Road on the Île d’Orléans
Only a 15 minute drive from the center of Quebec City (la ville de Québec), the Île d’Orléans is a charming, historic, and scenic island that measures 40 miles in circumference. As a melting pot of French, British, and American cultures dating back to the 1600s, this unique island offers its visitors a peek at authentic Quebecois life.
Up until 1940, the Île d’Orléans could only be reached via boat in the summer or by sleigh over the frozen Saint Lawrence River (le fleuve Saint-Laurent) in the winter. Today, visitors now have the option of traveling to the island via ferry from either Saint-Michel or Quebec City (la ville de Québec), or by bridge from Quebec City. Take highway 368 (Côte Du Pont) over the Pont de l’Île bridge and you will find yourself on this enchanting island. The bridge connects passengers to the Chemin Royal (Royal Road), which encircles the island.
Immensely popular among bicyclists and day-trippers, the island is a montage of rural and suburban life. Over the years, the island residents have maintained their resistance to development and subsequently continue to keep the island rural. Most of the island's original houses are still intact and so the island was classified as a national historic district in 1970.
The Île d’Orléans has long been inhabited by Native American tribes; the Huron gave it the name Minigo. When the French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived in 1535, he decided upon the name Île de Bacchus. At the time of his arrival, the island was an abundance of wild grapes, hence the reference to the Roman God of Wine. Later, in honor of the King of France, the name was once again changed to Île d’Orléans. As one of the first parts of the province of Quebec to be settled by the French, many French Canadians can trace their ancestry back to this small island.
Scattered throughout the island’s hamlets are a few notable museums that history buffs shouldn’t miss. The Manoir Mauvide-Genest, built in 1734, was the home of Jean Mauvide, the surgeon for the King of France. When the British invaded the island in 1759 their cannonballs rocked the foundation of this manor. The indentations they made in the building’s façade can still be seen today. This wonderfully preserved museum includes a restaurant with an outdoor patio which is splendid for summer respites. The Maison Drouin, the oldest house on the island, is also a pleasant stop.
Exploring the Island
Your first stop should be the Tourist Info Center at the foot of the Pont de l’Île bridge, which offers a self-guided tour of the island on cassette tape. Drivers can listen to the tape as they follow the Chemin Royal along its twenty-three mile loop of the island, encompassing a leisurely 1-1/2 hour drive. Though literally only taking a few hours to complete the trip, at least a half day journey should be expected; there may be many spots you'll want to pause at such as: cider houses, orchards, wineries, bakeries, chocolatiers, art galleries, restaurants, stone churches, inns, and villages.
The island is comprised of six little towns: Sainte-Famille, Saint-François, Saint-Jean, Saint-Laurent, Sainte-Pétronille, and Saint-Pierre. If you follow the Chemin Royal, the island is quite navigable and makes for a fascinating journey with spectacular views! Beginning on the island’s western end, the village of Sainte- Pétronille is nestled into the landscape, providing panoramic views of the Saint Lawrence River (le fleuve Saint-Laurent), Quebec City (la ville de Québec), and Montmorency Falls (la chute Montmorency) on the mainland. This tiny hamlet was founded in 1870. It is graced by Victorian-style homes, summoning up images of its past, when the British gentry used the town as a summer resort.
Between Sainte-Pétronille and the next village, Saint-Laurent, appears a sign with the hand-painted phrase “J’aime le chocolat” (I love chocolate). Every woman in the world should be barreling down the road in the direction the sign points, for who can resist the lure of homemade chocolate? Visitors answering the beckon will find the Chocolaterie Île d’Orléans and will savor a multitude of chocolate delicacies perfected to quench anyone’s pallet. Following the road through an arbor of lush sycamore and maple trees you will find yourself in Saint-Laurent, which was founded in 1679. In the early 1800s, Saint-Laurent was a hopping village, comprised mostly of small family shipyards, called “chalouperies”. Once the bridge was built, however, many of these small businesses closed since ferries were no longer needed.
