It’s been a while since we did a tour de Quebec. In fact the last time I had embarked on a tour of the Saguenay region of Quebec was with the loveable Mr. Seck. We’d stumbled upon some excellent roads and although neither of us spoke French, we discovered that most things could be communicated very effectively after a few beers (French is best spoken with a slur).
Since that trip I spent an eight-year stint in La Belle Province, and although my French is still rather dismal, it gets me by. The same cannot be said for Assistant Editor Zac, whose total lack of French would supply the entertainment factor, and a body to get the long-term NC700 back to Honda – allowing me to give the V-Strom project a testing to boot.
The route was similar to what I’d done with Mr. Seck all those years ago, but done with a potential DYR feature in mind for the future. In order to snag some premium hotels to go with the trip, a call was placed to the ever-accommodating Tourisme Quebec, and before long we had swanky abodes lined up in Tadoussac, Mauricie and Montreal.
All that was left do now was to get the increasing belligerent V-Strom 650 project put back together, which was done in the eleventh hour, albeit not quite in the trim I was aiming for.
So, three swanky hotels, check, two bikes to ride, check, one French-phobic companion, check. Good let’s on y va!
FLIGHT FOR THE FERRY
Crossing the river this far east (Trois Pistoles to Tadoussac) takes some planning – the last bridge across the St. Lawrence is in Quebec City, so you’ve got to co-ordinate your ferry ride carefully. There are only two or three crossings a day, and missing your boat would put a damper on things.
This meant a 7 a.m. departure for me from my Sackville base, stopping by the Days Inn in Oromocto, N.B. to pick up Zac who had only just gotten back from a Newfoundland trip the day prior and was buggering off once again.
The Strom had taken to its modifications well, the Madstad screen keeping all cold wind away, the Suzuki higher seat and Adventure Tech peg lowers giving me ample legroom and the Oxford heated grips keeping my mitts toasty warm.
Sadly the same could not be said for Zac. He’d tried to get the touring kit for the NC700X long termer from Honda but to no avail, and as I glanced back at Zac huddled over the NC’s faux tank I could almost see his happy grin sag and droop into a shivering frown.
But Zac is young and trooper-like and we made Trois Pistoles with a half hour to spare and time for a quick greasy Quebec Casse-Croute lunch before we headed to the ferry terminal. There we came across three Swiss bikers (who had foolishly rented a trio of Harleys in Boston and decided to go north instead of south) and Kurt, a biker sans bike after his 1200GS had become a little too much for him.
The ferry looked like something you’d expect in India rather than North America, but thankfully the rust had not got to the porous stage.
We disembarked the other side of the St Lawrence to a glorious section of twisty road leading us to the equally lovely town of Tadoussac and the rather plush Hotel Tadoussac that has overlooked the Saint Lawrence since 1864.
After dinner at the excellent Café Boheme, we bumped into Kurt back at the hotel and while Zac retired for the night, I took up Kurt’s offer of a few scotches in the piano room. Kurt and his wife laughed at all my jokes, feigned interest in my life as a moto-journalist and even picked up the tab for the Macallans. Who could ask for more?
UP AND DOWN THE VALLEYS
Today would take us on the longest haul, almost due west up the Saguenay river valley to Lac St-Jean, then south through La Tuque and onto Grand Mére, which is just north of Shawinigan.
Now I’m always a little taken aback by how few anglo motorcyclists have explored this area. Sure it’s the heart of the separatist movement and finding people who can actually speak English (as opposed to pretending they can’t) can be difficult, but it’s some of the best road riding in the east and a small diversion from the tiresome Highway 20 for anyone heading to the Maritimes and beyond.
Once out of Tadoussac, the road follows the northern edge of the Saguenay River. Unfortunately it’s just far enough north to not see this spectacular river that is more fjord than river at its lower reaches. The road is all twists and turns and carries a fair speed too. It reminds me very much of New Hampshire, only without the Americans.
The fun pauses for an hour as you navigate through the surprisingly well-populated (150,000+) municipality of Saguenay. Really, you think you’re on a road into the wilds and then all of a sudden you’re in urbania, replete with farmland, with nothing else except wilderness for miles around.
To save the futility of trying to find a decent way through this flat and rather dull section we hoped on highway 70 (a four-laner no less) that whisks you along and then dumps you out close to the strikingly large Lac St Jean, and more importantly, close to the start of the 155.
Now if you thought the Saguenay River valley sounded fun, the 155 is a gem. Best served hot, it twists around lakes and romps over the undulating hills, for an extraordinary 100-kilometre blast through woods completely devoid of civilization, all the way to the town of La Tuque.
The fall colours and an oddly well-maintained road (this is Quebec after all) with many passing lanes — should you be unlucky enough to actually come across other traffic — made it a highlight of the tour.
If you can believe it, once past La Toque (don’t forget to get gas), the road gets even better as it literally hugs the side of the slow-moving, though unfortunately named Riviére-aux-Rats. The only downside is that there’s some traffic, but there’s views to be taken in too, which you can do while waiting for that passing opportunity
The day ended at the Auberge Le Fores in Grand Mere. Although the rooms were somewhat plain, the food was anything but, and I was simply blown away by the meal that we consumed, albeit a little on the costly side at $100 for two. Even Zac cracked a smile.
