Sunday, October 11, 2015

Touring Quebec's Vineyards and Apple Orchards

Early Monday morning I scramble aboard a commuter bus with panniers, tent, handlebar bag, pillow sack, and coffee cup clustered around my feet, doing a mental check that I've loaded every piece of baggage after the driver had closed the bicycle compartment, a brilliant design to carry up to 4 bikes in horizontal trays beneath the bus. The bus is nearly empty and after I feed my 4 dollar bills into the machine, I settle in for the 40 minute interstate ride, smiling at my luck with the forecast for the 3 day vacation: sunshine and mid 70s F with cool nights. It's ideal weather for September, my favorite month for a bike tour.

Inspector Gamache is a central character in mystery books by a favorite author, Lousie Penny,
who resides just over the Canadian border in the region where I was heading. Oh, the irony! 
I have used these longer distance buses on other trips, recently on last year's Hazen's Notch/Lake Carmi Bike Overnight. It's an efficient way to start riding in more remote areas while leaving the car behind and I've come to prefer this method rather than the added hassle of locating a safe place to park the car for a couple nights. An hour after I got on the bus, I exit and repack my bike, then set off northeastward, following one of two predetermined Google Maps routes, as opposed to the more commonly traveled Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail - a route I biked last year.

Rolling through Franklin County farmland has magical moments: back roads are fairly quiet, the terrain is reasonably flat for long stretches, and corn fields are king. It's common to notice silos in the distance before cruising by the actual farmhouse and barns. In most locations, farmers are harvesting corn, with the outer perimeter mowed first. Cow manure, coupled with full wagon loads of ground corn, filled my morning ride with appropriate Vermont perfume.

Morses Line border, a huge farm appears to straddle both countries,
At some point the farmland gave way to more hilly terrain and I got off course, but was able to realign myself in Franklin, aided by a friendly construction worker. I took the opportunity to ask more questions about the area, as I would be re-entering two days later using an alternate border crossing.

Morses Line is one of several small US/Canadian crossings. However, the Canadian patrol appears more serious, with larger buildings and a remote rolling chain link fence that opens and closes between each traveler. I always want to snap photos to document the peculiarities of each, but don't ever want to raise the patrol's ire or jeopardize my vacation in any way.

In Canada I follow a bike loop prescribed by La Route Des Vins, Quebec's signed winery route and the inspiration for this adventure: to visit and explore this farming region during harvest. This encompasses vineyards, but is also prime apple growing region. I stop to inspect and photograph one orchard, and the wooden boxes in particular, because the growers names identify each farm and I imagine shipment is key advertising.

I was putting my camera back in it's case when the proprietor cruised by on his lawnmower and stopped to chat. As with most of our northern neighbor's, Canadians easily switch between French and English, gladly conversing in whichever language is appropriate, which entices me - considering my French consists of 50 words - to include Canadian travel whenever I can. It turns out that the orchard owner was awaiting cool nights for the Macintosh apples to redden before calling in his Mexican harvesting crew.

You know you are in Canada when roads commonly take 90 degree turns, which I presume is to loop around farm fields and drainage ditches.

Pedaling the Route Des Vins, as I mentioned, means also enjoying surrounding farmland, never more evident than a vineyard route sign standing in a cornfield!

Cemeteries are fascinating places, often lending historical significance to a region. The landscape is often serene, a nice place for a picnic, or private meanderings. I've never viewed cemeteries as creepy or morbid, but calm, peaceful spots to enjoy thoughts about loved ones, or in the case of foreign cemeteries, a peek into another culture.
Taking a break at a cemetery, leaning my heavy bicycle against a fence for support, I notice a cluster of old stones set uncommonly close together.

There are multiple generations of the Corey family, once a family cemetery in East Stanbridge. Due to mining operations, vandalism, and neglect (according to an inscription on a monument), their graveyard was moved to the current Ridge location in 1995 for further preservation.

I was rather taken with the ingenious use of mountain bike wheel as gate-helper.

I visited one winery only a few "clicks" (Canadian reference to kilometers) from my intended campground, sampling then buying a bottle of seyval white plus a smaller bottle of black current aperitif. I was quite tired when I arrived at the campsite and though it was only 1:30 pm, I decided to stay put and make due with camp store food for dinner. The next town and grocery store was 6 km further and I wasn't up for double the mileage - not to mention unfamiliar terrain - to hopefully, vary my diet. Because I was unfit for long miles in the the saddle - my regular 10 mile round-trip commute inadequate preparation - I gave myself permission to relax on this adventure and stop when I felt fatigued. From past experience, I know there's a fine line between enjoying a tour and pushing one's physical limits to exhaustion for the sake of saying I've cycled "X" miles.

