Everyone outside Canada has heard of Montréal, QC (tres chic) and probably Québec City, QC, thanks to its enormous 400th birthday bash this past summer. See those two fabulous cities, by all means. But set aside time to meander through Québec du Sud, Quebec’s French-speaking rural south—and it has to be leisurely.
That’s the only way to wind along the bumpy country roads. Stop in at a honey farm here, a cheesemaker there. Charming? Oui. Genuine? Yes. This vast, rolling-hill region of family farms and giant maples runs from the St. Lawrence River south to the American border. A few-days loop from Québec City to Montréal—or longer—makes a perfect jaunt.
I loved the Townships Trail for its intriguing mix of French and Loyalist (Brits, who settled in the late 18th century) culture, history and architecture. Everyone seems cheerful and easygoing, happy to chat and get to know you. The gardens are delightful and the B&Bs quaint. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to hop on a beachcomber and cycle through the woods, find a grassy lakeside and a good trashy novel. C’est la vie in Québec du Sud.
New in 2008: the Summit Drive (Routes des Sommets) links Eastern Townships mountain peaks with 15 municipalities (La Patrie to Stratford via Lake Megantic). If pedalling is your thing, there are five bike routes, too. www.easterntownships.org (www.cantonsdelest.com)
Québec du Sud highlights:
Stroll: Probably my favourite stop was Domaine Joly-De Lotbinière, Ste-Croix on the St. Lawrence River: enchanting, like the Secret Garden. There’s a landscape park, romantic French garden and forest. Dine on scrumptious homemade sandwiches on the veranda under a towering black-walnut grove (a plantation, actually) next to the Swiss-style manor house. You might catch harpsichord music wafting from a concert upstairs. Stroll the formal gardens, 142 ha (352 ac) in all—ponds, pergolas, paths, 2,200 plants, veggies and blooms. The estate was once owned by Sir Henri-Gustav Joly de Lotbinière, a former Quebec premier and “father of Canadian aboriculture” for his experimentation and pioneering work in natural heritage conservation. He grew trees, fast-growing black walnut, for profit in the 1880s. A small selection of well-priced, unusual gifts—handsome handcrafted wooden bowls, maple-wood pens, a necklace pendant of sliced chestnut.
Stay: Auberge Ripplecove Inn in Ayer’s Cliff reminds me of those 1950s-era East Coast lakeside retreats (and it was—a trout-fishing retreat frequented by Americans and Europeans). The best part: sipping local wines on the terrace cooled by a summer evening breeze off Lake Massawippi. A close second: taking a bike, canoe or water-ski tour; soaking in the new spa’s Jacuzzi under the maples. The wine cellar has 500 labels and evening tastings.
Taste: Ingredients from nearby in the Québécois way at Auberge Ripplecove Inn—duck confit with thyme and whortleberry sauce, double-chocolate gâteau…
Honey in a gazillion varieties: honeycomb, honey candy, honey lotion, honey shampoo, honey pollen—you get the picture—at Miellerie Lune de Miel in Stoke.The life-of-the-bee museum onsite is like an Alice in Wonderland-sized honey hive you can explore. Learn how honey is produced and watch some 60,000 bees crawl all over owner/apiarist Richard Côté.
More than anything, I dug the aroma at the Musée du Chocolat de Bromont. It’s fun to munch on chocolate truffles while perusing the history of the cacao bean, then nosh some more in the back outdoor café facing an orchard. The cute village, Bromont, really is picture perfect.
Nostalgia, groceries and souvenirs in spades at J.L. Flanagan General in Knowlton.
Scent: Call it cliché, but there’s nothing as poetic as meandering through hills brushed with purple-blue lavender shimmering in the summer heat. The heady aroma! Passion doesn’t even begin to describe business mogul cum lavende mogul Pierre Pellerin’s (with wife Christine Deschesnes) 200,000-plant Bleu Lavande lavender farm in the village of Fitch Bay near Magog. I caught up on lavender distilling and processing; shopped, relaxed and wandered. We picnicked and got giddy on the scents. And, of course, I ended up toting two live lavender shrubs in my airplane carryon. They lost a little soil en route, but smell heavenly in my garden—a petite piece of Quebec in my west-coast garden.
History: The impressively large Ulverton Woolen Mill (Le Moulin à laine d’Ulverton) with vintage machines shows how wool used to be made back in the 1850s. The sock machine! I want one. Shearing demos during the wool and sheep festival in October; classic blankets, cozy slippers and sheepskin rugs for sale.
I hadn’t a clue how explosives were made till Windsor Powder Factory (Parc historique de la Poudrière de Windsor)—it’s all about blasting powder that supplied the American Civil War in the 1860s. For the history of Vieux Sherbrooke (Old Sherbrooke), a handsome, red-brick former sawmill and flourmill town, instead of the usual museum displays behind glass, we tried it with costumed actors role-playing historic figures. This isn’t usually my bag, but to hear it from Mary O’Malley, a maid who lived there in the 1800s, and her contemporaries proved surprisingly moving and memorable.