VBT Quebec Tour – Best of the Eastern Townships

Saturday, July 7, 2018 – Reston to Montreal

It’s been a hot summer in Northern Virginia. With temperatures in the 90’s we looked forward to heading north to Montreal to start a weeklong bike tour offered by VBT; Best of the Eastern Townships. After a short direct flight to Montreal, VBT provided a shuttle to our hotel, Delta Marriott, located near McGill College, not far from the Sofitel we stayed in on our last trip to the city when we rode the trail known as Le P’tit Train du Nord.

Since we had the afternoon free we decided to use Bixi, the local bikeshare system, to explore the city by bike. Kerie wanted to ride over the Jacques Cartier bridge so we headed there, changing bikes along the way. Trips over 30 minutes incur additional fees so it’s easy enough to ride for 25 minutes or so, find a Bixi station, and exchange bikes. The ride over the bridge is steep, meaning that oncoming riders can build up some speed. The city put a couple of chicanes in the trail to slow down riders.

The bridge leads to Île St. Helene where we switched bikes again on the island and rode south to another bridge back across the St Lawrence River, all on paved trails. The Bixi bikes are heavy and unwieldy. By the time we returned to the hotel we were beat. We repeated our lunch of pizza and salad at a nice little restaurant nearby, Cafe Parvis. Montreal Jazz Festival was wrapping up that weekend, attracting big crowds to the multiple venues, one of which was near our hotel. In the distance we were able to see an impressive fireworks display from an island in the St Lawrence. At one point Kerie recognized a song I’d played recently and it turned out that a group I recently discovered, The War on Drugs, was playing nearby. I rushed down and squeezed into the massive crowd to hear the last part of the set, a real treat.

Sunday, July 8

The VBT tour officially started on Sunday after breakfast. We met our tour guides Camille and Sonia and the other guests in the lobby. We used two vans, one with bikes on top and each with a trailer, to shuttle to Domaine du Ridge, a winery about 90 minutes away. 19 people had signed up for the tour, 1 less than the maximum. Kerie and I fit the demographic. During the tour the group rode at similar paces and didn’t get too strung out, as often happens on these tours.

During a tour of the winery and light lunch the guides got the bikes ready for a short warmup ride. The highlight of the ride was maple syrup pie a la mode at Les Sucreies de l’érable in Freiligsburg. We soon learned that this tour, listed as easy/moderate, leaned heavily toward moderate and at times verged on difficult although the distances were short. The climbs were often steep and occasionally long. It was a bit of a shock to some but in the end everyone did well and exceeded the guides’ expectations. I think the tour difficulty will be listed differently in the future. Kerie was smart to choose the ebike option that was included with the tour package, the first time she has ever used one.

With such a large group it’s impossible to remember names. We chatted with the 3 sisters Amy, Beth, and Sarah during the wine tasting. The rosé, said to be crushed by virgin women, was so-so but the other wines were good. Winters are so cold in this part of the country that the vines must be covered with blankets to keep them from freezing. Dinner at the Auberge was delicious as were most of our meals during our stay in Quebec. At dinner we all introduced ourselves and I tried to make note of names and home towns for future reference. Most couples had previously been on multiple bike tours, many with VBT.

Monday July 9

Our ride today passed through Knowlton. a small Quebec town that is the basis for the fictional town of Three Pines in a series of mystery novels by Louise Penny. Before the trip I started reading her first novel, Still Life, to get a sense of the place. Ms Penny lives nearby. We stopped in Knowlton for lunch at Le Relais, one of many meals we shared with Angel and Marian. Angel is a character. Originally from the Dominican Republic, he met Mariam at a resort there and they eventually married and he moved to Calgary. On the return ride we opted to take the scenic, low traffic unpaved road instead of the busier paved road. It was a hilly ride.

Poutine is a unique Quebec dish. It sounds disgusting and is not for everyone. French fries with cheese curds smothered in gravy. I had to try it but made the mistake of ordering the entree instead of the appetizer and was served a huge bowl. At least they had a vegetarian version. It wasn’t bad but I don’t think I’ll be eating it again anytime soon. While dinner was on our own, most people rode in the van with the guides to a very nice microbrewery, Auberge Sutton Bouerie, in the town of Sutton. Afterwards we walked to an ice cream place for dessert.

