This summer, we were invited to celebrate my cousin Grace’s wedding. Johanna and I took advantage of the opportunity to add a bicycle tour of the northeastern United States, with a few stops in Canada along the way.
Since Grace’s celebration was on Lake Erie and Niagara Falls is nearby, it seemed like a good opportunity to check that monumental site off the bucket list. From there, I knew Johanna had been craving the maple syrup/B&B culture of that part of the country, so visiting Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine was the perfect route! Lastly, as part of a long-term plan to visit our national parks, Acadia National Park was a logical end destination for our trip.
Real-time posts can always be found on Instagram (go to @thorpetravel to check it out) and the below are our daily summaries, including additional photos.
Buffalo, New York to St. Catharine’s, Quebec
As I have written before on my blog, we like to take advantage of inexpensive shipping through AMTRAK Express. Five days before we were scheduled to start riding, we boxed and shipped our bikes on what was supposed to be their 2.5-day journey from Santa Barbara to Buffalo. To shorten what was a nervous few days of not hearing word from AMTRAK, the bikes arrived late…several days late. Hard to do a bike tour without bikes! However, we had a contingency plan for starting a day late and managed to get on the rode mid-day.
Johanna’s bike turned up shifting differently (probably a knock to the derailleur during the shipment cross-country…and the chain that we should have replaced before leaving!), so we made our way to Tom’s Pro Bike in Buffalo to have some adjustments made. We were helped by Tom himself, who upon hearing about our tour did the work for free and wished us a successful trip. His shop is literally the most impressive bike shop I’ve ever seen, so all you Buffalo/Niagara area cyclists head to Tom’s Pro Bike!
Now on our way to the Rainbow Bridge crossing of Niagara and into Canada, we were surprised/impressed by a number of excellent bike paths that wound their way through the suburbs of Buffalo. On a day that was supposed to feature rain, we enjoyed blue skies and smooth surfaces all the way to the border.
Passing through customs into Canada, we queued with the cars (probably should have just walked across on the pedestrian path). Having been to more than 40 countries at this point, I was dumbfounded by the longest and most inquisitive series of questions I’d ever been asked by a border guard. After several minutes, though, he finally decided we weren’t up to any mischief on our touring bikes and let us through.
Because of the late start to the day, we sort of missed a meal and found ourselves starving on some countryside road between Niagara and St. Catharine’s. If you have ridden with many long-distance cyclists, you probably already know that a hungry cyclist is an irritable cyclist. Jo noticed a golf course clubhouse with a “public welcome” sign and we ducked in for a bite. The Beechwood Golf & Country Club turned out to be our first experience of the trip where the friendliness of the people we met caught us by surprise. After a good meal and some friendly chatting with our server and some of the regulars, we returned to the road ready to push on.
It didn’t take long to continue the trend of friendly encounters, as we had worked out a stay with the Harris family through Warmshowers.org. We had an excellent time with our hosts and their kids, a house full of teachers just like us. This was their first time hosting through Warmshowers and our first stay through the website, which connects traveling cyclists with others along their touring routes.
St. Catharine’s to Toronto, Quebec
We spent the entirety of our second day on the bike skirting the southwestern edge of Lake Ontario, riding the Waterfront Trail from St. Catharine’s to Toronto.
The Waterfront Trail is really a well-marked mix of bike path, quiet country road, highway frontage road, and busy arterial (with decidedly small margins on the sides). Some of the high points of the day were passing through the little parks that popped up here and there along the route. The biggest example was Confederation Park in Hamilton, a place that is probably teaming with visitors on a sunnier day than the one we experienced.
We stopped at a highly-reviewed place called Test Kitchen for lunch in Burlington, which we found to be an attractive waterfront city. We were the only souls who dared eat on their patio, everyone else expecting the rain that was certainly threatening to come down. Again, the rain failed to materialize and we enjoyed an excellent meal.
As we continued the ride and the miles began to pile up, we took the opportunity to stop here and there to admire the scenery. Our favorite spot was a little park bench under willow trees on the outskirts of Toronto, but there were a number of beautiful lakeside vistas.
