By Jim Ferri
In today’s world it’s a wonder that such places still exist: a bucolic island within view of a major city where you can step back in time…six small villages that have retained their centuries-old historic identities without being overrun with tourists.
It was August when we crossed the single bridge that connected l’Île-d’Orléans, in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, to the mainland. A 22-mile long island only 15 minutes outside Québec, it was declared a historic district in 1970 to preserve the traditional Québec countryside from development.
Québec’s Time Capsule
Today it remains a time capsule of sorts, not a place where people dress in Old-World costumes for tourists, but an actually working community where people have held onto their regional identity. Island houses from the early- to mid-19th century, along with some of the oldest churches in the region, have been preserved and 90% of the island remains farmland.
All over l’Île-d’Orléans you find sugar maple groves; pear, plum and apple orchards; strawberry fields and little farm stands along the ribbon of road that encircles the island. In one area small vineyards run across the hillsides, its little wine shop and café a welcome stop for touring bicyclists and the few other travelers who come over from the mainland.
One of the First French Settlements
The island was discovered by explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535 at about the same time that the site of present-day Québec City was found. It was one of the first French settlements in the area and at one time had a population larger than that of Québec City due to its fertile soil.
Until relatively recently river pilots who navigated the St. Lawrence were the island’s main residents. They left their mark on the wrought-iron railings of the Québec-style houses along the streets in small villages such as St. Jean where the circles on the balustrades symbolize the pilot wheels on ships they piloted on the river.
Québec Sans Starbucks
Wandering about the island by bike or car is the perfect way to discover the countryside. You don’t find 7-11’s, Starbucks or strip malls on l’Île-d’Orléans, just solitude and a landscape that’s a slice of traditional life in rural Québec.
In St. Jean we found houses built with creamy-yellow bricks brought up the St. Lawrence as ballast in ships long ago, many sitting so close to the street I’m certain they predated it. Quiet little shops were scattered here and there, all not far from an old stone church that has well stood the test of time. In a garden not far beyond a man was relaxing in an Adirondack chair enjoying a book. There was nothing but solitude in the air.
All along the road several of the old village lampposts carried signs describing a piece of local history. I looked at one dedicated to a priest who opened the grounds of the church for skating, hockey and other activities.
A “Cabane à Sucre”
We continued on our way stopping at L’En-Tailleur in Saint-Pierre-de-l’ile-d’Orléans, a cabane à sucre, or traditional sugar shack, where the maple trees are still tapped with buckets in the old style. Inside its little shop a variety of maple products – including maple butter, maple green tea, maple cream cookies and maple syrup – were for sale, and the syrup turned out to be the best I’ve had anywhere. It didn’t surprise me to learn that the place had been in the family for ten generations.
After leaving L’En-Tailleur we stopped for dinner at the nearby Auberge la Grange de l’ile. The countryside inn was a wonderful little place set amid the verdant fields of Île d’Orléans.
Our dinner, was magnifique and, better yet, less than a half-hour from our hotel in Québec City.
If you go:
Île d’Orléans Tourism
1447 Chemin Royal
QC G0A 4E0, Canada
Tel:+ (418) 828-1269
Auberge la Grange de l’ile
1517 chemin Royal
Québec, Canada, G0A 4E0