I relaxed in the sunshine for an hour, lying on a bench in the sunny part of the campground, exploring the facilities, then returned to my site, pulling on warm clothing, the chill already settling in my shady site. I sipped a bit of the sweet black currant wine pre-dinner - my stainless steel pot doubles as mug - and it's 19 percent alcohol immediately warmed my belly.

The rice dinner was going to take a while to cook so I studied my maps. And studied. Then studied some more...all the while wondering how I could sip more of the delicious currant drink. I considered taking swigs from the bottle, but dismissed that idea. Surely, I'd planned to share the aperitif with someone else when I returned home.

I devised a simple cup from my water bottle cap. I could only pour a bit of liquor, drink it, then put is down, a self regulation device, except one sip plus one sip, well, plus one more led me to a happy state, and eventually I'd consumed a quarter of the bottle, finally capping it and placing the remains beneath the tent vestibule to get it out of my sight.

There were many interesting features: a cement pot (in above photo), tiny red signs to denote the perimeter trail as opposed to feeder trails that directed one on a beeline back to the campground, rough-cut wooden benches.
and wild camp sites.
After dinner I explored part of the perimeter trail that encompasses La Foret de Freli campground. It would be an unusual sight in Vermont, and I suspect it's a managed forest - in many places through the open woodland I spied occupied campsites in the distance - so I felt safe and roamed for a half hour on an easily graded trail, knowing I couldn't possibly get lost.

Breakfast in a public space in Frelighsburg.
It was a long, cool night - the downside of September bike tours - and I was thankful to have added a newly purchased sleeping bag liner to my camping gear. With a couple cups of tea to warm my fingers in the morning and after pecking a few e-mails to family (another first: toting a lightweight laptop as an experiment as I knew my phone wouldn't function in Canada), I packed a few items for the day, leaving the tent set up for my return to spend a second evening.

Downtown Frelighsburg.
I'm glad I waited until morning to pedal into Frelighsburg; the route was undulating, with two steep hills.

Enjoying breakfast at a public picnic spot.
However, Frelighsburg is a delightful community situated along a river with public spaces, a well stocked market, and a few restaurants. It's also a cross roads of sorts and particularly for bike riders as it seems to be a stop on a circuit - I spy a few souls, standing over their bikes, sipping from water bottles. I inspect the signage that will eventually lead me back to the U.S. the following day via another border crossing (only five miles away), then buy local apples, a baguette, cheese, and coffee for breakfast.

A chilly, cloudy morning! I enjoy the ride around this lovely lake.
Fortified, I head off on back roads after a difficult 12 percent rise out of town. I have a wonderful map (provided at the campground) that identifies all the vineyards, every back road, complete with route numbers. There is no differentiation between paved and dirt roads, however this doesn't pose a problem as the dirt variety are well maintained and my old mountain bike can certainly handle both. The beauty of riding bikes in this region, as I'm learning, is there are numerous ways to get somewhere. I have a general idea of where I want to go, leaving vineyard visits for afternoon (places don't open until at least 11 am) but I also know I can alter my route at any time and head back when the mood strikes me.

I have a grand time, pedaling past a lovely lakeside community, quickly riding through busy Dunham, then past more orchards, "U.P." (u-pick) places, farm stands, and huge cornfields amidst harvest. Large tractors often pass, hauling full wagons yet giving me a wide berth. Farmers bouncing high in their cabs swap waves and smiles.

 Plump grapes ready for harvest.
It's noon when I slowly stop at one crossroads. There are two large vineyards with huge buildings on either side plus more vineyards indicated within a half mile on my map. It's a grape lover's jackpot and as I later learned, this hillside is warmer than surrounding land, perfect for growing grapes. I'm overwhelmed and cannot decide which place to visit when a "Cidre" sign across the street sounds interesting.

