We are always saying how great the Warmshowers community is but it’s not just about the free place to stay. Whilst that is great, we love the social aspect of meeting new people, sharing delicious meals and hearing locals cycling stories and advice about where to go next. As such these last few weeks we’ve been following our hosts’ advice and our winding route north reflects that (check out the map HERE). We haven’t ridden the most direct route to Toronto like we thought we might (that, we were told, is a boring route!) because we somehow still had three weeks left on our US visa, instead we decided to head north following the Hudson valley to Montreal, Canada. It’s funny to think that if we hadn’t have stayed with Ed and Kathy in New York City (who recommended this route) we would have been in Toronto weeks before our flight and having cycled a less interesting route to get there, so staying with them was such a good twist of fate.
We definitely made the right choice because we rode dedicated cycle trails and old rail trails out of The Big Apple and barely had to deal with traffic for the first few days. We stayed with a few more lovely hosts, such as MaryAnn & Ira, John, and Jess & Nils who happened to be hosting a pizza party with a dozen or so of their friends and then offered us a much appreciated day off. Just after Albany, the capital of New York State, we we stayed with Devan and Danny who accepted a very last minute request on a very rainy day and an hour later we were at their house, drinking beer and eating Mac and Cheese.. (Very stereotypical American fare, though of the organic variety not the neon orange type!) These guys spoke very highly of Vermont and on hearing about our preference of dirt roads they recommended detouring east to ride some mountain roads instead. Obviously with more time left on our visa than we thought we relished the idea of some unexpected mountain climbing and our route to Burlington, Vermont went from being a two day ride to six!
The riding through the rest of New York State and into Vermont mostly followed quiet back roads and rail trails, and until we actually got into Vermont it stayed pretty flat along the Hudson valley. We had our minds blown when on a hot and sweaty day we were riding along a rail trail and suddenly felt what we thought was air conditioning. It was the most refreshing feeling and it turned out the cold air was actually coming from the “ice caves”. Knowing nothing of geology we can’t tell you how this happens but essentially there are several caves along this route that contain large quantities of ice all year-round, but especially in winter. Someone even told us that there are some with an inside area big enough that people go ice skating inside! We didn’t venture in too deep, but even standing in the entrance was a great respite from the heat.
Vermont is the second least populated state (after Wyoming) with only 623,657 inhabitants, has more dirt roads than paved (and more than any other state) and is fast becoming our favourite state so far! From Glens Falls where we stayed with Pam and Steve, who left us a homemade strudel out for when we arrived and gave us one as a parting gift, we did have to climb into the mountains, but it was less than a thousand metre gain in elevation. Compared to the Andes it felt manageable and when we arrived at Doug and Cathy’s house we knew that we’d again made the right decision. Their house was in the most stunning location with their own swimming pond, hot tub and mountain views. We enjoyed an afternoon and morning relaxing at Doug’s, eating food they had grown in their veggie garden and playing with their gorgeous doggos.
It was hard to leave but as always once we start moving again we’re happy to be on the bikes and arriving somewhere new is just another opportunity to make new friends. Ryan and Maggie hosted us for two nights, so Ryan took Ben mountain biking on some local trails and Steph caught up on some website work. After taking a day off we were ready to tackle a few days of riding in the Green Mountains. It felt great to be back on dirt roads, being in the middle of nowhere and we even broke the tent out for a night under the stars. We were also under a cloud of mosquitos but Ben’s fire skills sorted that problem right out. After a quick wash and swim in the icy river water we had a peaceful evening in the woods at one of the best ‘dispersed’ campsites we’ve seen. The US has quite a lot of these gems hidden away in the national forests where you can camp legally with primitive conditions but are a winner for cyclists like us.
The only thing standing in our way was the Lincoln Gap, a pass which is famous for being the steepest paved mile in the USA with a 24% incline. In our lowest gear we were able to dig deep and spin away at a snails pace but feeling pretty impressed having made it up there on bikes weighing 35kgs! Luckily the high point was only 800 masl and what goes up must come down. The descent was fairly wild too, especially as it was a dreary, rainy day. Thankfully we had a Warmshowers host lined up for that night where we were able to wash and dry all of our clothes and gear, and shared another hearty meal with our hosts. Barry and Elisa were another inspiring couple with plenty of their own cycling adventure stories to share and after a hard day of cycling we retired to our own cabin in the woods (built by Barry).
