Monday, December 7, 2015

A Day on the Île d'Orleans

About three miles downstream from Old Quebec, a long stout island plugs the St. Lawrence River, separating it into two channels. Though it's easy to spot from the Dufferin Terrace in front of Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, the island was accessible only by boat until 1935, and even today it retains a largely rural character. A few villages are scattered around the island's periphery, but as far as I could tell the central mass is given over entirely to growing fruit and vegetables.

We thought it might be fun to visit the place, and in order to insure that we took the time to soak up the atmosphere rather than merely touring the perimeter highway and rushing off, we booked a room on the island at an inn called Les Ancêtres Auberge overlooking the bridge and the channel.

Hilary had spotted it on a website on one of our evening planning sessions, during which we sit in different rooms, me at the desktop, she with her iPad, staring at Travelocity, TripAdvisor, and other sites.

"Check this out," She called out the name and I found the listing:
"In front of the Montmorency Falls, at the entrance to the Île d'Orléans, a rural inn and restaurant situated at 15 minutes from Old Quebec. Enjoy attractive sunsets on the panoramic terrace, under the glass roof or in the privacy of the tercentenary house. Discover the chic and rustic Les Ancêtres Auberge. In an enchanting decor, be delighted by an inspiring fine local cuisine or a traditional cuisine. A comfortable and intimate inn where tradition live side by side with innovation. A charming conviviality in a natural setting. Welcome! "
The rooms looked big, the stone walls looked plenty rustic, and the price wasn't too far out of line, especially considering we'd probably be spending the previous night camping out.

"Shall we do this?"  Five or six weeks before departure and fifteen hundred miles inland,  we were about to commit ourselves. Then I noticed the auberge also offered a "traditional French-Canadian dinner" for $26.

Once again. "Shall we do this?"  In a flush of giddy pre-travel excitement, we decided to add the meal to the tab, using as an excuse the fact that we'd be arriving on the evening before our thirty-ninth anniversary.

A month and a half later, we found ourselves on a good-sized suspension bridge crossing the St. Lawrence River to a large, long, rounded island. We took a right turn at the first traffic light and three minutes later we arrived at the inn. Having studied it so carefully on the website, I almost felt like we'd been there before.

We stopped in the long gravel driveway, which sloped gently down to the inn, the restaurant, and the barn, and I got out to take a picture in the pleasant mid-afternoon sun. It was far too early to check in, and we still had a lot of exploring to do, so we immediately returned to the highway and continued our circumnavigation without bothering to knock.

A half-mile on, we pulled into a winery overlooking the river, but agreed that sampling wine after a longish driving day would probably just wear us out. Once again we pulled a Louie in the white gravel parking lot and continued on our way. (The phrase "pull a Louie," by the way, means to do an abrupt U-turn and depart rapidly, hoping no one has seen you arrive. At least, that's what it meant in Mahtomedi in 1968. Now I'm wondering if the expression has a French derivation on the order of "taking French leave.")

As we approached the southwestern tip of the island we entered the village of Sainte-Pétronille. The road grew narrower, the dwellings closer together, the trees thicker, and as we passed one short street leading down to the waterfront Hilary caught sight of the sign and said, "That's the street I read about. We should pull down there."

Too late.

Immediately thereafter we saw a shady parking lot on the inland side of the street. It look idyllic, but it seemed obvious to me (on the basis of no prior knowledge or current evidence)  that it was a private lot reserved for tour buses and people buying ice cream cones at the nearby gift shop. The truth of the matter was that it looked touristy to me and I didn't want to stop there, just when we were about the traverse the length and breadth of the lovely Ile d' Orleans.

"Well, we've got to stop somewhere," Hilary observed, a little heatedly. "Besides, I want an ice cream cone." A hundred yards of silence down the street I saw a sign indicating public parking and turned.

We were experiencing a late-afternoon meltdown—our first of the trip.

A quarter-mile up the hill we came to an empty church parking lot and pulled in. We cooled off during the long, shady walk down the hill. The houses were large, white, and well-spaced, with low rock walls marking many of the property boundaries. We passed a woman walking a dog who smiled and said "bonjour," as did we in reply. She probably wondered why we were parking way up on the hill.

