Fun-loving and cosmopolitan, Montreal is Quebec‘s largest city and the second biggest francophone population in the world. 250 kilometres to the east lies Quebec City, the province’s cultural and romantic capital. Both cities are celebrated for their festival atmosphere, history, artistic flare, and good food. And both belong on any Quebec itinerary.
To get from Quebec City to Montreal, or vice versa, most travellers grab a Tim Horton’s coffee (Canada’s most popular java) and hightail it down Highway 40, covering the distance in a little less than three hours (or considerably longer if you hit Montreal’s rush hour). It’s efficient, but not pretty, affording few scenic views, and bypassing every church-steepled village along the way.
A far more interesting option is Highway 138. Also known as the Chemin du Roy, or King’s Highway, this heritage route was built in 1734, and at the time, was the longest road in North America. Besides the obvious eye-candy of expansive vistas along the St. Lawrence River, the route provides an insight into the legacy of New France and life in the French colony. In the villages along the way you’ll find historic buildings, farm-to-table restaurants, fromageries, wineries, markets, artist studios and churches. The latter play a particularly important role in the Chemin du Roy’s legacy as it was once a renowned pilgrimage route and today hundreds of Catholics still travel from L’Oratoire (St. Joseph’s Oratory) in Montreal to the Basilica in Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre, 35 kilometres east of Quebec City.
The Chemin du Roy offers worthwhile stops along its entire route, but in order to make the most of your holiday, we suggest taking Highway 40 until Trois Rivieres, the halfway point, before exiting onto the King’s Highway. At this point the road hugs the St. Lawrence closely, so you’ll catch the best views. Enjoy them from your car, of course, but we recommend you get out, stretch your legs and take in a few of these scenic diversions.
Despite its name, Quebec’s second oldest city, founded in 1634, has only one river, but lots to do. Start your visit with a stroll down Forges Street, and enjoy a drink or a meal on the patio of one of their many lively outdoor cafes. Restaurant Le Grill is known for its quality meat and seafood, as well an extensive wine and port selection; Cafe Morgane is the place to grab a coffee; or if it’s time for a pint, try the brewpub Gambrinus or the appropriately-named Le Temps d‘une Pinte.
After a quick pit stop, wander down to the harbour for a walk on the Terrasse Turcotte, or immerse yourself in the city’s past with a trip to Musee Quebecois de Culture Populaire, whose displays depict life in the colonies, and the Musee des Ursulines, a convent that operates as an historical museum with moving testimonials of the residents who lived and learned here. Haunting personal accounts also make a visit to La Vieille Prison de Trois-Rivieres unforgettable.
Dotted along the route are the villages; most with churches as their centrepieces, and some sitting atop cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence. Their farming traditions translate into a love of the land and its bounty can be tasted throughout.
In Sainte-Anne-de-la-Perade, stop at Fromagerie F.X. Pichet, whose raw-milk cheeses are recognized as some of the best in a province that loves its cheese. Pick up some fruit wine to go with them at Les Boisson du Roy, and you’ll be suitably fortified to take in some of the town’s noted sights, like the Eglise Sainte-Anne and the Domaine Seigneurial.
25 kilometres east is Deschambault, a well-preserved village with architecture going back to the 1700s. Find dessert at Julie Vachon Chocolats, a confectionary shop filled with homemade truffles, pralines, macaroons and ice cream treats. For dinner try La Maison Deschambault; a seigneurial manor house specializing in regional cuisine. Another glimpse of Quebec’s past can be seen at the Pare’s General Store, which still has its original display cases from the late 19th century.
A little further along the route is Cap-Sante, considered one of province’s most photogenic villages. Visit the Eglise Ste. Famille, the last church built under the French regime, and also the Vieux Chemin, a tree-shaded road lined with historic properties, including Mathurin Morisset House, Garneau House and the village schoolhouse.
Finally, before arriving in Quebec City, you might want to stop off in Neuville’s Domaines des 3 Moulins vineyard overlooking the St. Lawrence. Named for their historic windmills, it’s a gorgeous place to enjoy the view while sipping some fine red wine.
It will definitely take you longer to arrive in Quebec City, but by the time you get there, you’ll have experienced the best of Chemin du Roy.
Header image © Songquan Deng/iStock/Thinkstock
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Have you driven the Chemin du Roy? Have you made the journey from Quebec City to Montreal? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Jennifer Merrick