How many places in North America can you travel through two countries, visit quaint ski villages and working farm landscapes, and end up in a hip almost-European city of 1.6 million? All in two days? By bicycle?
Look no further than northern Vermont and the Canadian province of Québec, which offers savory cuisine, great accommodations, and plenty of bicycle-friendly routes.
After reading stories by EasternSlope’s editors David Shedd and Tim Jones about bicycling trips to the Eastern Townships (or Cantons-de-l’Est. as the region is known in Québec) and, particularly Cycling La Route Verte, I caught the Québecois bug and started scheming up a bicycle tour there that would cover part of the Eastern Townships and take us to the city splendors of Montréal. Time for this small town girl (and her new husband) to get a taste of the big city!
Thanks to the incredible online planning tools and resources for the Route Verte, a 4,700-kilometer network of bike trails and marked bike routes across the entire province of Québec, I organized the entire trip around established bicycle routes. I relied heavily on the Route Verte website for scoping out the routes and bicycle-friendly accommodations certified through their Bienvenue Cyclistes program. Unfortunately you can’t download any of their online maps, so I had to rely on my paper maps from Local Motion, a bicycling and people-powered advocacy nonprofit based in Burlington, VT, for actual navigation while riding.
Also helpful is Vélo Quebec‘s guidebook Cycling in Québec. It is available on the Route Verte website, in English, and is indispensable should you want to do some in-depth research and bicycle traveling in the province.
Here’s another note about planning a trip to Québec. Don’t worry if you don’t speak French. Many Québecois are bilingual and will start speaking perfect English to you before you can finish your halting “parlez-vous Anglais?” Of course it’s always helpful to have a few French phrases in your traveler’s back pocket; a friendly Bonjour and Merci! go a long way.
I planned our tour Cycling La Route Verte through the area in the middle of October to catch the tail-end of the autumnal color and enjoy cooler temps for cycling. But this would be a beautiful ride in the spring or summer as well. My husband Charlie and I decided on a loop ride that started and finished in Alburgh, VT. Over the course of five days, we would head up to the Eastern Townships, then pedal west through the Montérégie region into Montréal, spend a couple of nights there to enjoy the city, and head back to Alburgh. While we have both been to Montréal a number of times, we have never explored any of the area outside of the city. Sometimes you have no idea what you’re in for, and we certainly didn’t know what to expect. Well, it turns out we were in for a treat.
Day 1: Alburgh to Sutton (51 miles)
The looming question before we began the trip was, “Where should we park our car in Alburgh?” After a quick phone call to the Alburgh town clerk, we were given permission to leave our car in their lot. Thanks Roxanne! We headed out for Swanton on a fairly busy road through the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge with the goal of joining the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail, a ribbon of packed gravel that roughly follows the Missisquoi River.
The Missisquoi trail is a very peaceful route-less-traveled through typical Vermont vistas and farm scenes. We saw only one or two people on the trail the entire time! Note that the gravel trail surface, which is ideally negotiated on hybrid bikes with fatter tires, considerably slowed my speed on my road bike. I was glad for the gentle grade of the rail trail.
Eventually we caught sight of Jay Peak, looming off in the distance with a dusting of snow on its prominent summit, and knew we were close to Canada. After an uneventful border crossing—other than the border guard raising an eyebrow when questioning why we would ride our bikes for five days for fun—we entered Québec. Just don’t forget to bring your passport or passport card for the border crossing! You won’t get into Canada without it.
Oh Canada! Such a sweet relief to be on your newly paved road, with prominent signs reminding cars to respect the bicycle traffic, a huge shoulder lane, and gentle rolling hills into Sutton. We were now on the Route Verte, and I couldn’t stop smiling. Plus I couldn’t wait to check out our digs at our hotel Le Montagnard in Sutton, a fun, friendly town best known for its ski area and summer activities.
We had no idea that we were in for a steep climb UP to the hotel near the base of Mont Sutton ski area. Ugh. There were some grumblings along the way, but we were rewarded with a lovely studio room at Le Montagnard (complete with a kitchen and fireplace!). We thought this would be the perfect place to stay if we returned in the winter to ski. We had planned on having dinner in town but realized that we were not UP for riding UP that hill again—so Melina at the front desk kindly called a taxi for us.
