Monday, October 9, 2017

A Family Trip to the Laurentians (Voyage aux Laurentides)

A few weeks ago we took our first family vacation (with a 3 year old and 11 month old) that did not involve visiting family.  It was busy, chaotic, exhausting, and fantastic!!!

Where did we go?
We stayed in Sainte Agathe des Monts, a small town in the Laurentians.  It is about 25 minutes South of Mont Tremblant.  (Aside: I used to live in Québec - but not in this region - I always imagined I would marry someone from there because of the language....but alas.....I did not!  Although my husband's mother is an American born to two Québécois).

How did we get there?
Short answer: By car.

Long answer: We decided to take the "back roads" instead of going up the 401, this way we could avoid driving through Montreal traffic and it would only take us about 15 - 20 minutes longer.  It is about a 6 to 6 1/2 hour drive from the Toronto region.  So, we set off and took Highway 7 (traveling through Port Perry, Peterborough, Ottawa, etc.) and onward to the TransCanada Highway.  This was a beautiful drive.  Really beautiful.  There are not a lot of places to stop on this highway - but there are some - and there are also some really beautiful picnic stops.

The day we left, it was unseasonably hot and almost 40C with the humidex.  We stopped in Havelock - here there is a gas station, a Tim Horton's, a Subway, a Foodland, and a few other small restaurants.  There are some nice picnic tables and parking set up along the railway tracks of the town.  More importantly for us - across the road from the Tim Horton's and gas station there is a small park.  In the park there are a few picnic tables, benches, bear-proof garbage bins and also of course, the playground equipment.  It was boiling hot, but we were able to put our blanket down in the shade and eat our lunch.  Our kids were able to stretch out for awhile on the play equipment before it was just too hot to handle and we had to get back in the car.  Note: There is not parking at the playground, we had to park in the parking lot beside it (which is what everyone seemed to be doing).

The Park in Havelock

Our next stop on the way was Perth, Ontario.  Which isn't actually too far from Havelock (relatively speaking), but we needed to go to a Shopper's Drug Mart and pick up some supplies for our trip.  In Perth there is quite a bit, Shoppers, a grocery store, Dairy Queen, McDonald's, and several other fast food outlets and chain stores.

We took the same route on our way home - but on the home route we stopped in Kanata (the Terry Fox Drive Exit), where we picked up a few groceries at Farm Boy, then we went to Walter Baker Park where our kids were able to play on the park equipment, run up and down the tobaggan hill and stretch out.  We also used the washrooms that were conveniently located right next door inside the arena.  The gazebo at the park was unfortunately freshly spraypainted with some anti-Semitic graffiti, but we did not allow our kids to play in it (it was also filthy).  The rest of the park area was great.

Our final stop on the way home was in Marmora, Ontario (East of Havelock).  Marmora was quite a beautiful little town.  For us, the best part was that they have a fantastic kids playground and park (including splash pad, but this was closed for the season).  You cannot miss it if you are driving through town - you drive directly past it.  There is also a Subway and Mac's plaza that you can walk to from the park without crossing a major roadway - and there are washrooms in the Mac's store.  We let our son pick a little treat in the store (a small bag of Cheetos, which he only managed to eat a few of), used the washrooms, and got back on the road after a picnic and play session at the park.

Where did we stay?
We stayed for 5 nights at the Super 8 Hotel in Sainte Agathe des Monts (Québec).
MONEY SAVING TIP: We used points from our BMO World Elite MasterCard to pay for the hotel (entirely - for 2 rooms for 5 nights).  We love this card and we have used it for many hotel stays, although beware that it does have a significant annual fee - but for us it is worth it.
The reason we chose the Super 8 was because:
a) the price was right
b) it had a great indoor pool (the selling feature of this hotel for sure) with an 80 foot waterslide and waterfeatures.  The pool was heated to a great, but not too warm, temperature.  Be advised though - the pool is very shallow and is more of a playpool with the slide and water features.  This was perfect for our kids - but may be not as desirable if you have older children.
c) Breakfast is included.  Super 8 is a budget motel - the breakfast provided was more than sufficient (yogurt, waffle makers, hard boiled eggs, oatmeal, breads and toast, muffins, tea, coffee, juice, some fruit), but I have to admit that I really missed the hot breakfast items (like eggs, sausage, etc.) that you get at some other (also more expensive) hotels.  We actually ate several breakfasts of our own food.
d) Location - This hotel is centrally located in Ste Agathe des Monts.  It is easy to find and easy to get on the highway from their location.  It is also located on the same street as a Maxi grocery store and a very large Giant Tiger.  Nearby are many other stores and restaurants as well as access to cycling trails.

