The gingerbread houses on the Ile d’Orleans in the St. Lawrence River, just five kilometres or so outside Quebec City, appear to be maintained by a pack of happy elves who do all their work at night. Despite the fact that in my time on the island I’ve never seen anyone mowing a lawn, carrying out trash or hosing down the lawn furniture, the houses are impeccably groomed, standing at attention like Labradors, waiting patiently for their owners to lavish them with a visit.
No wonder that in summer, this tiny island (190 sq km, with a population of 7,000) bursts at the seams with tourists and owners of summer homes, here to pick berries, play in the water and scamper over familiar terrain comfortably worn down by generations of pleasure seekers. The assiduous local tourist board has slapped the place with enough signage to lead a blind man around, and travellers are enthusiastically directed to the island’s main draw: its multitude of artisan food and cassis producers, cidermakers, apple growers, fish smokers, cheesemakers, chocolatiers, jam producers, bakers and vintners.
Mid-week in October, however, the island, relieved of its most pressing hosting responsibilities, enjoys a relaxed emptiness, a shopworn quiet. Yellow leaves hang tentatively from the thick branches of maple trees and farmers have turned their hay bales into spiders or snowmen and propped autumnally attired scarecrows against lamp posts. Local bakery La Boulange, a favourite lunch spot, is replete with islanders exercising their social graces by greeting everyone in the room with a varied spectrum of formality. And at one table four women sit: the head of the local coalition of artisans, the head of the island’s newspaper, the head of the genealogy house and another responsible for tourism on the island – discussing business over pesto pizzas and buttery apple pastries.
My first morning on the Ile d’Orleans, I wandered into a tchotchke shop and browsed the offerings: woollen mittens, painted plates and a small art gallery upstairs. The CD collection gave me pause, and I purchased a Felix Leclerc compilation called Temps de Bonheur to see what all the fuss was about.
I had just popped the Leclerc CD into the stereo of my rental car when the phone rang – one of the islanders calling about lunch. I turned the volume down immediately, but not before the first milliseconds of “Moi Mes Souliers” drifted through the speakers. The island caller, who probably absorbed Leclerc’s entire oeuvre while still in utero (Leclerc lived on the island for many years), noticed immediately. “Are you listening to Felix Leclerc?” he asked. Busted! I was officially an île cliché.
He doesn’t technically belong to the island’s illustrious descendants, but Felix Leclerc has been adopted by the islanders as prodigal son. Raised in a logging camp in Quebec, the musician rose to fame in France and Canada on the basis of his evocatively wiggling eyebrows and poetic, soulful warbles. After spending the last few decades of his life on the Ile d’Orleans, he is survived by a wife and daughter who manage the Felix Leclerc museum near its mainland bridge.
The museum is quite well done, all streaming sunlight and blond wood, with a poignant, life-sized diorama of Leclerc’s office, complete with records, a typewriter, coffee cup stains, Camus paperbacks and an encyclopedia set. Downstairs is a little cabaret space set up with café tables. Here a Leclerc fan who moved to the island eight years ago to run the museum plays a 20-minute video about the singer’s life that I watched alone. In summertime, the cabaret space bustles, welcoming artists from all over the world.
The island’s indigenous music, though less polished, is an equally joyous melee of rhythmic accordion, violin and piano notes accompanied by lyrics hearkening back to earlier, more agricultural times. What it lacks in rigorous Irish “tonesmanship” or French rhythmic gravity, it makes up for in spades with raw emotion. In fact, the locals’ speech is peppered with a buoyancy that resembles song. “Bon matin!” I am greeted alertly, ringingly, every time I come across a good-humoured islander as I circumnavigate the island’s main road: the Chemin Royal. Twenty km long, it is immortalized in song by Leclerc himself and bisected by three roads that offer a short crossing, all but one closed in winter.
The centre of the island is a golf course surrounded by farmland, leaving most of the island’s homes linked by the Chemin Royal loop – their shingled roofs curving with an elegant camber, squatting atop plain walls accented by windows outlined with bright red or green piping. This type of accessorizing makes them look like faces: one comical, another coquettish, with heavy-lidded eyes. Some are clapboard, others stucco, and frequently they feature decorative touches such as porthole windows, gables or elaborately moulded gutters. Front porches are graced with rocking chairs and hanging plants. Folks with good values live in these houses; I can tell.
If yards are occasionally studded with the type of ornament that might annoy neighbours with twee or conservative tastes (big anchors half-stuck in the turf, tacky stone lions guarding an entrance), this eclectic decor nonetheless coheres, making the island seem a place where homeowners invest in their surroundings. Newer homes are a studied kind of quaint, imitating the effortless charm of the older ones. But the two generations meld successfully, giving a heterogeneous, yet harmonious, feel to the local architecture. And somehow this evokes twinkly, Christmassy feelings, even in summer.
