Standing on the verandah of our bed-and-breakfast, viewing the calm waters of Lac Raymond on the other side of a green field dotted with wildflowers, breathing the pine scent wafting from the hills on the late-afternoon breeze, Morey summed up our first day in the Laurentian Mountains with one of those questions that push back the limits of wisdom.
"I don't understand," he said. "Why doesn't, like, everyone want to come here?"
My theory: They do, but they can't vocalize it because they can't pronounce the word "Laurentians." Either that, or they assume that, because it's in Canada, the region has no summer.
Well, there is a summer here, a splendid one, and we'd picked the right week to find that out. We'd quit for the day after biking the first 24 miles of the Parc Lineaire le P'tit Train du Nord, a 125-mile rail trail--the longest in North America, its caretakers claim--that wends through the region from St.-Jerome to Mont-Laurier. We were tuckered out owing to a heat wave gripping a good portion of our continent, yet here, about an hour by car northwest of Montreal and two hours from the New York border, the nights--while not chilly, as usual--were pleasantly cool. According to the papers, it was 20 degrees cooler than in Washington.
The line was founded a century ago to bring Catholic priests from Montreal to the logging camps of the north country and spawned resort villages en route. It gave up the ghost in 1981, but most of it was resurrected, sans rails and ties, in 1996. Entrepreneurs refurbished railside stores and lodgings to cater to the new clientele of bikers, hikers, cross-country skiers and snowmobilers, and the park administration renovated many of the old stations and sprinkled the route with shelters, toilets and historical markers.
I had two goals for this trip. The first was to get some exercise, which I define as any low-impact activity that looks to others like a high-impact activity and fills the time between my croissant and my feves au lard (beans in, excuse the expression, lard).
The other was to get to know the region better. I've been vacationing in the Laurentians since infancy--my great-grandparents were part of the migration of Montrealers "up north" each summer--but looking at the trail map the tourism association sent me, I realized my three decades of memories were crammed into an area corresponding to only the southernmost 25 percent of the trail.
I recruited Morey, a college chum, as the expedition's official taster. Despite a dust-mite allergy that clogs his nose much of the time, the man has an extra-sensory ability to sniff out good food. On a previous visit to my family's cabin, Morey had discovered a creperie in Ste-Adele that has haunted his memory ever since. "Creeeeeeepes," he'll cry out, wolflike, when the thought of those buckwheat pancakes, simultaneously dainty and hearty, gets too much to bear. There is some fine food to be had in the Laurentians, where the coarse cookery of the pork-dependent Nouvelle France peasantry mingles with the innovations of modern-day French and Belgian chefs.
Our B&B that first night, a former post office, was a yuppie fantasy of canopy beds, sachets and trellises. The price, $51 per night, was good, thanks to the Canadian dollar's slalom toward parity with the motley fazools of Asia--but we didn't appreciate how good until we sat down to an intricate, five-course breakfast: a plate of attractively carved fruit; pastry puffs filled with ham and eggs; a dozen tiny croques-monsieurs; a choice of crepes or omelettes; and a choice of sausages or beans.
"They didn't have to do that," Morey said as each course surpassed the last in daintiness of presentation and subtlety of taste. When we complimented our hostess, Francoise, she averted her eyes in coquettish servility and said, "When you go to your work, don't you do your best?"
"Sometimes, sometimes not," I replied. Mistaking my brutal honesty for false modesty, she continued, "It's the same with me. This is my work, and I like to do my best."
"I don't understand," Morey said after thinking long and hard about that breakfast. "Why don't all people want a crepe all the time?"
My theory: They do, but some get a perverse pleasure out of denying their desires. I'd been thinking of staying in what must be the region's most unusual resort, Ashram Sivananda Camp deYoga, as a change from all the Auberges de la This and Gites de la That, but then I read the house rules: mandatory wakey-wakey at 5:30; no meat, fish, fowl, eggs, garlic, onions, narcotics, alcohol or smoking. I'm pretty grumpy without my garlic, and I think I got more inner peace savoring Francoise's ham 'n' eggs and getting back on my bike than I would have popping my knees at the ashram.
Biking the Parc Lineaire would be pleasant at any time of the spring, summer or fall (the leaves here turn just as colorful as in New England). Weekend warriors, and the weekend worriers they marry, will be glad to know that the Laurentians are mellow, geriatric mountains; the tallest of the bunch, Mont-Tremblant, rises a mere 3,175 feet above sea level, nearly 26,000 feet less than Everest. Lacking the jagged peaks of Western Canada to brag about, the locals have taken to boasting that the Laurentians, geologic cousins to the Adirondacks, are the oldest mountains on Earth.
They ain't dead yet, though, and host a pleasing array of scenery: rapids, waterfalls, fields (many of which have become dairy farms, equestrian centers and golf courses), and, everywhere you turn, lakes--jigsawed by glaciers and deliciously swimmable. Chipmunks, butterflies and an occasional beaver kept us company; moose sightings are common.
Without knowing it, we'd selected a special time to come: It was the eve of St-Jean-Baptiste Day, Quebec's national holiday--an opportunity, perhaps, to glimpse the passions underlying the province's perpetual constitutional crisis. We biked to the ski town of Mont-Tremblant, almost at the halfway point of the trail, where festivities were planned, and checked into the youth hostel a couple of miles from the mountain.
At first, I feared Tremblant would be the worst place to seek out anything genuine about Quebec. The typical Laurentian village is an Old World charmer: a square dominated by a stone church with a gleaming silver roof; a few old stone houses that would look at home in the French countryside, mixed in with wooden ones from early this century; a depanneur, or corner store, and casse-croute, or burger stand.
