San Francisco Chronicle

The colors of Canada

On a fall-foliage walking tour, Quebec has all the hues of New England -- and none of the crowds

John Flinn - Chronicle Travel Editor

Sunday, September 7, 2003

"North Hatley, Quebec -- The French have an expression for just about everything, but as far as I can tell they have nothing that corresponds precisely with "leaf peeping."

This might explain why French Canadians seem little inclined to gas up the car, drive out into the country and gawk at the autumnal fireworks of the sugar maple.

"Why would we do that?" a Montreal schoolteacher asked me. "If we want to see big red leaves, we just look out our window. They're everywhere. And if we get tired of that, all we have to do is look at our flag."

The implications of this are just starting to sink in with foliage fanciers in America. At a time of year when "No Vacancy" signs dangle from every country inn from Brattleboro to Penobscot Bay, a region known as the Eastern Townships, just across the border in Quebec Province, is nearly deserted. (During midweek, that is. Its lakeside cabins are a popular weekend getaway for Montrealers, and the place fills up from Friday night to Sunday afternoon.)

Take Vermont or New Hampshire, swap French for English, substitute confit de canard for roast turkey and tarte tatin for apple pie, subtract 80 percent of the leaf-peepers, knock a third off the price -- and what you have is the Eastern Townships. Same kaleidoscope of flaming scarlets and luminous golds, same bracing fall air, same weathered red barns, same Kodak-perfect covered bridges. But instead of New England, you're in New France.

Cradled among plump, maple-covered hills 75 miles east of Montreal, the Eastern Townships are speckled with prettily steepled villages that look as if they've been picked up intact and moved north from Vermont. Which, in some cases, they were. At the end of the Revolutionary War, some 40,000 Loyalists of the British crown literally packed up their white-clapboard homes lock, stock and barrel, and drove their wagons just over the border, where land grants awaited.

Today, you can see their heritage all over the map. Not far from Saint Benoit-du-Lac is Georgeville, one of the region's best-preserved Loyalist villages, named in honor of George III. Throughout this determinedly Francophone province are surviving islands of English-speaking communities, and a few minutes' drive -- or a few hours' walk -- will often take you from one language to another and back.

We explored the region on a self-guided, inn-to-inn walking tour, a popular concept in Europe that's just starting to catch on this side of the Atlantic. It's perfect for those who chafe at the regimentation of group travel but lack the time and expertise to plan their own routes. We merely informed the outfitter, Randonnee Tours, of the day we wanted to start and showed up at the first inn, in the lakeside hamlet of North Hatley.

Each morning, after breakfast, our "Sherpa," Philippe, would arrive and collect our luggage. At the end of the day our luggage would be waiting for us at the next inn. Before lacing up our boots and setting off, we'd be supplied with reassuringly precise descriptions of the day's route, which averaged 10 miles in gently hilly country. The written directions were a godsend.

North Hatley, one of the prettiest villages in the Townships, owes its existence not to Loyalists but to the fallout from a later war. Wealthy Southerners who couldn't bring themselves to vacation in the North after the Civil War abandoned their old holiday haunts in New Hampshire's White Mountains and brought their butlers, caddies and upper-crust tastes to North Hatley. Some, according to one account, purposely kept the shades in their parlor cars drawn as they traversed New England, opening them only when they'd crossed the border into Canada.

It was billed as an inn-to-inn walking tour, but the hiking wasn't always that linear. On the first morning Philippe drove us from North Hatley to Lennoxville, and we ambled back to North Hatley via the Sentier de la Vallee Massawippi, a hiking and biking path that follows an old railroad bed along the Massawippi River. In Lennoxville, we passed a hockey stick factory housed in an old brick warehouse and cut across the ivied campus of Bishop University before striking out into the countryside.

With crimson leaves crunching underfoot, we strolled a path lined with blueberry bushes, waving to bicyclists who passed with a cheerful "bonjour!" Sometimes we'd skirt the edges of cornfields, with scarecrows, faded red barns and tall silos off in the distance.

Halfway, we halted along the riverbank to picnic on Gruyere and blue cheese made by local Benedictine monks -- later in the trip we'd visit their monastery -- plus crisp, sweet Macintosh apples we'd bought at a roadside stand and a still-warm baguette from the local boulangerie.

Sugar maples were everywhere, as were birches, aspens, beeches and cherry trees, each adding their signature splash of color. We were surrounded by the whole riotous pallet of hues, from copper, pewter and bronze to lemon yellow, electric orange and fiery scarlet. The distant hillsides were a crazy quilt of all these shades, changing constantly with the light.

