In a small but bustling city midway between Ottawa and Montreal, the Régates de Valleyfield has been happening every year for the last 78 years. The event showcases high speed hydroplanes (basically boat-planes without wings!) that reach up to 225 km/h. There are stadium seats set up for people to watch the races set up along the city-side of the St. Francois Bay, offering extreme thrills from a safe distance. There are also concerts and lots of activities to enjoy, and that’s only for this weekend.
Salaberrry-de-Valleyfield, where the regatta is held, is on a small island just past the tail end of the St. Lawrence River, and it has a long and intricate history with the water that surrounds it. The main strip of the town runs next to a beautiful and clear canal that leads out to the bay, and a string of rivers and lakes that leads to the Great Lakes
If you want to make your way up there this weekend, it’s only over an hour away from both Montreal and Ottawa, and the Régates are definitely not the only things going on in the city.
I got the chance to go up last week, and I was even luckier because I got to bring my boyfriend Ciaran around with me to explore all the things that the area had to offer, which we both discovered was plenty! It was somewhat of a couples retreat.
Valleyfield loves their watersports, so if you’ve ever wanted to try some whitewater kayaking, there are some rapids located right in the middle of the city, and right next to the Hotel Plaza Valleyfield, the best place to stay if you’re considering a jaunt up to the town. Our room was modern and crisp, with a great view of the bay and the fountain within it that lights up the city at night. The hotel hosts a variety of different people. There are large conference rooms and ballrooms for business events, and the first day we stayed there, there was an extra-large biking party stopping for the night. The area holds over 140km of paved bike paths, a great thing to consider if you plan to bike your way up to or past Montreal.
Although we aren’t exactly the extreme-sports type of people, Ciaran and I geared up for whatever activity we figured we wouldn’t die doing, and water was on the docket.
A favourite activity of mine was stand up paddle boarding, or SUP, as we learned it was called. To be honest, I think this was the activity we were dreading the most; neither of us have ever done it before and really it just looks plain hard.
We were lucky enough to try SUP polo, which is basically a mix between polo and lacrosse, while balancing on SUPs. The games are run on Saturdays and Sundays in the canal right in downtown Valleyfield . The SUP polo games are run by the very lovely (and very athletic) couple, Stéphanie Chiasson et Pierre-Hugues Chatigny, who cleverly put the first three letters of their last names together to create their business name, CHICHA SUP.
When we arrived, they had been waiting for us, along with some local firefighters who had been playing all day. Let me tell you, Ciaran and I fell, a lot. In fact, I probably fell the most…I fell trying to get on the SUP. But after the first dip into the water, after you learn to close your mouth and figure out how to get back on the board (although I could never do it as gracefully as our hosts) SUP polo is incredibly fun!
It’s only 1$0 an hour, and they provide you with T-Shirts and all the know how to have a great workout and to have some laughs, because really it’s just funny to watch other people fall, and everyone did, even the pros and firefighters we were playing with.
We also got a chance to go to the Parc régional des îles-de-Saint-Timothée, or for short, let’s call it the beach. There you can rent bike, and bike on a trail that runs around the park, which we did (where again I fell pretty hard, but on gravel instead of water). You can also rent SUPS, paddle-boats and kayaks, the latter in which we chased each other around the little islands around the beach.
After we biked and kayaked and worked up a good appetite, we enjoyed packed lunchboxes from La Petite Grange, a lovely little café that brings people from miles away to tastes their breads, sandwiches, patisseries, homemade chocolates and goodies. Our lunchboxes were healthy, hearty and fresh, perfect for a beach picnic, and Ciaran especially liked the cookies and chocolates for desert.
Something we didn’t get to do because you do have to be certified, is scuba diving. That’s right, it’s a big thing in Valleyfield! There are 12 wrecks in the area to explore, including one massive airplane hidden somewhere beneath the surface. We were going to do some snorkeling, but the bad weather muddied up our plans.
Jean-Michel Lalonde is the owner of Centre de Plongé Eco Dive, a fresh new scuba headquarters located right on the main
strip of Victoria Street across from the canal. It’s a kind of one-stop-shop for all your scuba and snorkeling needs. He sells and rents all the equipment, he gives scuba lessons, and he does both snorkeling and scuba excursions, and, get this, ice-diving during the winter! How very Canadian. This guy knows his stuff, he’s been an instructor for 7 years, 2 of those years he spent in Mexico. He even built his own diving boat, on which we were graciously given a ride to explore the bay.
Lalonde explained to us that the reason there were so many wrecks in the area was twofold: ecological and for scuba diving. Goby fish were taking over Ontario waters and eating other fishes’ eggs. So, the government of Ontario allowed vessels to be sunk in the waters so that fish could hide their eggs, and so scuba divers could explore those ecosystems. So no, a plane didn’t crash anywhere near Valleyfield.