I could write an entire separate story on our meal at Le Pleasant Hotel & Café. Wow! What a place! And what a surprise to walk into an elegant old Victorian house and find a sleek, modern interior including a bustling little bistro. DO go! DO get the tasting menu! DO splurge on a wonderful bottle of wine! And DO plan on spending two or three hours to savor the outstanding food and service at Le Pleasant.
Day 2: Sutton to Granby (39 miles)
What goes up must come down—and after breakfast at the hotel, DOWN we went into Sutton the next morning. Unfortunately, some rain was also coming DOWN. We (Okay, I ) missed a turn, and we pedaled out of town on the wrong road. Thankfully, Charlie-the-human-compass straightened us out and a little on-the-fly route development put us on a side road back to our planned path. While wet, our detour showcased the rolling hills ablaze in shades of rusty red, yellow, and saffron. Sometimes taking a wrong turn can turn up expected pockets of beauty—so embrace the exploration even if it means adding a little extra time or mileage to the day.
Another unexpected pleasure was discovering the Star Café in Knowlton for lunch. There is nothing, I repeat, nothing better than finding a cozy little café for lunch after being on a bicycle in cold rain for hours. One cup of hot chocolate and a hearty bowl of soup later, my smile had returned and I was ready to hit the road.
We strayed off the Route Verte to ride around Lac Brome after lunch, and we both loved cycling along and checking out the mansions along the lake. We rejoined the Route Verte outside of Waterloo and enjoyed the fast, flat, and well-marked path around Lac Waterloo (which would have been a great place to swim if we weren’t already drenched) and made our way into Granby for the night.
Day 3: Granby to Montréal (56+ miles)
Our hotel in Granby, The St-Christophe Hotel & Spa, offered a beautiful room with easy access to private bicycle storage along with an ideal location for cyclists—right on the Route Verte overlooking Lac Boivin. Sadly, we skipped the spa treatments, the Lac Boivin Nature Center and Granby’s famous zoo because we had a long day ahead of us and needed an early start.
Attempting a more direct path out of Granby than the Route Verte, we started out on the Route des Champs. Alas, this decision turned up a challenging surprise when we discovered a section of the path blocked and closed in Marieville. Having neither a detailed map nor any detour signs to follow, we nosed our way through the random streets and after some quibbles and a dash of despair on my part, Charlie engineered two successes: he led us back to the route and found a Tim Hortons along the way. I really, really love that man.
However convoluted it may have been, the Route des Champs got us into Chambly for lunch. From there, we hopped back on the Route Verte and “cruised” into Montréal. Alas, if only it were that easy to get into Montréal by bike! Riding in the rain in the Eastern Townships was more fun than Montreal’s suburbs, Here are some hints for this part of the journey: 1) Have a good map. 2) Keep a sharp lookout for Route Verte signs. 3) Be metally prepared for a long stretch of riding through essentially featureless suburbs. And 4) Give yourself plenty of time to get lost and found before it gets dark.
But, trust me, Montréal is worth the effort!
Once we were in the city proper, we had a blast. Montréal is a cyclist’s dream city. It has 160 km of bikeways in the downtown area and many dedicated bicycle lanes. Charlie got a kick out of riding on the actual Grand Prix track on the Île Notre-Dame (This part of the path is closed when the Formula One car races are held in the summer!). Amazingly, not a car in sight when we were there; it was totally quiet.
From Île Notre-Dame, we made our way over the mighty Saint Lawrence River into the Old Port of Montréal, and eventually cycled up to our hotel via the Rue Berri bike lane. Auberge Le Pomerol, our home for the next two nights, is a sweet little hotel in an ideal location downtown. As a Bienvenue Cyclistes! property, they had a bike shed to store our steeds for the night, pump for use, and seemed very used to accommodating cyclists.
For dinner, we scouted out the Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood and ended up at Le Continental Bistro, a very lovely French restaurant with superb service, French wines, and food choices that appealed to both a vegetarian (me!) and my carnivorous husband. We cyclists love to eat, and good food is a must for any bicycle tour. Montréal does not disappoint in this area; truly it will excite even the fussiest foodie with all its tasty options.
