Hit the road to the Eastern Townships
Story by Sharman Yarnell-Massey
HATLEY, QUEBEC — Who doesn’t love the fall? Glorious, colourful foliage spreading a cloak over mountains, fields resplendent with golden squash and orange pumpkins, small farms, brooks and little villages. That describes fall in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. With so many events and activities, a weekend trip for me often turns into a weeklong adventure of wine tasting, gastronomic delights, hiking, music and shopping at local markets. All around 75 minutes by car away from Montreal.
Wineries are plentiful in the Townships, so the “winery route” is sure to please oenophiles. You can bike them or drive them — I chose the latter. Last count, there were 21 vineyards and I wasn’t sure if my legs were prepared for cycling. In Sutton, Chapelle Ste-Agnes is more than wine tasting. Awaiting you is a most enjoyable visit where you will learn about the Romanesque stone chapel, vineyard, medieval cellars and, yes, the wines of the region. It has received numerous awards in the International Wine and Spirit Competition. Silver for its 2002 Gewürztraminer Icewine and bronze for its 2002 Vidal Geisenheim Icewine.
Their icewines are particularly satisfying, having been naturally produced and allowed to mature slowly for two to three years. Visits are possible year-round, however they must be booked ahead of time.
Looking for cheese to go with that wine? Perhaps some homemade applesauce or chocolates? I discovered the Abbaye de Saint-Benoit-du-Lac in Magog a few years ago whilst on a day trip taking in the fall colours. Founded in 1912, it is not only a serene spot to meditate and ponder the infinite, but also offers a selection of cheeses, compotes, apple ciders and chocolates. The most popular of the cheeses is that made by the monks — Blue Benedictin. The monks of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac make their living working in the cheese factory, an orchard, cider factory, a farm and, finally, the store where their products are sold. The drive to the abbey is spectacular, the fall colours are unsurpassed, as the property is surrounded by mountains. It is a choice place for a picnic. Time yourself accordingly and you just might be there for vespers.
Book Stores and More Charms in Quebec
If wine and cheese aren’t your passion, perhaps books are your thing. How about a mystery to go along with that wine and cheese? For those who have read Louise Penny’s “Inspector Gamache” series, a visit to Sutton is a must. It is the inspiration for the fictional Three Pines. Shut your eyes and you’ll, no doubt, feel the spirits of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Clara, Gabri, Olivier, Ruth and Myrna.
About 20 minutes from Sutton is Knowlton and a charming bookstore, Brome Lake Books (the inspiration for the book store in Three Pines) where homage is paid to the author with a little nook that holds her books and other paraphernalia from Three Pines, along with a little fireplace, table and chairs. You can leave a message in a book for her or just sit and contemplate her latest mystery. You might even bump into Penny herself as she is well known to the locals and often visits the bookstore.
Staying in Knowlton isn’t a bad idea with the myriad of B&Bs scattered throughout. The Lakeview Inn will be a featured venue for the highly popular Celtic Harmonies International Festival, with Michael (Blackie) O’Connell and Cyril O’Donoghue. Every two years, tourists from around the world invade the townships to hear the world’s foremost in Celtic music. This year’s artists included world-renowned Prince Edward Island fiddler Richard Wood and Tony McManus from Scotland, considered the best Celtic guitarist in the world.
Not far from Knowlton is North Hatley, where you’ll not only find dining at Manoir Hovey an epicurean delight, but a stay at the auberge will leave you with memories to last a lifetime. Le Hatley restaurant offers a stunning lake view and chef Francis Wolf’s award-winning plates rely on the finest local and regional products. The owners have managed to created a cozy and inviting atmosphere in a grand setting at this Relais & Chateaux property. It is at once luxurious, warm and friendly. Outside the manor, there are nooks to explore throughout the idyllic gardens, or to sit in, overlooking Lake Massawippi.
Pottery shops are in abundance in the Townships but one stands out like a diamond in the rough. Along a winding road, deep in rolling hills, with horses in pastures alongside, signs point the way to the husband and wife team of Robin Badger and Robert Chartier. They not only provide fresh eggs and vegetables for the locals, but visitors from Montreal travel in for their beautiful, creative pottery. In a small workshop that boasts a huge boulder wall at one end (they dynamited into the rock to design the studio) the two work their magic. Badger only works in a vibrant blue that includes dinnerware, vases and bowls. Chartier varies in earthy colours and takes his imagination from stunning coffee-table pieces to birdbaths.
An eye-catching piece in metal, called “Stay off the Path” depicts Little Red Riding Hood confronting the wolf on all fours, her hood thrown back off her head onto her shoulders.
Quebec’s Eastern Townships is colourful, historic, cultural, with scenic delights at nearly every turn in the road. A wander “off the path” here, is a must and will lead you to music, wine, cheese, local art and, who knows what other delights.