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Seeing Quebec by bicycle

A relaxing trip along the St. Lawrence includes idyllic French riverside villages with cafés and inns renowned for their local cuisine, art and friendly people.

September 26, 2010|By Margo Pfeiff | Special to the Los Angeles Times

St.-Vallier is another postcard village, then Berthier-sur-Mer, with perfect gardens along the riverfront. Traditional Quebec culture is everywhere: old rocking chairs on front porches, clay outdoor bread ovens, sugar shacks and chainsaw-carved bears and garden gnomes for sale.

By late afternoon, after 40 miles, a cheer goes up when we spot the silver church spires of Montmagny, our destination for the night. At the family-run mansion Manoir des Érables, we quickly shower and make a beeline for its fine dining room, where we are greeted by passionate chef Frédéric Cyr, who explains the inn's Table Champêtre designation. It means the inn specializes in traditional cuisine using local ingredients when possible. House-smoked local sturgeon, maple-citrus sauce, Quebec foie gras in a crab bisque, Matane shrimp, local quail perfumed with cinnamon, homemade charcuterie, and shrimp and seaweed from the nearby Gaspé Peninsula…. "People show up at the kitchen door with boxes of fiddleheads and mushrooms they picked," Cyr says.

Hitting the pedals early the next morning, we head toward the waterfront to catch a 25-minute ferry across to L'Île-aux-Grues, a tiny island in an archipelago accessible only at high tide. The boat is filled with cyclists who come to ride the island's 11/2 -by-41/2 -mile rural landscape of corn and hay fields, where the breeze is scented with clover and wildflowers. Visiting L'Île-aux-Grues is a bit of a pilgrimage for me because this is the birthplace of some of my favorite Quebec cheeses: delicious triple cream Riopelle (named after the famous contemporary Quebec artist who lived here), Mi-Carême and a Tomme de Grosse-Ile. Unfortunately, no tastings are offered at the fromagerie, although a café near the ferry dock served cheese plates and wine on an ocean view deck.

Back on the mainland, we continue east past the quirky Accordion Museum, then stop for samples at a traditional apple cider maker in Cap-St.-Ignace. Chiming church bells usher us into L'Islet-sur-Mer, another official beauty spot with a popular maritime museum, where we order Middle Eastern- and Asian-influenced tapas on a deck overlooking the river at La Salicorne Café. By now, we've learned that even fast food places using local ingredients are identified with a red Arrêt Gourmand sign. We are never disappointed.

By midafternoon, we arrive on the outskirts of our final destination, the vacation town of St.-Jean-Port-Joli. We stop in at two local museums. The Épopée de la Moto is a splendid tribute to motorized two-wheeled riding with a collection of more than 125 historic motorcycles — most in running order — including a 1903 Clement Auto Cyclette and other rare gems collected by brothers Francois and Jean Gagnon. The Anciens Canadiens sculpture museum celebrates local wood carving. It's a sometimes-cheesy, sometimes-magnificent collection that includes wood carvings of Norman Rockwell paintings as well as life-size real and fictional celebrities as varied as Pierre Trudeau and Harry Potter.

We check into the waterfront Auberge du Faubourg and stash our bikes, which will be shuttled back to Quebec city with us the next afternoon. We are lucky to land one of the resort's rustic cabins perched with a deck just above the river's rocky bank. No sooner do we finish dinner in a dining room that evokes a Catskills "Dirty Dancing" atmosphere than the heavens burst. "For two days, we dodge forecasted thunder and rainstorms," marvels my friend Cheryl as lightning rips across the sky and whitecaps dance across the St. Lawrence, "and now we get to watch it as an after-dinner show."

travel@latimes.com

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