As we entered the city of Toronto on their bike path network we were greeted by a comparatively large number of cyclists. Up until that point, we’d seen very few people on two wheels, but the bike commuters began to pass “en masse” and we glimpsed a few touring cyclists for the first time as well. One thing that became clear throughout our tour is that North-Easterners make the most of good weather when it comes, just like their counterparts in the Pacific Northwest.
Our accommodation for the night was the downtown Hilton Garden Inn, which we booked on points, of course. They had delicious cookies sitting out in the lobby (gobble, gobble) and we were upgraded to a nice room on the twelfth floor, overlooking the heart of the city.
We happened upon the sister location of our favorite Santa Monica food spot called Cafe Crepe, so naturally we had to have dinner there (we prefer the SM location). As we walked about in the temperate evening air, passing through Chinatown and other parts of the city center, we also spotted Dark Horse Espresso Bar, a place we took great pleasure visiting the following morning (great coffee, croissants, and contemporary decor…everything a cafe should be).
Rest Day in Montreal, Quebec
With 120 miles in the bank, we spent the next two days enjoying the cosmopolitan city of Montreal.
Several rail lines in Canada allow cyclists to check bikes without boxing and the Via Rail from Toronto to Montreal (trains 63 and 64) was our way northeast to Quebec Province. For what amounted to about $25 US, we were able to check our bikes and the five-hour train ride was an uneventful transition.
As we got closer to Montreal, the clouds darkened and the forecasted rain again began to threaten. We had a 1.5-mile ride from the train station to Hotel Quartier Des Spectacles and just as we arrived at our hotel door, the rain began to come down. Again, we’d narrowly avoided getting soaked!
The Montreal Jazz Festival that happened to be going on throughout the surrounding area was not quite so lucky, but with some tenting the show went on and the rain passed before long. Our hotel turned out to be the perfect, central location I had hoped for when booking and we could even look down on the performances from our open windows in the room.
There is much to appreciate in the city of Montreal, with its distinctly European vibe, but nothing impressed us more than the food. We had great food at a Lebanese lunch spot called Omnivore and even the hotel breakfast was delicious!
We had such a good dinner the first night at Resto Darbar that we returned the following evening. You know you’re in for a treat when you’re the only non-Indian couple dining at an Indian restaurant and the wait-staff and kitchen are all clearly from the same family.
Just like the pros at the Tour de France, the rest day actually means an hour or two of light riding (only at half the speed the pros do it!). Mont Royal, Montreal’s most notable park, provided the perfect setting for such a ride, with it’s wide packed-dirt pathways closed to traffic and lined with shady trees.
On our second evening in Montreal, we headed to Terrasse Place d’Armes for a rooftop view of the city and “the scene.” It’s clear, rooftop terraces are where the people of Montreal go to see or be seen, and with help from tasty cheese platters and sangria, we spent a good long while soaking it in.
When we’d had enough of the rooftop (or at least, when we got tired of paying “rooftop prices”), we headed into the Old Quarter of Montreal, which was filled with magnificent old structures and charming little cafes lining every street. Montreal really does feel like Paris, or at the very least, a transplant from the far side of the Atlantic. We loved this city so much we plan to return sooner than later!
Montreal, Quebec to North Hero, Vermont
If Montreal was our favorite large city on the trip, then perhaps the route from Montreal onto the islands that split Lake Champlain was our favorite riding terrain. Looking at the data image above, you can see that, while this was our longest ride of the trip, the elevation gain was negligible. Even a consistent headwind did little to slow our progress as we meandered along Route Vert 1 & 2 through Chambly and Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu all the way to the US Border.
The Route Vert is a bicycle network developed by Quebec, with the goal of making their province explorable by over 2,200 miles of bicycle paths and routes. We particularly enjoyed the canal-side riding along the Richelieu River, described on the Route Vert’s website as being modeled after the Rhine and Danube Bikeways (we’ll be riding both of these next summer!!!).
Upon crossing the border into New York, we took the opportunity to get our standard border-crossing photo taken by some concert-goers who had been patiently waiting to enter Canada for quite some time (maybe the Canadian border agents work with the same fervor up here, too?). As with all our interactions on this tour, the couple were intrigued/impressed by our trip and super-friendly. I love traveling by bike, in no small part, because everyone seems to give you the benefit of the doubt and go out of their way to help (something we should all take to heart more often).