On a scale of one to 10, I'd give the colors a solid seven, with moments of eight and even nine. But this points up a drawback of a fall-foliage walking tour: Dedicated leaf-peepers know that if they arrive a little early or late for the absolute crescendo of color, all they have to do is drive half an hour north or south to catch it. On foot, obviously, you don't have this option. It becomes more important than ever to choose your dates carefully -- and to get a little lucky.

One day's route took us into the heart of the sublime Parc du Mont-Orford, through deep, silent woods of maple and birch, past beaver dams and mossy ponds where you're almost guaranteed to see a dripping moose or two. (I say "almost" because, despite the ranger's assurances, we never saw one.)

The Tapioca Bed and Breakfast in North Hatley, where we spent two nights, was cozy and convivial.

A short walk away was Tonnerre de Brest, a Brittany-style restaurant with big, exposed beams, hanging vines, a crackling fire and a genial staff. Two things you'll find on almost every menu in the Eastern Townships are duck and maple syrup, and it takes a skilled hand -- to say the least -- to combine the two in a satisfying way. But the roasted duck breast with ginger and maple syrup sauce we dined on there was the culinary highlight our time in New France.

Feeling fit and famished after a long day's walk in the crisp air, we pulled out all the stops that night, ordering cocktails, three courses, a pretty good bottle of wine and coffee. The bill, with tax and tip, came to only $100. But these were Canadian dollars. Weeks later, when the credit card statement arrived, we were charged only $64 U.S. (The exchange rate has slipped slightly since then; that same meal would cost $71 U.S. today.)

Throughout Quebec Province, the prices in dollars for meals and hotels were roughly the same as what we'd pay back home -- sometimes, as in the case of Tonnerre de Brest, even less. But when you convert those weak Canadian dollar prices into U.S. dollars, it truly is a bargain.

One afternoon, after we'd finished the day's walk, Philippe drove us along a series of meandering country roads to the most famous landmark in the Eastern Townships, the Saint-Benoit-du-Lac Abbey, a gracious, 90-year-old Benedictine monastery surrounded by apple orchards and pastures.

Benedictine life in France had been forced underground during the French Revolution, and anti-clerical laws passed in 1901 drove most of the remaining monks into exile. Forty of them ended up here, on the shore of Lake Memphremagog.

Visitors are free to stroll the abbey's hushed hallways, among robed monks shuffling by in sandals. Afternoon mass is accompanied by Gregorian chants, and guests are invited to sit in the chapel and listen.

The monks spend most of their days tending herds of Charolais cows and nurturing the apple orchards surrounding their monastery. Downstairs, in a basement shop, the fruits of their labor are on sale: bottles of alcoholic apple cider in various potencies and all manner of monk-crafted cheeses. Among them: a blue cheese called Ermite; Mont Saint-Benoit, a mild Gruyere; a stronger Gruyere called Le Moine; and ricotta. Also on the shelves are CDs of Gregorian chants.

It was just one more reminder that we were doing our leaf-peeping not in New England, but New France.

IF YOU GO

-- WHEN TO GO

Forecasting the peak of fall colors in the Eastern Townships is an inexact science, just as in Vermont or Maine. The first week of October is probably as good a guess as any.

-- WALKING TOUR

The six-day, five-night self-guided walking tour was organized by Randonnee Tours, Vancouver, Canada; 1800 242 18 25 or 1 604 730 12 47 ; www.randonneetours.com. You can begin the tour any day between May 15 and Oct. 31. Cost for the "B&B" version is $1150 CDN ($920 U.S.)

Included are all breakfasts and one dinner, luggage transfers, detailed route descriptions, maps and emergency support.

-- GETTING THERE

The tour starts in North Hatley, 75 miles east of Montreal and an hour's drive north of the Vermont/Quebec border. The tour company can arrange transfers to and from Montreal.

-- WHERE TO EAT

All restaurants are close to accommodations used on the walking tour.

Restaurant a Moulin de North Hatley, 225 Mill, North Hatley; (819) 842-2380.

Belgian cuisine featuring steamed mussels and other dishes. Dinner for two with wine, about $90 CDN ($63 U.S.)

Cafe de la Fontaine, 35 rue Principale, North Hatley; (819) 842-4242. A friendly place with lighter fare. Dinner for two with wine, about $80 CDN ($57)

Restaurant Tonnerre de Brest, 2197 Chemin du Parc, Orford; (819) 847-1234; www.tonnerredebrest.net. The specialty is duck, and the food, service and ambience were the best we had in the Eastern Townships. Dinner for two with wine, $100 CDN. ($71 U.S.)

 



 
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