Today was to start with a trip through the roller coaster squiggles of La Mauricie National Park. Take a look at a map of it and you’ll see a road that could be a small mammal’s entrails, cutting an arc through the park, replete with endless squiggles and switchbacks.
Oddly there’s a $7.75 entrance fee, which is applied to any vehicle entering the park, whether it stops to enjoy the facilities or not. But the price of entry proved a bargain as we found that the mostly smooth road had barely any straight stretches through its 60-kilometre length.
With the trees that lined it in full autumnal bloom of bright reds and yellows, I felt like I was riding through a Van Gogh canvas, the Strom’s uninhibited Hindle pipe supplying the audio track.
Left, right, left, left, lefftttttt ….it was simply breathtaking that keeps up the fun for almost an hour. I’m assuming that it was the time of year, because we saw almost no cars, though high season may see some serious congestion and be pre-warned, passing opportunities are limited.
Be also forewarned to treat it with some respect. I have no doubt that Quebec would ban bikes from using this road if it became a squid magnet, which would be a crime to responsible riders everywhere.
With adrenal glands purged and happy places found, it was time to head to Montreal. The obvious direction is to drop due south and take highway 40 in but there’s two issues with that; 1) Highway 40 is horrible, 2) take a look at Google Maps (with terrain turned on) and you’ll see that heading south takes you out of the Laurentian mountains which is exactly where you want to stay.
The solution is to take a mixture of Quebec’s 300 series roadways, that can be stringed together to make a route due west all the way to Tremblant.
There seems to be neither rhyme nor reason to the numbering system for these roads as they loop around north, south, east and west like a lab rat on acid. Fortunately — whether by plan or pure chance — to keep heading west you start on the 350 and continuously drop a digit, jumping to the 349, then the 348 until you’re finally on the 357 and close to Tremblant.
It’s all good too, meandering through the northern edge of the farmlands of the area, the road restrained from straightening out by the bumpy Laurentians. The best is saved till last, that being the 347 that closes in on Tremblant just west of St Come.
The road is well-paved and is draped over a series of slight ridges, darting left and right into the bargain to make it a consistent challenge but a lot of fun to boot.
You could carry on west and find great roads all the way to Renfrew, Ontario, but our final destination was Montreal, so we hoped on the surprisingly pleasant 125 that took us to the east side of the island and then into the downtown via the entertaining Sherbrooke Street, complete with maniacal taxi drivers and two high-speed lane filtering motorcyclists.
Our digs for the night was the rather plush hotel St-Martin located right in the heart of Montreal’s downtown district. The rooms came with their own fireplaces and glass barriers between shower and bed for the romantic exhibitionists amongst you. Thankfully we were given our own rooms, saving us the horror of an accidental show.
I lived in Montreal for eight years but that didn’t stop me from finding it tricky to fulfill Zac’s wish in this city of sins. No, not a lap dance (that would be too easy), but a good to honest Quebec poutine (success finally came courtesy of La Belle Province fast food chain).
With that Herculean task fulfilled it was off to see my aunt for a jaunt around the museum of fine art, leaving Zac to discover his own culture courtesy of a coffee at McDonalds ….
For more on the Montreal sideshow, here’s Zac:
I gotta say, I was intimidated when Rob told me we were headed to Montreal. After all, any Maritimer who goes to the city always comes back with a thousand-yard stare, mumbling incoherently about crazy drivers.
Thankfully, we hit town during a downturn in traffic, with only one or two close calls with the local cager crazies. Rob and I co-ordinated our two-wheel attack on Montreal through our Scala Rider intercom system, ending up at our swanky hotel, amidst the shops and clubs downtown. A fella could spend a lot of money here if he lacked sense.
Sunday morning, I rolled out of bed and down the street to McDonald’s, (to ‘Arris’s ‘orror) to buy a coffee. I bellied up to the counter, and somewhat shamefacedly ordered “Un cafe, avec two crème et one sucre” in my garbled Maritime accent.
“Oh,” said the girl behind the counter, “you want a coffee with two cream and one sugar?”
Which to me, summed up the trip. Because of the language barrier, a lot of Anglo riders may be too intimidated to go riding in Quebec. Hear this: Go there anyway. At worst, someone will laugh at your mispronunciations. But chances are, you’ll be just fine.
Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.
Click here to go to see the complete route on Google Maps.
Tourisme Quebec Maritimes
Ferry from Trois-Pistoles’s to Les Escoumins:
Compagnie de navigation des Basques (CNB)
11, rue du Parc, Trois-Pistoles
Toll Free: 1-877-851-4677
165, rue Bord-de-l’Eau, Tadoussac
Auberge Le Fores,
4291 50th Avenue,
Phone: 819 538-9340
Toll Free: 1-800-538-9340
Hôtel le St-Martin
980 Boulevard de Maisonneuve Ouest
Toll Free: 1-877-843-3003