Biking to Montreal from Burlington, Vermont – A Great 2-Day Ride!

(Part two of our series on the Véloroute des Bleuets in Quebec)

If you read our last blog article about cycling the Véloroute des Bleuets you will have gotten a sense of just how complicated it is to get to this beautiful cycling route from New York City. If you are relying on a flight to get you (and your bike) to Montreal, everything falls apart if that flight is cancelled or substantially delayed. So why even bother with the flight, when you can just drive to Burlington, Vermont and do a relaxing 2-day ride to get to Montreal, with about 50 miles of riding each day?  It’s the perfect “warm-up” ride for doing the Véloroute des Bleuets because it’s relatively flat. Plus, the time it takes you to drive to Burlington from NYC pretty much cancels out the time it takes you to pack up your bike in a box, get to the airport, wait for your flight, etc. Why put yourself through this stress when (if you have the time) you can just do a great 2-day bike ride?

Burlington is the perfect place to begin a ride like this. As Vermont’s largest city, there are many services, restaurants and places to stay before you start your ride. I was able to rent a pick-up truck at a bargain price from a local Enterprise Rent-a-Car near me and I paid $50 extra to drop it off at their location in South Burlington. When I arrived, it took me 10 minutes to return the truck, set up my bike, use the bathroom….and then I was off!  Burlington’s waterfront bike path was only a half-mile away!

The Island Line trail runs between the lake and the train, and is clearly signed.

If you enjoy urban waterfront bike paths, Burlington’s 14-mile long Island Line Trail is one of the best. Well maintained with clear signage, it takes you right along the shore of Lake Champlain, in between the water and the tracks for the Vermont Railway. Restaurants, stores and bike shops line the bike path on the city-side as you approach downtown. Then, after passing through beautiful parkland (with a swimming beach right on the trail) the trail crosses the Winooski River and reaches a long, spectacular causeway that goes out into the center of Lake Champlain, taking  you to South Hero Island. But before you get to the island, you have to cross a 200-foot gap in the causeway. Fortunately a local non-profit called Local Motion operates a bike ferry to close this gap. It’s smooth sailing to South Hero Island. 

Once you are off the causeway, it’s back to road riding. But riding across South Hero Island and North Hero Island is fantastic, with scenic low-traffic back roads that you can enjoy. At some points you will need to ride on US Route 2, but that road isn’t super busy or scary. The main concern at this point will be making sure you know where you are staying the night and know where you can get lunch and/or dinner. It’s at least 32 miles to get from the end of the causeway to the Canadian border. Since stores, restaurants and accommodations are rather spread out, you will want to plan out where you will stay (and where you will eat beforehand).  One place that you will need to pass by (since the island is narrow in this location and you can only ride on Route 2) is Hero’s Welcome general store. They make great sandwiches. Stop here if it’s lunchtime!

The border town of Alburg, Vermont is about halfway between Burlington and Montreal.  So if you are doing this ride over 2 days, you will need to decide if you want to spend the night in Canada or the USA. If you are looking for a B&B or an Inn, you can find a few of these on the Vermont side if you want to ride a little less than half the distance on the first day.  For a motel, your best bet is to cross over into New York (via ferry or bridge) where a motel is available in the border town of Rouses Point. There is also a hotel in the Quebec town of Blackpool, but it’s next to a big highway.

Alburg, VT has a smaller border crossing that’s easy for bikes.

If you are looking to camp, a great option is Sleepy Hollow Campground in Noyan, Quebec. Staying here allows you to go through a very quiet border crossing between Alburg and Noyan.  The roads on the Quebec side are absolutely delightful, with wide farm vistas leading down to the Richelieu River. It’s about 5 miles from the border crossing to the campground. All of it on beautiful riding on roads with hardly any cars. 

The roads between the border and the campground look like this.

The campground is a real gem – with its own beach right on the river and boats you can rent to go out on the water.  They have a restaurant that’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so you do not need to worry about where you will eat. However, the campground is cash only and you’ll need to ride 2.5 miles (each way) to get to an ATM (and the nearest store if you need to buy anything).  But the ride into town is flat, easy, and goes over a beautiful bridge. 

Sunset at Sleepy Hollow Campground

No matter where you spend the night, the second day of riding is almost as nice as the first. From the campground in Noyan, it’s about 50 miles to downtown Montreal. (It’s a little less from the hotels along the highway, a little more if you stayed the night in Vermont).  The terrain is mostly flat as you head through the farms and suburban areas of southern Quebec. And there are plenty of great bike paths you can take so that you don’t have to ride with cars.  