Tuesday July 10

Today we rode from the Auberge to the Ripplecove Hotel & Spa in Ayer’s Cliff, located on the shore of Lake Massawippi. Our room at Ripplecove had a nice view of the parking lot but most of the other rider’s rooms overlooked the lake. There was lots of wildlife visible from the hotel; green and great blue herons, a loon, cedar waxwings, and others. The ride to the hotel was again a challenge with several short but steep hills and some good downhills.

We stopped for lunch at the beautiful Abbaye St Benoit du Lac on Lake Memphremagog. After a picnic lunch prepared by Sonia we tasted some of the cheeses produced at the abbey and then had a short tour. While on the tour there was a brief shower which stopped just before we started our return ride.

We only stayed at two hotels during the tour which allowed us a bit more free time since we didn’t need to pack and move each night. I joined Paul and Dawn on the patio where they were having a little cheese and wine party and they asked me to join them. Dinner was at the hotel; hummus and veggies, baked cod, and little chunks of carrot cake with a nice sauce and sorbet in the shape of a fruit.

Wednesday July 11

The Tomifobia Nature Trail extends 19 km from Ayer’s Cliff to Stanstead on the Canada/US Border, our destination for lunch on our own. This tour was unusual for the number of lunches and dinners on our own, “free lunches” as Camille liked to say. We were free to find our own meal. There was also a lack of snacks and drinks at the end of the day although several times there was beer. I didn’t notice that the price of the tour was any less than other similar tours with more provided meals.

The Tomifobia Trail is on a former rail bed and was flat, a nice relief from the precious days. It passes through a wooded area along the Tomifobia River. The trail splits just before the US border. We followed the eastern branch to Stanstead. The western branch leads to the border. On the other side of the border begins the Newton Bike path, also known as the Beebe Spur Rail Trail.

We did ride to the border in Stanstead where there was a controlled crossing. We were told that at a nearby crossing at Derby Line, VT the border is not clear and some cyclists have crossed, then been delayed for a few hours trying to get back into Canada since they were not carrying their passports. We didn’t want to test the system. Cyclists who do want to continue on the trail across the border would legally cross there.

After lunch  we chose to return to the hotel via the trail although we heard that the on-road option was scenic with not much traffic. Once we returned to the hotel we opted not to ride the option to continue another 20 miles around the lake on a hilly route. We heard that only a couple of other riders on prior tours had done the afternoon ride. Once at the hotel in mid afternoon there was a strong incentive to just relax.

The group shuttled to dinner at Le Pilson in North Hatley. The pub overlooks a river  on the north end of Lac Massawippi. I had an excellent dish of tagliatelle with smoked salmon and pesto with a really good English-style beer, Farnham Ale & Lager Bitter 35.

Thursday July 12

On the last riding day of the tour we planned to visit Blue Lavender, a lavender farm just northeast of Lake Memphremagog. The ride out of Ayers Cliff began with a long climb on Route 141 North. There was steady traffic but we had a good paved shoulder. Sonia checked up on riders by speeding past us on the climbs, then turning around to go downhill, then riding uphill again. She got a good workout that day.

Along the moderately hilly route we caught glimpses of Abbaye St Benoit du Lac on the opposite shore of Lake Memphremagog. At Georgetown we stopped for snacks and a good view of the lake at the town dock. At Fitch Bay one of the houses sported an impressive witch sculpture weathervane.  Just before Blue Lavender we stopped to check out an old covered bridge, one of the few across a lake. Of course there was a climb from the lake to Blue Lavender.

Expansive fields of lavender in bloom greeted us at the farm. Admission to the farm, lunch, and a tour were included in the trip package. It’s a beautiful setting atop the hill with an expansive view of lavender fields. We learned that lavender is a good deer repellant and the oil is used to cure what ails you and it’s a natural sleep aid. We bought a few small samples and later the guides gifted us with some additional samples.

Kerie had been conserving her ebike battery throughout the trip. Often I would look over and see that her battery was off during the less hilly parts of our rides. On the ride back to the hotel she decided to let ‘er rip. The bike, a Fuji Bosch-powered unit, had four modes, Eco for a little boost, Tour, Sport, and Turbo for maximum assist, topping out at 20mph. Using the faster modes greatly reduces the battery range. It felt great to draft behind Kerie for most of the return ride. She had to slow occasionally to let me catch my breath and catch up to her on the climbs. Just before town we spotted an ice cream stand for a well-deserved snack. We were later joined by Angel and Marian.

After showers most of the group gathered on the lakeside patio for drinks and to reminisce about our week of riding. This was probably the most compatible group we’ve ridden with. We had similar riding abilities and we mostly stayed together during the day.