Back on the road, we were now following the Lake Champlain Scenic Byway, which carried us all the way to our destination for the evening. Whenever the miles did wear on us, we stopped at a general store in the small towns along the way and in one spot a few miles from camp, we experienced perhaps the best local ice cream we’ve ever tasted. Vermont immediately took a swipe at Oregon’s status as top dairy-producing state we’ve toured.
After a very long but pleasant day in the saddle, we arrived at Grand Isle State Park, Vermont’s state park of the year for 2014. Despite being ruthlessly attacked by mosquitoes as we set up camp, we understand the appeal. Grand Isle is that perfect mix of trees, lake, grass, and camp environment that has always drawn car-camping families and touring cyclists alike.
North Hero to Middlebury, Vermont
As with all our trips, I tend to scour the internet, piecing together information from blogs, tourism websites, and Strava to create the most compelling routes. I try to place at least one cool/unique route feature on each day’s agenda. One I was excited about on this tour was Local Motion’s bike ferry across “the Cut.”
The Cut is a 200-foot gap in the Colchester Causeway, a former railway bed that was erected to connect the islands to the city of Burlington, Vermont. A rotating bridge used to cross the gap in the causeway, allowing sailboats to pass through, but after the trains stopped using the route, the bridge was dismantled. Thanks to the initiative and continued support of many volunteers, the bike ferry has connected the islands to the Burlington Bike Trail since 1998, in the process helping making the Lake Champlain area a hotbed of bicycle tourism.
Both the Colchester Causeway and the Burlington Bike Trail were a packed dirt surface, which was in such good condition as to be preferable to a number of paved roads we’ve ridden in the past. This being the Fourth of July, there was a steady stream of riders and walkers taking advantage of the bicycle paths as we road into Burlington late-morning.
Burlington’s American Flatbread was our designated lunch stop, set in the center of the town square, which was bustling with the Fourth of July fever. A farmer’s market had been erected and the produce booths were joined by various purveyors of trinkets and patriotic items for sale. Oh, but that American Flatbread…there is nothing like several days of hard riding to raise an already delicious meal to cult-status. AF’s partnership with Zero Gravity Beer, also a Burlington business, was the icing on the cake.
After lunch, there was the small matter of finishing the day’s ride to Middlebury. A mere 30 miles remained on what might normally seem an easy day, considering we had averaged nearly 70 miles-per-day previously, but the wind and terrain was set against us on this day. HWY 7 proved to be an uninspiring section that left us exposed to the 10-15mph headwind and when I re-routed us onto Green Street to change it up and save a few miles, things only got harder.
There was a reason I had avoided Green Street/Morgan Horse Farm Road when plotting our course on Strava and that reason was ROLLERS! Seemingly for no other reason than to torment us, hill after short, steep hill sapped our energy. Even though the route was exhausting, I must admit that it was also very beautiful. Between Burlington and Middlebury, we passed through town after town that proudly displayed its chartering in the pre-revolutionary period.
When we did arrive in Middlebury, we received a warm welcome at the delightful Swift House Inn. We had already been upgraded to the main house, and upon learning of our ordeals with headwinds and hills, the woman at the front desk changed us again, this time to a room with a jetted jacuzzi tub. We also got to speak with the proprietor (himself a cyclist) about the route ahead. We received an ominous warning about the difficulty of the Middlebury Gap, our path through the Green Mountains, but also some reassurance that the route I had put together was the best available.
We walked into town from our bed-and-breakfast that evening and spent some time at Two Brothers Tavern. The tavern is clearly a place where professors and students alike might imbibe some of the regional craft brew and wax philosophical. This is a classic New England sleepy little college town.
On our walk back to the Swift House, we narrowly avoided a downpour yet again, with just a few cool drops falling until we’d reached our refuge.
Middlebury to Hanover, New Hampshire
The morning began with a delicious breakfast at the Swift House Inn, made-to-order fare with homemade blueberry jam and Vermont maple syrup. I’ll be honest: it was hard to leave. The previous day was supposed to be an easy day and it was not. Ahead of us lay the hardest climb of the whole trip. Still, a bike tour isn’t a bike tour if you don’t ride and moving away from flat, canal-side riding into forests and mountains was definitely a change of scenery.
