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The Eastern Townships: Just over the border, Canada’s Cantons-de-l’Est seem a world away

The Eastern Township's 5-star lakeside resort inn Manoir Hovey was named for Colonel Ebenezer Hovey
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The Eastern Township’s 5-star lakeside resort inn Manoir Hovey was named for Colonel Ebenezer Hovey

We scanned the menu and tested my high school French– la cassolette d’escargots en croute (snail casserole in a pastry crust), pot en pot des Îles de la Madeleine (a regional seafood casserole). Everything sounded more delectable in this ambience and language that that took us worlds away from our everyday lives.

Without the jet-lag of a transatlantic flight, we were relaxing in the picturesque Eastern Townships of Canada’s French-speaking province, Québec. It’s a region known to Canadians and Europeans, but experienced by too few Americans, despite its location just across the U.S. border from New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. In fact, some towns are split between the two countries.

Bleu Lavande, Fitch Bay, Eastern Townships
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Bleu Lavande, Fitch Bay, Eastern Townships

This is a region of mountains, green hills and valleys, glistening lakes, stunning vistas, and holiday resorts and spas. Forests still cover 80% of the region, creating a magnificent in fall foliage display.

Names of many towns, lakes, and rivers reflect the original inhabitants, the Abenakis, French allies during the Seven Years’ War who were driven north by the Iroquois, allies of the British. It was part of New France until the 1763 signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which granted control to the British.

one of the popular cheeses made by the Benedictine monks of Abbaye de Saint Benoît-du-Lac
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one of the popular cheeses made by the Benedictine monks of Abbaye de Saint Benoît-du-Lac

Loyalists came here after the American Revolution, and their Victorian architecture left a legacy of charming little villages now known for theaters, art galleries, antique shops, resort hotels and spas, inns and B&Bs and outdoor recreation. It’s worth the trip for the quality of the regional cuisine alone– gourmet extravaganzas at top resort hotels, regional fare at little cafés, specialty products at little shops, wine, and cheeses–some made by monks.

Outings are made easy with three official and marked tourist routes– the 250 miles of history and attractions along the Township Trails, the mountaintop panoramas of the Summit Drive, and the 80 mile viticultural village adventure along the country roads of the Wine Route. In our four days we visited part of the Township Trail and the Wine Trail region.

Just North of Yankeeland

The Eastern Township's lakeside resort inn, Manoir Hovey
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The Eastern Township’s lakeside resort inn, Manoir Hovey

This area became a favorite summer vacation destination for wealthy American Southern aristocrats, industrialists, and large landowners who avoided New England after the Civil War. They built impressive homes, and the grandest was The Birches, inspired by George Washington’s Mount Vernon with a wide verandah and white pillars, stables, a coach house, servant’s quarters. There was even a 9-hole golf course.

It was built on Lake Massawippi for Henry Atkinson, banker and owner of Georgia Railway and Electric Company, who used it for six weeks in the summer.

library of Manoir Hovey, in North Hatley, Canada's Eastern Township
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library of Manoir Hovey, in North Hatley, Canada’s Eastern Township

Now known as Manoir Hovey, it has been a prestigious resort inn since 1950 with fine dining, 1800’ of secluded lake shore, and on-site year-round recreation. Named for Colonel Ebenezer Hovey, a prominent Loyalist who was granted a large tract of land across the lake by the Crown in 1785, it is the epitome of unpretentious elegance. The 5-star Hovey Manor is a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux collection of the world’s finest hotels and restaurants and was named one of Canada’s top 10 hotels in Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List.

Most of the 41 individually appointed guest rooms have views of the lake. Some have fireplaces, oversized large whirlpool tubs, canopy beds, and private balconies. Many of the public rooms contain antiques that belonged to the Atkinsons. There are also private suites and a four-bedroom cottage.

There are two small beaches, canoes, kayaks, paddle boats, and windsurfers, as well as a tennis court, swimming pool, bicycles and helmets. In winter there is complimentary use of ice fishing gear and snowshoes. Sleigh rides drawn by Belgian horses are offered, as is snowshoeing with a guide.

Rates include dinner, breakfast, and complimentary use of the inn’s recreational facilities.

The Wine Route Area and more

This Missisquoi Valley region is at the 45th parallel, about the same as Bordeaux, France. The lingering Quebec autumn prolongs the growing season, and the warm summers and cold winters are ideal for ice wine. Here are three vineyards to add to those on the Wine Trail.

Domaine Pinnacle

Ice Apple Wine tasting at Domaine Pinnacle
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Ice Apple Wine tasting at Domaine Pinnacle

The family-owned 430 acre Domaine Pinnacle is an orchard and cidery on the sunny southern slopes of Mt. Pinnacle. It sets the standard for ice apple wine with its golden color, fresh apple taste, and a sweet, smooth finish. Just three miles from Frelighsburg, called “The Most Beautiful Village in Quebec”, it has views of Jay Peak and Mt. Mansfield.

