Struggling up a steep hill in the blazing afternoon heat, I heard a noise. An old man was effortlessly cycling past me, laughing and pointing to the electric motor attached to his bike. His French was too quick for me to catch, but I’d guess he was saying something like, “you need to get yourself one of these”, pointing out the fact that I was grinding away on my own bike, making slow, sweaty progress. But what would be the fun in that?
I was halfway through an eight-day, 500km trip along several sections of La Route Verte (The Green Road), a recently completed 5,000km network of connected cycling trails across Canada’s French-speaking Quebec region. A mix of dedicated bike trails, on-road cycle paths and dirt tracks, La Route Verte is North America’s longest cycling network, named by National Geographic as the world’s greatest bike trail, taking in the gamut of what Quebec has to offer: from cosmopolitan cities to tiny riverside villages, from thick forest, windswept coast and rugged mountains to glistening rivers, lakes and fjords.
I picked up a rental bike and cycling gear from Cyclo Services on the edge of Quebec City’s Old Town, and caught a ferry to the south shore of the Saint Lawrence river, leaving behind the hilltop hotel Le Château Frontenac, where US President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King drew up plans for the D-Day landings during World War II. Picking up a section of Route Verte 1, which for much of the day joins with the 470km, car-heavy Navigator’s Route, I kept the mighty Saint Lawrence on my left and pedalled northeast through vast stretches of countryside toward the art-filled, waterfront towns of Cap-St-Ignace and Saint-Jean-Port-Joli; the farmland broken up by small villages of white wooden houses and churches bearing the region’s distinctive silver-coloured spires.
The further I rode, the grander and wilder the landscapes became, the warm sun lighting up fields of yellow canola. The Saint Lawrence, an almost constant by my side, seemed to change colour throughout the day, from choppy, muddy brown to a calm, silvery blue.
For the early French explorers who arrived in Quebec province in the 1530s, the Saint Lawrence was key to the development and success of the region. The riverside settlements of Kébec and Ville-Marie – which were the start of French expansion into an area that became known as New France – would many years later become the booming urban areas of Quebec City and Montreal respectively. The Saint Lawrence was also vital in the early transport of fur and lumber, and saw action during WWII as well, with fighting between German, British, Dutch and Canadian submarines and warships.
Riding away from the river and out into the open countryside en route to my overnight stop in the village of Kamouraska, 152km northeast of Quebec City, I noticed a statue standing alone in a field – a grey and ghostly figure with a small, pointy face. As I got closer to the village, designated one of the most beautiful in Quebec, I saw similar statue down by the water’s edge, this one featuring two figures huddled together. The riverside duo stood arm in arm, pointing east, where I was heading. It felt like a good omen.
The next morning I quickly covered another 45km, following Route Verte 1 northeast to the small riverside port of Rivière-du-Loup, and caught a boat out to Brandy Pot Island. “Some say the name comes from the time of prohibition in Canada, when smugglers used the islands,” said guide Greg Gionet as we circled the island, watching for seals basking on rocks. “But the name dates further back. When the first navigators came here, there were lots of holes that rain water gathered in and over time it turned the colour of brandy or whisky.”
I stayed overnight in the 150-year-old Brandy Pot Island lighthouse, which was vital to the safety of fur, lumber and other trade ships travelling on the treacherous and rocky river. In the days before automation, the lighthouse keeper had to stay up all night to keep the lights burning.
Built in 1851, the lighthouse was abandoned in 1964 and fell into disrepair until a local company turned it into a three-room B&B in 1989. It is now a listed Federal Heritage Building, and the island is a protected wildlife reserve, home to breeding and nesting guillemots and razorbills.