Ciaran and I only got to see the tip of one sunken wreck, the Charbonnier, which is the oldest and only semi-natural wreck in the surrounding waters. The people in the area sank the old coal boat in the 1940s because trains became the main method of bringing coal to the area. Lalonde said it’s still a mystery why it was sunk instead of being repurposed. Looking down at the tip of the wreck, only about eight feet beneath Lalonde’s boat, did instil quite the sense of mystery and wonder, and it made me eager to get myself certified for scuba diving.
The Charbonnier’s coal was used for an industry that built Salaberry-de-Valleyfield over a century ago; the Montreal Cotton Mills. The English name Salaberry-de-Valleyfield comes from the British mill-owners who ran the mills that employed a major part of the population, and gave birth to the area that’s there today.
The Muséee de Société Des Deux-Rives, or the MUSO, also situated right downtown, was the perfect introduction into the rich history of the area. Opened in 2010, the MUSO’s main entrance is in a repurposed protestant church, originally built in 1882. The church itself is kept for temporary exhibits, whereas the rest of the attached building holds and interactive journey through the area’s history with Montreal Cotton. The cotton industry that has left the city, but still obviously has a great influence on the architecture and organization of the area. Adèle, our tour guide, was sweet and very informative, and she comes highly recommended! She took us through the different neighbourhoods built for the workers, the history of unions and strikes, and all the different tools used to make cotton into what we have now.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t swoon a bit over the dining. We tried two very different restaurants for dinner. The first was an impressively large restaurant called Club Touriste, a beautiful old Victorian villa named after it’s transformation in the 1930’s, which made the old home into a private club. Now a bustling and modern restaurant, its large patio was the place to be. It was as much a dining experience as it was a social one. Once people sat, they stayed for hours, sometimes getting up to see someone they knew on the other side of the patio, but mostly, they sat and enjoyed the food and conversation at their tables.
Ciaran was in his element there, at least when it came to food. Club Touriste’s menu was varied, but our lovely server Geneviève told us to go for the grill, so we did! Although we both started off with delicious variations of duck, me with paté and he with a duck sausage pogo, it was the main dishes that really stole the show. I got a rack of lamb, which was tender and flavourful, and Ciaran went full out and ordered a boar shank for the first time, which he adored. Once he devoured his own dish, he shamelessly ate the rest of my lamb, which I couldn’t finish because the portions were so generous!
We finished our meal with two fantastic deserts, chocolates made by the owner’s wife on my end, and a decadent caramel
cheesecake on Ciaran’s end. That night after a walk about town on the charming canal, we went back to the hotel and fell asleep in our clothes. I believe that’s what they call a food coma!
The second night, we chose to go to La Bibliothèque Café-Bistro, which is themed after the city college’s neighbouring library. More low-key than Club Touriste, La Bibliothèque has a relaxing and intellectual vibe. It too is a restaurant built within an old beautiful home, but the architecture was kept rather than reworked. The design on the inside was is classic but eclectic, with a library room, bathrooms plastered with old New York Times front pages, and a wrap-around porch that led to the most charmingly lit patio I’ve ever seen. The food was absolutely incredible, modern yet hearty and simple enough that the strong flavours were doing most of the impressing.
Our meals started off with an amuse-bouche; a little jar of lentils with edamame beans and pancetta. This was Ciaran’s first foray into the world of lentils, and he was delighted! Our two appetizers were super savoury: I had Vichyssoise topped with a pecan vinaigrette and a slice of crispy pancetta, while Ciaran had a creamy barley and shrimp risotto dotted with strongly flavoured mushrooms.
We both got pasta dishes for dinner, which for the heaviness alone might have been a misstep, but no regrets, because they were excellent. Ciaran had what I secretly wanted, the duck gnocchi in a beautiful mushroom cream sauce, but I was very pleased with my arugula pesto penne and shrimp. We kept switching dishes trying to figure out whose was better, and the winner was always whatever sat in front of us at the moment.
A word on the chef, Marie-Claude, who just opened the restaurant over a year ago. She is from Montreal, and a sommelière by profession, and so the bottle of wine she chose for us was perfectly balanced for our meal; French, red and named El Pépé (it was basically made for me). We also learned that she is a self-taught chef, and only began cooking since the opening of her restaurant. Obviously, she had a knack for it.
La Bibliothèque was so good that we went back the next day for brunch, and had equally delicious eggs benedict and a steak sandwich. We’d go back to Valleyfield just for that restaurant! Especially since the prices were so reasonable.
Our last stop was just a block away at Local du Gourmet where we picked up a couple of mousse delights in a jar, one vanilla and one chocolate to satisfy Ciaran’s insatiable sweet tooth.
All in all, it was the perfect place for a couple’s retreat. So if you’re even remotely into water sports, biking, good food, or beautiful scenery, Salaberry-de-Valleyfield is a must. Get up there this weekend for the Régates and cool off in the clean and crisp water, or if you’re on your way up to Montreal, drive through the area and take a look. I know we’ll be back there soon enough.