The Loyalist-style house was built in 1859 with an octagonal rooftop turret that overlooks the Green Mountains and Vermont border. As a stop on the Underground Railroad, the house was used to shelter fugitive slaves. During Prohibition, it was a meeting place for bootleggers.

Since the scenic property Susan and Charles Crawford bought here included about 2,500 apple trees, they began making ice cider as a way to utilize the fruit. Domaine Pinnacle Ice Apple Wine has gone on to win international awards and acclaim, including over sixty Gold medals, and is sold in over forty countries.

It takes about eighty apples in a proprietary blend of six varieties for each 375 milliliter bottle. Apples are harvested by hand after the first frost, pressed, and slowly fermented for six to eight months, using no additives. It’s best as an apertif or digestive, served with cheddar cheese, chocolate, or a dessert like tarte tatin (apple tart).

One hundred apples are required for the limited production Signature Reserve, best paired with fois gras or blue cheese and savored at the end of a leisurely meal.

Tastings are free and include the entire collection, from the brandy-like 1859 to the maple-flavored Courier des Bois, scrumptious with cheese or nuts or as an icy shooter.

Vignoble Chapelle Sainte Agnès

Vignoble Chapelle Sainte Agnès, in Canada's Eastern Township
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Vignoble Chapelle Sainte Agnès, in Canada’s Eastern Township

Vignoble Chapelle Sainte Agnès is named for its stone chapel and the patron saint of Bohemia, which like vineyard owner Henrietta Antony’s homeland, is part of the Czech Republic. Mrs. Antony fled from Moravia with her family in 1948, and has recreated Old World memories of a land where 3rd century Romans planted the first vineyards.

European stone cutters created eighteen terraces in the shape of an amphitheater that surround a heart-shaped pond. Mrs. Antony, an architecture aficionado and Montreal antique dealer, furnished her buildings with her lifetime collections. The vineyard is run by her son, John, and his wife, Bruna.

The chapel, with centuries-old doors from Burgundy, was built as a repository for her ecclesiastical artifacts including a 12th century cross from Limoges. What appears to be a Royal military tent was painted by a Parisian artist and houses a staff kitchen and bathroom.

A tall tower dominates an art and antiques-filled structure with several levels of medieval-style wine cellars, a banquet hall seating 150, a mezzanine, a honeymoon suite, and a solarium–ideal for weddings, catered parties, conferences, and corporate events. Expansion plans include a chateau to serve as a high end hotel on this working vineyard.

The high-end vin de terroir dessert wines have won highly regarded I.W.S.C. and Decanter awards. Their Gewürztraminer has been named best in class and is in the British Royal cellar.

Vignoble Chapelle Sainte Agnès is about a mile from the US border. Two-hour tours are available Wednesday or Sunday at 1:30 for $25. Half hour tours are $15.

Domaine Les Brome

Marie Courville, Domaine Les Brome, Lac Brome, Eastern Townships
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Marie Courville, Domaine Les Brome, Lac Brome, Eastern Townships

Léon Courville, retired President of the National Bank, and wife Marie opened Domaine Les Brome to the public in 2005. This bucolic hillside location overlooking Lake Brome is a picturesque setting for sampling their reds, whites, and rosés, as well as late harvest ice wine, and the sparkling wine added just this year. Their Riesling Reserve won best wine in Quebec 3 years in a row.

Their tanks, winemaking equipment, and shop are in the charming old sugar camp, built of wood from surrounding forest. Tastings 50 cents, free if you purchase a bottle. A 1 1/4 hour tasting course is $15, and a more advanced class is by reservation. Their informative Museum of Tasting (free) may be open by this printing. Open 11 AM-6 PM daily May to mid-October,weekends the rest of the year. Call to reserve the picnic area out front–folks sometimes stay to 7:30 enjoying the view.

Sutton

Stop for lunch in a village like Sutton, part of the Townships Trail. Local, seasonal and organic products are served at Le Cafetier, one of the Cafés de Village, which are much like the Cafés de Pays in France. There’s free wi-fi. Or create your own gourmet picnic at an épicerie like La Rumeur Affamée (the famished rumor), a destination cheese shop, that also offers freshly-baked breads, pies, tarts, patés and specialty items. According to owner Kelly Shanahan, there are 155-170 different cheeses, 55 from Quebec. Her best seller, Brise de Vignerons, is a raw milk cheese made in Farnham. About a third of products on the shelves are local, making this a great stop for gifts and souvenirs.

There’s a chocolaterie across the street. Friday evenings late October through mid April evenings, you can even try curling at the Sutton Curling Club.

Stop at the Tourist Information Center for a map of heritage tours. These range from the 2 1/2 mile walking tour of Loyalist history and architecture (with interpretive panels in French and English) to a 20 mile rural circuit that includes an Irish pioneer homestead.

