Free Wheeling: Eastern Townships, Quebec


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Eastern Townships, Quebec

One of the many reasons I love living in New England is that it’s such a short drive to France. And I’m talking about the new, improved France. When I cross Maine’s border into the Eastern Townships region of Quebec, I find not Gitane-smoking attitude but happy people, bike trails galore and, best of all, fabulous food. This is why biking there makes such perfect sense: Ride by day, gorge by night, and your clothes still fit when you get home.

The Eastern Townships were first settled by Royalists in the 1700s, put there in large part by the British to separate American revolutionaries from the equally oppressed Quebecois. As a result, most towns have English names and more Anglophones than other regions of Quebec. But they all exhibit that great Quebecois respect for eating. A few miles over the border, you can buy buttery croissants, handmade truffles or a four-course gourmet dinner for about the same price as the Friolator swill that’s called food back in my hometown. You ride past vineyards and farms that make internationally acclaimed chevre or serve vast, five-course table de champêtre (country table) meals made almost exclusively from their own products. At the Abbey Saint-Benoit-du-Lac, near Austin, the monks express their devotion to God by singing Gregorian chants at Mass and by crafting exquisite blue cheese, fontina and hard cider in the kitchen.

The Quebecois also love outdoor recreation, so bike paths abound. It’s a common sight to see elderly gentlemen cycling home, baguettes and leeks protruding from their shopping bags. The government has converted old railroad beds into bike paths and designated bike lanes in many towns, so that it’s possible to traverse the entire province without using roads. You can get on the marked and mapped bike loops, or simply take off on your own down remote country lanes.

Even though the Eastern Townships contains several ski resorts, much of the terrain is delightfully flat. Those in search of mountains to ride can stay at the Auberge Knowlton, enjoy the famous local duck, then check out the 50-mile “wine route” loop that takes in the ski areas at Mount Sutton and Mount Glen, with mountain-bike trails, as well as the tiny town of Mystic, which is less than 20 miles from I-89 but looks like a living history museum. The ride past stone farmhouses, a 12-gabled barn and split-rail fences leads to a small auberge called L’Oeuf. Once the town’s general store, it is now a Norman Rockwell beauty whose antiques-loving owners are not only fine chefs but also chocolatiers. Two can stay here for less than $60, buy handmade truffles and strawberry jam in the old-fashioned store, feast in a low-beamed dining room with wood floors and walls, and take lunch on the terrace surrounded by the gardens that supply much of your meal.Two mapped bike loops leave from North Hatley, on the northern tip of Lake Massawippi. This little beauty is like a French Nantucket, with its waterfront gazebo, cafes and galleries. Wealthy Americans used to summer here at in the Victorian era, which explains the rambling lakeside villas, many of them now converted to B&Bs. But the area is decidedly Francophone, as evidenced by its excellent restaurants. While two manors in town serve five-star meals, the more informal and incredibly reasonable Café Massawippi produces some of the finest, most creative food on the continent: a puff pastry tart of caramelized apples, onions and goat cheese, for instance, followed by cod in a shrimp-and-fennel cream sauce, then lemon-grass crème brulé for dessert.

Down every road we pedaled in the Eastern Townships, we found so many gustatory delights that I begged everyone I met to move to my town in Maine and open a restaurant. They politely refused. Oh well. I’ll just have to go back to keep pleading my case. ¿Nathaniel Reade

Making Tracks
For more information, contact Tourisme Cantons de l’Est at 800-355-5755 or www.tourisme-cantons.qc.ca. It can connect you to Marcelle Chenier, an excellent guide who can customize a group trip, or fit you into an already-scheduled tour. The tourist office can also supply you with maps and brochures with which to set off on your own. These inns can direct you to great riding in their areas, and great eating as well: Auberge Knowlton, Knowlton; 450-242-6886. Auberge l’Oeuf, Mystic; 450-248-7529. Auberge La Raveaudière, North Hatley; 819-842-2554. Since this is a bike-loving region, you’ll find bike shops in most of the larger towns, including Granby and Magog. Bon appetit!