The first bike path you ride in Quebec is super quiet

The first bike path is a 16-mile long rail trail that is flat and straight between Lacolle and Sainte-Clothilde-de-Chateauguay. If you ride in the summer, the quiet nature of this trail allows it to be filled with grasshoppers (who jump out of your way as you ride through) and butterflies (who flutter past).  After the path it’s a couple of miles on quiet farm roads, and then its back on another 6.5-mile bike path that runs alongside one of the major arterials into Montreal. The trail also runs alongside a huge wind-farm.

Quiet roads next to fields of wheat connect the bike paths

After this bike path, you only have to ride about 4 miles on another quiet road, once again next to farms, until you get to the suburban municipality of Saint-Constant and the bike paths start up again.  It is here that you’ll get a real appreciation for just how much focus has been put on bicycle paths in the Montreal metro area, particularly with new residential developments. It’s 11 miles to Montreal…and it’s bike paths the whole way.  The last few miles are the most spectacular as you ride along the Saint Lawrence River…and cross it on a bikes-only bridge that goes directly to Nun’s Island, one of the smaller islands next to the larger Ile de Montreal. It’s here that the City of Montreal’s excellent bike route network begins, which can take you anywhere you want to go in the city. 

The suburban bike network in Saint-Constant is unlike anything you would see in most American suburbs

Montreal is a great destination for cyclists looking to ride around a city for a couple of days. In my case, it would just be a stop-over before catching a train the next morning to Chambord to access the Véloroute des Bleuets. So I stayed at the very bike-friendly Hostelling International Montreal which has a bike storage area and is only a few blocks away from Montreal’s central train station. 

A bridge for bikes only takes you into Montreal

 Check out the other blog articles in this series to learn more about getting to and riding the the Véloroute des Bleuets.

Cycling the Véloroute des Bleuets in Québec – Part One: A beautiful cycling route that is challenging to get to!

 

A typical view on the Veloroute des Bleuets

A typical view on the Véloroute des Bleuets.

The Véloroute des Bleuets- or the blueberry route – conjures up an enticing image for most touring cyclists. A circular route that goes around a beautiful lake in the northern wilds of Quebec with endless fields of blueberries. Quebec has long been known as one of the premier cycling destinations in North America, thanks to its comprehensive bicycle route system known as the Route Verte. But this spectacular route has remained relatively unknown to most American cyclists until recently when the Quebec tourism agency stepped up its efforts to promote it in cycling magazines and at travel shows here in America.

While the main Véloroute des Bleuets circles Lac Saint-Jean, the lake also feeds the Saguenay River, which becomes a beautiful fjord as it flows towards the Saint Lawrence River. And of course another cycling route –  the Véloroute du Fjord du Saguenay – goes along both sides of the fjord and connects to the Véloroute des Bleuets. When you combine both systems, you get an expansive network of more than 700 km of cycling routes ranging from off-road pathways to on-street bike routes. 

The Véloroute des Bleuets and the Véloroute du Fjord du Saguenay encircle Lac Saint-Jean and the Saguenay fjord in northern Quebec. This remote, yet populated, region is well north of Quebec City, at a latitude just north of the northern end of Maine. It is a substantial distance from New York City.

In addition to being a spectacular bike ride, you’d be hard-pressed to find another region in North America that is more set up for bicycle tourism than the Lac Saint-Jean/Saguenay region of Quebec. Every two years they produce a comprehensive guide in both English and French that details every aspect of both routes including the locations of all accommodations, services, transportation and points of interest. With this guide, you can plan out every aspect of your trip. 

But the guide also allows you to leave some aspects of your tour unplanned, since the plethora of information contained in it lets you know your options with each town you ride through. 

The map and guidebook for the Véloroute des Bleuets and the Véloroute du Fjord du Saguenay shows every town you will pass through and the type of bicycle facility you will ride. Green means paved, flat bike paths. Yellow means dirt bike paths or riding on a road. Red means riding on a road with hills. The guide gives so much information, it is almost overwhelming.

When I did this tour, I felt I only needed to book one accommodation in advance – a lakefront campsite at Pointe Taillon National Park – since those appeared to be in high demand. For all other accommodations, I had confidence that armed with this guide, I would find a place each night to rest my head. My plan was to camp each night if the weather was good. If not, I’d get a room at a hotel or motel.  There were so many options in the guide, I figured it would not be an issue. So many accommodations were listed as “Bienvenue Cyclistes!” accommodations, meaning they were certified as bike friendly. I would figure it out as I went along. There are also trip planning services that will book your accommodations for you and carry your gear. But you will have to start and end your ride in the City of Alma and you will have to follow a particular itinerary and stay in certain places.