The riding started out well enough and, in fact, we felt strong and in good spirits as we rode the 5-6 miles to the base of the day’s climb. Then, just as we began to head upward, two descending cyclists passed by. One of the two looked at what I was carrying (in addition to my gear, I had taken on Jo’s backpack for this portion) and exclaimed “Holy S#$%.” It was a clear, gutteral reaction to the 35lbs of gear that would be following me up the Middlebury Gap. I might as well have been towing an anchor.
The Middlebury Gap starts off very steeply in the first mile, before settling into a 3-4% grade for much of its length. We battled it mightily with legs still weary from the previous day’s headwinds and hills. The scenery was gorgeously lush, reminiscient of much of the riding I had done with Anthony in the second half of our Oregon bike tour. The climb finishes much the way it started, with a steep slog of 8% with ramps of 10-15%. We wrestled our bikes, pedaling out-of-the-saddle, not because we wanted to, but because there were no lower gears to turn. We walked a bit and there was no shame.
At the top, we came upon Middlebury’s mountain-top campus featuring the writing-home of Robert Frost and many a wayward Adirondack chair, sitting afield for those who came to write, to think, or just to be.
Near the top is also where we found the shuttle bus map, which described to us how all the suffering could have been avoided had we earlier noticed that a local bus route offers a $1 ride to the top several time daily. I hope that someone intent on touring this area will read this blog and have the good sense to take advantage of this opportunity, because the rest of the day was awesome gradual descent somewhat spoiled by the sheer exhaustive toll the Middlebury Gap had excised.
As I said, we descended by following the White River at what I would deem the perfect grade for moving along. Unfortunately, Jo’s bike was, by this point, groaning in agony and refusing to shift itself properly, meaning that she couldn’t get into the big ring to take advantage of momentum on the downhill terrain. This led to me constantly and unintentionally going off the front mostly just because I was heavier. The yo-yoing took its toll on our morale and the day dragged on. Had her bike been shifting (and especially had we taken the bus), this day might have been my favorite of the whole trip, but alas, in each life a little rain must fall (and we’d dodged a lot already!).
One enjoyable interlude was the lunch-stop. The cute town of Bethel appears from suddenly out of the forest and by the river, pulling you in with its small-town Americana atmosphere. Again, it could just be that bicycle touring puts a shine on any place that may offer up food and drink, but I liked this place a lot.
Arriving in Hanover as the sun was beginning to set, only to find that our campsite was another two miles and up several steep hills, it was all we could do to keep the pedals turning. Storr’s Pond is actually a great campground with numerous facilities including a few tennis courts. By the time we arrived, though, it was a battle with daylight to get the camp set up and of course, our site was at the top of a hill. I went for a quick dive into the lake but not much more happened that evening except some freeze-dried rice and chicken.
Hanover to Bristol, New Hampshire
In the morning, we headed to the city of Lebanon, where we hoped the only bike shop within reasonable riding distance might solve Johanna’s shifting woes. At the same time, we were able to do our laundry, which had been another pressing issue. We did get the bike fixed, in large part by purchasing a vary basic bike chain at a 200% mark-up (read: we got ripped off and there’s nothing I could do about it).
Buoyed by the fresh clothes and smoothly-shifting gears we made excellent time to our first food stop of the day in Enfield. Mickey’s Roadside Cafe looked like a biker bar of little fanfare from the outside, but Yelp assured me it was the best spot around and as soon as we walked inside our opinions of the establishment began to change. I had been craving chorizo since I had a bunch of the delicious stuff in Bariloche, Argentina last winter, so when I saw that it was a pizza-topping, I nearly yelped with joy. We both ate well (I confess, I also had a Harpoon IPA), service was excellent, and things were looking up.
The Northern Rail-Trail was conveniently right next to the restaurant and followed our intended route towards the New Hampshire lake-country, so we jumped on. For the first few miles the condition was good, but the gravel became a bit larger and looser as we went, slowing our progress. It was also a steaming-hot summer day and before long, Jo began to flag.
