When George Washington led his young nation to independence, an estimated 100,000 loyalists upped sticks and moved north into Canada to retain the protection of the Crown.
Set due east of Montréal, the area they moved into is today known as the Eastern Townships or, Les Cantons de L’Est, as it is called by its now largely French-speaking populace.
It’s a delightful region of rolling hills, lush meadows, undulating fields and mystical woods. It’s a landscape dotted with peaceful, sublimely photogenic villages and little townships that seem lifted straight out of 18th Century England.
Life takes on an easy pace in these parts. With its covered wooden bridges, white painted picket fences and pretty little churches, It’s a place every bit as charming as the neighbouring American state of Vermont – the spring wildflowers are just as bounteous, the fall foliage just as spectacularly colourful.
There’s a quirky relationship here along the 45th parallel that divides two nations at this point. Local flit back and forth across the border as if it didn’t exist but it’s not quite so easy for visiting foreign tourists, with American security concerns still at a high level – but there’s one bizarre maybe mile long stretch of tarmac at Beebe Plain, where the border runs straight along the centre of the highway, which means that if you travel east/west you are in Canada but if you are driving in the opposite direction you are temporarily in the USA!
Given that this area is on virtually the same latitude as Bordeaux, it’s no surprise to find a flourishing wine industry. The Vignoble de la Bauge property (labauge.com) is on the south slopes of the Appalachian foothills, sitting on a rocky crest covered with silt sand deposits that help lend density, depth and aroma to the wines I sampled in a multi-sensory tasting of wine-maker Simon Naud’s delicious creations.
Nearby Vignoble de L’Orpailleur ( orpailleur.ca) also has a formidable cellar as well as its own popular restaurant, the much-lauded Le Tire-Bouchon.
It’s apples rather than grapes that are the focus at Domaine Pinnacle ( domainepinnacle.com), whose ice apple wine has become highly fashionable.
Three spectacular heritage trails run through the mountain range that takes its name from the quaint little town of Sutton – a hotbed for hiking, cycling, horseback riding, fishing, hunting, canoeing, kayaking, Canada’s best back country skiing and other outdoor sports.
A good spot for dining and staying hereabouts is the comfortable Auberge & Spa West Bromme ( awb.ca), which features fine country dining in a rustic turn of the century farmhouse, with the accent firmly on local produce.
Starting work in 1912, Benedictine monks from France built the Saint Benoit du Lac Abbey ( st-benoit-du-lac.com), a beautiful monastery overlooking the broad waters of Lake Memphremagog, where Gregorian chants still echo around the elegant cloisters. With splendid use of multi-coloured bricks and the harmony of natural geometric forms, its inspired designer, monk Dom Bellot, created a spiritually inspired masterpiece.
It’s cold up there!
It was a blisteringly hot day but the word as we prepared to board the cable car for the ride to the top of 850-metre tall Mount Orford ( orford.com) was: “Take a warm coat”. It was sage advice. The wind at the summit was savage, chilling the bones and threatening to blow us off our feet. But the panoramic view from what is Québec Province’s third highest mountain was more than rewarding. There are nine lifts in all on the mountain, including the closed-in gondola we rode, and nearly 60 trails lead the way back down to the lakeside, with its bike and skate paths, exquisite properties and friendly cafés
In the little resort town of Magog, I bought some souvenirs then took a boat ride to explore some of the secretive little coves dotted along the lake’s near 28-mile reach. Popular with swimmers and windsurfers as well as boaters, the lake is even said to be home to a cousin of the fabled Loch Ness monster. Memphré is reputed to have been sighted some 225 times since 1798 but must have been on vacation when I sailed by.
Set on 1,800 feet of prime lakeshore, with manicured lawns reaching down to the water’s edge and ancient trees providing dappled shade from the later afternoon sun, elegant Manoir Hovey is a member of the prestigious Relais et Châteaux marketing organisation.
Built at the start of the 20th Century as a private estate modelled on George Washington’s famed Mount Vernon home, this superb property became a luxurious resort inn in 1950 and has been welcoming well-heeled guests ever since.
Star of its many fine amenities is its restaurant, presided over for many years by its chef, Roland Menard.
It’s but a short drive to Fitch Bay where, set atop a close on 1,000 feet high hill are the sweeping purple-hued fields of the Bleu Lavande lavender farm ( bleulavande.ca).
The result of years of dedicated research into optimum growing temperatures, soils and growing conditions, some 300,000 individually selected plants have been successfully raised by Patrick Samson and his team.