While this all seems easy and straightforward at first, you must first tackle the challenge of figuring out how you will get to such a remote region, especially if you intend to ride your own bicycle. When I met the friendly Quebec tourism folks at the 2019 Bike Expo New York, I asked them about it.  How do I get there? They didn’t really have a good answer other than to drive the approximately 650 miles between New York City and Lac Saint-Jean and park in one of the designated parking areas for the route (of which there are several). But doing this has a number of disadvantages. First, it would lock me in to starting and ending the ride at the same spot, which wasn’t going to work for me since I wanted to do both the Véloroute des Bleuets and the Véloroute du Fjord. It was too complicated to do both without backtracking a substantial distance to get back to the car, which would also add days to the trip which I did not have (I only had a week).  While Equinox Adventures offered a 6-day tour out of Alma that did both the lake and the fjord where I could also get bag carrying services, this was only available for private groups of 4 or more, and I didn’t have 3 other friends to bring with me. Plus, since I am a New Yorker who doesn’t own a car, what am I supposed to do, rent a car to just have it sit in a parking lot for a week?

Fortunately, there was another way, but it involved stitching together a number of bike-friendly train and ferry services. I liked the route offered by Equinox Adventures – a six day itinerary where 3 days are spent going around Lac Saint-Jean, one day is spent riding between the lake and the fjord, one day is spent on the fjord, and the last day to get back to Alma by shuttle. But in my case, instead of getting back to a car parked in Alma, I would go to Quebec City instead by train. There I would meet my wife and son and they would drive me home.  But even if they could not do this, there are ways to get home from Quebec City with a bike using Via Rail to Montreal and then taking it from there (and that’s a story for another day). 

So to set this up, even though this route is highly amenitized once I get up there, it would take an enormous amount  of planning. How do I get up there? How do I make sure I can get back? What if something goes wrong and I miss a connection?  This was the first part of the adventure.

The train from Montreal to Chambord is actually two trains stuck together. They separate halfway and go to different towns. Each half of the train is an engine, a passenger car and a baggage car. So you really get to know the other passengers and crew during your 8 hour journey!

The plan I hatched was to fly from LaGuardia to Montreal on American Airlines.  American now allows bikes that are packed into boxes as checked baggage with just the standard baggage fees (or no fee if you have an American Airlines credit card). So this would be great.  I would fly to Montreal with my bike in a box and unpack and assemble my bike at the Montreal airport using one of their handy bike stations. Then I would ride my bike to downtown (on a great bike path!) and stay overnight at the bike-friendly Hosteling International hostel near Montreal’s central train station. The next morning I would just ride a few blocks to the station and get on an 8-hour train ride to Chambord,

There is a vast wilderness between Montreal and Lac Saint-Jean, and the train goes right through it. It takes 8 hours, and you stop at many train stations like these – mere huts in the middle of the woods. It’s a unique experience you’ll find only in Quebec!

which is right on Lac Saint-Jean. This train ride is long, but the ticket is very cheap ($60 CAD) and the bike rides for free with no box in the baggage car. I’d get in at 4:30 p.m. and then I could either stay the night in Chambord, or if I felt up for it, ride a little on the Véloroute and stay in the next town. 

Towards the end of my ride, my plan was to utilize a ferry service to cut some of the riding distance along the Véloroute du Fjord du Saguenay. Since the route doesn’t really go along the water (and is very hilly), I figured it would be worth it to see more of the fjord from the boat and spare myself the hills. I would end my ride on this route in Saint-Simeon and then ride to La Malbaie on the final day. In La Malbaie I could board a scenic railroad –  the Train de Charlevoix – which would take me to Quebec City with my bike. 

The ferry, which runs the length of the Saguenay Fjord.

The Train de Charlevoix, a scenic railroad that goes between La Malbaie and Quebec City.

 

So after spending many, many hours planning this out and making the various reservations for the plane, two trains and a ferry, I was ready to roll. But it turned out that the day of my departure was LaGuardia’s second busiest passenger day of its history (thanks to flight-cancelling thunderstorms the day before). When I finally got on my (massively delayed) flight, more thunderstorms rolled in and the flight was cancelled. This is when the dominoes started to fall. That train between Montreal and Chambord?  Well it only runs Monday-Wednesday-Friday. So now I had to figure out another way to get to Montreal and arrive on either a Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday to get the train. I would also need to re-book the ferry ride, my lakefront camping reservation and the ride back on the scenic railroad. Wow. 

The solution I concocted was unorthodox, but it worked!  In fact, it worked better than my initial plan. I would now rent a pick-up truck and throw my bike in the back. I’d drive to Burlington, Vermont on Friday and then I’d spend Saturday and Sunday riding between Burlington and Montreal. This ride would be fantastic – worth the aggravation.  And I will give you all the details in the next blog article!