The picturesque villages of Orford, Magog and North Hatley offer much for the traveller willing to explore and experience more than crowded malls and souvenir shops. Kaye Holland is enchanted by Quebec’s Eastern Townships
The Eastern Townships are only an hour's drive from Montreal down the Autoroute 10, but the contrast between Quebec’s cosmopolitan capital and the sleepy ‘Cantons d l’Est’ (as the Eastern Townships are known by its French inhabitants), couldn’t be greater. The Townships’ sparkling blue lakes, quaint villages and rolling hills are reminiscent of New England (indeed the area was initially inhabited by New Englanders who moved north after the American Revolutionary War in the late 1700s) - and provide the perfect backdrop for a cottage country holiday.
I started my exploration of the Eastern Townships in Orford - a rural village famed for its mid summer festival (which sees some 40 concerts performed by internationally renown musicians), and also for its lush national park. For those attracted by the great outdoors, Mount Orford has much to offer and you don’t have to be super fit either (I take to it like a duck to hoisin sauce). Fill your lungs with oxygen as you hike along wooded trails, get out on the water in a kayak or canoe, or - during the summer months - camp overnight in mountain air so fresh as to make you feel giddy. In winter, there’s snowshoeing and skiing (both cross country and down hill).
Orford can easily be visited as a delightful one day jaunt from Montreal but the Estrimont Suites & Spas - with its sumptuous spa and outdoor hot tubs - enticed me to linger overnight.
Indeed the property ticks all the right boxes for anyone in searchof some serious ‘R&R’ following a day spent tramping, in the great Canadian outdoors. No matter how short your stay, make time to try a treatment in the Amerispa health and beauty center which boasts the kind of setting - think heavenly mountain views - you simply can’t recreate in a salon back home. Plus the problem with spas in London (where I live) is that when you leave, you’re straight back in the big smoke with all that hard relaxing undone in an instant.
Make your body your temple in the spa - or just fill it up in the restaurant where chef, Olivier St-Arnaud, and his team, whip up a mouth watering choice of local produce. Expect to see duck, rabbit, trout, venison, elk, cheese, craft beers, berries, honey, apple and yes, all things maple (three quarters of the world’s total maple output hails from Quebec) on the menu.
Following a bliss inducing massage, dinner and a good night’s sleep, I felt rejuvenated and ready to make the short journey through a vista of sleepy villages to Magog. With the banana shaped Lake Memphremagog and the mountains as its back drop, it’s easy to understand why Magog has been dubbed “the treasure chest of the township.” A leisurely stroll around the pretty lake and the cute cafes, chocolate shops, antique stores and art galleries downtown, made for a fun way to spend a mid October morning.
From Magog, I moved onto the majestic Manoir Hovey. I knew I had hit the jackpot long before even arriving, when everyone I met on my travels told me the same thing: make sure you stay at Manoir Hovey - a 37 room Relais and Chateau property that was once the private estate of Atlanta industrialist, Henry Atkinson.
And for very good reason. Located near the village of North Hatley, Manoir Hovey - inspired by George Washington’s Virginia home - exudes country charm. You’ll find a veranda boasting unrivalled views of lovely Lake Massawippi, expansive gardens, a heated pool, handsome individually designed bedrooms larger than my London flat - and vast bathrooms equipped with Frette towels and Aveda toiletries. I’m building up-to it because Manoir Hovey isn't cheap. It is, however, unforgettable. There’s also an ornate lounge and library - the perfect place in which to curl up in front of the roaring fireplace with one of Atkinson’s book, before dinner.
For regardless of whether you get to hunker down in Manoir Hovey or not, do book in for dinner in the award winning restaurant where you’ll be wowed by refined Quebecois fare - reason enough to place the Townships on top of your winter wish list - as memorable as the setting. There’s also a mind boggling wine list which the sommelier will help steer you through, if you want more than the house white.
And don’t worry about consumingtoo many calories: guests can use Manoir Hovey’s kayaks, canoes, paddle boats and windsurfers free of charge. Back on dry land, take a spin - in winter - on the private skating rink, or follow in my footsteps by borrowing a bike and cycling into North Hatley. This charming lakeside village was a popular second home for US citizens during the 1920s and more recently played a starring role in films such as Secret Widow with Johnny Depp and The Human Stain featuring Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins.
Strolling around this enchanting New England style town is akin to stepping back in time. Happily North Hatley hasn’t been Stabucksified and there’s a refreshing lack of western hotel chains and global brands. The village’s 750 inhabitants still shop at J.B. LeBaron, a grocery dating from 1888, before enjoyingthe coffee and camaraderie at Cafe North Hatley or one of the Cafes de village - akin to France’s Cafe de Pays. These cosy cafes serve coffee but also local and seasonal food with a smile (Quebec hospitality is legendary) and are the heart and soul of their corner of the Townships. For something stronger, try a pint in the Le Pilsner pub, whose attractive terrace overlooks the river.
It was here that I took plenty of pictures and made millions of notes of my travels through the Townships, but neither was necessary. All I need to do is close my eyes and there the villages are, in all their natural beauty.
As to when to visit, I can vouch for autumn - a patchwork of glorious orange and riotous red leaves and Canada’s instantly recognisable emblem: the maple tree. But regardless of the season, you’ll find the Townships to be a tantalising travel destination. What’s more, the Eastern Townships are closer than you think at just over six hours flying time from the UK. Just go soon before the spell breaks: the quiet whisper about this overlooked corner of Quebece is becoming a clamour that, in 2013, might be too hard to ignore...
For more information on the Eastern Townships, please visit www.easterntownships.org For free brochures, advice and information on Quebec, call Tourisme Quebec: Tel: 0800 051 7055 between 3pm and 10pm daily Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Visit: www.bonjourquebec.co.uk The site includes a full list of UK based tour operators featuring holidays to Quebec.