• By: Bruce Sach

Cycling Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains: Miles of Smiles

I was forced to smile every time I saw a ‘Maximum 22 km/h’ sign while cycling along the historic ‘P’tit Train du Nord’ trail, thanks to the Great Canadian Trails Company. It links two important towns in Quebec’s Laurentians, namely Mont-Laurier and St. Jérôme. I smiled since checking my speed was the last thing on my mind as I cruised for four days along the route that was the main railway link for over 50 years in the mid-20th century. The original train was no bullet either, travelling at 48 km/h.

Though the route rises in elevation whenever approaching an ancient, restored railway station, it is a less-than-demanding ride. (Organizers claim a 7-year-old could accomplish it – a slight exaggeration).

The ‘Osez ralentir’ (Dare to slow down) signs before areas where the trail met crosswalks also amused me. They are meant as reminder to slow down before an approaching stop sign. Not once did an approaching car or truck not stop and let us cross the road safely. The signs are also a subtle reminder to slow down your mind, and take a break from overthinking.

During the virtually straight 200-kilometre trail, you have lots of time to think, to appreciate that you’re no longer stuck in traffic on your daily route, and rather to enjoy the quiet of the area.

The Laurentian area is often stunningly beautiful, as you pass by parks, diversified landscapes, beaches, swampland, small towns, cross gentle creeks and even the odd lumber storage area and golf course. It’s a microcosm of rural Quebec – you follow the copper-coloured Rivière Rouge down almost its full length. Often the only sound you hear will be the sound of your bike tire along the asphalt trail. Stop, and you might catch the song of a chickadee, or the brushing of a deer in the woods.

The main daily goal is to make it to your next lodging (but not too soon), where your luggage will be awaiting you, soon after 2 p.m. The only other goal is to find a spot to stop and have lunch. You can pack your own picnic one, or stop at a funky café, – many are found in original railway stations or renovated cabooses. The ones we sampled were excellent, always with a Québécois kool ambience. If you cycle quickly, you’ll have plenty of time to visit tiny boutiques or have a dip in one of the many lakes.

You may meet other cyclists and they’ll all have at least one thing in common – big smiles. People tend to greet each other, not unlike pilgrims on the Camino.

I would not compare the P’tit Train du Nord experience to the Camino, although I had a kind of spiritual refreshing every day of the four-day trip. (I was reading Paulo Coelho’s El Peregrino de Compostela during the trip – did that help?)

There’s certainly a feeling of comradeship along the way, cyclists stop to see if you’re having difficulties and one couple from Ancaster, Ontario went out of their way to ensure our bike readiness.

Aside from getting a great aerobic workout, you get to visit a number of beautiful towns in the Laurentians – arguably one of the most beautiful areas in Quebec. Nominingue, Mont-Blanc and Val-David come to mind.

The former is located on a magnificent lake of the same name. Our B and B, Chez Ignace, was located right on the trail and provided delicious pickerel for supper. Prepared by Cécile, the owner/chef – it was a meal I’ll not soon forget! My appetizer included smoked salmon – prepared on site, next to the auberge.

Taking ‘on site’ to an extreme, the owner, Tony Canot, produces his own champagne back home in France. Belgian beers, local draft and Tony’s champagne, (imported exclusively for his restaurant) make up the beverage menu.

Val-David has funky cafés along the path that cater to cyclists – Le Général Café comes to mind, for supper, lunch or breakfast.

We saved money and time by bringing fruits, veggies and energy bars that served as lunch.

So, how does it work?

You drive to St. Jérôme, QC, just north of Montréal.  You then leave your vehicle at the old train station there, and either rent a hybrid bike or have your own bike and yourself transported 2 ½ hours north to Mont-Laurier. (You can bring your own saddle and pedals to add to your rental bike, if you choose).

At Mont Laurier, you pick up your bike and start your first day, a 55-kilometre trek to Nominingue. Given that you’ve lost 2 ½ hours getting to Mont-Laurier, you can’t stop and smell the roses, too, too often.  Your luggage will be waiting in the lobby, and in the case of Chez Ignace, a very welcoming hot tub!

The next day involved the longest ride, approximately 60 km, ending at Mont Tremblant. I would recommend requesting accommodation near the trail. Our B and B was in a beautiful location on Lac Tremblant, right in front of the Mont Tremblant ski hill but involved an extra 3.7 km ride through town, off the bike path.

The third and fourth days involved 40 km rides – both easily accomplished, with time left to explore.

And what happens, say, if you blow a tire? This happened to us with only 18 km to go, one hour from St- Jérôme, the end point.

We called the service hotline and they arrived 30 minutes later with a new back wheel. Service deluxe! While waiting I enjoyed a great pork panini sandwich that I can still taste! I should add that local volunteers patrol the path, always more than ready to lend a hand or give information.


