busy road. Other times it’s a dedicated bike path but unpaved, suitable only for fatter tires. We rode a few paved sections, but they were slender corridors through monotonous, viewless forest: boring. The name Route Vert suggests idyllic cycling. Some sections live up to that implicit promise. Most do not. Skinny-tire road bikers shouldn’t focus on the Route Vert.
(46) Though the purpose of our Quebec sojourn was to cycle, we did some walking and hiking. For example, to fully appreciate the magnificent Fleuve St. Laurent, we found it essential to walk along the water’s edge. When driving east, be alert for places where you can get down to the shore and walk during low tide. Here’s one walk we enjoyed and recommend. Start in St. Denis, northeast of Montmagny. Walk the village road along the sea, then round the marshy bay on the unpaved road. Continue around the forested peninsula, then tag on to the paved road and loop back. Total distance: about 15 km.
(47) In the Chic Choc Mountains, we day-hiked a loop trail that started at the Parc National de la Gaspésie visitor center and gradually lofted us over the 1151-m summit of Mont Albert. If you’re a hiker, we recommend it. Though that elevation sounds hill-ish to a western Canadian, the Chic Chocs are so far north that we were in tree-less tundra up there. Caribou country!
(48) Lac Saint-Jean is huge. It covers an area of 1,053 sq km (407 sq mi). And it’s ringed by the Veloroute des Bluets (the Blueberry Route)—Quebec’s most famous cycling path. We gave it a go but actually found it scenically tedious because the surrounding terrain is bread-board flat and the architecture seemed dull to us compared to elsewhere in Quebec. We much preferred cycling in the Cantons Est (the eastern townships).
(49) Late May to late June seemed an optimal time for road cycling in Quebec. The field’s were green, and the weather warm, yet the Quebecois had yet to begin vacationing, and most tourists had yet to arrive, so the vehicle traffic was below peak volume. Campgrounds were open, but most of their available campsites were vacant.
(50) http://www.bonjourquebec.com/qc-en/velo0.html is a useful resource for planning a Quebec cycling trip.
Next post coming soon: Road Rides We Recommend in Quebec