Quebec has long been regarded as a fun place to visit if you’re looking for a certain European feeling without leaving the continent. That feeling is even more spectacular in a part of the province I knew little about before my recent visit, the Eastern Townships. Originally settled in part by Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution just a few miles south, today the Townships are predominantly Francophone, but with clear links to a more Anglican past. It’s also a beautiful part of Quebec, even on a slightly grey winter’s day as I drove around trying to discover what the Eastern Townships are all about. I learned a lot on my short trip, but more than anything I learned that I need to return at different times of the year because, I suspect, that there’s a lot to do and experience no matter when you visit. For me though, these are some experiences that I think should be at the top of anyone’s list no matter what time of year they find themselves in this rural and beautiful region of Quebec.
The main focus of my trip to the Eastern Townships was to visit a remarkable Relais & Chateaux property I’d heard a lot about – the Manoir Hovey. This luxury retreat is tucked away in the forests surrounding beautiful Lake Massawippi and harkens back to a simpler time. Built in 1900 as the summer estate for a wealthy businessman, the property has been an inn since the 1950s, always updating itself while still maintaining that classic look and feel of a grand estate. It’s a beautiful mix of honoring the past while keeping its guests comfortable, a fact I noticed right away when I first stepped into my large room at the Manoir. The design aesthetic is refined, playful and luxurious and was the perfect cozy home from which to base my exploration of the resort as well as the region. The real star of my visit though was the food, cuisine expertly prepared at all times of day, from sumptuous breakfasts to a dinnertime tasting menu that would rival any Michelin starred restaurant. Add in fun activities and an amazing location and I quickly earned why the Manoir Hovey is so well known. It’s a place that begs for guests to return, to continue a tradition of enjoying great service and luxurious surroundings in a beautiful corner of the Eastern Townships.
Spa Nordic Station
Maybe it was the chilly weather or the feel of impending snow, but my first stop in the Townships was amongst my favorite, a relaxing afternoon enjoying a Scandinavian-style spa at its best. I was first introduced to the intricacies of a well-done sauna and spa experience in Finland, so I’m a little picky when it comes to recreating what is ultimately a very serene and special experience. Honestly though, the Spa Nordic Station near Magog comes as close to what I discovered in Finland as anything else. Recently completing a massive renovation, the site includes a variety of different sauna cabins, thermal pools, cold water pools, terraces and more all set amongst the rural woodlands of the area. It reminded me a lot of Finland, where taking a sauna out in the middle of the woods is a national pastime. Even better, there’s a river adjacent to the Finnish-style cabin so you can take a quick dip to cool off. Yes, even in the winter.
The top tourist attraction in the area, the Abbey surprised me in nearly every way and my time there was spent in wondrous amazement at the complex itself. More than a century ago, monks traveled to Quebec in exile in order to set up a new religious community. Over the decades the monks have thrived, expanding the abbey over time and even starting several businesses, including making cheese and cider. It’s still a monastery though, a place where quiet and meditation is the order of the day. But it’s also a beautiful architectural achievement, both inside and out. My favorite spot within the massive abbey was a long hallway filled with bricks in a rainbow of colors. The Beaux-Arts design is a tribute to the harmony of natural geometric forms, using these splendid multicolored bricks as emphasis. It further proved to me that beauty truly can be found around nearly every corner.
Believe it or not, but the Eastern Townships are a food lover’s dream come true. That centuries old tradition of farming has in the 21st century led to some of the best, small producers of foods anywhere in the province. One of the first stops should be at the remarkable dairy La Station, making some truly exceptional cheeses. Now run by the third generation of cheesemakers, La Station produces fresh cheeses every day for a variety of palates. Aged on site and all natural, the cheeses are the perfect accompaniment to the region’s great wines. More than 20 wineries can be found in the Eastern Townships and there are plenty of ways to discover most, if not all, of them on your visit. One not to miss though is the celebrated winery Le Cep d’Argent, specializing in sparkling and dessert wines, they’re amongst the best you’ll find anywhere. To make the best use of my time, I was led around the area by professional tour guide and owner of Panora Tours, Alain Fabry. A character in his own right, he specializes in fun food tours of the Eastern Townships. For fine dining at its best though, be sure to enjoy as many meals as you can at Le Hatley Restaurant at the Manoir Hovey. Using locally sourced and seasonably inspired ingredients, Chef Wolf is a master of culinary surprise and the meals I enjoyed in the restaurant are amongst the best I’ve ever been fortunate enough to try.
Ultimately though the Eastern Townships are all about nature, and there’s plenty to do no matter what time of year you visit. In the summer the region erupts in every color of green imaginable and the hiking, biking and walking trails are world famous. There are also plenty of lakes and rivers to enjoy if you’re a boater, angler or just like to relax on the water. Those same waterways freeze over in the wintertime, creating different sorts of pursuits. While at the Manoir Hovey I enjoyed some time out on the lake, ice fishing with a local pro who taught me the ins and outs of the oddly relaxing sport. Ski slopes and other more traditional wintry pastimes are also plentiful, making the Eastern Townships a draw for those who love to shush down the slopes.
I wish I’d known about Quebec’s remarkable Eastern Townships before, but hopefully I can make up for lost time. Easy to access from just about anywhere in Quebec, they’re also an easy drive from New England and even New York, making a European style getaway fun and easily achievable.