I've experienced many unexpected sightings from the seat of my bicycle over the years. But this was the first time I'd come across a large deer. My wife, Galya, and I were near Rivière-Rouge, Que., about 15 kilometres into the second morning of our four-day bike trip in the Laurentians. As we got closer, the deer gave us a furtive look before dashing into the adjoining forest. Hours later, near La Conception, we encountered three more deer. And the next day, between Mont-Tremblant and Saint-Faustin-Lac-Carré, we saw a beaver about seven metres to our right, traversing a pond, its mouth filled with improbably large branches.
While not exactly a wildlife safari, our two-wheeled odyssey along one of Canada's finest bike trails contrasted sharply with the urban settings where we usually cycled. In the more remote areas, surrounded by dense wilderness and endless lakes and rivers, it was almost as if we were on a canoe trip, on wheels.
In recent years, Galya and I have often mixed cycling with travel, especially in and around cities (notably Rome, Jerusalem, Montreal, Quebec City and New York). We like exploring places and discovering things we wouldn't see if we were in a car, tour bus or on foot, urban hazards notwithstanding. Last summer, when we heard about the Laurentians trip along a former railway, we knew we had to go.
Called the P'tit Train du Nord, the route was inspired by the railway of the same name. Inaugurated in 1909, the train transported lumber industry workers and tourists from Montreal to the Laurentians for decades. Like so many other railways in the second half of the 20th century, it was doomed by the expansion of highways and air travel and finally closed in the late eighties.
In 1996, the route was converted into a continuous 230-km trail for cyclists and cross-country skiers. Many of the former train stations along the way found new life as cafés, boutiques, exhibition spaces, tourist kiosks and rest areas. As with the Gare/Musée d'Orsay in Paris, Britain's National Cycle Network and the Belt Line in Toronto, the reincarnation of the P'tit Train du Nord has found a following.
And no wonder, with the Laurentian tourism board making a visit so easy. After supplying us with a selection of small hotels and B&Bs along the route, and then hearing our preferences, they made all the reservations. If needed, they can also arrange for rented bikes and other services. We opted for a four-day journey (serious cyclists could easily do it in two) and a service to pick up our bag each morning and bring it to our next destination.
We left Toronto on a warm day in August for Saint-Jérôme, 50 km north of Montreal. The next morning, at the town's old train station, we caught the 8 a.m. shuttle to Mont-Laurier, 2½ hours north, stocked up on water and food for a picnic lunch, and off we went.
The first day was the hardest. The heat was intense and our muscles untested. We saw all manner of bicycles, from high-end to basic, and all manner of cyclists, with great diversity in age, riding prowess, attire, accessories and amount of baggage.
The route was paved, clean and well maintained, and occasional large bumps were circled in fluorescent paint to give cyclists advance notice. Shelters and washrooms dot the route, and each kilometre is marked so you can easily tell how far you've pedalled – and how far you still have to go.
After nearly 60 km, we arrived in Nominingue, next to a large lake of the same name, where we spent our first night. Our bag was waiting for us as we checked in at the Auberge Villa Bellerive. The accommodation was pretty basic, but the (optional) dinner was excellent, a good thing as there are few other places to eat nearby.
The next morning, under an overcast sky, we set out for Mont-Tremblant, 47 km to the south. About 30 minutes into the ride, a heavy rain forced us to take cover in one of the wooden structures along the route, along with two red-uniformed members of the bike patrol, always at the ready in case of flat tires or an accident.
Once back on the path, the scenery was intoxicating. The trail curves around lakes, rivers and fields, and runs through several touristy towns and cottage areas. We had heard the Kayak Café in Labelle was a good spot for lunch, and planned to nab a table on the outdoor terrace overlooking the Rouge River and Iroquois Falls. But another torrential rain arrived, so we watched the storm from inside where we enjoyed tasty soup, salads and wraps. It would be the last rain of the trip. A good thing, because just after Labelle, the paved trail gives way to gravel and hard-packed earth for the rest of the route.
That evening, we stayed in the old village of Mont-Tremblant next to Lake Mercier, about 15 km from the resort area, and awoke to a dazzling blue sky. This, our last full day, included an extended section uphill, the most challenging of the journey.
We refuelled with a light lunch of soup and paninis on the terrace at Stazione, just off the trail in Saint-Faustin-Lac-Carré, before continuing on to Val-David for our final night. There we stayed at a small, charming inn called La Maison de Bavière, run by two former teachers from Montreal. Given the beauty of the site, we decided on a picnic dinner next to the Rivière du Nord and the waterfalls.
On our final morning, we indulged in a hearty breakfast before pushing off southbound, happy that much of our remaining route was downhill. Three hours later, when we reached Saint-Jérôme and passed a large sign reading “Kilometre 0,” we had mixed emotions: satisfaction in completing such a physical undertaking, and disappointment that such a wonderful journey was over.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Friendly staff at Tourisme Laurentides (the Laurentian tourism board) will help you organize your Pet't Train du Nord trip, including finding accommodations and arranging bike rentals and shuttle service for your bikes and
baggage. 1-800-561-6673; 450-224-7007; laurentides.com/parclineaire
For more information on baggage handling, bike rentals and other services, contact Transport du Parc Linéaire, located at the departure/arrival point in Saint-Jérôme, next to the old train station. 1-888-686-1323; transportdu-parclineaire.com
Where to eat en route
Kayak Café, in Labelle. A comfortable outdoor terrace offers a beautiful view of the Rouge River and Iroquois Falls. Extensive menu; open for lunch and dinner. (Also offers canoe and kayak excursions in summer.) 8 rue du Camping; 819-686-1111; kayak-cafe.com
La Stazione, in Saint-Faustin-Lac-Carré. This charming bistro has a nice outdoor terrace and specializes in paninis, thin-crust pizza and homemade ice cream. 1830 rue Principale; 819-421-4000
C'est La Vie Café, in Val-David. Drop into this artistic café for breakfast or lunch (quiches, salads, sandwiches). 1347 rue la Sapinière; 819-320-0273; cestlaviecafe.ca
Where to stay
Maison de Bavière, in Val-David overlooks the Rivière du Nord waterfalls. It is beautifully decorated with attentive, personable service. 1-866-322-3528; maisondebaviere.com; from $65.
Good to know
There's an excellent bike store next to Hôtel Mont-Tremblant, in case you need repairs or accessories.
Special to The Globe and Mail