Continuing your journey around the island you'll come to Saint-Jean, a colorful town filled with stone churches and homes and a charming stop. Nearby is the Manoir Mauvide-Genest museum and restaurant; a sure favorite among historians. The next stop is Saint Francois, which marks the halfway point of the loop. Somewhere near this village is where Jacques Cartier first stepped foot on the island, claiming it as the Île de Bacchus. The lush, rolling landscapes surrounding this hamlet are definitely a treat!
Just outside Saint-Laurent, the dense sycamore and maple forests give way to rolling fields and farmland that stretch to the banks of the Saint Lawrence River (le fleuve Saint-Laurent). Because of the rural farming nature of the island, the Île d’Orléans has become Quebec City (la ville de Québec)'s main market for fresh produce. This city is locally renowned for its apples, strawberries, potatoes, and wines. Make a point to visit this unique island during harvest periods and taste the quality for yourself!
Fruits and vegetables are picked fresh daily during harvest seasons; signs posted by the Chemin Road indicate areas where you can pick your own items. Around mid-July look for signs reading “Fraises: Cueillir Vous-Meme” (Strawberries: You Pick Them). August-October you will find more signs indicating locations for apple picking. If you decide to stop farmers will hand out baskets and quote to you the price. You can then venture into the fields to fill your basket. Make sure to bring a bag or box of some sort to take your goodies home after you pay though! Polyculture Plante is a popular place for apple picking.
Aside from locally grown produce, the island also offers sugar maple stands, which sell maple syrup and other regional products. While cruising along the Chemin Royal, keep an eye out for the buffalo farm as well. It’s not everyday you can view bison grazing in a field in Canada!
Just as Cartier observed when he first arrived on the island, the Île d’Orléans is a haven for grapevines in the northern hemisphere. Because of the surrounding landscape, the land encompassing the Quebec City (la ville de Québec) area has a slightly longer and warmer growing season than the rest of the province of Quebec, making it ideal for certain grapes to flourish, such as the Eona, Seyval Blanc, Maréchal Foch, De Chaunac, and St-Croix. Since this is one of the snowiest regions in the world, vine-growers must take the time to heavily protect the plants from the winter’s harsh conditions.
The area specializes in certain wines: blended, fortified, iced, and fruit. While on the island, make one of these unique wineries one of your stops. Taste the local wine and enjoy the views they have to offer!
Close to the western tip of the island, this winery runs from the Saint Lawrence River
(le fleuve Saint-Laurent) to the middle of the island. The views are tremendous here and many tour buses will make this a stop on their itinerary. The establishment offers a tasting room and terrace where visitors can relax, sip on wine, and view Montmorency Falls. Occasional picnic tables set among the vines enable you to enjoy a serene respite on your journey. The winery is famous for its Voile de la Mariée, a white wine; Insula, an aperitif; and Vin de Glace, an ice wine.
This is a charming winery with wine tasting in the cookhouse beneath the owners’ home. Famous for their unique blends, popular items include: Le 1535, a white wine; Le Village des Entre-Cotes, a red; and Le Saint-Pierre, a rosé. This winery also features a four-room inn where you can spend the night.
Featuring a multitude of hybrid vines, this winery and fruit orchard is located on the shore of the Saint Lawrence River
(le fleuve Saint-Laurent). Wander through the orchard (which consists of apples, pears, and plums), and enjoy the surrounding views over a picnic, sample products, or shop for unique items in their boutique. Popular products include: Bouquet d’Automne, Les Belles de l’Île, Domaine de la source à Marguerite, and Sur les Côteaux du Mitan.
As you complete your visit to the island, turn your eyes to the sky over the Saint Lawrence River (le fleuve Saint-Laurent). In April, May, and October, thousands of flocks of Canadian geese, snow geese, and ducks begin (or end) their journey, using the Saint Lawrence River as their navigational beacon. Regardless of your fancy, the Île d’Orléans has something for everyone. From its rolling landscapes and panoramic views to its quaint hamlets and fresh-produce farms, this Island is definitely a must-see!