These high-quality blooms yield 100 per cent pure and highly refined essential oils that now go into the farm’s wide range of health and beauty products.
Sated with the delights of the wide-open countryside of Canada’s most beautiful eastern province, it was time to head for the bright lights of big city Montréal. Set close by the imposing Notre-Dame basilica, in the heart of the old town, the Le Saint-Sulpice boutique hotel ( lesaintsulpice.com) was a good choice of accommodation, with personalised and welcoming service.
Jazz on stage
My Montréal visit was perfectly timed as the international jazz festival – 30 years old and rated the world’s biggest by the Guinness Book of Records – was in full flow, spilling out of concert hall and clubs onto the streets and hosting more than 3,000 musicians and other entertainers and 2.5 million visitors, with two-thirds of the activities being free. 15 concert halls, eight outdoor stages and 600 concerts feature in the programme.
Montréal has first-rate museums and some good showcases were headlining when I visited, including ‘Samurai’. A display of Richard Béiveau’s world-renowned collection of Japanese art works and artefacts, at the Museum of Archaeology & History, and ‘Zoo’, a controversial and thought provoking look at the place accorded to animals and nature in today’s universe, staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
It would be remiss to visit this region and not include the city from which Québec Province takes its name. It’s often been said that Québec is more French than any city across the Atlantic in France and a strong Gallic flavour certainly pervades, from the architecture and cobbled streets to the cuisine and the social graces.
From Montréal I took the train east. It was no TGV or high-speed train but the ride was comfortable and the scenery slipped past at an appropriately scenic rate till I arrived at Québec’s imposing Gare du Palais station.
There’s a lot to see and do and a guided tour is worth the outlay. I chose one that not only showed me the city ramparts, the government buildings, the museums and the Heights of Abraham – which were scaled by General Woolfe and his British redcoats in the 18th Century conflict that pulled down the French Tricolore and replaced it was a fluttering Union Flag – but also took me out of town to the pretty country byways of the delightful Ile d’Orléans, with its strawberry fields and orchards.
Close by the island, a panoramic windowed cable car lifted me briskly to the top of the cliff beside the spectacular Chute-Montmorency – a 272 feet natural wonder that’s 988 feet higher than Niagara. Here the lavishly restored Manoir Montmorency ( seepaq.com/chutemontmorency) offers a terrace grill and the more casual Kent House Café Bistro, providing a great end to the day and a crowning delight of the entire trip.
How to get there
Air Canada and British Airways fly scheduled services from London.
How to get around
You will need to rent a car. It’s an easy two-hour drive from Montréal International Airport to the Eastern Townships. Montréal and Québec have good local bus services and the former has a metro underground railway system as well as a vast network of subterranean walkways for when the weather gets bad.
Where and what to eat
F Bar: 3485 Jean-Mance Street ( fbar.ca)
Portuguese culinary inspiration has enabled chef Gilles Herzog to create a new headliner in the Quartier des Spectacles. Blue tiled décor echoes the Portuguese theme.
Restaurant Leméac: 1045 Laurier Avenue West ( restaurantlemeac.com)
Fresh, simple, French –style bistro fare serving up such classics as steak frites, fois gras, homemade black pudding and a super selection of Québec artisan cheeses. A night owl’s kind of kitchen and a gorgeous outdoor terrace make is a must to try.
Le Hangar: 1011 Wellington Street ( resto-lehangar.com)
Flavourful, unpretentious cuisine and a highly convivial atmosphere. You’ll find it in the popular Griffintown neighbourhood.
Le Café du Monde: 84 Rue Dalhousie ( lecafedumonde.com)
You’ll find it down by the old port. Elegant, stylish and with an exquisite menu utilising the best of European culinary influences and fresh local produce, including fish and seafood straight off the boat. The lobster thermidor was awesome.
Conti Caffe: 32 Rue Saint-Louis ( conticaffe.com)
From end to end, Rue Saint Louis is lined with restaurants. This is one of the oldest established and certainly one of the best with its Italian styled offerings – the house antipasto is a truly formidable selection and I enjoyed superbly presented scallops. Some evenings feature live jazz.
What to speak
French is very much the lingua franca of Québec Province (95 per cent of the population is fluent in French) and the locals will appreciate your making the effort – if it’s only to offer the daily niceties like bonjour and merci. English is, however, very widely spoken, especially in ourist areas, so you should not run into linguistic problems.
What to spend
The country has its own currency (the Canadian dollar) but American dollars are often accepted. Tipping follows the US norm (20 per cent in restaurants). Things – except alcohol – are generally cheaper than in the USA.