I’ve travelled through the Eastern Townships of Quebec on a number of occasions principally because the highway that takes me to Vermont runs through it. I never stopped for more than a few hours until September, which happens to be one of the best times of the year to visit this part of Canada.
I had certain expectations before going. A family I know goes skiing there every year, so I assumed there would be mountains. I’ve heard about famous people who have summer homes on its lakes. I know that it’s right up against Vermont and New Hampshire and that Americans started settling there after their Revolution. The Brits came too when cheap and arable land was on offer. So I assumed an Anglo-American heritage. Outside of Quebec it is well known by its English name and not so well by the French version, Cantons de l’Est. I also knew that people make wonderful gardens in the Townships and many have been featured in the gardening magazines I so love.
The Government of Quebec does a terrific job promoting the whole region, which means that it can be tough to decide on an itinerary. That was until I read an article on Canada’s prettiest villages, three of them in the Townships. So those three villages became my road map: North Hatley on Lac Memphrémagog, billed as a resort village with an American influence; Stanstead, with an impressive heritage, made up of three villages whose streets run right into the Canada-USA border; and Frelighsburg, nestled in a pretty valley below Mount Pinnacle. These picturesque villages are all on the Townships Trail (Chemin des Cantons), a tourist route through 31 towns and villages famous for their Victorian homes, cafés de village and churches of various religious denominations.
I decided to spend a night in Magog and in Sutton, both bustling places with historic B&Bs. The Au Manoir de la rue Merry in Magog served a 5-course breakfast in a gorgeous dining room, so cuisine is important here. There is an Abbey at Saint Benoit de Lac with a store that is highly touted so I added that to the list along with Knowlton where I thought the featured gardens would be. So that became my route: North Hatley (140km southeast of Montreal), Stanstead, Magog, Saint Benoit de Lac, Knowlton, Sutton and Frelighsburg.
North Hatley, a protected heritage site, is at the northern tip of Lake Massawippi, which is why it became a vacation destination for wealthy Americans who use to ride around the lake on steamboats. Before long, hotels, a resort, churches and even a golf club appeared and today there are charming stores and B&Bs.
Stanstead is a border town and in the early 1800s it was on the main stagecoach road between Quebec City and Boston. A customs office, hotels and shops popped up to provide services to the travellers and soon many well-to-do families built elegant homes, especially along Dufferin Street. On the same street is Stanstead College, a private secondary school established in 1873 that now attracts students from around the world.
I heard several stories about Stanstead. There is one about a customs officer who, in 1851, spoke despairingly about the town folks, saying that smuggling was popular and the population “shrewd and lawless”. Another said the surveyors who drew the border here were inebriated because the line is not at the 45th parallel as required but instead zigzags north.
The streets of the village run right into the border. In fact, a library and opera house was built right on the border as a symbol of friendship between the two countries. It is the only American library with no books (they are on the Canadian side) and the only opera house with no stage (also on the Canadian side). They say American draft dodgers visited with their families in the library, being careful to stay on the Canadian side of the room.
Magog is on Lac Memphrémagog, a 50-km body of water that runs all the way down to Vermont. Obviously it is a popular spot for swimming and boating. The downtown itself is lively, a place to enjoy a meal and spend the night.
Just outside Magog is Mount Orford Park, well known for its marked hiking and cycling trails. Speaking of cycling, all over the Townships you’ll run into these buff bicyclists dressed up to the nines in their special gear making their way up and down hills. I later discovered that there are all kinds of bike trails in the Townships. Some trails are ambitious such as the one from Grandy to Estriade (100 km) or from Bromont to Sutton to the United States (40 km). But there is also the “family cycling trail” (8.9 km) with an ice cream break in the middle. There are unmarked circuits too such as the 68 km scenic tour north of Lac Megantic or the 29 km gourmet tour. If this is of interest, be sure to get the Official Cycling Map, which indicates the level of difficulty of the circuits (easy, intermediate or expert), and services on the routes such as drinking water and restrooms, and much more.
Make your way to the opposite side of Lac Memphrémagog to reach the abbey at Saint Benôit du Lac. Here Benedictine monks live withdrawn from the world. The abbey was founded in 1912 and the 45 monks live according to the Monastic Rule of Saint Benedict and by the work of their own hands: a cheese factory, an orchard, a cider factory, a farm, and a store where their products are sold. The produce is inexpensive and yummy, the cheese in particular. The history of the abbey is displayed on its interior walls (French and English).
I drove the back roads from the abbey to Knowlton, first driving around Lac Brome and I was glad that I had GPS because I was lost several times. Well worth the effort though.
The Victorian village of Knowlton is the largest community on the lake. It wooed me and I certainly could have spent a few days walking its streets and visiting the shops. Building after building has a heritage past and information is provided on plaques (French and English). The Auberge Knowlton, for instance, is the oldest inn in the Eastern Townships, in operation since 1849. The estates that run along the lake are gorgeous.
There was a Brome Lake duck celebration going on when I was there. It seems that back in 1912, Henry Bates established a domestic duck farm here, the first in Canada, and it is rather famous.
Sutton has a different feel, probably because it’s a mountain village and best known for its outdoor activities. So you’ll run into lots of cyclists and here it’s called riding “through the treetops” (VéloVolant)—puff, puff. Not an exaggeration for six summits in the Townships have an altitude of over 1000 m.
And finally Frelighsburg, the last of the “pretty” villages, this one close to Mount Pinnacle as well as the U.S. border. It too celebrates its heritage: the grammar school, churches, general store. I much enjoyed the drive to Frelighsburg, passing Christmas tree farms and orchards heavy with apples ripe for picking. Apple growing is a major business here. It’s also a wine-making region, particularly around Durham that is just north and where you’ll find the oldest vineyard in Quebec, Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoise. You can go on a Wine Tour (La Route des Vins) and visit 21 vineyards with guided tours and tastings.
Frelighsburg’s old General Store is today the town’s café de village. It is distinguished by its gable roof and red-brick cladding (and yes, there was a plaque telling me that). I stopped to sample some local cuisine and shared the space with a large English-speaking church group from the area–a reminder that at one time the majority of the Township population spoke English. That was back in the 1870s and today it has fallen to 6%.
There were few “big moments” during my trip to the Eastern Townships of Quebec but many small “aha” ones. That’s what makes it special. When I drove away I looked around and suddenly knew i was no longer there, that the landscape was decidedly different.
Give yourself enough time. My three days were clearly not enough and I shall return.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses™ 2015