The hotel was great, mainly because of the pool.  It was not the cleanest (but not dirty) and obviously not the most luxurious (it is a super discount motel), but it met all of needs, the pool was fantastic, and the staff at the hotel were all excellent, helpful, and very friendly.

What did we eat?
Aside from the breakfasts at the hotel, we made a lot of food ourselves which we purchased at local grocery stores (IGA Extra, Metro, Costco in St Jérome).  We also had takeout one night from St Hubert, we ate two meals at Verger LaCroix (more about that later) from their canteen, and we also got dinner one day from a Casse-Croute in Saint Donat.  All of this allowed us to keep our food budget nice and low for the trip.  We have never (literally never) eaten in a restaurant as a family.  Part of it is budget, but way more of it is because it is not relaxing with an 11 month old and a 3 year old who love to run wild.  Seriously.  When the day comes that I can go out with my kids and relax and enjoy a good meal that I did not cook.............I will enjoy it.  Whenever that is.  Ha.  When we travel we like to bring most of our food or shop locally and do picnics.  We actually enjoy this and it is convenient and budget friendly.

What did we do?

Place Lagny - This is the waterfront park in Sainte Agathe des Monts on Rue Principale.  It is very easy to find.  There is a small trail on the waterfront, picnic tables, a dock, a children's play area (pirate themed), as well as a splash pad.  In addition - there is a building with washrooms.  Washrooms are key with kids!!!

Croisères Mont Tremblant - Sainte Agathe des Monts is about 25 minutes from Mont Tremblant (the village).  We love this area.  This was an unplanned activity.  We were driving through the village on an incredibly hot day, when we saw the signs saying the cruise was departing in 40 minutes.  We just decided to do it.  It wasn't cheap - $26/adult and $8.50 for old 3 year old, the youngest was free.  The cruise lasted one hour.  The crew was kid friendly.  An hour was more than long enough for our 3 year old and 11 month old to be contained on a boat.  It was beautiful and I am very glad we did it.  Bonus: As we were heading back to shore, a very severe thunderstorm came over the mountains and we watched it roll in, including the lightning.  Now, if the storm had unleashed while we were still on the water I would have undoubtedly been petrified, but thankfully it waited until we made the 5 minute walk back to our car (parked in the municipal park parking lot around the corner from the launching dock - where parking is free and there are also washrooms).  It was a crazy storm and I am very glad we were off the water at that point!!

Verger LaCroix
I cannot recommend this place enough.  St Joseph du Lac is a small town about an hour South of Sainte Agathe des Monts, it is sort of an outlier of Montreal.  I am not sure what to compare it to - but it is essentially orchard row.  It is stunningly beautiful, with mile, after mile, after mile of orchards.  We visited Verger et Cidrerie LaCroix on a busy Thursday.  It was hopping with school groups (if you want to go when it is not superbusy - most of the school groups are gone shortly after 1pm) and our kids loved it.  What will you find at Verger LaCroix?

First, you will find a market stand full of amazing apple products.  Walk through the market stand and you will find a large (very large) children's play area with play equipment (lots of it), hay based play centres, a small farm animal area/petting zoo, a picnic area, an interpretation centre for school groups, and all of this is of course backing onto a beautiful apple orchard.  There is also a canteen with fresh made goodies at reasonable prices (in 2017 we ordered grilled cheese, grilled cheese with caramelized onions and apples, pulled pork burgers, etc. - all between $3.00 - $5.00).  We ordered lunch from the canteen two days in a row (yes - it was so fun here for our kids we went back the next day).  Bathrooms are on site.

On our second day here, we decided to pick some apples.  The U Pick (Autocueillette) is very reasonably priced - if you are picking up to 40lbs of apples it is $1.00/lb regardless of variety.  We picked a 20lb bag of Honeycrisp apples and they were simply amazing.    In addition, I was able to capture some beautiful pictures of both our sons in the orchard.  I am very happy about that.