The resort, on the other hand, was taken over a few years ago by Interwest, and is just like the company's other consumerist hells--a fashionable mall and condo sales operation with a world-class mountain that's hard to see through the racks of overpriced fleece and leather. It looked like the set of "The Truman Show."
Nevertheless, at 11:30 p.m., about two-dozen people gathered between two chairlifts for a simple and charming ceremony: the lighting of a huge bonfire. The only explanation I got for the bonfire was "because it is St-Jean-Baptiste." But I considered the embers tracing their own little folk dances through the sky to be a perfectly appropriate symbol of patriotic aspirations.
Morey and I both remarked what a laconic fete this was, but not in the provincial, er, national, capital, Quebec City. TV news the next morning showed armored riot police patrolling the streets. My French stinks, but I gathered that something terrible had happened to two young people.
We asked the hostel manager about it. "It's the same every year," he said dismissively. "It's like when kids from Ontario come here during Ontario Week, they often destroy their hotel rooms. Now many hotels require a big deposit." How had he turned a story about Francophone hooliganism into a story about Anglophone hooliganism? I'd just come an inch closer to understanding politics: here was the perfect voter.
The farther north we cycled, the further back in the 20th century we seemed to be propelled. The villages were less cutesified and I became more conscious that, despite the wealth deposited on the region by affluent vacationers, poverty and a perceived deficit of opportunity are still at play here. Maybe I was being hypersensitive, but on Jean-Baptiste Day itself, the third day of our tour, I was, for the first time, unsure how welcome we were. We rented a lakefront chalet at Lac Saguay, at the 102-mile mark. The chalet was the perfect vantage point from which to watch that night's fireworks, launched from a barge by a man who spent much of the evening thwacking burning debris out of his hair.
The townspeople gathered near our porch but didn't say much to us, other than asking us to turn on a light after the show. Then there was another bonfire, which I watched for a while. But nobody offered me a beer, and I felt too awkward to approach anyone, so I went to bed. I was caught, I think, in the old ambivalence of the French and English Canadians for one another: neither similar enough to embrace nor exotic enough to be curious about.
Before setting off on this trip, I'd been barraged by advice from relatives to bike the trail from north to south so we could descend from the mountains toward sea level. In reality, though, the trail rises and dips so gently that it makes no difference, in terms of energy output, which way you go. I was glad that we'd started in St-Jerome, where the restored train station and a huge map of the trail set in pavingstones make for a festive sendoff, because Mont-Laurier is a dull lumber town whose sawmill smells like dung. Though we were happy with our motel and Morey discovered heavenly raisin brioches at a bakery called La Muffinerie, the best plan would have been to spend our last night at Lac Saguay--or better yet, if we'd felt we could cover 34 miles in one day, at one of the grand lodges of Lac Nominingue, at Mile 91--and arranged ahead of time for transport upon arriving in Mont-Laurier.
We never did make it back to that creperie in Ste-Adele, so Francoise's breakfast was the only crepe Morey got on this trip. It wasn't the end of his excitement, however. At a restaurant specializing in traditional Quebec food, Morey tasted maple-sweetened feves and ham steak for the first time and momentarily grew cross with me for not warning him to get sufficiently excited about the meal. "But you're fatigued from biking," he said, "so I forgive you."
Eric Hubler is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.
DETAILS:Biking the Laurentians
GETTING THERE: Air Canada and US Airways are among the airlines that offer service to Montreal/Dorval from the Washington area; both are quoting round-trip fares starting at about $211, with restrictions. Rent a car or take a Voyageur bus from the airport to Montreal and transfer to the bus headed for the Laurentians.
If you drive, allow 15 hours from Washington to St.-Jerome. Parking is free at the former St.-Jerome train station, $3.40 a day at some other stations. Taxi St.-Jerome (1-888-393-8294) or Transport du P'tit Train du Nord (819-275-2528) can take you and your bike back to the car with 24 hours' notice.
WHAT TO DO: Weather is unpredictable in the mountains, but we lost only 15 minutes to rain and completed the trail in four days, leaving time for leisurely meals and sightseeing. Two single-day alternatives: St.-Jerome to the Parc Regionalde la Riviere-du-Nord, which offers a waterfall, picnic area and other bikable trails, and back; or Ste.-Marguerite to Ste.-Agathe-des-Monts and back. Rental bikes are available for about $17 a day. Use of the trail is free. Signs at the St.-Jerome station and several businesses along the trail request a $6.60 donation, but it's voluntary. A cyclist tried to scam my sister by demanding a usage fee; the park administration confirms there is no such fee.
WHERE TO STAY: Recommended lodgings on or near the trail:
* Auberge les Jardins de la Gare, 1790 7e Ave., Val-Morin, 819-322-5559. Rates are $47 double.
* Les Jardins de l'Achille Millefeuille, 4352 ch. des Tulipes, La Conception, 819-686-9187. Rates start at $50 double.
* Auberge des Demoiselles, 2696 ch. Tour du Lac, Lac Nominingue, 819-278-3948. Rates start at $28 double.
WHERE TO EAT: Good bets for dining include Bistro Champlain, 75 ch. Masson, Ste.-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson, 514-228-4988 (renowned for its wine cellar); L'Eau la Bouche, 3003 boul. Ste.-Adele, Ste.-Adele, 514-229-2991 (chef Anne Desjardin's base); and Au Petit Poucet, 1030 Route 117, Val-David, 819-322-2246.
INFORMATION: Tourisme Quebec (1-800-363-7777, http://www.tourisme.gouv.qc.ca) has an impressive guide to the Laurentians that contains an insert on the Parc Lineaire.
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