The popularity of Vermont as a motorcycle touring destination is well deserved: it offers great roads, world-class food and interesting things to see. Yet one can expand this adventure a step further by experiencing the joie de vivre found in the “other” Vermont.
Heading north from Burlington, Vermont, it’s a gentle cruise through the bucolic Lake Champlain Islands on U.S. Route 2 on my trusty BMW. After passing through the village of Alburg, turning onto Vermont Route 225 leads to the Canadian border and I quickly pass through customs. Distances and speed are now measured in kilometers and signs are in French; it’s like crossing into Europe.
This narrow ribbon of asphalt follows the contours of the land as it cuts across some of the most fertile farmland in Québec. Posted for 90 kph (56 mph) and ridden just a bit faster—10 kph over is generally considered acceptable—these roads are a blast. At the crossroads in the small hamlet of Noyan, a right turn takes me to the northern extent of Lake Champlain, where the highway snakes along the scenic shore into Venise-en-Québec. On summer weekends this little resort town often has more motorcycles than cars. Resto St-Vincent caters to the two-wheel crowd and the outside tables are usually filled with people enjoying two-hour lunches.
Continuing east on Québec Route 202 brings me to Route 133 in Pike River. At the big curve in the village, a left onto Chemin des Rivières (River Road) has me cruising north (nord) on another narrow country road until I spot a covered bridge on my right. After passing through the bridge, Mystic is just a few miles down Chemin St-Charles (St. Charles Road), where one finds Restaurant L’Ouef, a popular café and chocolaterie, and the unique 12-sided Walbridge Barn (circa 1882) that houses the Missisquoi Museum’s agricultural collection.
Eleven thousand years ago, this was a vast sea, of which Lake Champlain is no more than a remnant. With a bedrock of limestone and clay silt topsoil, the Champlain lowlands seem as flat as a billiard table, and it’s amazing the gems a billion stalks of corn can hide. As in parts of Europe, the scenery and very essence of the land quickly changes as the kilometers roll beneath my wheels.
Heading south (sud) to Bedford on Route 235, and once again crossing the meandering Pike River, I reconnect with Route 202 east (est). I’m now in Loyalist territory, the frontier region settled by the followers of King George in the aftermath of the American Revolution. This part of Québec has a New England influence that is absent in the French settlements along the St. Lawrence River, and no place more so than the quaint village of Stanbridge East. Just off Route 202—and crossing the Pike River for the fourth time—the Missisquoi Museum is located in the Cornell Mill (1830-1963) and up the street is Hodge’s Store (circa 1841). The general store served this community for 140 years and is a precious time capsule that provides a glimpse back to the mid-20th century in rural Québec and northern New England.
Continuing east, the landscape begins to change. This is wine country and rows of grape vines line gentle rolling hills topped with expanses of deep-green forests. Blue and white highway signs denote the Route des Vins (Wine Route), and though I’m not doing any tasting, of course, which winery to visit becomes a matter of personal whim. Domaine Des Côtes d’Ardoise, the oldest vineyard in the region (circa 1980), is my choice. Every year it hosts a sculpture exhibition that is the equal of most contemporary art museums. The difference between this region and that of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, just 10 kilometers to the south, is so great that it’s easy to imagine I’m no longer in North America.
It’s not all about wine: a brewer’s renaissance is taking place in Québec. Brasserie Dunham, located in the old brick building at the junction of Routes 202 and 213 in the village of Dunham, is one of many innovative microbreweries scattered across the province. The farm-to-table movement and international award-winning cheese producers coupled with the French passion for gastronomy makes the Cantons de l’Est (Eastern Townships) region a foodie destination.
Riding south, Route 213 softly twists and undulates across a landscape dotted with farms and woodland. In Frelighsburg, I pick up Route 237 sud, but am not even out of the village before bearing left on Chemin de Richford (Richford Route) and entering the northern Green Mountains. Vermont is less than 10 minutes away and any major road going south, including Route 237, will cross the border, yet this region has a European feel, with the smell of orchards, vineyards and farms while riding roads through a bucolic landscape.