Day 4: Layover in Montréal (10+ miles of city bicycling)
Normally, I tend to lace up my walking shoes and explore new cities by foot. But in this case, buckling up my Sidis on a beautiful day and hitting the streets on my bicycle proved to be way more fun. Hiring a professional bicycle guide is really the way to go—they know the ins and outs and can take you to unexpected places. I’d also recommend renting a bike from a guide service if you didn’t bring your own. While Montréal has a wildly successful bike sharing program called BIXI, it’s designed for shorter commuter trips and the fees really add up if you take them for a few hours. Plus, when you rent a bike with a guide service you get a helmet. And helmets, my friends, are always recommended.
Our guide for the morning, Jean-François Perrier, is a native Montréaler, and we spent the morning exploring his neighborhood surroundings on the Plateau. We stopped and chatted with Jean-François frequently about politics, history, and personal stories, which made the whole area come alive. We also stopped by Vélo Québec’s cafe, in their office building (aptly named Maison des Cyclistes) right next to the lovely Parc de la Fontaine. It’s a sweet spot to check out, and they have many maps and resources in the café as well. Plus their Americano rocked.
After lunch, I had to say goodbye to Charlie, who had to leave a day early to return to Vermont and start a new job. Left to my own devices, I decided to bike over to the Botanical Gardens to see their famous Magic of Lanterns exhibit at the Chinese Garden. I got there at dusk to see the nearly 1,000 lanterns decorating the garden in a brilliant display of color. Even though the place was packed, I could still get up close to admire the detail and artistry of the handmade silk lanterns. I rode back along the Rue Rachel bike lane (of course I had my blinkie lights for riding safely at night). Tuckered from my city day, I had Thai take-out for dinner and crashed by 9 pm!
Day 5: Montréal to Alburgh (56+ miles)
Heading out of the city in the morning, I had a better grasp of the route, and felt a lot more confident. I chose to bike over the Jacques Cartier Bridge, a steel truss cantilever bridge crossing the Saint Lawrence River with a separate dedicated bike lane. Most of the bicycle traffic was flowing into the city for the daily grind, so I could take it easy and enjoy the spectacular views of the city in the bright morning light.
Eventually I ended up back on the Route Verte and retraced my way into Chambly. Fort Chambly is a great stop for a break or picnic—or an easy day ride if you are staying in Montréal (it’s about 25 km each way). The fort, built in 1711 and positioned as the main anchor of defense on the Richelieu River, is now a pleasing, leafy national historic site overlooking the River. Just watch out for pesky squirrels—it would seem that people have been feeding them and they were rather brazen in their begging.
From Chambly, it was basically a straight shot south on the Route Verte alongside the Chambly Canal or Richelieu River. Many sections were packed gravel, and it was very easy to navigate. Cycling alone, I found the flat-as-a-pancake ride to be a bit tedious after awhile, but at least the sun was shining and there was hardly any wind. Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu is a good spot to stop for lunch, and I made fast time along the flat paved roads heading towards the border.
Finally, I started to see dairy farms again instead of the never-ending cornfields of the Montérégie. As I approached Alburgh, the smell of “dairy-air” reminded me I was home. It also reminded me how bicycle touring is not only slow travel but also full-immersion travel. On a bike, you really engage a place with all your senses.
Which is why this pocket of the world is so ideal for bicycle touring. There is so much packed into such a concentrated area, with plenty of good food to stimulate the taste buds and fuel up for bicycling. You can plan relaxed days on dedicated bike paths while riding a hybrid bicycle with small panniers, yet still cover a lot of ground and see a lot of the region.
Just remember to go without a lot of expectations save for one: expect to be pleasantly surprised.
Start any trip to Quebec with a visit to the Government of Quebec Tourism
The Eastern Townships is a cyclists dream
And for specific information on Montréal, visit Montréal Tourism
For bike specific information visit :
Here’s another Montréal bike lane links: http://www.ridethecity.com/Montréal (iphone apps available too $1.99) or you can always search for directions in Google maps and hit the bicycle icon to pull up bike routes in any given location