Another reason we detoured into Vermont was to take a tour of the Ben and Jerry’s factory in Waterbury. It was interesting to hear about the company’s history, see the manufacturing process in action and the best bit, eat some ice cream. The free samples were only small though so we had to buy a pint of ’The Tonight Dough’ (a flavour we don’t have in the UK but is delicious) and ate it outside of the flavour graveyard, where the flavours that aren’t popular are laid to rest.
After our six day detour into the mountains we reached Burlington, the largest city in Vermont situated on the beautiful Lake Champlain. Our hosts, Mitch and Barb, were about to put their boat in the lake when we arrived and offered to take us sailing the next day, something neither of us had done before so we jumped at the opportunity. We experienced all of the sailing conditions with wind from all directions, a rain storm and then no wind at all. Their trimaran was fast yet stable on the water, which made it really enjoyable but I don’t think either of us are going to ditch the bikes and buy a boat just yet.
The other reason we liked the mountains of upstate New York and Vermont was that they have quite distinct seasons and it was interesting hearing about how different the winter is in each of these places. Pam showed us photos from her snow shoeing adventures the Adirondack mountains, which looked epic and everyone in Vermont was into their cross country skiing because you can do it right out of the front door. We wished we were there in winter, without bikes obviously, and could see the area covered in snow. (I think a ski holiday will be on the cards this winter, though maybe in the European mountains closer to home.) Even though it wasn’t winter we did manage to get a taste of the winter sports lifestyle in Burlington by taking a tour around the Burton snowboard factory. It was cool to learn about the history of snowboarding then see how Burton snowboards are designed, made and tested in ‘Craig’s prototype facility’.
Leaving Burlington we rode on the Lake Champlain bike causeway which is an old rail trail across the lake. There is about 100m of trail missing to allow boats to pass through and the local bike shop runs a boat ferrying cyclists and pedestrians across. It was a fun three minutes where we answered numerous questions from the staff and other passengers who were curious about our trip and why we had so much stuff! The trail continues to weave its way north on South and North Hero islands on small country roads through pretty farmland, small coves and quaint towns before rejoining the mainland and the US-Canada border at Noyan. It was an easy border crossing and before we knew it we were cycling in country number 11 and final one on this leg of the trip: Canada.
Our first impressions of Canada are that it’s awesome for cycling. We rode the whole way from the border to Montreal (almost 100km) on dedicated cycling paths following the canal, over the main bridge (Montreal is an island) and through the downtown area. We were staying near Mont Royal, a ‘mountain’ which lends the city its name, and for a city we hadn’t even planned on visiting we managed to spend a fun six days there. This was helped by the fact that we had a really friendly host to stay with and an awesome apartment to call home. Ricardo was in the process of planning his own Colombia to Ushuaia adventure so we were glad to be able to share route options, packing essentials and tips about life on the road with him. He showed us some of the area’s highlights from where to eat the best poutine (a Canadian dish consisting of chips, gravy and cheese, plus whatever other toppings you want), to the local mountain bike trails down Mont Royal and even took us to a ski resort almost two hours away for more biking and relaxing at a lake.
Montreal really capitalises on the fine weather in the summer season with festivals almost every week and in July they hold an international fireworks festival with shows twice a week firing from the La Ronde island (where they also have a theme park). We saw two shows, the Australian entry and the finale show, which were both awesome half hour epic fireworks extravaganzas set to music and even better because they’re free to watch. We found river side spots both nights, marvelled at the show along with the other tens of thousands of spectators lining the streets and then safely cycled back home on the separated cycle lanes at 11pm. We really enjoyed the young, vibrant feel to the city of Montreal, the incredible cycling infrastructure and it is definitely the best place we hadn’t planned on visiting!
At the time of writing this we have just over two weeks left in Canada (we had three when we left Montreal, we’re just a little behind on the blog) and it feels weird to think that soon we will be back in the UK, temporarily, while we save a bit of money and plan where we will go next. First though we’ve got a fair way to cycle in Canada, almost 1000km to Toronto where we’ll fly from so rather than cycle the direct route we’ve decided to ride north and see more of Quebec first. More on that next time.
Steph and Ben