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? My family and I recently stayed on Ile d'Orleans, a tranquil island in the St. Lawrence River. The peaceful pace is reminiscent of Provence, France, yet the delights of Quebec City are only 15 minutes away. From a charming inn, we could admire the skyline across the river and fall asleep to the sound of foghorns and waves lapping against the shore.
Nicknamed the "Island of Bacchus" in 1535 by French explorer Jacques Cartier, who discovered the St. Lawrence, Ile d'Orleans was one of the earliest settlements of New France. It features rolling green hills, fertile farmland, beautiful vineyards and spectacular views of the mountains and waterfalls lining the Cote-de-Beaupre, the rocky north shore of the river. The island's bucolic countryside has been home to such figures as Jean Mauvide, royal surgeon for King Louis XV, and Horatio Walker, Canada's foremost turn-of-the-century painter. A small side street named for the painter affords an excellent view of Montmorency Falls, a waterfall 1 1/2 times higher than Niagara.
Arriving at night, we drove through the bustling, well-lit streets of Quebec City and proceeded a short distance east, crossing the single bridge to Ile d'Orleans. A double arc of lights stretched away from the road and seemed to end in darkness, beckoning us over the river, away from the crowds and back in time to the sparsely lit and sparsely populated island. Built in 1935 to supplement steamboat access, the bridge initially faced opposition from residents who cherished the island's quietude.
Today, the island is a historic district protected from industrial commercialization, and colorful hand-painted signs bid us Bienvenue ("welcome") and Au revoir ("see you again") when we passed through its six small French villages. The villages feature impeccably maintained properties that are home to 7,000 year-round residents, including many political figures as well as farmers, and an additional 3,000 summer residents.
Many visitors spend a day driving le chemin Royal, the 40-mile road that circles the island's coast. The tourist information bureau just over the bridge rents audiotapes in several languages carefully timed to narrate this drive. The 90-minute tape chronicles the island's lively history and the evolution of architecture as it reflects village life. The tape also points out interesting sites, ranging from ancient churches, to a gourmet chocolaterie, to Saint-Laurent's Maritime Park, a tribute to the boat-building trade that thrived there in the 1800s.
An intriguing stop is the museum housed in the Manoir Mauvide-Genest, named for France's royal surgeon and his wife in 1734. Later that century, the French and British fought for control of North America in the French and Indian War. In 1759, the British army occupied Ile d'Orleans while laying siege to Quebec City, and you can still see marks from cannonballs on the manor's thick stone walls.
Driving along the island's northern coast, you can catch a glimpse across the river of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre, a pilgrimage site named for the Virgin Mary's mother. Ste-Anne is believed to have saved many sailors shipwrecked in 1658 off Cap-Tourmente, a nearby cliff on the Cote-de-Beaupre.
If you're not in a hurry on the island, you can play nine holes of golf at Club Orleans, the first golf club in North America. You can also browse in picturesque boutiques and art galleries that overlook the river. My 2-year-old daughter, Kate, loved sitting in the white wood swing at Boutique Petronille to watch the ships pass.
For nourishment, you can snack on fresh strawberries, apples or corn from the many farmstands lining the main road, or you can linger over unusual dining experiences. Our favorite was l'Atre ("the Hearth"), a restaurant serving gourmet period food in a 17th century farmhouse lit only by kerosene lamps and a roaring fire. After parking in a small gravel lot off le chemin Royal, we waited for the restaurant's 1954 Plymouth Imperial sedan, whose driver chauffeured 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 showed us across the dark, sloping wood floors, beneath a low wood-beamed ceiling and past white stucco walls to our table, situated between a warm wood stove and an antique butter churn. He showed Kate how to use an old iron water pump nearby and then brought her an ancient but stable wood high chair. Our waitress, dressed in a white bonnet tied under the chin, brought a basket of warm bread and a white feather quill pen and paper so that Kate could color.
While enjoying local wine with an array of homemade pates, beef consomme, and meat pie du diable, we noticed the hinged windows with 12 wood-latticed panes. Copper teapots, antique irons, and ceramic pottery with dried flowers adorned the sills, and candles and hurricane lamps decorated the walls. Behind us 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's museum of spinning wheels, a checkers board, 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, many of the yellowing papers recounted immigration history. Indeed, many visitors to the island come specifically to trace their genealogy, and stories of local ghosts abound.
We resumed downstairs for desserts 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."
For a different kind of dining experience, we had lunch at one of the island's seven cabanes a sucre, or sugar shacks. Quebec is North America's largest producer of maple sugar, and most of the sugar shacks not only sell their products but also serve maple-based meals. To get to Sucrerie Blouin, we drove down a steep winding road off le chemin Royal to the edge of the St. Lawrence River, expecting a quiet pancake lunch. Instead, we opened the door to the secluded, red ranch building and seemed to enter another world.
