ALMA, Quebec – I had wondered whether Lac-Saint-Jean, a two-day drive from home in Virginia to the edge of the Quebec wilderness, might prove to be a trip too far as a bicycling destination. A sublime moment on the lake's Veloroute des Bleuets, the Blueberry Trail, put that question to rest.
Yes, this was worth it, I thought, rolling through Point-Taillon park on a fern-lined trail with solitary beaches and deep blue waters sparkling through trees on one side of the trail. On the other side, wild blueberry patches spread out like throw rugs on the forest floor. Icing on this cake: bear poop in the briars.
Quebec has over 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) of bike-friendly roads and trails in its Route Verte (Green Way) cycling network and selecting which segments to ride can be bewildering. In making a plan months earlier, I decided to follow the food.
Napoleon famously said an army marches on its stomach and that's what I did in seeking the conquest of New France, on a bicycle. I ventured boldly into the heart of Lac-Saint-Jean blueberry country. I stayed in a chocolate factory overlooking the magically moody St. Lawrence River. I rolled in the territory of fine cheese-makers in storybook villages topped with spires, shrines and other icons of the faithful.
I knew I might come back plump and Catholic. But nothing ventured, nothing conquered.
Over two weeks, I cycled on two separate sections of Route Verte: the 160-mile (256-kilometer) circuit around Lac-Saint-Jean, and a collection of country lanes and bike paths on the eastern shore of the St. Lawrence between sunset-kissed Kamouraska and the Gaspe Peninsula.
This was my second year sampling Route Verte and it confirmed an impression from the first: Quebec reserves prime real estate for cycling. If you're biking in lake or river country, often nothing separates you from the water except a palette of sand, rock and wildflowers. This makes for arresting vistas.
VELOROUTE DES BLEUETS
Stitched together from bike trails, country byways, village pathways and occasional paved shoulders, this is a beautiful ride along a lake so big it resembles the sea.
Cyclists on Veloroute des Bleuets are treated to candy for all of the senses — the sight and sound of waterfalls, the crispness of the air, the tiny taste-explosions of those wild blueberries, ripe in late summer and better than any berry in captivity.
People generally take three to five days to circle the lake. The longer the trip, the more time to see places such as Zoo Sauvage, where great wild spaces are given to animals, and Val-Jalbert, a historical 1920s paper mill town dominated by a towering waterfall, dramatically illuminated at night in changing colors.
One tip: Ride counterclockwise to fare best with winds.
Another tip: Equinox Aventure will drive luggage from inn to inn for $9 to $18 a bag per day, plan itineraries, book lodging and retrieve you if needed.
Day 1: 35 miles (56 kilometers) from Chambord on the southern lakeshore to Alma. Sweeping lake views, treed pathways, then condo lodging at Dam-en-Terre.
Day 2: Same distance. That memorable romp along Pointe-Taillon beaches. Here, be sure to divert from the Blueberry Trail and bike the park's full length, taking a quick ferry at the end, for a spectacular ride. Lodging: a very cool yurt at the Peribonka campground.
Day 3: After 26 miles (41 kilometers), a hard rain that promised to last. Time to request an Equinox van, find the nearest Tim Hortons coffee shop and end the lake conquest.
This option was probably not available to Napoleon's troops when it rained on them.
But it made time for an unrushed visit to Zoo Sauvage in Saint-Felicien, where bears, caribou and many more beasts of the boreal wild roam and people are caged — in trams that place you smack in the middle of the menagerie.
Tip: Trappist monks make amazing chocolate-dipped blueberries off the trail in Dolbeau-Mistassini; the trailside tourism office also sells them seasonally.
A nearly three-hour drive places you in the commanding Saguenay fjords and town of Tadoussac, a playground for hikers, whale-watchers, kayakers, nature lovers, artists and cyclists, more from Europe than the U.S.
Then it's 90 minutes by car ferry to the St. Lawrence's eastern shore, land of world-renowned sunsets, wild rose-hip bushes, fragrant bakeries and more great biking.
Over five days, these proved among the best in a series of day rides: a loop in magnificent Parc Bic, where seals sun on rocks; village lanes and Route 132 from Notre-Dame-du-Portage to Saint-Andre; and a trail between La Pocatiere and Saint-Roch-des-Aulnais. Along Route Verte 1, as this stretch is signed, it's hard to go wrong.
Especially when you end up for the night in that little chocolate factory, Auberge La Fee Gourmande.
If You Go...
SAGUENAY-LAC-SAINT-JEAN: http://www.saguenaylacsaintjean.ca/en or 877-253-8387
ROUTE VERTE: http://www.routeverte.com/rv/home
BLUEBERRY TRAIL : http://www.veloroute-bleuets.qc.ca/en/
ZOO SAUVAGE: http://zoosauvage.org/en/
EQUINOX AVENTURE: http://equinoxaventure.ca/en/index/
VAL-JALBERT : http://www.valjalbert.com/en/
PARC BIC: http://www.sepaq.com/pq/bic/index.dot?language_id=1
AUBERGE LA FEE GOURMANDE: http://www.lafeegourmande.ca/en.html