Having inched my way over three days toward the northeast corner of the island, I stop at La Maison de Nos Aïeux. The genealogy museum recently expanded to accommodate an increasing trickle of those who come to trace their histories back to the original 300 or so families who settled long, narrow, water-fronting parcels of land on the island some 300 years ago. Annie Latour, the museum’s curator, takes a key out of a drawer and turns on the interactive displays: well-made, short oral-history videos of settlers’ descendants talking about their lives on the island. The room is full of attractively arrayed butter churns and baptism gowns and a lit-up 3D model of the island’s topography. From this perspective, it’s easy to visualize Ile d’Orleans’ agricultural inheritance: boat-building, berries and carrots in the north, apples and grapes to the south, and in the section known as St. François toward the western end, what one Quebecoise fittingly called “le village de la vichyssoise,” excellent leeks and potatoes.
Admittedly, there’s always something perturbing about people capable of surviving winters on the land and milking cows by hand being displaced by weekenders desirous of a picturesque stomping ground. Then again, that’s precisely what the Quebecois (islanders, weekenders and tourists) value about Ile d’Orleans: its proximity to both a figurative and literal past. The headstones in the island’s cemeteries echo the names signposted on its carrot farms and mailboxes and alongside its apple orchards. These, in turn, recall the names in the genealogy books in the Maison de Nos Aieux: Pouliot, Blouin, Turcotte, Dallaire, Noreau. Indeed, Ile d’Orleans is the self-appointed capital of a province obsessed with historiography – the past and one’s place in it. Small wonder so many seek the meaning of their story here.
Oddly, or perhaps not, only about half the island’s food producers, restaurateurs and innkeepers are native to the place. As such, the island plays at an über-authentic heritage that’s only halfway real. One forgives such details, however, because the intentions are good and there’s enough authenticity scattered about to make up for what isn’t. After all, it must be recognized that “outsiders” have added greatly to the island’s successful commercialization, regardless of whether or not the old-timers find this gradual shift as charming as the tourists do.
Surprisingly, despite the island’s longstanding history of growing excellent produce, and the fact that its agricultural bounty is such a draw for travellers, most of the restaurants don’t make a special effort to cook with local ingredients. A few notable exceptions include Le Canard Huppé and Le Moulin de St. Laurent, which valorize local produce grown in the island’s legendary soil. So does the best place to eat on the island, Ferme au Goût d’Autrefois, which also happens to be the newest foodie enclave. The restaurant uses only its own farm-grown ingredients – goose meat, organic vegetables – to dish up frankly outstanding, totally unique meals.
Other notable stops include Poissonnerie Jos Paquet, a little fisherman’s shop that specializes in smoked fish; and Cassis Monna et Filles, a blackcurrant farm that has developed a fine line of aperitifs and ports. There are also innumerable orchards canning their own lovely jams, chutneys and jellies, each with farm shops filled with charming gift ideas and tempting tasting samples.
In one such shop, I inadvertently spotted a sign posted on the wall meant to school its employees in good manners. “Smile,” it said. “Say the magic words: Hello! Welcome! Can I help you? Be tolerant: people from other places may not hold the same views and customs at you. Smile more!!” The messages are symptomatic of the island’s co-existing worlds: one that faces out toward the tourists, smiling boldly, the other looking in on itself, full of its own mythologies and history.
Whichever world you find, though (if you’re lucky, you’ll witness both), there’s no doubt that Ile d’Orleans is an extremely charming place to spend a couple of days. Its proximity to Quebec City floods its orchards with eager apple pickers on autumn weekends, and the vineyards and cassis plantations bulge with tipsy enthusiasts. Yet I found it most atmospheric once the battalions had retreated, my only company the dolled-up hay scarecrows, clean-picked apple trees and gruff, winded locals with their ghosts of an illustrious history.
Wheeled wander: Cycling is a wonderful and easy way to see the island. Be aware there is no dedicated bike path and the roads are narrow, though neither is an issue for confident cyclists. Whether on or off a bike, three days should be sufficient to experience all the highlights.
Must-stops: The Felix Leclerc museum, Poissonnerie Jos Paquet, La Boulange, La Maison de Nos Aïeux.
Bonsoir: Bunker down at La Goéliche, situated in Ste. Pétronille on the island’s westernmost protuberance, with views of Quebec City (as the crow flies, only a few kilometres west but in spirit much farther away). My room had a balcony, a flick-on fake fireplace and a bathtub from which I could watch the sun set over the river. Two other highly rated recommendations: Dans les Bras de Morphée, perched on a hill; and Oasis de Rêves, down a maple-lined alley and fronting the river up close.
Take it to go: How to get all those edible goodies home? The best way is via bus or post. For details contact Cassis Monna et Filles (418-828-2525)and Domaine Steinbach(418-828-0000).