The Lake Memphrémagog region: scents and scenery

Bleu Lavande

Bleu Lavande, Fitch Bay, Eastern Townships
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Bleu Lavande, Fitch Bay, Eastern Townships

It may look like the lavender fields of Provence, but Bleu Lavande is on Applegrove Hill in picturesque Fitch Bay. Pierre Pellerin returned to his native area after health problems caused him to sell his technology company, spotted this property, and bought it the same day. He discovered the soothing and revitalizing properties of lavender, and together with Christine Deschesnes , whose interests are in beauty care, fashion, and perfumes, began a small project of dried bouquets and soap. It developed into Bleu Lavande, which has garnered accolades that include Best Tourism site (2007), and One of Best Small Companies in Quebec (2008).

Take a tour, visit the distillery to see how the essential oil is extracted from the buds, attend a workshop, or relax in a lavender-infused theater with the magic of the fairytale Lavandula (Latin for lavender) and the history of Bleu Lavande.

Dine with at one of the hundred or so picnic tables or in the bistro, where locally smoked meats and lavender-enhanced salads, quiches, breads, desserts, and teas are served.
Enjoy a one-hour massage in the lavender fields ($75). The lavender oil foot massage is a quarter hour of sheer bliss ($20). Complete your sensory experience with a classical concert on Tuesdays or jazz on Fridays. You can even get married in the gardens.

Bleu Lavande is the largest producer of ISO certified lavender in Canada, growing 17 1/2 tons of herbicide and pesticide-free flowers each year on about 60 acres.
It’s a place to discover the therapeutic, medicinal, culinary and aromatherapeutic benefits of this flowering plant, and to browse the wide range products and usages in the boutique.

Bleu Lavande opened in 2005 and has become one of Canada’s most unique and top attractions. About 200 shops, mostly in Quebec, carry their products. Open early June to mid-October.

The abbey

Benedictine Abbaye de Saint Benoît-du-Lac
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Benedictine Abbaye de Saint Benoît-du-Lac

Abbaye de Saint Benoît-du-Lac was founded in 1912 by French Benedictine monks. It was designed by internationally acclaimed monk and architect Dom Paul Bellot to be in harmony with geometric laws of nature.

Following St. Benedict’s rules of study, physical work, and ministry, the monks spend their days in prayer, studies, or at work in the cheese factory, orchard, cider factory, farm, and store. Observe a service in Gregorian chants or purchase a flavorful souvenir. The shop sells fruit tarts, apple sauce, ciders and vinegars, vinaigrettes, fruit spreads, and renowned cheeses with names like Frere Jacques, as well as devotional objects.

The cruise

For a perfect finale to an Eastern Township day, head north to the tourist hub of Magog, for a dinner cruise aboard Escapades Memphrémagog’s luxuriously appointed new cruise boat, Grand Cru. The lake continues to attract the rich and famous, like Canadian actor Donald Sutherland, who has a home in Georgeville.

Eastern Township trout, Escapades Memphrémagog's Grand Cru
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Eastern Township trout, Escapades Memphrémagog’s Grand Cru

Dine on elegantly presented selections like veal medallion or trout raised in the township as you enjoy the ever-changing scenery along the shores of Lake Memphrémagog. The four getaways include the 3 1/2 hour dinner cruise ($85), a cruise-only Happy Hour ($30), a lunch cruise ($60), and brunch cruise ($65). You may sight the legendary sea serpent, Memphré.

Critter encounter

llama at the Granby Zoo, Eastern Townships, Quebec, Canada
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llama at the Granby Zoo, Eastern Townships, Quebec, Canada

Especially if traveling with children or grandchildren, you won’t want to miss the Granby Zoo. With 1,000 animals, it offers opportunities to get closer than you might imagine to all sorts of exotic creatures. The South Pacific Pavilion that opened this summer has an underwater world of colorful fish and an ever-popular basin where you can touch the rays.

a face-to-face encounter with a snow leopard in the Granby Zoo
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a face-to-face encounter with a snow leopard in the Granby Zoo

Want to go nose-to-nose with a snow leopard? You can–in the new glass-walled yurt viewing area. Or marvel at their long tongues as you feed nectar to brightly-colored lorikeets of Oceania. Relax with a ride on the elevated train, ride the roller coaster, and don your bathing suit to ride the waves, go tubing, or just lie back for a while at the Amazoo Yoplait Waterpark.

Fen-tastic

LAMRAC, a nature interpretation center and marsh, has nearly a mile and a half boardwalk through protected wetlands in the Eastern Townships
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LAMRAC, a nature interpretation center and marsh, has nearly a mile and a half boardwalk through protected wetlands in the Eastern Townships

Need some exercise after all your gastronomic adventures? Les Amis du Marais de la Rivière-aux-Cerises, LAMRAC, is a new nature interpretation center and marsh with three and a half miles of hiking trails and a nearly a mile and a half boardwalk through protected wetlands. Maintained year-round, admission to the building–a eco-friendly assymetric design replicating a cell membrane– and pathway is free. Exhibit $7.

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