It’s lucky that I had heard of the Danbury Country Store as a good spot for cyclists to stop for a rest and refill, because just as we arrived Jo started feeling very sick. I’m pretty sure she got heat exhaustion and we spent over an hour just trying to get that under control. It’s hard enough for all involved when someone gets heat exhaustion in an organized event, where it becomes a “do I get SAGed in or try to recover and push on” sort of situation, but here there was really no choice. We were in rural New Hampshire with no big towns nearby. Jo is a trooper and she earned her touring stripes that day.
I did some deep research and came up with Davidson’s Countryside Campground just outside Bristol, where we could spend the night without detouring too far off-course. Davidson’s turned out to be a great campground, though mostly oriented towards RV camping. We swam a bit in their pool, which wad been heated to 82 degrees by the sun that day. We had already diverged from our planned route through the White Mountains, and so I spent a good amount of time that evening trying to figure out which course to take the following day and whether or not we could reach our pre-paid campsite for the following evening.
Bristol to Rochester, New Hampshire
In the morning, after vacillating about route and accommodations, I finally suggested we use some IHG points to stay at a hotel in Rochester, an idea that was happily met with much enthusiasm by my travel companion. I cannot express how good this miles and points hobby has been to us over the last few years, but I can say that on this trip, those IHG points reinvigorated us at a time when the rigors of our expedition were taking a big toll on our enjoyment of said expedition.
This day turned out to be our strongest day touring together on this trip. We decided to hold off on breakfast until we reached Swan Falls, the lake region’s biggest attraction, and it turned out to be a good choice.
While Swan Falls is really just a small man-made falls designed to allow ole Mr. Swan to make money off of his mills (and now the hotel located at the falls gets to profit greatly from its existence), the truth is, it’s really quite pleasant. The breakfast spot in the hotel was the real draw, though, because riding on empty stomachs makes for a fierce appetite. I had fresh blueberry pancakes with bacon and Jo had her favorite eggs benedict with home fries. We also ordered a fresh cinammon roll for the table and gobbled that up, too.
After the feeding (we were like ravenous animals, really), we encountered a bunch more of those delightful New Hampshire rollers. At one point we even backtracked over a mile just to avoid a 250ft climb, such was our distaste for hills by the end of this section of the trip.
Finally, as we closed in on Rochester and the Holiday Inn Express, something unheard of occurred. The forecasted rain came to fruition for the first time all trip while were riding. Three miles from the finish, a torrential downpour forced us into a gas station overhang for several minutes. We laughed. There was no stopping us now. It was actually sort of refreshing as it was another hot day. Once the worst of it passed, we got back into the road and soaked it all up.
Elated to be arriving at a hotel with an indoor pool/jacuzzi, comfortable beds, and free breakfast, our mood was only elevated further when we learned we’d been upgraded (AGAIN!) to a larger room in a convenient part of the hotel (read: we didn’t have to carry bikes up stairs). The front desk clerk explained that we received the royal treatment because we have platinum status at IHG, which we got just by signing up for their credit card to receive a ton of points. It’s the gift that keeps giving and it meant even more at the end of the bike tour.
We settled into our comfy room for a shark-week marathon, only interrupted to have a great Mexican meal (in New Hampshire?!) across the parking lot from the hotel and to enjoy the jacuzzi and pool across the hall, which we had entirely to ourselves. It was a euphoria-fueled celebration of a bike tour well-completed.
Rochester to Portland, Maine
Though we decided to end our tour in Rochester, there was still the small matter of getting our rental car in Portland so that we could head to Acadia National Park. I took off sans touring gear, expecting the 55-mile ride to take about four hours. Three hours later, I arrived at the Portland International Jetport Avis. It felt so good to ride unencumbered that I just flew through it, taking the straightest route I could find and not slowing at all on the packed-dirt Eastern Rail-Trail that featured on the second half of the day’s route.
When I got to Avis, the good feelings continued. Not only was their staff super-friendly and interested in what we had been doing, but they also had a great selection of vehicles available. I am so sick of being offered Consumer Reports worst-rated cars at rental facilities. Finally! Ford Edge with full leather and the full tech package.
Acadia National Park, Maine