The sugar shack was crowded with local families enjoying live music and folk-dancing while snacking on beans, sausage, potatoes and bread. The friendly owners spoke little or no English but urged us to join their dancing and brought us a sample of their maple fare. They even figured out Kate's dismay when they brought beans instead of pancakes, and they brought pancakes and syrup for dessert.
Ready to fish
After lunch we stopped at L'etang le Nordet, one of four freshwater fishing ponds on the island. While my husband, Tony, fished for trout, our children and I enjoyed the idyllic setting surrounded by wildflowers and views of the St. Lawrence River, distant mountains along the river's south shore, cows grazing in adjacent fields, picturesque farmhouses and passing ships. Our infant son, Andy, delighted in seeing the fish leap out of the water when the pond's owner, a jolly man who spoke little English, tossed bait on the surface.
Even so, the fish eluded Tony's hook, which he was quick to blame on the chilly weather. If your luck is better, you can take the fish with you for about 30 cents per inch. Local restaurants, including those at Manoir Mauvide-Genest and Le Moulin de St-Laurent, a charming stone flour mill from 1720, will prepare your catch for you. Of course, if your fishing prowess is anything like Tony's, the restaurants can serve you from their own supply.
We next stopped at the Tour d'Observation de Saint-Francois, a wood observation tower on the far eastern end of the island, where the St. Lawrence River widens and begins to join saltwater. From there we enjoyed gorgeous views of the Cote-de-Beaupre, including Mont-Ste-Anne, a 2,699-foot-high mountain, and the Montmagny islands, an archipelago in the St. Lawrence.
Most appreciated of all, however, was the generous hospitality we received when we realized we had locked our keys in the car. We will never forget Frederic and Josie, a young quebecois couple visiting Ile d'Orleans for the day to pick apples, tour old houses and climb the tower. They kindly drove to the next town to find a phone and returned to wait with us until a locksmith had remedied our situation. Kate thanked them the best she could, with a specialrendition of Frere Jacques.
How wonderful it was to arrive back at our inn, Auberge la Goeliche, and collapse on the brass bed in our spacious room with a picture window overlooking the river and the Quebec City skyline. The inn's restaurant had closed, but Pascal at the front desk cheerfully offered to bring food to our room, including salad with yellow crown cherries and bagels with smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers. Another night we would enjoy the inn's specialty, le gateau Goeliche, a cake laced with pear and chocolate.
Pascal, who speaks English well, explained that the term la Goeliche refers to a type of boat and honors the inn's origins. First built in 1895 on the island's only pier, the inn lured guests from Quebec City by steamboat. Known then as Chateau Bel-Air, it featured amusement park rides and dancing, much to the dismay of priests during that period.
The inn celebrated its 1 00th anniversary in 1995, but tragically burned down in 1996. It reopened in 1997 under the same owners, Alain Turgeon and his wife. A judge by profession, M. Turgeon furnishes and decorates the inn with unique finds. His daughter, Marie Andree, was Pascal's high school sweetheart, and they were getting married in a few days at the inn. The couple manage the inn together, and Marie Andree's brother tends the outside grounds.
Auberge la Goeliche has the same panoramic view as the original inn and combines a beautiful historic setting with modern comfort and charm. It offers excellent service, an outdoor pool, massage therapy, and elegant cuisine. The family owners welcome small children as well as honeymooners, and guests have included political figures and entertainers. Pascal said he strives to remember guests' names from year to year but takes care to respect their privacy during their stay.
After four days exploring Ile d'Orleans and nearby Quebec City, we reluctantly crossed the bridge back to the mainland and returned home. When I opened my suitcase to unpack, the smell of wood smoke filled the room.
Places to Stay
Auberge la Goeliche, 22 chemin du Quai, Sainte-Petronille GOA 4CO, 418-28-2248 rates: $75 to $95 (Cndn) for two people, including full breakfast -- located along St. Lawrence River on the western end of island, closest to Quebec City.
Auberge Chaumonot, 425 chemin Royal, Saint-Francois GOA 3SO, 418-829-2735 rates: $75 to $95 (Cndn) for two people, including full breakfast -- located along the St. Lawrence River on more remote, eastern end of island.
Motel de l'Ile d'Orleans, 507 route Prevost, Saint-Laurent GOA 3ZO, 418-828-2048 rates: $40 to $60 (Cndn) for two people -- located atop hill with panoramic view; closed off-season.
Chalets Morency, 4429 chemin Royal, Sainte-Famille GOA 3PO, 418-829-3219 rates: $59 to $89 (Cndn) per day; $359 to $569 per week -- cabins to rent on northeast corner of island, with or without kitchens.
Ile d'Orleans Tourist Information Bureau, 490 cote du Pont, Saint-Pierre GOA 4EO (418) 828-9411; Fax (418) 828-2335.