MAGOG, Canada — The drive from Boston to Montreal is a peculiar one. After being hypnotized for hours by the rolling hills of Vermont on I-89, a traveler sees that the scenery at the Canadian border suddenly goes flat. It’s as if someone came along with a pin and deflated all those gorgeous mountains as soon as the highway became QC-133 North. The elevation of Vermont is replaced by fields of corn and the nondescript towns of southern Quebec that dot the highway. Even worse, you’re still hours from Montreal.
After years of making this drive, I was skeptical when a friend started raving about a trip she took to an area of southern Quebec called the Eastern Townships. All I could envision were more cornfields, more feed stores, lots of silos, and a random strip club. But when Canada opened to fully vaccinated Americans on Aug. 9, after what felt like forever, I was sufficiently intrigued. I was also looking for any excuse to write a story about Canada (please don’t mention that part to my editor). So I headed north.
As someone who generally sees the champagne glass as half empty — because I’m cynical and also because I’ve been drinking the champagne — I was pleasantly shocked at what the Eastern Townships had to offer. It’s the area in southeastern Quebec between the St. Lawrence lowlands and the US-Canadian border and is centered on the city of Sherbrooke. If you want to see everything, plan on driving (or biking) a fair amount. You can take this as a quickie detour trip on your way to Montreal or Quebec City, or stay a few days. I opted for three days to get a taste, and for me that taste was primarily locally made cheese.
Day one: I arrived mid-afternoon on a Monday and decided I should unwind from the arduous trip with a few stops along the region’s wine trail. You may roll your eyes at the idea of a wine trail in a geographically small area of Quebec, but there are 21 wineries here. Even on a Monday afternoon, outdoor tables were bustling with thirsty groups of Francophone tourists. I didn’t hear a lot of English being spoken, and that’s been a challenge for wine makers here.
The border closing meant that wineries lost their large base of boozy US tourists. Locals have helped fill some of that void, but the employees I chatted with at wineries said it’s not the same. Naturally I wanted to do my part to help the wineries. Knowing I couldn’t hit all 21 wineries in an afternoon, I opted for two of the big ones. Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoise in Dunham has an excellent selection of white wines and rosé, plus some spectacular ice wine, but the bonus here is that there’s a quirky sculpture park you can stroll through. Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoise was founded in 1980, making it the oldest winery on the route. Nearby, Vignoble de l’Orpailleur is a grander winery that looks as if it had been plucked out of Napa Valley and dropped in the Eastern Townships. It has a restaurant and guided vineyard tours.
The sleek store at Vignoble de l’Orpailleur sells something called “gray wine.” With a name like that I was thinking I’d pick up on notes of dishwater and despair that would perhaps pair well with sadness. But it’s a sweet, light white wine that goes great with dessert.
In addition to a wine trail (the wine trail here is called la Route des vins de Brome-Missisquoi), the Eastern Townships also has a microbrewery circuit with 23 craft brewers and brewpubs. For dinner that night I had a burger at a brewpub called Auberge Sutton Brouërie. Because I never developed a taste for the beer, I asked for “A beer that doesn’t taste like beer” to go with my dinner. After sampling a few varieties provided by a very patient and friendly bar manager, I gave up and ordered a local wine.
One of the things I neglected to mention about this area is that you get a lot for your money. I stayed at a sophisticated little hotel in Sutton for not much more than $100 a night. The hotel, le Pleasant Hôtel & Café, is also one of the best breakfast spots in town.
If my first day in the townships was all about indulgence, my second day was all about roughing it. There are four national parks in the area. I laced up my hiking boots early (about 10 a.m.) and went to Parc National du Mont-Orford. The national park offers trails for hiking, mountain biking, and snowshoeing. I spent a good part of the day on trails that suited my level of fitness, which is officially categorized as “nonexistent,” and then went to the park’s beach, where you can rent boats, or simply swim.
After the park I drove about 20 minutes south to the monastery at Saint-Benoît-du-Lac Abbey, an imposing building perched along Lake Memphremagog. The grand abbey was completed in 1941, and it’s still a working monastery. When I say working, I mean these monks really work. I quickly realized the true attraction here – in addition to the setting and building — is the boutique and market. The 30 or so monks make 12 varieties of cheese. There are also orchards where they pick ingredients for fruit spreads. The market sells a lot of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac Abbey-branded food and wine. It’s like the Trader Joe’s of monasteries. People adore their religious cheeses.
Along a small highway in Magog, about 10 minutes from the abbey, there’s a 100-year-old barn which has been converted into a perfumery. Truth be told I wasn’t expecting anything too posh. Perhaps some dried herbs hanging from the rafters and a few bottles of lavender-scented-something in frou-frou packaging. Instead, I found Alexandra Bachand, who describes herself as a perfumer and “artist in olfactory art.” Normally I would shrug my shoulders at the phrase “artist in olfactory art,” but Bachand’s work has actually been used in museum exhibitions. She generally works on about one or two scents per year, and the offerings at La Grange du Parfumeur are sublime fragrances that spring from her imagination.
When I arrived, I was seated in an outdoor garden and Bachand’s husband, filmmaker Eric Delbaere, brought over a small plank with neatly arranged fragrance strips. Like a wine tasting, he instructed me to sniff from left to right, occasionally stopping and smelling my own hand as a fragrance palate cleanser for my nose. Although my hand still smelled of lake water and religious cheese, I did as instructed. It was the first time I thought about scent beyond getting spritzed while walking through a department store.
The approach to dinner was also unique. In Sherbrooke, about 30 minutes north of the perfumery, I tried Antidote FoodLab. The dishes on the menu appeared to be straightforward enough, but the green gazpacho featured sweet peas, trout mousse, Lebanese cucumber, and confit garlic. The bison shoulder fillet was finished with a roasted pistachio crust. I’m not listing all the ingredients, because it would take another 1,000 words or so, but you get the idea. They take food very seriously in Quebec.
I started the day in nature, and I finished it in nature. Although this nature was more supernatural. At night, Gorge Park in Coaticook is transformed into something called Foresta Lumina. Much like the perfumery, I wasn’t expecting much before I arrived. A nature path with some fancy lights perhaps? But the 1½-mile trail was created by a company called Moment Factory, which has worked with artists such as Madonna, Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. There are 11 main displays along the hike that are filled with visual trickery. The hike is not difficult, but it’s not accessible for disabled folks, and it may be difficult for some because the path is uneven and not particularly well-lit in places. On the plus side, you get to speak into a microphone and make a wish to fairies before you head out. I hate to say it was magical and enchanted, but what the haystack, I’ll call it magical and enchanted. I’d never experienced anything like it.
I still had a long list of places left to visit on my final day, but I have priorities, and those priorities involved eating more cheese. Did I mention there’s a cheesemaker’s circuit? The monks don’t have a monopoly. Before I drove off to poke around some of the small towns, I headed to one of the most famous stops on the cheese circuit. Fromagerie la Station in Compton is a family farm situated on hundreds of acres with cows that supply milk for its cheeses. I was going to try its most celebrated cheese, called Alfred le Fermier, but I didn’t want to play favorites, so I ordered the sampler.
The charcuterie plate at Fromagerie la Station was not unlike the communities of the Eastern Townships (warning: Hokey cheese analogy ahead). Each had its own flavor or texture, but they all complemented each other beautifully. I finished the cheese, however I’ll need to finish visiting the Eastern Townships next summer.