Entering through the front door of Auberge La Goéliche, we were greeted with a festive crowd that burst into song, voices raised in sweet French cafe music featuring the nostalgic chords of an accordion. We quickly realized the serenade was not for us but the couple who had preceded us: According to a small placard, Robert and Jocelyn were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary.
Family and tradition were hallmarks of the visit my husband, Tom, and I took to Île d’Orléans. This small island in the St. Lawrence Seaway, located a couple of miles downriver from Québec City, represents a microcosm of traditional Québecois culture, where the ancestral essence of its early residents and their way of life are preserved and celebrated.
In 1970, Île d’Orléans in its entirety was designated a National Historic District. Settlers from Normandy arrived here in 1651, establishing one of the first colonies of New France, naming it in honor of the second son of King Francis I, the Duke of Orléans. The road around the island’s 47-mile circumference is itself a piece of history: The Chemin Royal was built in 1744.
From the Pont d’Île that connects the island with the mainland, we had set off on this “Royal Road,’’ soon entering the smallest of Île d’Orléans’s six parishes, Sainte-Pétronille, situated at its western tip. Our stomachs growling for lunch, we had tucked into the long driveway of Auberge La Goéliche. The lodge’s name is a nod to its maritime heritage: Until the middle of the last century, small schooners called goéliches were used to transfer goods from the river’s banks to larger schooners offshore.
The sprawling white manse was located on a point jutting into the water and we sat in its glass-enclosed dining room. From our perch, we enjoyed a meal of scallops, shrimp, and mussels in a ginger cream sauce while mesmerized by what was probably an age-old drama here. A sailboat struggled against the fierce forces of the channel’s waters in an area known as bull’s point. Once beyond the island’s tip, the craft shot forward and sailed peacefully away.
After lunch, we continued along the island’s perimeter to the parish of Saint-Jean. More than 600 buildings on Île d’Orléans are classified as heritage properties, and on the Chemin Royal in Saint-Jean alone there are 69 houses that are more than 100 years old, with two-thirds built before 1867.
The Mauvide-Genest Manor, now a museum, is the island’s architectural piece de resistance, offering insight into daily life during the mid-18th century. Its original owner, Jean Mauvide, built the manor house — now one of the only existing residences from the era of a French regime on North American soil — after acquiring half of the seigneury of Île d’Orléans in 1752.
New France was a rural society, with almost four out of every five people living on a farm, and a distinctive land distribution system evolved, patterned on European feudalism. The king owned all the land in New France and made grants to members of nobility. The lords, or seigneurs, then rented parcels to the habitants who worked it. By the middle of the 18th century, there were over 200 seigneuries extending laterally on both sides of the St. Lawrence.
In Saint-Jean, land was granted to 65 colonists to farm, with each plot a long narrow strip reaching from the banks of the river to the island’s spine, where the property abutted similar strips of lands owned by their neighbors in the adjoining parish of Sainte-Famille.
“Jean Mauvide promoted the development of the Île d’Orléans,’’ said Marie-Claude Dupont of the manor. “His unceasing commitment significantly contributed to the molding of this territory, which still bears the lasting imprint of his seigniorial activity: the construction of a prestigious manor house; the building of communal mills, the establishment of infrastructure, such as the Chemin Royal.’’
From the manor, we ambled along the thoroughfare past charming, red-roofed cottages festooned with wrought-iron railings and cheery geraniums, reaching the romantic silhouette of a gray stone church standing sentinel on the shoreline, anchoring the other end of the village.
While the island’s inhabitants depended on agriculture for survival, Saint-Jean’s proximity to the water attracted sailors and river pilots as residents. The church’s cemetery told the story of generations of sailors who had lost their lives at sea, now commemorated in neat rows along the water.
Continuing along the circumference of the island we admired the sweeping pastoral panoramas of the “Garden of Quebec’’ against the dramatic backdrop of the Laurentian and Appalachian mountains. Reaching the parish of Sainte-Famille, we found Les Fromages de ’Îsle d’Orléans in time for an afternoon snack, and enjoyed a lesson in the island’s centuries-old cheese-making tradition.
“Originally, it was around 1635 that families began to make the cheese of Orléans island in their houses,’’ said Diane Marcoux. “Although there are some similarities in technique with our French cousins, they never manufactured the roasted form of the cheese, which was so popular with the families of the island, called Le Paillasson. The cheese of Orléans is a unique product of the island’s inhabitants and environment, a heritage of our own. It’s the first cheese made in North America.’’
Coming almost full circle around the isle, we entered the parish of Saint-Pierre, where the Monnas grows black currants, a type of blackberry, from which they produce liqueurs, jams, and other products.
“Île d’Orléans is a symbol of fertility and abundance, the first land of welcome to the newcomers from the old continent,’’ said Catherine Monna. “Many families of Québec and of a good part of North America have roots on our island. Our soil nourished them and built their agricultural culture.’’
Monna explained that the black currant was brought from Europe by the first settlers and adapted beautifully to the North American climate.
“My sister and I are the fifth generation of liquorists in the Monna family, therefore the notion of tradition is in the heart of our activities,’’ she said. “Tradition means to pay tribute to our ancestors’ know-how and to keep it alive while being anchored in our era.’’
It was easy to see how the island’s charms have captivated visitors for ages, even long before the settlers of New France. The Hurons are said to have called the island Minigo or “the enchantress.’’ It’s a mantle she wears beautifully.