Montreal, Canada - After the early morning drizzle, the sun has put in an appearance. A good omen, I hope. I set off, pedalling the first leg of a 200km cycle path that will, over the next four days, take me south-east from the rural Upper Laurentians town of Mont-Laurier in Quebec to the finish in Saint-Jérôme, a bustling town close to Montreal.
The trail is part of La Route Verte, a vast network of bike paths that criss-cross Quebec. It's called - in slightly twee fashion - Le P'tit Train du Nord. Built on an old railway line that closed in 1981, it's almost completely level, which is quite a feat, given that it winds its way past some seriously impressive mountains.
It's easy riding even for a novice, when done in 50km stretches. On that first glorious morning I'm not sure whether to be most exhilarated by the crisp air, rippling lakes, tunnel-like forests of pine, fir, birch and maple, or whether simply to be astonished at how remote the trail is. The cyclists it attracts range from hardcore Lycra-clad types to sixtysomething retirees. Tandem cyclists enjoy it, too, but it's never crowded and for long stretches there's not a soul about.
My self-guided package includes three days' bed, breakfast and dinner; minibuses from the departure point at Saint-Jérôme Place de la Gare to the trailhead at Mont-Laurier on the Autobus Le P'tit Train du Nord shuttle service; and luggage transport. Bike and helmet hire are extra.
With an early start on the first day, it's vital to spend the night before in one of Saint-Jérôme's basic but comfortable hotels. I opt for the Comfort Inn, about 10 minutes from Place de la Gare.
This is the ideal trip for someone new to bike touring. The infrastructure from the ski resorts benefits the trail. A smattering of guesthouses lines the route and each proves easy to find. Tourisme Québec publishes an excellent guide, provided to cyclists before they set off, detailing every kilometre of the trail. Many of the old train stations have been restored and converted into cafés and toilets, and the signposting throughout is superb. There are also well-maintained “dry” long-drop loos every few kilometres, and occasional junctions where you can pedal off in search of a café or supermarket.
Nevertheless, the impression, especially early on, is of splendid isolation. This is, after all, the great Canadian outdoors. After pedalling through a densely forested path, eerily silent but for the harsh call of the occasional partridge, it's a relief to see breaks in the foliage and to find myself inches from the open, benign shores of the Lac-des-Ecorces and Lac-Saguay.
By mid-afternoon on the first day, I'm settled into Auberge Chez Ignace, overlooking the magnificent Lac Nominingue. The kindly owner, Ignace Denutte, takes me on a sunset motorboat ride through the lake's bayou-like channels to its sister, the Petit Lac Nominingue and around some deserted islands. With hindsight, I wish I'd booked an extra night, especially after the dinner Ignace's wife Yolande prepares, which includes home-cured salmon, and rabbit and prune stew. (Elk and wild boar pâté are also on the menu.)
It soon becomes obvious that these gourmet meals - along with the warm, friendly welcome - will be a prominent feature of my trip. Next morning, after a hearty breakfast, I'm waved off into a heavy fog that, for an hour or so, hovers eerily over a wetland dotted with spidery, dead tree branches. Soon, though, the sun is out, and I'm cycling past Rivière Rouge's churning rapids.
By lunch, I've reached Labelle, a town named after parish priest Antoine Labelle: an impassioned social activist who sought the construction of the original railway to encourage economic growth at a time when many French Canadians had been emigrating to New England in search of work. Thanks in large part to his efforts, the line was built between 1891 and 1909.
A small museum in the old station is devoted to the railway's history. Through heavy Québécois French, the old man on duty tells me that the line contributed hugely to the development of industry and tourism in the Laurentians. “In its heyday, between 1920 and 1940, snow trains carting skiers to the mountains were all the rage,” he says. The railway stopped for good, though, 31 years ago - largely due to improvements in the road network . Then bikes took over.
From here on, the trail is a bit more developed: the approach to Mont-Tremblant's old village takes me on a blissful ride around Lac Mercier - encircled by the second homes of affluent urbanites . Another 9km and I've reached my home for the night: B&B Le Voyageur, the only guesthouse on my route not to offer an evening meal. I store my bike and take a bus to the touristy bit of the village. Shops and restaurants cover one side of the mountain. Famished, I wolf down a burger.
Normal service resumes next morning as I tuck into the guesthouse's astonishing four-course breakfast: melon, honey and tapioca; creton, a kind of local pork pâté served with bread and croissant; puff pastry filled with egg, cheese, ham and mushrooms; then French toast topped by fruit and custard, and green tea. I barely have the energy to waddle out of the door.
Thank goodness, then, that the uphill section that follows to St-Faustin-Lac-Carré is nothing more than a gentle gradient that flattens after an hour or so. After a lunch stop in Sainte-Agathe - a sandwich eaten in the eerily deserted park overlooking Lac des Sables - things improve: the trail through the outskirts of Val-David is flanked by pretty cottages and Val-Morin has Lac Raymond.
A stone's throw from the Rivière du Nord, outside Sainte-Adèle, I bed down at Auberge de la Gare. It's a charming place with an outdoor terrace and prettily painted rooms. Owners Yvon and Linda feed me soup, salad, beef and vegetable fondue and three desserts, including maple cake. Is it any wonder I end the ride a few kilograms heavier than when I'd set out?
Shock weight gain aside, as I bask in the sun in the Parc Régional de la Riviére-du-Nord, 5km from the end of the trail, it dawns on me that I have not experienced such an exhilarating sense of freedom in a long while. Quebec leaves me a convert to life on two wheels. - The Independent
If You Go...
Buses to Saint-Jérôme from Montreal run from the Central Bus Station at Berri-de-Montigny metro. There are four departures every day taking about 70 minutes, and the fare is C$35 (about R250) return, (001 514 842 2281; stationcentrale.com).