Our final dinner together was fun, everyone feeling good after either a nice ride to Blue Lavender or a relaxing day at the spa. Sonia handed out small momentos of the trip that she made. We also exchanged contact info with the others.

Friday, July 13

After breakfast on the outdoor patio we split into two groups, one going to Montreal and the other to Quebec City. We extended our trip with a two-day stay in Quebec City where we planned to rent bikes at Cyclo Services and tour the city and surrounding area. During the 2 hour van ride Sonia filled us in on sights to see and places to eat. She lives there and would be headed home after dropping us off, only to turn around shortly afterwards to return to Montreal and another week of guiding for VBT. The guide’s life is not an easy one. In this case they work for two weeks straight, putting in 16-hour days. The payoff can be a hefty tip from the guests. The suggested tip is $30-$40/day per couple per guide.

We stayed at Hotel Pur in downtown Quebec City, a short walk to the bike shop where we picked up our hybrid bikes after a good lunch at Mille et un Pizza (1001 pizzas. The website is in French. Unlike in Montreal, it seemed that most websites did not have an English option. There seems to be more of an emphasis on retaining French cultural heritage in Quebec City than in Montreal).

Sonia suggested we ride the trail along the St. Lawrence River, crossing to the south side via the ferry then continuing to the Pont de Quebec to cross back to the north side to head back to the city. There’s a special ticket booth adjacent to the trail just for bicyclists wanting to ride the ferry. Bike racks are placed at the bottom of the ferry entrance ramp.

After the ferry landed we headed east for a short 5km ride to a view of Montmorency Falls. Then we headed back past the ferry toward the bridge. Just before the bridge we learned that the trail ended and the on-road route included a steep climb. It was already nearly 5pm so we headed back to the ferry so we could get cleaned up and find dinner. Instead of doing a “death march” to find the perfect dinner spot we opted for a decent meal of vegetarian poke and veggie Bahn Ma and rooibos iced tea at Cafe Pekoe located across from the hotel. The street was filled with pedestrians cruising the bars and pubs located nearby.

Saturday, 14 July

Our destination for the day’s ride was Montmorency Falls located about 8 miles from the hotel. A trail roughly follows the north shore of the St. Lawrence River with signage pointing to the falls, although we got turned around briefly in the city where the trail crossed a major road. With the threat of rain there were few other cyclists on the trail.

At the falls there were several bike racks conveniently located which was the norm during the trip. The falls are impressive, 272 feet tall, 99 feet taller than Niagara Falls. We joined the other tourists to walk to the base of the falls. There was lots to do there: take a zip line across the falls, zip line to the steep cliff adjacent to the falls and clip in to hike to the top, or take the cable car from the visitor center to a hotel next to the falls.

We took a few photos, then returned to the visitor center for lunch. By the time we were ready for the ride back to the city it was cooler and a light rain had started so we donned our rain jacket and pants and headed back. The rain didn’t last long and as we neared the city we saw several more riders.

Quebec Public Market occupies a huge space not far from the bike rental place. We parked the bikes and strolled through the market that contained a huge variety of food, clothing, and other goods. Just for fun we rode through town, past the ferry and then returned to the bike shop. Rental for 24 hours for the two bikes and two panniers was a reasonable $100 CAD.

After returning to the hotel we explored old Quebec City on foot, through the old city wall, along the boardwalk known as Terrasse Dufferin in front of Hotel Frontenac. Without a good recommendation for a restaurant we walked aimlessly until we found what looked like an OK place, L’Omelette. It was a good location but a bit of a tourist trap with poor service and OK food, that has wildly different reviews on Trip Advisor.

We continued our walk to check out an ice cream place recommended by  Sonia. Turns our there are two places in the same general location. The first was a very small place that was fine, but as we walked back to the hotel we discovered the second place, Chocolat Favoris, that was likely the one Sonia had mentioned. It was packed and we managed to force down a second serving.

Sunday, July 15

VBT provided another shuttle to the airport where we caught an Air Canada flight to Toronto. The connecting flight was delayed several times, eventually leaving about 5 hours late. In the meantime we used the $15 meal vouchers for a smoothie and snack in the terminal. A 15% off Air Canada voucher helped ease our frustration at the delay.

We enjoyed the trip. The guides were great, the other guests were a friendly and compatible group, and the riding was fun and challenging. I’d recommend the trip and assume that after this first year a few tweaks will be made to the route and/or the rating.