Burlington to Montreal: One Family's First International Bike Tour

April 12, 2018 - Sarah Hunter kindly submitted this guest blog.

As I flip through the photo album of our most recent bike trip from Burlington to Montreal, I’m struck by the diversity of landscapes we encountered. The glossy 4x6 images show us traveling along the shores of Lake Champlain, up the Chambly Canal along the Richelieu River, to the impressive skyline of Montreal, and back again. They show us traversing rural neighborhoods, small towns, and miles of farmland. But this trip was so much more than the stunning scenes these photos convey. When we pass the album around the living room, it triggers memories of friendly encounters with strangers, delicious well-earned meals, sore muscles, gusty winds, warm rain, and countless small moments we shared throughout our journey. It brings to life an incredible family adventure. 

It was late August when my husband and I and our two teenage sons tucked our passports safely into our panniers and set out from Burlington, Vermont on a course for Montreal. In the past we’ve designed our bike tours around rail trails and when we’ve been on the road we’ve followed my pre-planned turn-by-turn directions. This trip stitched together bike paths, a canal route, and roads. It required more map and navigation skills. Knowing this would add an element of adventure, I intentionally avoided over-planning this trip. My thought was it would be more fun to figure it out together as we went (full disclosure – this approach also saved me a lot of time). I discovered early on that my theory worked. When we came to our first decision-making point we pulled out our maps, had a short discussion about which way to go, and rolled on. 

Day One: Our adventure began on Vermont’s Island Line Trail, an incredibly beautiful trail that cuts an arc through Lake Champlain, connecting Burlington with South Hero Island. Folks who live in this area are truly fortunate to enjoy this well-maintained and picturesque bike path. Spinning along this section with my three favorite people lined up in front of me in the distance, I became vaguely aware that I was smiling widely. In fact, my cheeks hurt. It was a problem that would plague me for most of this trip. With a stretch of warm, sunny weather in the forecast and my healthy family in my sights, I couldn’t contain my happiness. 

We spent the afternoon following rural — and mostly coastal — roads up through the islands, enjoying spectacular views of Lake Champlain and stopping periodically to admire handcrafted items on display in the forests and gardens along the roadside. On South Hero Island, we discovered hundreds of brightly colored bird houses decorating hardwood trees in a marshy woodland. When we stopped to take in the scene, we found we were surrounded by camouflaged dinosaurs peering out at us from behind tall grass and trees (yes, dinosaurs!). Soon after this encounter we spotted the first miniature stone castle of the day, nestled in a flower garden. There were many more to come. The Champlain islands are simply magical. 

Our enchanting day ended in northern Vermont at the historic Ransom Bay Inn and Restaurant — circa 1795. After a delicious meal supplemented with generous quantities of warm fresh bread (as soon as we emptied our basket it was filled again, more than once), we spent the evening playing cards in our room and enjoying Snickers bars and peanut M&Ms for dessert. 

Day Two: We crossed into Quebec, trading lakeside views for corn fields. Corn fields and cows. I privately practiced saying “bonjour” to the cows until it rolled off my tongue effortlessly and they seemed to nod in approval. We rolled through this flat farmland all morning and just when we were starting to get a little bored, entertainment came our way. Up in the distance we noticed a home with large front yard. A man on his riding mower had interrupted his back and forth pattern and was mowing a diagonal path towards our sons, who were stopped in front of his house waiting for us to catch up. My husband and I got within earshot as he got to the end of his yard. 

He turned off the engine and yelled across the street to the boys, “Where ya head’n?” It’s a question we get often when we’re loaded with gear. 

“Montreal,” they chimed back. 

“Ya like peaches?” 

At this point I was close enough to respond. “Yes we do!” 

He told us to take the next left up ahead and go down the road a bit and he would meet us there. We did, and so began a nearly hour-long detour at a small family peach farm. We were grateful for the delicious snack, and the education in peach farming in Quebec. For his part, our host seemed to enjoy this distraction from his work. It was a mutually beneficial interruption for us all. I don’t remember the man’s name, but I can still conjure up the sweet taste of those juicy peaches and it’s a fitting memory of our trip. 

