VBT Quebec Tour – Best of the Eastern Townships

Saturday, July 7, 2018 – Reston to Montreal

It was a hot summer in Northern Virginia. With temperatures in the 90’s we looked forward to heading north to Montreal to start a 5-day bike tour offered by VBT: Best of the Eastern Townships. We have not visited that area of Quebec even though we often spend time in northern Vermont. The plan was to start the trip in Montreal, then shuttle southeast to the tour start, ride loops from 2 hotels, then spend a couple of days in Quebec City on our own.

After a short direct flight to Montreal, we boarded a VBT-provided shuttle to our hotel. Our plane had arrived early, and somehow we missed the shuttle driver at the gate. Eventually we found each other and were on our way to the 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. The hotel desk recommended Cafe Parvis for a quick bite, and we went around the corner to eat there in their outdoor seating area. Many people had attended a Caribbean parade that morning. 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 downhill riders can build up a lot of speed. The city put a couple of chicanes in the trail to slow people down. As she tried to muscle the massive Bixi bike up the climb, looking down from the scary heights with the wind howling, Kerie wondered what possessed her to want to go over the bridge…but we made it.

The bridge leads to Île St. Helene where we switched bikes again on the island near an amusement park where many families were headed and rode south to another bridge back across the St Lawrence River, all on paved trails. The Bixi bikes are heavy and unwieldy and the seats are not very comfortable. By the time we returned to the hotel we were beat. We repeated our lunch of pizza and salad at  Cafe Parvis. Montreal Jazz Festival was wrapping up that weekend, attracting big crowds to the multiple venues, one of which was near our hotel. From our balcony, we were able to see an impressive fireworks display from an island in the St Lawrence in the distance. At one point Kerie recognized a song that sounded vaguely familiar, 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 their set, a real treat.

Sunday, July 8

The VBT tour officially started on Sunday after breakfast. This was the first time VBT offered this particular tour. 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. Seventeen people had signed up for the tour. We were a compatible group and during the tour the most of us rode at similar paces and didn’t get too strung out along the route.

While we had a tour of the winery and light lunch, the guides got the bikes ready for a short shakedown ride. The first day of riding can be a challenge for the guides who deal with getting all the bikes fitted to guests. Most people used VBT’s bikes, but many, including us, brought their own pedals and saddles. We often bring our own bikes on organized tours but it’s easier and less stressful to use those provided by the tour company.

The highlight of the warmup 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 level, leaned heavily toward moderate and at times verged on difficult. Although the distances were short, the climbs were often steep and occasionally long. A long hill after pie 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. Even so, she was grumbling when faced with 3 flights of stairs to our room at the inn at the end of the day. Three others on the tour also used ebikes.

With such a large group it’s difficult to remember names. Over the course of the week we gradually learned the names of most guests. We chatted with the 3 sisters Amy, Becky, and Sarah during the wine tasting and tried to remember a few of the other names. 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 Marian, a Canadian, at a resort there and they eventually married and he moved to Calgary. Knowlton also has a cute little bookstore where we browsed until the restaurant opened. On the return ride we opted to take the scenic, low traffic unpaved road instead of the busier paved road. We arrived back at the inn fairly early, which meant a long hungry and thirsty wait until dinner time.

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. Poutine is a unique Quebec dish: french fries with cheese curds smothered in gravy. It sounds disgusting and is not for everyone. 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 there was a vegetarian version. It wasn’t bad but I don’t think I’ll be eating it again anytime soon. 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.

We stopped for lunch at the beautiful Abbaye St Benoit du Lac on Lake Memphremagog. We arrived at lunch before anyone else – a first. Usually on group tours we are at the tail end of everybody. After a delicious 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 of the abbey,  a brief but serious thunderstorm rolled in. Thankfully we were not on our bikes during the deluge of rain, wind, and lightning. The storm ended just before we started our afternoon ride. Our intrepid guides had managed to cover most of our gear and things dried quickly. Except for this short storm, the weather was ideal for the whole VBT tour.

The ride from lunch to the hotel was again a challenge with several short but steep hills and some good downhills. We had to shuttle part of the way. Alas, our room at Ripplecove had a nice view of the parking lot, but most of the others got rooms that overlooked the lake. Lots of wildlife was visible from the hotel: green and great blue herons, a loon, cedar waxwings, and others. We stayed at only 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 encountered 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. The hotel provided blankets for use on the deck, which came in handy when the air became chilly in the mornings and evenings.

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.

Bruce on the Tomifobia Trail

The Tomifobia Trail is on a former rail bed and was flat, a nice relief from the previous rides. The trail passes through a wooded area along the Tomifobia River. As we sedately rode on the trail, Angel zoomed by us on his ebike, going full bore. Further on, his water bottle bounced out from the pack on the back of his bike. (The ebikes did not have bottle cages, which was a definite drawback. Each time she needed water, Kerie had to stop and get off the bike to drink or I had to pass her a bottle like a tour domestique while we rode.) When we arrived at the small sandwich shop in town, Angel mysteriously had gone MIA. We learned later that he completely missed the lunch stop and sped out of town. Eventually he found his way back to our official route.

