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Destination: Canada

A Piece of Quiet in Old Quebec

Decompressing on a rural river island in sight of Quebec City

July 26, 1998|JEAN WOESTENDIEK LETAI | Letai lives in Medfield, Mass

ILE D'ORLEANS, Canada — Most visitors to the walled city of Quebec go for the rich history, the breathtaking scenery and the romance of Paris right here in North America. But what about the country mice among us? Last fall, my husband and I, our two young children in tow, took a mini-vacation on Ile d'Orleans, a tranquil island in the St. Lawrence River. We could admire the skyline of the city only 15 miles away, yet feel as if we were in rural France. We spent four days ambling through centuries-old villages and farms where English is spoken roughly, if at all, and we fell asleep to the sound of foghorns and the river rippling against the shore outside our inn.

We arrived at night, following the double arc of lights across the one bridge from Quebec City's east side to the island. The lights seemed to end abruptly in darkness, which heightened the feeling that we had crossed a span of many years into the past. The island is sparsely lighted, and the residents want to keep it that way. The old-timers, we were told, still resent the bridge, built in 1935, as a corrupting intrusion. The island's quiet old ways go back to its settlement in the early 1600s, a century after Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence for the king of France.

Today the island is a historic district protected from industrial commercialization. Colorful hand-painted signs bid visitors "Bienvenue" (welcome) and "Au revoir" (see you again) outside the island's six small villages, home to 7,000 people year-round and 3,000 summer residents.

Many visitors spend a day driving Le Chemin Royal, the 40-mile "royal road" that circles the island's coast. The tourist information bureau just over the bridge rents audiotapes in English and French, carefully timed to narrate this drive. The 90-minute tape chronicles the island's lively history and points out interesting sites, ranging from historic churches to the Chocolaterie de l'Ile in Ste. Petronille to the Maritime Park in St. Laurent, a tribute to the rowboat-building trade that thrived there in the 1800s.

Not to be missed is the museum housed in the Manoir Mauvide-Genest, built in 1734 for Jean Mauvide, France's royal surgeon, and his wife, a native of the island. In 1759, the British occupied Ile d'Orleans while laying siege to Quebec City in the decisive battle with France for control of North America. The marks from the French cannonballs are still visible on the manor's thick stone walls.


From the beginning, this has been a farming community, and, in between sightseeing stops, we snacked on fruit from roadside farm stands. But our favorite food experience was dinner at l'Atre (the Hearth), a 17th century farmhouse lighted only by kerosene lamps and fireplaces.

After parking in a small gravel lot off Le Chemin Royal, we waited for the restaurant's 1954 Plymouth, whose driver took us down a steep driveway to the stone house.

The host, dressed in black tails, welcomed us at the front door along with strains of classical music and the inviting aromas of wood smoke and meat pies. He escorted us across the dark, sloping floors, beneath a low wood-beamed ceiling to our table, which was situated between a warm wood stove and an antique butter churn. He showed our daughter, Kate, 2 1/2, how the old iron water pump nearby worked, and then brought her an ancient but stable wood high chair. We ordered a local wine; vineyards had been one of the first plantings in this early settlement of New France.

While waiting for our meal of 17th century favorites--pate, beef consomme and meat pie--we took in our museum-like surroundings. Along the white stucco walls were hinged windows with 12 wood-latticed panes. Copper teapots, antique flatirons and ceramic pots holding dried flowers adorned the sills, and candles and hurricane lamps decorated the walls.

Behind our table was a set of narrow, steep stairs leading to an attic. We were surprised and delighted when the host beckoned us up the steps between courses, a ritual during l'Atre meals. He poured us each a small glass of maple liqueur and left us to explore the ancient attic, with its spinning wheels, vintage checkerboard, newspaper clips and guest books from more than 65 years ago. Since Ile d'Orleans was the first stop for many families moving to Canada from Europe, some of the yellowing papers recounted immigration history. Today, many visitors to the island come specifically to trace their genealogy.

We returned downstairs for dessert of iced maple mousse and maple-sugar tart with creme fraiche. It was clear what the restaurant's chauffeur had meant when he stated simply, "It's a very special place."

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