LE P'TIT TRAIN DU NORD - A CYCLIST'S NIRVANA
The cycle trail, fringed with wildflowers, licked by lakes and crossed by languid rivers, dawdles in Quebec's Laurentians under sun-speckled sylvan canopies and lakes. Although there's one stretch that climbs 221 metres, we hardly notice. Once a humming railway line, the route, fondly named after its moniker, Le P'tit Train du Nord, is the longest linear park in Canada at just over 200 km.
Quebec did it right from the get-go. Once the train made its last journey on November 15, 1981, the rail bed was one of the first in Canada to be converted into a park. By 1996, the rails disappeared, the tracks became a trail and the route was immediately enjoyed by a new generation with re-designed vacation ideas.
For us, 'soft adventure' has just been re-designed too. Never has it been so plush. Over two thirds paved, even the route's rougher southern section is easily traversed by thin tires.
The odyssey begins at bustling Saint-Jérôme, only a half-hour's drive from Montreal's Trudeau airport. There we join the battalion of bikers at the Comfort Inn, close to the southern terminus of what was once the Canadian Pacific Railway's short but sweet northern line. The next morning the historic station hums with colour and energy as vivid lycra-enclosed cyclists of all ages begin their cycle north or wait along with us for the increasingly busy shuttle started by Aline and Maxime Raymond 16 years ago. Operating out of a railway icon, an old red caboose, they offer bike rentals, luggage transport, and a bike and passenger shuttle service to the northern terminus of Mont-Laurier with stops en route as requested. This morning 12 of us crowd into the bus, 10 going to Mont-Laurier and two hardy cousins exiting at Mont-Tremblant Tourist Village, for the 91-km. return.
Two hours later, our coterie is in Mont-Laurier, buying food from the adjacent supermarket, checking out the old station, and obtaining information from the volunteer patrol, two of 40 cyclists who regularly cover the route to offer assistance.
There are many ways to experience Le P'tit Train, and Jean-Claude Lancup from Voyageur B & B in Mont-Tremblant has come up with a great way to package them all. He organizes tours lasting from two to six days, booking small quality inns (auberges) along the route, arranging for dinners, and co-coordinating daily luggage pickup and delivery to each venue, so that cyclists can concentrate solely on the trail and leave the pleasures at the end of each day to gently unfold.
One such pleasure was the creton he served us for breakfast, a spicy pork pâté that's one of Quebec's gifts to the world. The most popular of the itineraries, the Classical, consists of 3 nights and 4 days, but le Baladeur, the one we chose, gives us two extra days of bliss: why be in a hurry to leave heaven? The word embraces the fine art of meandering, something we learned to do extremely well, whether it was cooling off in the region's ubiquitous lakes and rivers, or picking wild raspberries, or feeding curious horses, or stopping at the many renovated old railway stations.
At km. 145, Nominingue Station offers a sliver of railway history wedged between the visitor centre and the craft shop. At km. 107 we scoop up strawberry shortcake on the deck at Labelle Station, watching children clambering up on the old red caboose. At others we picnic at shady tables, fill up with cold drinking water, and chat with knowledgeable bilingual volunteers. Many towns along the way offer further pleasures, and never do we seem to be further than a bicycle pump's toss away from lakeside seats, toilets, picnic shelters, or drinking water.
Like the railway stations, every auberge has its own flavour, from sylvan at La Croisee des Chemins, to historic at the 120-year-old Auberge de la Gare, where a dégustation (sampling) of delicious fruity Belgian beers on the deck is a perfect finish to a hot day. Chez Ignace, an extra bonus after an easy day's cycle on Day 2, is another highlight. After swimming and canoeing in Nominingue Lake across from the inn, we return to a connoisseur's cornucopia served up by Ignace, a chef and hotelier with a venerable Belgian pedigree in the hospitality industry.
On Day 6, we roll back to Saint-Jérôme and its welcoming outdoor restaurants and within minutes we're raising our glazed glasses to the trip that has re-defined soft adventure.
IF YOU GO:
" When to go: Mid to late August is perfect. There are few insects, more predictable good weather, and the beginning of crispy, multi-hued leaf displays. The trail closes to cyclists after Thanksgiving and opens after the May long weekend.
" Is English spoken? Most Québécois on this route are bilingual
" Bike rentals, daily luggage transport, shuttle: www.autobuslepetittraindunord.com.
Photo captions: (Photos by Cherie Thiessen )
1. The shuttle service takes us from Saint-Jérôme to Mont-Laurier.
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