ESCAPE TO QUEBEC’S EASTERN TOWNSHIPS
Quebec’s Eastern Townships (known in French as Les Cantons de l’est) have been a travelers’ refuge for centuries- once a destination for homesteading British Empire loyalists in the 1880s, and again a hub for the 1970s-era peace-and-love crowd from over the border in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. An hour outside of Montreal, the area boasts sweeping vistas and rolling grasslands, cooling rivers and sparkling lakes, and is sought-after land for agricultural producers, artists and others that make this historical and gorgeous region a rich destination on its own, and a more-than-ideal spot for travelers to spend a night or two on a cross-border road trip to Montreal…
Few countrysides are as lovely, interesting and full of activities as the Eastern Townships—from village Farmers’ Markets to colonial churches, haute gastronomy in five-star inns and outdoor activities such as skiing, hiking, boating, horseback riding and several well-established, verdant cycling routes.
Off the Beaten Track: Would you like to visit North America’s second biggest operational lavender farm? Bleu Lavande, a family-run farm that harvest fields of the pungent purple flower near the town of Fitch Bay, is one of the area’s most unusual attractions and a great place for a picnic and for the whole family to stretch their legs. Learn about the extraction process for lavender essential oil and its medicinal and culinary uses, and shop in their extensive boutique (lavender salad dressing or lip balm, anyone?) Tip: Just before the turnoff to the farm, there’s a disused covered bridge with a sole picnic table that would be a great place for a private picnic, too.
Would you rather walk the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge in Coaticook? Hike to the highest peak on Mont Orford? Do a tour of village cafés, churches or historical houses? See Ayer’s Cliff’s finest bard, David Francey, perform an intimate concert at The Piggery theatre? Do a cider-tasting at one of several local ciderhouses? Simply veg out with a Tom Collins on an Adirondack chair facing Lake Massawippi, Memphremagog or Lac-Mégantic? The Townships have something for everyone.
Alpine Spa: Less than an hour’s drive from Montreal’s South Shore, the five-year-old Balnea Spa is a unique retreat in Bromont, the gateway to the townships. Built to resemble a high-architectural ski cabin, with a stunning view on a glassy lake and the mountains beyond, this “thermal retreat” is an uber-Nordic spa experience. New this year, lakeside wooden personal soaking pools and plenty of couches, daybeds and even hillside beanbags make Balnéa an incredible place to flake out for an afternoon, year-round. Bonus: You can also now replicate an on-thego version of the Balnéa experience at the Montreal airport.
Travelers’ Rest: Want to sleep in a treehouse or a yurt with a mountain view ? What about a night in a spa retreat ? Would you rather camp lakeside? All options for lodging are available in the Eastern Townships, including Hovey Manor, a five-star Relais et Chateaux inn that has been a dearly beloved and sought-after retreat for decades (it’s also family-run: the Stafford family has owned the hotel since 1979). Modeled on George Washington’s Mount Vernon mansion, Hovey Manor belonged to Henry Atkinson, an American captain of industry, until it became an inn in 1950. Since then, its stunning views of Lake Massawippi and pastoral English gardens bursting with floral life make this 32-room inn an ideal and refined holiday destination.
Chef Roland Ménard has been creating ultra-contemporary and sophisticated seasonal menus for the dining room for 30 years, and his kitchen is fed by their kitchen garden just below the Montcalm suite, as well as the harvest from an A+ farm in the nearby village of Ste-Catherine-de Hatley. The Manor’s wine cave is also reputed, and they distinguish themselves by pairing local specialties such as cider and icewine, with dishes that showcase the local bounty of the season.
In the winter, different activities beckon: A sleigh ride, a snowy lake view, or an evening curled up with a book from Henry Atkinson’s book collection the library. Hovey Manor is possibly Quebec’s best-loved historical hotel, and a great way to immerse yourself in the past with all (and we mean all) modern amenities.
The concierge at Hovey Manor enthusiastically recommended the Compton agricultural market in September and the Harvest Festival. As well, there are plenty of other gourmet activities year-round, including two gourmet tours: One is on the “Orford Express” train, and the other a luxury cruiser that offers stunning sunset dinner cruises on Lake Memphremagog, as well as several other escapades. There’s also a wine route, for those who want to get their tasting on.
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