Kristie Kellahan takes a day trip from Quebec City to a garden of Eden.
Quebec City is gorgeous, there's no doubt about it. As pretty as a fabled fairytale town, it is imbued with a Gallic style and savoir-faire you'd expect from a city where about 95 per cent of the population speak French. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985, its winding cobblestone streets effortlessly seduce with the promise of cosy wine bars, delectable cheese shops, and patisseries that smell like airborne butter.
I could have happily frittered away four days taking in the historic sights of Old Quebec, cruising on the St Lawrence River and enjoying the architecture of a city recognised as the most European destination in North America. However, to stay in Quebec City would have been to miss out on what lay just beyond. Intrigued by tales of a nearby island with a Garden of Eden lushness and sensibility, I took a day trip to Ile d'Orleans. I'm glad I did.
Ile d'Orleans is connected to the mainland by a bridge, built in 1935. Prior to that, island families would row across to get supplies or to sell their sought-after fresh produce to the city vendors. The island is just 12 kilometres from Old Quebec, but it might as well be 1200 kilometres. There is one set of traffic lights on the island; the closest thing to rush hour occurs when traffic stops so a gaggle of ducks can cross the road. You won't find any supermarkets on the island; instead, villagers fill their pantries at roadside stalls dotted along the 72-kilometre scenic ring road. Cooking classes replace nightclubs for evening entertainment.
It's a place for tranquillity, nature and history. Vacationing families come to pick pears and cycle around the parishes, hoping no doubt to introduce their children to a world away from sexting and Snoop Dogg. Welcoming B&Bs with lacy white curtains in the windows and fat ginger cats on the stoop sit side by side with stone churches that have witnessed the villagers' births, deaths and marriages for hundreds of years.
Bucolic farms have flourished here since the 1500s, thanks to the rich soil and life-giving waters that surround the island. Strawberries are one of the island's most popular crops, sold in bulging buckets for a couple of dollars by the side of the road. Apples are sweet and delicious too, turned into apple butter and relish at farms such as Cidrerie Verger Bilodeau. Modern-day Eves might consider seducing Adams with the potent apple cider and ice wine produced on the island.
A traditional cheesemaker in Sainte-Famille, the oldest parish on the island, sells excellent fromage made on the island. The Chocolaterie in Sainte-Petronille is worth a visit for its hand-crafted high-end chocolates made from ingredients imported from Belgium and France. Visitors short on time can stop by Domaine Steinbach to purchase more than 30 locally produced goodies in one place, from ice cider to creamy pates, terrines and confits so rich you don't even want to know the calorie count.
The island seems to be a magnet for artists, writers, foodies, and those who dream of a life dedicated to small pleasures. I hear of one woman who moved here to make pies. She sources the freshest produce of the day - blackberries, pears, plums, for example - and cooks luscious crumbly pies that she sells warm from the oven. A Frenchman moved halfway across the world to make fruit liqueur here. Another sold everything to become an islander and satisfy his yearning to paint rural landscapes.
Renowned Quebecois singer and writer Felix Leclerc lived and worked on Ile d'Orleans, calling it "a flower in the water". A museum details his life, while an adjoining performance space celebrates the work of contemporary artists and singers.
Nancy Corriveau dreamt of creating beautiful gardens where children could play and flowers would flourish. She moved to the island and set to work creating La Seigneurie gardens, an enchanting space with a lavender garden of more than 75,000 plants; a fruit garden; a Japanese garden; and more. Today, her sprawling garden labyrinth is one of the most popular attractions on the island.
At day's end, sunkissed and sated with a bellyful of great food and wine, I wave goodbye to Ile d'Orleans and head back to Quebec City. It's nice to know places such as that still exist.
Getting there Air Canada has a fare to Quebec from Sydney for about $2365 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Toronto (about 20hr including transit time in Vancouver) and then to Quebec (1hr 37min); see aircanada.com. Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect. Ile d'Orleans is a 15-minute drive from old Quebec City via Route 440 East. Car hire is available in Quebec City.
Staying there Bed and breakfast accommodation is available on the island. See iledorleans.com for listings. Another option is to stay in Quebec City and make a day trip to the island; a day would be sufficient time to see and taste the highlights. Fairmont le Chateau Frontenac is a grand historic hotel in the heart of Old Quebec. See fairmont.com/frontenac-quebec.