The trip my husband, Tom, and I took to Ile D'Orleans was marked by family and tradition. This small island in the St. Lawrence Seaway, a few kilometers downstream from Québec City, is a microcosm of traditional Québecois culture, preserving and celebrating the ancestral spirit of its early occupants and their way of life.
We were greeted by a lively gathering as we walked through the front entrance of Auberge La Goéliche, voices raised in charming French cafe music with the nostalgic chords of an accordion. We quickly understood the serenade was not for us, but for the couple who had come before us: Robert and Jocelyn were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, according to a little placard.
The entire Ile d'Orleans was designated a National Historic District in 1970. Settlers from Normandy arrived in 1651, creating one of New France's first colonies and calling it after King Francis I's second son, the Duke of Orléans. The Chemin Royal, which runs around the island's 47-mile perimeter, is a piece of history in and of itself.
We sat in the glass-enclosed dining room of the huge white mansion on a peninsula jutting into the lake. We ate scallops, shrimp, and mussels in a ginger cream sauce while watching what appeared to be an age-old drama from our vantage point. In the spot known as bull's point, a sailboat battled the powerful forces of the channel's seas. Once past the island's tip, the vessel accelerated and sailed away gently.
We had set off on this "Royal Road" from the Pont d'Île, which connects the island to the mainland, and were soon entering the smallest of Île d'Orléans' six parishes, Sainte-Pétronille, on the island's western edge. We had squeezed into the long driveway of Auberge La Goéliche, our bellies grumbling for lunch. The lodge's name is a tribute to the area's maritime history: small schooners known as goéliches were used to transport cargo from the river's banks to larger schooners offshore until the middle of the last century.
We sat in the glass-enclosed dining room of the huge white manse, which stood on a promontory projecting into the lake. We ate scallops, shrimp, and mussels in a ginger cream sauce while watching what appeared to be an age-old drama unfold from our vantage point. In the spot known as bull's point, a sailboat strained against the powerful currents of the canal. The craft accelerated once beyond the island's tip and flew away peacefully.
Ile d'Orleans Architecture as a Window Into History
The Mauvide-Genest Manor, now a museum, is the island's architectural highlight, providing a glimpse into daily life in the mid-eighteenth century. After purchasing half of the seigneury of Île d'Orléans in 1752, its original owner, Jean Mauvide, built the manor house, which is today one of the last remaining mansions from the era of a French regime on North American territory.
New France was an agrarian society, with nearly four out of five people working on a farm, and a unique land allocation system based on European feudalism developed. The king possessed all of New France's land and distributed it to the nobility. The seigneurs, or lords, then rented tracts to the locals who worked them. There were about 200 seignuries expanding laterally on both sides of the St. Lawrence by the middle of the 18th century.
The land was given to 65 colonists to cultivate in Saint-Jean, with each plot a long thin strip extending from the river's banks to the island's spine, where the property abutted similar strips of grounds owned by their neighbors in the neighboring parish of Sainte-Famille.
"Jean Mauvide aided the growth of the Ile d'Orleans," claimed the manor's Marie-Claude Dupont. "His unwavering commitment considerably contributed to the shaping of this land, which still bears the impression of his seigniorial activity: the construction of a prestigious manor house, communal mills, and infrastructure, such as the Chemin Royal."
We strolled from the manor down the main street, past gorgeous red-roofed homes with wrought-iron railings and cheerful geraniums, until we came to the romantic silhouette of a grey stone church standing sentinel on the beach, anchoring the village's other end.
Ile D’Orleans Landscape Tells Tales of Sailors and Artisans
While the island's occupants relied on agriculture to survive, Saint-proximity Jean's to the water drew sailors and river pilots to the island. The graveyard at the church revealed the narrative of generations of sailors who had died at sea and were now memorialized in tidy rows by the ocean.
We continued around the island, admiring the "Garden of Quebec's" broad pastoral landscapes set against the magnificent backdrop of the Laurentian and Appalachian mountains. We located Les Fromages de 'Îsle d'Orléans in the parish of Sainte-Famille in time for an afternoon snack and a lecture in the island's centuries-old cheese-making heritage.
"In the beginning, around 1635, households began making Orléans island cheese in their homes," Diane Marcoux explained. "Despite certain technical parallels with our French counterparts, they never produced the roasted variety of the cheese known as Le Paillasson, which was so popular among the island's households." Orléans cheese is a one-of-a-kind product of the island's inhabitants and environment, a piece of our own history. It's North America's very first cheese."
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Ile d'Orleans Home to Fifth Generation Liquorists
We reached the parish of Saint-Pierre, almost completely circumnavigating the isle. This is where the fifth generation of the Monna family liquorists grow black currants, a sort of blackberry. Sisters Catherine and Anne run Cassis Monna & Filles, carrying on the tradition of their father Bernard, who arrived on Île d'Orléans in the early 70s from southern France. Cassis Monna cultivates 22 hectares of land and produces over 60,000 bottles of liqueurs per year, as well as jams and other products.
"The Île d'Orléans is a symbol of fertility and abundance, the first land to welcome people from the old continent," Catherine Monna explained. "Our island is home to a large number of Québec and North American families. Our soil provided them with food and helped them develop an agricultural civilization."
The black currant was introduced from Europe by the earliest settlers and adapted admirably to the North American climate, according to Catherine.
"Because my sister and I are the fifth generation of Monna family liquorists, the concept of tradition is at the center of our activity," she explained. "To pay homage to our ancestors' know-how and preserve it alive while being anchored in our day" is what tradition means.
It was simple to see why the island's allure had attracted tourists for centuries, even before the arrival of the New French immigrants. The Hurons are claimed to have given the island the name Minigo, which means "enchantress." It's a lovely mantle she wears.