In the shop, you can buy prepicked apples and many delicious goods.  My favourite treat that I am obliged to mention is the Apple Oatmeal Cookies.  THE BEST.  Absolutely the best apple oatmeal cookies I've tasted anywhere.  I could not eat enough of them.  And they were reasonably priced.

There is one other thing I wanted to mention about this place: it is very clean.  Both days we went there, immediately after all the school groups left, a crew of staff came out and started cleaning like crazy - making sure there was no garbage or food left anywhere, cleaning the bathrooms, etc.  This does not go unnoticed by moms who like cleanliness!!!

If you are in the area, I highly recommend a stop here.  It can cost as little or as much as you want.  It is very family friendly.

Also in Saint Joseph du Lac, we visited Intermiel a large beekeeping company.  There were also many activities here for kids, but when we arrived both my boys were asleep.  We never wake sleeping kids!!  So I ventured into their gift shop alone.  Heaven!!!  Honey everywhere.  There is a large sampling station as they offer many products ranging from skin care to Mead, to wine, to of course many types of honey.  I picked up a few gifts here - and a 3kg pot of honey fro $20.00 (and excellent price).  It would have been great to spend more time exploring this place.  Hopefully we will be able to visit again one day.

Les Vergers LaFrance
In St Joseph du Lac.  A beautiful orchard and cidrerie (is there an English word for this??)  Cider Mill?   Here there is a restaurant as well as play equipment for children.  The shop here largely focuses on their distilled products, jam, and apple donuts.  We had to try the apple donuts.  They were still warm when I purchased them, and very tasty (my husband loves donuts, I prefer cookies).  Are you getting the good food theme of our trip?  It must be Québec!!

La Maison de Lavande
This beautiful lavender farm is more geared for adults.  Just walking inside their beauty gift shop is relaxing.  A beautiful setting with beautiful products.  I was able to pick up some items here that I wanted for some Christmas gifts I will be making.  Just heavenly.

Les fromages du verger
Les fromages du verger is a small fromagerie located in St Joseph du Lac.  It is a fromgerie with an orchard.  The staff here are very friendly and I was able to sample several cheeses before deciding on the "Boheme" which we enjoyed for a picnic dinner.  There is a play area for children and they invited us to visit their sheep in the barn which was greatly appreciated.

As I mentioned earlier, you could spend days (days!!) in the St Joseph du Lac area visiting all the different farms and orchards.  It is beautiful and a delight especially if you enjoy the outdoors and good food.

Now for a complete change of venue, I have to mention that I made a large trip to Costco in St Jérome.  I need to mention this because this one single trip alone more than paid for the cost of my Costco memberhsip.  It is hard to get lots of French resources at reasonable prices in Ontario.  I was able to pick up great resources for both personal and professional use (books, DVDs, French language toys, etc.).  One dictionary (French language only) that I picked up was $20.00 less at Costco than I saw it listed for in other stores in the area.  I would also be remiss if I did not mention how much cheaper beer is in Québec.  Personally, I do not drink alcohol - but my family is from Belgium (of course they all drink beer and wine, except for me!) and my brother in law is Dutch so......we picked up some Christmas gifts that resulted in significant savings (my husband looked up everything and told me what to buy and it worked out to be about $100 in savings just for the beer).  There are also great cheeses to be had....of course (it is Québec) as well as some bulk maple products.  And of course, I picked up a pizza here for our supper that night.

Saint Donat -  Parc des Pionniers

Saint Donat is one of the region's best kept secrets.  It is primarily a ski/snowmobile/cycling destination - but it is in a stunningly beautiful area (technically just outside the Laurentians).  The drive alone is worth it.  We love visiting this area.  There is a beautiful main street with lots of shops, cafés, and restaurants.  (Aside: also near the area is Lac Supérieur - which does not have much but does have a great kids park, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, if you need a place for your kids to get out and run around it is by the library - also seemingly in the middle of nowhere.)

We went to St Donat to take our kids to the Parc des Pionniers.  Parc des Pionniers is a beautiful waterfront park.  There are two large play areas for children, trails, picnic tables, benches, washrooms, and a stunning view.  We easily spent a few hours here.  There is also parking located across the street.

The beach at Parc des Pionniers

In a nutshell:
The Laurentians are a fantastic area to visit (especially with kids) - the area is stunningly beautiful and there are many outdoor, free or low-cost activities that you can do as a family.  In addition, there are plenty of well priced, affordable, delicious dining options in the area.

Bon voyage!!

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