Nestled in the Appalachian foothills of southern Quebec, the Eastern Townships
are comprised of picturesque New-England influenced towns and villages. This rich
architectural heritage and mountainous countryside give Les Cantons d'Est
(Eastern Townships) a unique character all its own.
Like much of Quebec, the area was originally explored and inhabited by the
aboriginal nations. Names like Massawippi and Magog are testament to its Abenaki
First Nation history. When the United States declared their independence, many American
colonists still loyal to the British monarchy settled in the Eastern Townships.
For decades, these original settlers, known as Loyalists, were followed by other
immigrants from the British Isles and French colonists. Though mostly populated by
English speaking residents at the beginning of the 1900s, today over 90% of the
population is French speaking.
Tiny Village of Mystic
Leaving Montreal via Champlain Bridge, we started our adventure by taking Highway
10 towards Magog. Though this is the most direct route to Lake Memphrémagog, we
planned to explore more of the backroads. Our first stop was the tiny village of
Mystic. Though promoted as still mainly anglophone, we found that French was
the first language of choice. Growing up just outside Montreal, it was always known
that the people of the Eastern Townships were mostly English speaking. Except for a
couple of exceptions, we found this was not the case now. Though French is the first
language of choice, we found most people do speak English.
Mystic is a very small village off the main route. Blink and you may drive right
by. Quaint New England style houses create a charming atmosphere, but the main
attraction here is the old general store. Built around 1860, this pink heritage
house is now a chocolatier known as L'Oeuf. Attached to the chocolatier is a
restaurant serving gourmet cuisine, and an inn by the same name. In addition to
chocolate, the boutique serves up home-made ice cream and jams. The only other real
attraction in Mystic is a dodecagonal (12-sided) Walbridge Barn built around 1885.
Just down the street from L'Oeuf, the barn is visible from the street, but the
property is not open to the public.
Our next stop along the way was Bedford, renowned for its grey and green slate
extracted from the surrounding quarries. Other than for slate, there's not much
point in going to Bedford. The tour guides promote a rare example of a wooden
Howe-style (covered) bridge in Bedford, but it's really in Pike River about a
ten minute drive down Highway 133. Once in Pike River, you'll see signs to this
well preserved functional bridge.
Preserving the Loyalist Heritage
Stanbridge East with a population of 860 is a charming village known mainly for
its regional museum, the Musée Missisquoi. The museum is devoted to preserving
the regions Loyalist heritage. The landscape surrounding Cornell Mill (part of the
museum) takes one back to days gone by. The mill sits on a riverbank and is powered
by the water pouring off the nearby falls. This is a nice area for an afternoon
We flew past Dunham and stopped in Cowansville for lunch and gas. By comparison,
Cowansville is a large town in the Eastern Townships. With a population of 12,000,
we found it didn't have the small town, heritage charm we were seeking. After a
short stop, we were on our way.
Much of the area we covered up to now is referred to as The Orchards, or less
commonly known as the Wine Route. We didn't see many vineyards... though to be honest
we weren't really looking. Most visitors to the Eastern Townships head for The
Lakes. The three main lakes include Lac Brome, Lac Memphrémagog and Lac Massawippi.
We spent the next three days visiting most of the towns and villages surrounding
these gorgeous lakes.
New England Charm
The well-to-do little village of Knowlton is often compared to New England with
architecture characterized by red brick, white trim and green shutters. Civic
buildings are the highlight in Knowlton. The Old Courthouse, built in 1859, on Rue
St. Paul is a fine example. There are lots of quaint shops, fine restaurants and
galleries to keep one busy for hours. If dining is on the agenda, you will find
duck as the featured meat on the menus of local inns and restaurants. Knowlton is
well known as the centre for duck production in the Eastern Townships.
Lac Brome, near Knowlton, is a popular windsurfing destination. There is supposed
to be a small beach just off the side of the road, but we weren't able to find it.
Must be a well kept secret.
We breezed through Sutton (known for it's ski resort and golf courses), Abercorn
(looking for a private garden featured in a one of my wife's gardening magazines),
Glen Sutton (can't remember anything here), Mansonville (nice river view), and Vale
Perkins (step back in time with a visit to the general store). At times along this
route you will only be a few kilometres from the USA Vermont border. Continuing
along you will travel uphill. From the summit of the hill overlooking Knowlton
Landing, there is a beautiful view of Lac Memphrémagog. If there isn't too much
traffic on the road, you may be able to stop along the roadside to take pictures.
Be careful, there are a lot of trucks (I mean a LOT of trucks) speeding along the
backroads in the townships. Make sure you can be seen safely over the hill if you
Benedictine Monks Discovered
Saint-Benoit-du-Lac is a municipality that consists solely of the estate of the
Saint-Benoit-du-Lac, an abbey founded in 1913 by Benedictine monks. There
is a shop in the basement of the main building which feature a selection of 10
cheeses, hard cider, vinegar and sauce produced by the monks. When we arrived, the
shop was still open. To the dismay of my wife, it closed while we were in the
washrooms next door.
For those wishing a little time alone to meditate, separate guest quarters for
both men and women are available. Visitors will not want to miss the Gregorian
chants sung daily at 5:00 pm.
