By Bill Scheller
Lilacs framed the farmhouse porch, where a long table was set with a checked cloth and white china plates. It was lunch hour in haying season, a timeless and Arcadian scene.
If I’d been driving past in a car instead of pedaling my bicycle, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all.
I was on my second day of a four-day cycling trip through the western reaches of Québec’s Eastern Townships, a corner of the province that hugs the borders of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. The Townships are a realm of gently rolling hills, clean blue lakes, and tidy villages, crisscrossed by lightly traveled byways perfect for navigating by bike.
Crossing the Border
I’d crossed the border into Canada at Richford, Vermont, and followed Québec Route 139 – part of the province’s La Route Verte system of bike-friendly roads – for eight miles to the town of Sutton, known for its Mont Sutton ski resort but also a lively destination for shoppers and for food, art and music lovers throughout the year.
Cyclists wheeling along Sutton’s main street can easily overload their panniers with cheese and charcuterie from La Rumeur Affamée, perhaps the Townships’ finest gourmet shop, and can fuel their next few miles with exquisite handmade bonbons from Chocolaterie Belge Muriel, which maintains a small museum of chocolate on its premises.
As for the boutiques offering Québec-made housewares and textiles, I’ll wait till I drive up for the Sutton Jazz Festival in September, and have room in the car. Cycling does impose discipline on shopping.
I spent my first night at the snug Auberge des Appalaches, just outside town, where chef-owner John Kostiuk and his Alsatian-born wife, Patricia Gérard, set a fine table. I prefaced a rich and spicy pasta Bolognese with a plate of John’s house-cured gravlax, and finished with a silky crème brulée.
The Vines Above Lac Brome
Fortified with a fluffy cheese omelet – and heartened by the effortless downhill coast into Sutton – I pedaled north out of town and left the main road for a run through the countryside to the lofty plateau that lies west of Lac Brome, one of the Townships’ largest lakes, passing that front-porch lunch tableau along the way. My destination was the winery Domaine des Brome, where vintner Leon Courville told me about the lake’s gentle microclimatic influence on his 70,000 vines.
“Spring comes later because of the lake’s cooling effect,” explained Courville, a PhD economist who came to winemaking after experience as a connoisseur, collector and wine speculator, “but fall comes later, too, giving us a longer ripening season.”
After touring the winery’s sophisticated fermentation and ageing facilities – gleaming stainless except for the traditional oak barrels in which the Domaine’s finest wines are aged (“The best are made in France, using American oak,” Courville maintains), I headed for the tasting room to sample some dozen wines ranging from a pear-haunted Vidal, to the Domaine’s top-of-the-line Xp, a cuvée built around De Chaunac grapes that have been allowed to dry somewhat prior to fermentation, concentrating their notes of chocolate and figs.
It’s a big, chewy wine, one of the most distinctive in what has become a prime Canadian wine-growing region.
Loyalists and Lavender
Being no fan of spit buckets – swallowing wine, to me, is part of the tasting experience – I was glad that my hostess had poured with a light hand, and that all I had ahead of me this early afternoon was a mostly downhill ride into Knowlton, also called Lac Brome.
I lunched on the terrace of Auberge Knowlton, the inn where I had a room for the night. Like Sutton’s Auberge des Appalaches, the 12-room Auberge Knowlton makes a point of welcoming cyclists – but its earliest guests arrived by stagecoach. Founded in 1849, even before the railroad reached these parts, this is the oldest continuously operating inn in the Eastern Townships.
I spent an afternoon strolling Knowlton’s pair of main streets, finding cheery pubs with outdoor terraces, an inviting bookstore, a Jones New York outlet (fortunately, I found a gift for my wife light enough to stuff into one of my panniers), and a fine repository of local history with an unexpected window on a wider and more dangerous world.
The six buildings of the Brome County Historical Society house artifacts dating back to the days when the region was first settled by Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, but the museum also boasts a collection of World War I memorabilia, including an exceptionally rare intact Fokker DVII biplane, part of Canada’s German reparations.
Before pedaling off in the morning, I walked a quarter mile out to Chris and Alison Marks’ Joie de Lavande, a small lavender plantation where neat rows of the fragrant crop were just coming into bloom. Chris explained how he and his wife had traveled to Provence and to Washington State, the world centers of lavender production, before setting up their farm and its charming adjacent boutique selling dried lavender, live plants, culinary lavender, and products ranging from soaps to sachets. The bees on the property have been busy, and there’s lavender honey for sale.
Magog and the Big Lake
I’d plotted an ambitious third day’s cycling, and fortunately made a wrong turn early on and wandered off my charted plan. As I pedaled east towards a linkup with Route 245 northbound for Eastman and Magog, I looked to my left into the steep, dark hills where I had blithely hi-lited Chemin de Montagne on my map.
Maps are nice and flat; roads with “mountain” in their name usually aren’t, and my little miscue had put me on reasonably level ground. By lunchtime I was just six miles short of Magog, my day’s destination, and I celebrated at a roadside joint with a big plate of Quebec’s unofficial national dish, poutine. French fries topped with gravy and cheese curds are entirely permissible when you’ve bicycled a good twenty miles.
Magog, one of the region’s largest towns, stands at the northern tip of Lake Memphremagog, a narrow, 33-mile arc of water that reaches only three miles into the U.S. Magog’s lakeshore is everything a small city’s waterfront ought to be. It runs for several miles with no industrial or heavily commercial interruptions – just bike and pedestrian paths, a small hotel with a terrace restaurant, a marina, and lovely views south towards the ski slopes of Owl’s Head mountain, across the blue depths said to be the domain of the requisite lake monster, “Memphre.”
On the last morning of my trip, after a breakfast of warm croissants on the balcony of my suite at the Auberge du Mont Orford, I pedaled the lakeside path into Magog and mingled with the morning patrons at a bistro whimsically named Caffuccino, where I was served a bowl of café au lait big enough for Memphre to hide in – just the thing to launch me on the longest ride of the trip.
My route south from Magog, high above the western shores of Lake Memphremagog, included a mile-and-a-half side trip to the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Benoit-du-Lac, where I had hoped to arrive for the canonical hour of sext, at noon, and perhaps hear Gregorian chant. But, arriving at eleven, I was in time for a complete mass sung in that ancient and ethereal mode.
The abbey had an earthier draw, as well. At dinner the night before – at Magog’s Auberge aux 4 Saisons d’Orford – I had enjoyed an endive salad topped with walnuts, slivered apples, and a wonderful blue cheese. “It’s made by the monks, down the road at the abbey,” the maitre’d told me.
So, before leaving Saint-Benoit, I headed for the abbey store. The last bit of space in my panniers was stuffed with cheese, blue and cheddar, as I pedaled the final twenty miles to the border crossing just north of Newport, Vermont. Four days, 110 miles – with chant and cheese for the perfect finish.
If you go:
Tourism Eastern Townships