MAGOG, Quebec — The verdant, picturesque region known as the Eastern Townships could pass for any corner of New England — except it’s in Canada, eh?
Scoff if you will, but I find our Canadian neighbors, especially those in French-speaking Quebec, a bit exotic. Although the landscape might appear to be classic Americana, exploring across the border to me is always a little thrill, or un petit frisson, if you will.
The Eastern Townships, or Cantons-de-l’Est, cover a large slice of southern Quebec bordering Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. I followed the local tourism organization’s Townships Trail map and guide through some of the most scenic towns of southern Quebec, with stops at visitor centers, museums, parks, wineries and other destinations of interest.
I began my visit in Danville, a tiny village south of Quebec City with a little public market called Mante du Carre, or Mantis of the Square, where I conversed in Fren-glish with the friendly lady behind the counter. Fortunately, she knew English much better than I knew French, and we were able to communicate well enough for me to obtain a latte and a delightfully artistic and tasty pastry for my breakfast.
Also in Danville is the L’Etang Burbank (Burbank Pond) wildlife area, a popular bird-watching destination and, coincidentally, a peaceful place to consume a latte and pastry.
I followed the Townships Trail route through miles of countryside, punctuated with small towns such as Wotton and Asbestos, an old mining city that’s prettier than its name.
I found myself on lonely, unpaved rural roads in the middle of a driving rainstorm, passing many farms, fields and soggy cows before the trail brought me back to the highway east of Sherbrooke, the biggest city in the region.
Sherbrooke has many attractions, but I decided to plow on through the rain toward my inn in Magog, pausing only long enough for a quick look at a scenic, rocky stretch of the Magog River that runs through the town’s urban heart.
I also sped through the lovely little village of North Hatley at the relatively brisk speed limit of 35 mph. Or was that kilometers-per-hour? One should probably be certain when driving here. The brief, rainy glimpse, though, was so gorgeous that I made a point of returning the next day when the sun was out.
And the return was certainly worth the effort. Fluffy clouds in the deep-blue sky resembled sheep jumping the rolling-green hills around Lake Massawippi, the first of a string of beautiful azure lakes I encountered in the region.
At North Hadley, pretty commercial buildings huddle around the inlet where the Massawippi River empties into the lake, forming a picture-postcard scene.
My lodging was in the popular tourist town of Magog at the northernmost point of Lake Memphremagog, a 30-mile-long glacial remnant that extends all the way into Vermont.
Visitors will find plenty of fine restaurants and several interesting taverns, including Le Saloon Magog, decorated in a Texas-with-a-French-accent style. The beer was certainly Texas-sized.
Everyone seemed to be enjoying Budweiser or Black Label longnecks the size of wine bottles. Tres bien!
The lush Parc de la Pointe-Merry is a Magog city park with beaches, multipurpose trails, tour boats, and, bobbing out in the gentle waves, dozens of sailboats and other pleasure craft augmenting the gorgeous scenery like bits of color on a pointillist painting.
Although some of the boat tours tout legendary lake monster Memphre, the surest way to see him is in the park, where a large topiary version not-so-fiercely shoots water out his snout.
Visitors will find plenty of hotels and inns in and near Magog. I can recommend La Belle Victorienne, a charming 10-room bed-and-breakfast inn at a remarkably affordable price.
I found myself wishing for more time to explore other lovely little towns such as Ayer’s Cliff on the south shore of Lake Massawippi and Lac-Brome, located, logically enough, on Lake Brome.
I could have devoted more time, too, to the 19 craft breweries and 20-some wineries in the region, such as Leon Courville winery, where visitors are greeted by a spectacular, panoramic view of Lac-Brome and the lush green hills beyond.
The highpoint of my trip, though, was the Saint-Benoit-du-Lac Abbey, a huge stone Benedictine monastery that stretches up toward heaven on Lake Memphremagog south of Magog. Visitors can join the monks during Mass or at prayers, take a guided tour or even lodge for overnight “renewal stays.”
The abbey also has a boutique, offering award-winning cheeses, jams and other spreads and maple syrup produced by the monks. I bought a small wedge of “Bleu Benedictin,” a creamy, Roquefort-style cheese; and “Mont Saint-Benoit,” a Swiss-type with a buttery, nutty flavor. I passed up the monastery-made cider in favor of a bottle of semi-dry red wine I’d bought at the friendly family winery Au Vignoble d’Orford near Magog.
I settled down for lunch at the abbey’s achingly beautiful picnic area with a view of the abbey and of Lake Memphremagog and the hills behind it.
In such a lovely setting, a visitor could find himself fantasizing, if only very briefly, about the monastic life. Or, more realistically, vowing to learn at least the first verse of “O, Canada!” to sing at hockey games.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.