Continuing on, with extra peaches for the road, we soon left corn fields behind and traveled through residential areas towards Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu where we found the Auberge Harris, a terrific hotel that caters to cyclists, offering maps, a hardy continental breakfast, and a safe place to store bikes. We tucked our bikes in for the night, took long showers, and walked into town for what became our indisputably favorite meal of the trip and has since become the inspiration for our younger son’s food-critic aspirations. Sitting on the patio at Capitaine Pouf, with plates overflowing with fried haddock, french fries, and the best coleslaw ever, we reminisced about other stand-out meals on our bike trips. This sparked a spirited debate, which we’ve revisited a few times since. To date, there’s no clear winner, although Capitaine Pouf is certainly a strong contender. 

Days Three & Four: Montreal! We began the day following the Chambly Canal, stopping along the way to read about the canal’s role in the forestry industry and to examine the lock system. Throughout the morning we pedaled along this path, with the still waters of the canal to our left and the rushing Richelieu River to our right. The canal led us into the lovely town of Chambly, where we followed signs towards Montreal. As we entered the city via the Jacques Cartier bridge I momentarily panicked when I realized I didn’t think to learn how to say “on your left” in French, but I quickly learned that phrase is never uttered in the city. Cyclists wind in and around pedestrians and each other silently. Without realizing it, we were instantly part of a well-oiled machine. Safety and courtesy prevail and pedestrians, bikes, and cars flow easily along the city trails and streets. 

Our rest day in Montreal included a trip along the historic Lachine Canal, a ride up to La Bicycletterie JR for some minor bike repairs, and a tour of the city on foot. We stayed at the Hotel Travelodge, centrally located in the Chinese quarter. It was the perfect base for exploring the whole downtown area by bike and by foot. Our room was tiny, but it was all we needed and it fit our budget. When we weren’t on our bikes they were safely stored in a locked, gated area of the parking garage. Truly a great find for cyclists. 

Day Five: Our perfect weather took a reprieve. We woke early and rode out of the city under a slate-gray sky, passing hundreds of cyclists who were commuting in for the day. On the Chambly Canal, the clouds gave way, unleashing a torrential but short-lived downpour. Thoroughly drenched, we arrived back in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and picked up a new path, crossing over to the west side of the Richelieu River. This route brought us through residential areas and, ultimately, more corn fields, where we battled driving winds. This was also our longest mileage day, made longer by a slight navigational error - one drawback to biking in a place that offers so many bike trails; it is sometimes easy to take the wrong path. It also happened to be our oldest son’s birthday. Happy birthday! You get to ride a metric-century in inclement weather. Fortunately, he’s a good sport and he had a fun day. We all did, and we’ll all remember the day he turned 15. 

Day Six: A bitterly cold and windy morning turned into a warm, sunny day as we re-entered the States on the New York side of Lake Champlain and enjoyed the lovely Lake Shore Road, with the shimmering lake and Vermont’s Green Mountains to our left and New York’s Adirondacks to our right. Stunning scenery and roadside apple trees made this one of the most memorable days of our trip. That and the two hills at the end of the day. They came at us in a one-two punch and the second one did a number on me. I had to lift my head uncomfortably high to see the crest, and when I did, I saw the profile of a cyclist pedaling up to the sky. It was one of our boys - probably our younger son – he was too far away for me to recognize. I looked up again at my silhouetted cyclist and thought what a great photo this scene would make, but I couldn’t stop in the middle of the hill. I blinked my eyes as if they were the shutter on my internal camera – a mental picture. One of so many on this trip. 

Resources and maps: 

Nuts and Bolts:

  • Day 1: Burlington to Alburgh, VT via Island Line Trail and Lake Champlain Bikeways. Stay at Ransom Bay Inn. 40 miles 
  • Day 2: Alburgh, Vermont to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu following map provided by Auberge Harris. Stay at Auberge Harris. 30 miles 
  • Day 3: Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu to Montreal via Chambly Canal and la Route verte and Jacques Cartier bridge. Stay at Hotel Travelodge. 30 miles 
  • Day 4: Bike around Montreal, including Lachine Canal. 
  • Day 5: Montreal to Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle following map provided by Auberge Harris. Stay at Hotel St. Bernard. 60 miles 
  • Day 6: Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle to Port Kent, New York (to Burlington via ferry) 40 miles 

Sarah Hunter lives with her husband and their two teenage sons in Maine. This was their third long-distance bike tour. You can read Sarah’s other submissions here: Prince Edward Island, Tip to Tip and Spring on the Great Allegheny Passage with My Boys. If you have questions, contact Sarah at sarahtrailhunter@gmail.com.

Photos by Sarah Hunter

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