I barely manage to shift up through the gears on my BMW K1200 before downshifting into the corner sweeper and then turning into Domaine Pinnacle. With more than 400 acres of apple orchards, it was the Crawfords who created the world demand for ice cider. Located on the side of Pinnacle Mountain and just over a kilometer from the Vermont border, this farm allegedly was a stop on the Underground Railroad and a meeting place for bootleggers during Prohibition. This seems fitting since it is now a micro-distillery producing vodka, rum and gin.
On a map these long, straight roads appear flat and uninteresting. This is an illusion as I’m now deep in the northern Green Mountains and this means constant elevation changes. This road leads to Richford, Vermont, and in order to stay in Canada I must turn left onto Chemin des Érables (Maple Road) and right again on Chemin d’Abercorn, which means simply following the primary pavement. Route 139 takes me north to the ski resort village of Sutton, where I turn right onto Route 215, yet another country road bordered by forests and small farms. I usually take a shortcut by turning right onto Chemin Tibbits Hill, but regardless, Route 104 east leads to another major destination for touring motorcyclists.
In the village of Knowlton, bikes will often outnumber cars on summer weekends. Besides being a nexus of popular touring roads, it offers great dining options and the world-famous Lac Brome Duck that is raised here. A Vermonter founded the village, but it was a New Yorker who put it on the map by establishing a farm specializing in raising Peking ducks.
One of my favorite roads in the Eastern Townships is Route 243—the old stagecoach road—through Bolton Pass. This actually feels like Vermont as I snake through the sparsely populated, forested hills and lean into one sweeping corner after another. Continuing to follow it would, once again, bring me back to the U.S., so I turn left on Route 245 in South Bolton and follow the valley north. At the intersection in Bolton Centre, a right onto Chemin Nicholas Austin has me heading east toward Lake Memphrémagog—a lake that spans the international border.
Soon the forest gives way to scattered residential homes and small farms. Riding the ridgeline provides some gorgeous views as I cruise north along Lake Memphrémagog, a notorious bootlegger route during Prohibition. Bearing right on Chemin Southière, then right on Route 112, brings me past Pointe-Merry to the intersection of Route 141 in downtown Magog.
There’s always something happening in this small city on the northern shore of the lake. This is another major lunch destination for Québec motorcyclists, but today a wine festival is being held in Parc de la Pointe-Merry and the streets are more crowded than usual. Over a half-dozen good restaurants are situated along Rue Principale Est (East Main St.), but I tend to patronize Microbrasserie La Memphré, named after the legendary sea monster that inhabits Lake Memphrémagog. I’ve never seen Memphré, but perhaps it takes more beer than I drink after a ride.
East of the lake, the mountains give way to a region of rolling hills and river valleys. Crisscrossed by scenic touring roads, it’s quite different from the western portion of the Townships and even from the northeast corner of my native state. Route 247 runs south along the lake, through Fitch Bay, and eventually to the Beebe Plain and Derby Line border crossings. It’s a scenic road ideal for motorcycle touring, but on this trip I’m headed farther east and I follow Route 141 through Ayer’s Cliff on the eastern edge of the Green Mountains.
Constant elevation changes encourage me to increase my speed a bit, but there are unexpected tricky corners hidden from view until I’m almost on them. In Coaticook, I make a left (à gauche) onto Route 147 and, after riding through the downtown district, the pedestrian suspension bridge is seen spanning the 164-foot deep Coaticook Gorge. At 554 feet, this is one of the longest bridges of its type in the world. The next right goes down to the gorge entrance, information center and restaurant, and then into the campground. It is claimed that there are no mosquitoes in the gorge—and I’ve never seen one—because of the hemlock trees. It’s also the site of Québec’s Foresta Lumina enchanted forest.
The Eastern Township region continues to the Maine border with touring roads that are practically devoid of traffic while running over seemingly endless rolling hills under a big sky. On this trip I opt for a fast run down Route 141, decelerating only after going past Lac-Wallace—another body of water that straddles the border—and then I’m through customs just a couple miles west of Canaan in the northeastern corner of Vermont.
There is another Vermont that lies just above the Green Mountain State. Divided by the 45th parallel, it shares the same topography but has a different culture, one that is vibrant and filled with joie de vivre—the active enjoyment of life, which naturally includes motorcycle touring.