Pride of the Eastern Townships
The first evening we stayed at the Hotel du Grand Lac in Magog. The hotel
is nicely situated across from a park at the north end of Lac Memphrémagog and
just a short stroll away from the shops, galleries and restaurants along Rue
Principale. The hotel room was clean and comfortable, but the bathroom door wouldn't
close. Being the last room available, we made do. Before dinner at the Jack O
restaurant on Rue Principale, we caught a free trapeze act in the park. Next day,
we checked out more of the shops and galleries and ended up investing in a
watercolour by one of the area's local artists.
For those who what to explore Lac Memphrémagog, boat tours are available from mid-
May to beginning October. Cruise duration ranges from 1:45 hours to 7 hours which
includes a one hour stop in Vermont, USA. If you're lucky, you may even catch
a glimpse of Memphre, the lake monster.
First stop of the new day was the little village of Georgeville, which has been a
favourite vacation area for English-speaking families for many years. This is where
director Denys Arcand shot most of the 1986 film, Decline of the American Empire.
The village is so small that my wife asked a shop owner how to get to the main
part of Georgeville, the response was, "This is it!". There are only about 50 permanent
residents all year, with maybe 1,000 transient visitors over the summer. Though small,
the atmosphere is friendly and relaxing. Buildings of significant historical interest
include the Vielle École (Old School), St. George's Church built in 1866 and the old
Georgeville. Most of the socializing appears to take place at the
general store just entering the village.
Witch Bay Castle
The Narrows Covered Bridge in Fitch Bay was built in 1881 and spans 28 metres across
the bay. Access to the bridge is closed to the public and it hasn't been kept up in
recent years. Of greater interest to us was a new building going up in town called
Witch Bay Castle. Not sure if this is a private residence or a hotel as it wasn't
quite complete. Exotic cars lined the driveway. A huge wind vane of a witch riding a
broomstick crowned the roof's centre tower. Thinking back, I should have taken a
The villages of Rock Island, Stanstead Plain and Beebe Plain now make up the municipality
of Stanstead. In Rock Island, visitors should take the time to admire the
Tomifobia Falls, which are quite awesome during springtime. Walking or driving down the
streets of Rock Island, visitors may suddenly find themselves in the United States,
only realizing they crossed over the border because the street signs changed to English.
This happened to us. Coming to a crossroad, we drove through only to find ourselves
momentarily lost in the United States without ever going through customs. CANUSA Street,
in Beebe Plain, is another local oddity. The street is actually split in two by the border,
with one side in the US and the other in Canada -- hence the name C-A-N-U-S-A.
We stopped for lunch in Coaticook, which means River of the Land of Pines in the
Abenakis language. This is a small industrial town and the dairy capitol of Quebec. The
suspended bridge in the
Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook is worth visiting. There is a great
view of the bridge from the main road. If you have the time, there are organized tours
by the park. Tours last about one and a half hours.
The village of Compton is the birthplace of Louis-Stephen Saint-Laurent, Prime Minister
of Canada from 1948 to 1957. Above all, he is remembered for his role in establishing
NATO. His childhood home still remains and is now a
National Historic Site. Next to the house is the general store which
belonged to Louis-Stephen's father. One of Louis-Stephen's sisters lived in the house
until she died in the early 1970s. As such, most of the furnishings are original and
unchanged from the early to mid 1900s. We found the tour informative and well worth
the nominal price of admission. Being a National Historic Site, the tours are carried
out in both official languages.
Enchanting North Hatley
Our last stop was the enchanting countryside of North Hatley, a favoured vacationing
hotspot for wealthy Americans who built luxurious villas along the northern shore
of Lac Massawippi in the early 1900s. The first order of business was to find a place to
stay for the night. Bed-and-breakfast accommodations abound. Just our luck, a local
B&B; conference meant most hosts were out for the afternoon. After a couple of hours, we
managed to get through to the owner of Cornemuse Bed and Breakfast and arranged for a
room. Once owned by the mayor of North Hatley, the Cornemuse decor and general
atmosphere is heavily Scottish (we wondered if we were going to have haggis for breakfast -
we didn't). Our spacious and charming Scottish bedroom provided a restful evening
After a quick tour around town, we settled on the Pilsen Restaurant and Brew-Pub for dinner. The Pilsen was built
around 1900 as a horse-carriage manufacturing shop before evolving into a local
hardware store. In 1985, the now unused hardware building was converted into the
current restaurant. We ate in the country-style dining room on the upper floor overlooking
the North Hatley river. There's also a British-style pub and terrace available. The Pilsen
also features locally brewed beer, of which I highly recommend the Massawippi Red. The
menu ranges from quick, light snacks to an eclectic selection of fresh
fish, grilled meats, pastas and salads.
Touring Lac Massawippi
The following day started with a gourmet, three-course breakfast served promptly at
9:00 am in the Cornemuse dining room. We spent the morning roaming the surrounding
shops and galleries for souvenirs, before heading to the marina for a guided tour of
Lac Massawippi. The tour lasts just over one hour and travels from North Hatley to
Blueberry Point near the south end of the lake before returning. If you want to learn
about the residents and history of the area, this tour is a must. The Captain,
Ross, shares his insightful knowledge about almost every single home along the lake.
You'll learn which celebrities stayed at the Hovey Manor, which lakeside home belongs
to the Holt (of Holt Renfrew) family, to the selection of homes once owned by a
Arab sheik with ties to Al-Qaida.
Once back on land, we grabbed a quick lunch at a streetside café; reflected on the
adventures of the last three days, and then reluctantly headed home.