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, the Newton Bike path begins; it’s also known as the Beebe Spur Rail Trail.

We rode to the border in Stanstead where we saw a controlled crossing. We had been told that at a nearby crossing in Derby Line, VT, the border is not clearly marked. Some cyclists have crossed unknowingly into the U.S., only to be 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 even though we had brought our passports that day.

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 decided not to ride the optional 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 another dinner on our own 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. Our evening on the outdoor deck was delightful.

Thursday, July 12

On the last riding day of the VBT 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 riding 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.  The route included a great downhill, and featherweight Kerie passed several more cautious riders as she flew down the descent on the heavy ebike. Unfortunately, her water bottle bounced off her bike and the lid split apart. Sound familiar? I picked up the pieces from the pavement. 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 VBT 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 plus a chocolate bar and later the guides gifted us with some additional samples.

Kerie had been conserving her ebike battery throughout the trip, using the lowest setting. Often I would look over and see that her ebike was off during the less hilly parts of our rides. On the ride back to the hotel, the last part of the tour, 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 her for most of the return ride. She had to slow occasionally to let me catch her and my breath 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. We watched as the rest of the group rode back to town while we were eating.

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 with everyone feeling good after either a nice ride to Blue Lavender or a relaxing day at the spa. Kerie was obliged to live up to her reputation and ate another chocolate dessert. 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 in Quebec City 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.

After 5 days of VBT-planned activities, we would now be on our own again without our new comrades. We stayed at the trendy 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 had 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 across the river. Many people were out enjoying the lovely warm sunny weather. Then we headed back past the ferry toward the bridge across the St. Lawrence to the west. Just before the bridge we learned from a local cyclist that the trail ended and the on-road route included a steep climb at rush hour. It was already nearly 5pm so we headed back to the safety of 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. (Plus, we used to have a cat named Pekoe.) The street was filled with pedestrians cruising the bars and pubs located nearby. The hotel let us keep the bikes in our room.

Saturday, July 14

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 good 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, few other cyclists were on the trail even though it was Saturday. At a local park, we got caught up in a running event. Thankfully  the jogging kids and adults were on the trail only a short distance.

Note person on zip line above falls

At the falls we found several conveniently located bike racks, which was the norm during the trip. Where we live, we often can’t find a good place to lock our bikes. Later we saw a group of cyclists arrive who were likely part of a Cyclo Services bike tour from the city. The falls are impressive, 272 feet tall, 99 feet taller than Niagara Falls. We joined the other tourists and walked to the base of the falls, peering out from our raincoats to gawk at the scenery. There was lots to do there: 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 up to a hotel next to the top of the falls. We were not so adventurous.

We took a few photos, then returned to the visitor center for lunch. Kerie used the restroom just in time before the center was swamped by a busload of teenagers. By the time we were ready for the ride back to the city, the temperature was chilly and a light rain had started so we donned our rain jackets and pants and headed back, hoping to avoid hypothermia. The rain didn’t last long and as we neared the city we began to see more riders. We warmed up by the time we got back to town. We peeled off layers of clothing amidst the gardens at the Park of Latin America, near the statue of Simon Bolivar.

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. Afterwards 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, forcing our legs to carry us up the steep hills and staircases, through the old city wall, along the boardwalk known as Terrasse Dufferin in front of Hotel Frontenac. We watched the funicular go up and down. We poked our heads into the Hotel, which was teeming with visitors. After a brief look around, we dodged the crowds and tour busses and escaped. Without a good recommendation for a restaurant we walked aimlessly until we found what looked like an OK place, L’Omelette. We decided to eat there instead of walking until we were starving and grouchy. 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. Similar to Montreal, Quebec City was hopping with a large street festival underway downtown.

We continued our walk to check out an ice cream place recommended by Sonia. Turns out there are two ice cream places in the same general location. The first was a very small place that was fine, and we sat outside for a couple of cones next to a fellow and his dog. As we walked back to the hotel we discovered the second place, Chocolat Favoris, and we realized that it was more likely the one Sonia really meant. No surprise – it was packed. We managed to “force down” a second serving of ice cream, and Kerie got a chocolate bar for later.

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. Angel and Marian also were in the airport somewhere. He wanted to get there early to watch a soccer match on TV.

We enjoyed the VBT trip. The guides were great, the other guests were a friendly and compatible group, and the riding was fun and challenging. The VBT bikes were very nice quality and included mirrors. (Kerie liked the advantages of riding an ebike so much that she has since purchased one – a Trek Dual Sport Plus, which does allow a water bottle cage.)

This tour was unusual for the number of lunches and dinners on our own, “free lunches” as Camille liked to say. That is, we were “free” to pay for our own meal. There was also a lack of snacks and drinks at the end of most days, although several times they provided beer. With only 2 guides working with such a large group it was probably a challenge to keep up. I don’t envy the guides; they work from the time they get up until well past dinner. 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.

We love bicycling in Canada, where the cycling culture is much better than in the U.S.