An apple orchard and house and barns above the Union Libre property with a stunning panoramic view.
Union Libre Cidre turns out to be primarily a business producing sparkling and concentrated ice ciders, using various methods for unique flavors. A lovely young lady pours 6 samples for me, giving me a general overview of the cider business, then a more detailed explanation of each sample. Ciders are modeled after the popular ice wine business where frozen grapes are harvested and pressed to produce a sweeter wine. I'd tried ice wine before, not exactly smitten with the flavor, but the ice cider is exemplary! I particularly love the fire cider version - it's lighter than the caramely, thicker dessert-type ciders - and more affordable. I buy a bottle, stow it in my panniers, then eat my lunch at a picnic table on the cidery's grounds.

Rose is commonly produced in the Monteregie region.
I pedal more back roads, enjoying the sunshine that was slow to show itself on this day, then head back to Frelighsburg along an alternate river route. It proves to be less taxing way to go so again I stock up on groceries (touring cyclists should never be without some kind of sustenance!), and retrace the riverside route towards an alternate way back to the campground (the preferred route when leaving the following morning).

I still had energy by mid-afternoon so I detour along a dirt road to visit Domaine du Ridge. It is a huge vineyard, less personal than Domaine de l'Ardennais that I'd visited nearby on the previous day. I bypassed the taste testing in favor of a glass of their specialty: rose. I'm not normally a fan of this variety but it was smooth and delicious, especially drunk on their outdoor terrace with the ambiance of plump grapevines creeping on the trellis overhead.

The Ridge's fields were in the midst of harvest: pickers line the fields (difficult to see in above photo) while periodic canon blasts kept the birds away.

A typical sprawling farm: numerous silos, a conglomeration of barns, with mega farmhouse. It's common to see the same family name on nearby farmland spread throughout several kilometers. Farming is done on a much grander scale that what we are used to seeing in Vermont and there seems to be much more affluence.
Lots of farms have in-ground pools beside the house.

A favorite ride and view of distant Sutton region.

Many inns and campgrounds align themselves with the Route des Vins. This where I stayed.

I enjoyed the early sun on my site on the third day and slowly packed. It took some effort to rearrange my gear to accommodate three extra bottles.

The evening before, while I was using the recreation room, an animal had helped himself to a baguette, cheese curds, and pepperoni that I'd left inside my tent. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way what destruction an animal can do to a tent. There was a gaping hole. What I didn't know until the following morning was the full extent of the damage.

After I emptied the tent I inspected the floor and walls. Fortunately, the only casualty is the 8" gash in the horizontal screen section. I cannot simply restitch the screen - a chunk of material is missing - however I plan to repair the gap by sandwiching the hole with ripstop nylon.

A brief stop on the north end of Lake Carmi in East Franklin. Like Lake Champlain, there are numerous camps and houses on the shoreline.
Late morning I set off amidst totally blue sky. The border crossing proved simple and easy and when I confessed to hauling a few bottles of wine, the guard wasn't the least concerned. It appears there is not necessarily a quota as previously mentioned at the cidery. However, I struggled up hills, feeling the additional weight and I was certainly taxing the hardware on my inexpensive panniers.

It's not my normal practice on bike overnights to head home carrying more weight than when I initially set out, so for future wine tasting tours, it will be a better idea to use four panniers, instead of two, to evenly distribute added purchases.

Hanging out at Saint Albans Bay for 1.5 hours.
Again, using my printed Google maps and Vermont highway map I was able to return to Saint Albans on a completely different route, bee lining for Lake Champlain to hang out for while before catching the bus ride back to Burlington.

This adventure has resonated with me, even three weeks later as I write this post. Even if one is not a fan of wine tasting, the network of back roads with little traffic has tremendous appeal, And with a central campground as base, it's possible to ride numerous loops, and stock up on groceries in Frelighsburg each day. As I pedaled, I was thinking of my husband (trip partner extraordinaire) and Adele who accompanied me last year on Tour de Ticonderoga, and of my dear friend, Patty who was forever on my mind because our love of wine reminded me of our trip in Provence. I know I'll return to La Route des Vins region in the future and hopefully the next adventure will include a companion.


  1. What a nice trip report - and wonderful adventure. Apparently we are of the same thoughts about cycling adventure -- enjoy and have fun rather than exhaust oneself by, for some unknown reason, racking up miles. Thanks for the read, I am enljoying much of your blog stories.

    1. Thank you Nancy for your kind thoughts. I have learned over the years to just enjoy cycling,: whether it's an overnight tour, pedaling to work, or doing errands by bike.


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