It was a genteel exurban space, with little paths running off into the woods that local children probably used to reach their tree houses. It reminded me somewhat of Old Frontenac, Minnesota, though at the time it never occurred to me that the association was more than superficial. Yet Old Frontenac was established in the 1850s, and several of its earliest buildings are French in design, due to the fact that the people who built them as summer homes and hunting lodges came from Cincinnati and were familiar with the French riverside architecture along the Ohio and Upper Mississippi rivers—the Creole Corridor.

The French had established a fort at Old Frontenac as early as 1727—it was called Fort Beauharnois, in honor of the then-governor of New France, Charles de la Boische, Marquis de Beauharnois. That may seem sort of irrelevant, and I guess it is when you're standing at the site of the fort, which is now a muddy hill in the woods beside a nunnery overlooking a very distant Mississippi River. But when you're standing in New France, now called Quebec Province, it's fascinating to conjure those men who took the St. Lawrence upstream to the Great Lakes, thence to Green Bay, then up the Fox River to the Wisconsin, down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi, then up that wide river through a labyrinth of channels to Lake Pepin, just to build a crummy fort to trade for beaver pelts! 

I wasn't thinking about that as we strolled down the lane to the St. Lawrence ... but I'm thinking about it now.

At the time I was thinking about the thick clump of Cimicifuga racemosa (bugbane or black cohosh) we passed on our way down the hill. It was growing under a set of windows in a private home, and it was much more robust than our little clump back home, even though ours had made great strides during the summer.

Though entirely haphazard, this was the perfect way to enter the village of Sainte-Pétronille—down hill, on foot, in the quiet of the late afternoon sun. We had been in the car for much of the day, and it was a pleasure to stretch our legs. 

We eventually arrived at the waterfront, then strolled down the dead-end street we'd missed before. We stood on the sidewalk near shore, and watched an ocean-going freighter heading upstream in the sun-flecked  river toward Quebec City, which dominated the distant skyline to the west .The vessel looked like an ore boat to me, but it was probably carrying some other bulk commodity.

We walked past the home, half-hidden by shrubbery, of a famous Canadian painter Hilary had read about in a guidebook—previously unknown to us and now once again lost to memory. Then we returned to the shady parking lot near the ice cream parlor, which turned out to be public parking after all.

Hilary finally got her ice cream cone. (I continued to insist that I didn't want one.) A bus had just arrived, and a line soon formed extending quite a ways out the door of the ice cream parlor. We sat in the little park for a while, observing the other tourists. Then we hiked back down the coast road, up the wooden lane back to the car, and continued on our way.

Though local residents would probably disagree, to me the island remains charmingly underdeveloped. The tourist office has created an interactive map of the island that you can customize by interest, and just now I counted more than forty sites devoted to food alone: bakeries, chocolate shops, pick-your-own fruits and berries, cheese-makers, cider houses, restaurants, and sugar-shacks. However, most of these establishments are located in simple rural buildings retrofitted for the task at hand, and as you drive along the narrow highway the countryside looks both agricultural and pristine.
The road runs for long stretches along the top of a gentle ridge, with fields on either side and the majestic river far below, but it is narrow, and there are no shoulders in many places, which makes it difficult to pull over and enjoy the view. The island was originally plotted in the seigniorial style, with long strips of land running from the ridge down to the river, but such a scheme wasn't apparent to me. Some of the distant stone farmhouses were built of stone; they looked old and "classically" French-Canadian, with gables, steeply-pitched roofs, and narrow eaves. Others didn't.

We finally pulled off the road as we neared the northeast end of the island in the parking lot of a church— l'église Saint-Jean. A couple of classy antique homes stood just across the road, though I was more interested in looking across the river toward another cluster of islands just downstream —Île Madame and Grosse Île, I think.

We arrived back at the auberge late in the day. As we entered the shadowy building we were greeted by a young man who strode in energetically from the back kitchen. He was wearing a vest, and he looked like an Irish bartender to me. I liked him immediately.

"You must be the Torens. Yes? We've got you in the Rose-Anna and Omer Room, it's just above us. I see you've signed up for the traditional Quebecois meal? You'll enjoy it. In fact, I'll be your waiter tonight. Here are the keys to the room. Let me know if you need anything. You'll find me back in the kitchen."

We settled in to the first private interior space we'd had in forty-eight hours with relish, exploring the chairs, the bed, the view out the window, the faucets in the bathroom.

Soon enough we'd be heading downstairs for our evening meal. 

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