Après-P’tit Train du Nord

After your four-day cycling trip, you may want to pamper yourself at one of the nearby Nordic spas, or visit neighbouring terroirs.

Just 30 minutes south of the St. Jérôme railway station, in Rosemère, Quebec is Le Finlandais Spa.

Easy to call yourself a ‘Finnish’ spa, but my initial reaction was: this place really does remind me of Finland, due to being situated on a lovely river area looking for all the world like a Finnish lake.

The differing hot/cold rooms at the spa, each with a different cultural theme were refreshing physically and emotionally.

The Mayan Temazcal with a pre-recorded story and film projected on the ceiling was fun and I liked the Moroccan ‘sound’ room with its cool temperatures. I enjoyed all the Finnish dry spas, one in particular was on two levels and made one feel as though in ones’ own chalet.)

St.Sauveur has just opened Strom Spa, the oldest Nordic spa in the Laurentians. How can the most recent be the oldest?

The Strom Spa combines the 1960s Polar Bear Club, and its competitor La Bagni, (the two faced each other on the Rivière à Simon) into one larger spa.

A more perfect spot for spa would be hard to find although the modern highway is just next door. The rushing waters of the Rivière à Simon drown out the traffic noise in this little piece of heaven.

One of the highlights was the very hot wood-burning stoves of a dry sauna with huge picture windows fronting onto the raging waters of the river. An experience worth the price of admission alone.

The Nord restaurant was excellent, with Nordic specials like roasted squash, trout gravlax and hot-smoked duck, along with local Shawbridge beer. I like the link to the area’s skiing heritage.

As Robert Shelso, of the Laurentian Ski Museum in St. Sauveur explained, the first skiers in the area came from Montreal by train to the area of Shawbridge, Lesage and Prévost in the 1920s. There were no roads in those days from Montréal and skiers opened up the area on the old CPR rail line that became the P’tit Train du Nord.

The museum shows the first ski bindings and patents by Jean Bertrand. There’s also an exhibit on Lucie Wheeler, who in 1956 became the first North American, (male or female) to win an Olympic medal in downhill skiing. Her grandfather founded Gray Rocks, the well-known ski school in 1905.

Although the St. Jérôme is known as the beginning of the Laurentians, the Lower Laurentians offer a great introduction to the terroirs of Quebec.

We stayed at the Abbaye d’Oka Inn, yes, the convent where Oka cheese originated. It is located in the heart of the Route du Terroir country and is a fitting place to begin ones’ journey as the Cistercian monks who founded the abbey and were expert agriculturists practicing sustainability long before anyone had ever heard the term.

Like all monastic orders the Oka monks looked after all their own needs, even growing the reeds needed for their home-made wicker baskets, then used for harvesting apples and pears. They seeded the first apple orchards in an area now replete with orchards.

I would recommend a visit to La Cidrerie Lacroix for a number of reasons. A fifth-generation operation, they allow visitors to pick apples at harvest time, and participate in Terego. Terego allows members to park their camping vans on an agriculturist’s land almost free of charge.

La Cidrerie Lacroix has an excellent restaurant and gives tours, explaining how ciders, juices and vinegar are produced. None of the apple is wasted, ending up as animal feed.

The nearby Vignoble Rivières du Chêne is another family-run enterprise that creates award-winning wines. These include Gabrielle and William. Visitors can participate in the grape harvest.

I am not a big dessert person, but the stop at Fays Chocolate Factory is a must. The work of a French lady from Alsace ( who cycles about on a unicycle), this tiny place reminds me of a Japanese tea garden, as a complete ceremony is available to taste the different chocolates. Since the owner is celiac, she has gone to great pains to create gluten-free delicacies, all the time using local products.

The most unusual of the latter was a shitake mushroom chocolate, invented after a local farmer presented here with a sack of dried shitakes. It was my favourite, perhaps because it was made with a combination of white and dark chocolate. They have melt bombs, a ball of chocolate that you can put in your favourite coffee drink or make an instant hot chocolate from.

Good ways to ‘reward’ yourself after the four-day bike trek!

Great Canadian Trails offers this self-guided tour and a free app that provides up-to-the-minute information about the trail, lodging, and attractions. And yes, the trail is part of the trail that crosses Canada, coast to coast. Three breakfasts and one supper are included, along with four nights’ accommodation, bike rental, and transport.

Trips occur from spring into October. We went in late September, and the leaves were already starting to turn. A magnificent natural show! – and probably not as busy as in mid-summer. Electric bikes are also available for rent.


Places to stay, if you decide to extend your trip after cycling:

Abbaye d’Oka Inn 1600 Chemin d’Oka, Oka, QC

Manoir Saint-Sauveur 246 Chemin du Lac-Millette, Saint-Sauveur, QC


All photos by Carole Jobin