I love paper maps. It’s not that I don’t find the electronic wizardry of a GPS handy (Make a U-turn when possible! Recalculating!), but some trips just seem to go smoother when I can uncap my yellow highlighter and trace the small country byways and roads. The Eastern Townships of Quebec is tailor made for my paper map fixation, and in the reality of current day pandemic travel, it’s also the perfect getaway for a Canadian RV road trip.
“We are the perfect rolling, self-isolation unit,” I explain to my non-RVing friends. “It’s all on board.”
The Eastern Townships is a pocket of pastoral bliss lying in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, tucked to the southeast of Montreal, and bordered by Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine to the south. The tourism people like to describe it as a region of “New England charm with a Quebec flair.”
It was the people of the Abenaki First Nations who originally settled in the region that now makes up the townships. A lasting mark of the Abenaki is reflected in place names like Magog, Memphremagog, Missisquoi and Coaticook. They were victims of the conflict between the English and the French and eventually left their ancestral territory. In the late 1700s following the American Revolution, thousands of United Empire Loyalists fled north across the border, preferring to settle in a country still governed by Britain. They were followed by Irish, Scottish, English and French Canadian settlers, creating a true multicultural mix reflected in the architecture of the buildings, the joie de vivre, and many town and business names. Look for the round barns, built to keep the devil from hiding in the corners, clapboard homes with beautiful wraparound front porches or buildings reflecting colonial American architecture.
Today the Eastern Townships are overwhelmingly French in culture and language, with an openhearted hospitality. My French is rusty, but we were welcomed with smiles and had no problems getting directions and interacting with locals.
Coming from Eastern Ontario, we skipped around Montreal’s highway congestion by using the wonderful Autoroute 30 bypass that was completed in 2012. It’s an easily navigated roadway that is wide, flat and RV friendly (there is a small bridge toll at the west end of the route). We opted to head into the Eastern Townships from Highway 112 in the north and started our visit with a Harvest Hosts overnight in the bucolic Rougemont region which borders the Townships, famous for its rolling farmland, apple orchards and small batch cider houses.
Cidrerie Michel Jodoin is a fourth generation cider maker – the family operation began in 1901 with just 100 apple trees. Over more than a century it has grown to thousands of apple trees, including the unique pink-fleshed Geneva variety, which combined with traditional McIntosh (the national apple of Canada) makes the tastiest cider we’ve ever enjoyed. In 1999 Cidrerie Michel Jodoin became Canada’s first cider micro distillery and they still use traditional methods. At our overnight boondocking site, we overlooked a postcard-perfect view of tidy rows of apple trees against a backdrop of mountainous outcrops. In the morning, at breakfast, we were serenaded by birds.
Continuing east on Highway 112 took us to the small town of Granby – our “official” entry point to the Eastern Townships where we joined the Townships Trail (Chemin des Cantons), one of several signposted driving routes (the others are the Wine Route and The Summit Drive). The Townships Trail charts the first waves of American, Loyalist, Irish and Scottish settlers and includes wooden covered bridges and pretty heritage hamlets like Magog, Sutton and Lac-Brome (Knowlton). It’s a route custom made for meandering and there are dozens of places worth a stop.
The rolling landscape will feel familiar to readers of the popular Three Pines mystery novels by Eastern Townships’ author Louise Penny. Although Three Pines is a fictional village, Penny draws her descriptions from many existing settings and landmarks in this part of the province. For example, Les Relais Restaurant-Bistro in the author’s hometown of Lac-Brome is the inspiration for the pivotal Three Pines Bistro. In Lac-Brome, like in many of the small villages across the region, you can easily find a comfy chair in a bistro and join the locals for a café au lait and flaky croissant. The tourism offices have information on the Three Pines Inspirations Map and Tours.
We used the village of Sutton as our home base while boondocking at a friend’s country home. RVers will find a full menu of campgrounds across the Eastern Townships, from rustic to all the bells and whistles – a full list is available on the tourism website.
The village of Sutton has two microbreweries (of the 21 across the Eastern Townships) and is also along the Wine Route. There are 22 vineyards dotting the sheltered valleys and all are now open for tastings. The region is known for white wines, sparkling wines and ice wines, due to the microclimate and the soil. A special stop is at organic Le Clos Saragnat near Frelighsburg, where the vintner was inspired by the popularity of ice wine and developed the world’s first ice cider.
Great beverages call out to be paired with great foods and this part of Quebec is known for dishes like squeaky cheese curds, poutine with upscale toppings, locally farmed duck and artisanal cheeses. We added to the fridge in our RV with the signature blue cheese from the Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac (another of the local stops featuring in the Three Pines novels). Sitting on the banks of magnificent Lake Memphremagog, it’s the largest of 14 artisanal cheesemakers in the area – all are marked on “Les Têtes Fromagères” map available at any of the local tourism offices. Many of the cheesemakers along the route were trained in France and are skilled at the harder style cheeses made with cow, sheep and goat milk.
The cheese dairy at picturesque Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac was established by Benedictine monks in 1943 and is famous for its award-winning blue cheese. The abbey’s cheesemakers craft a dozen types of cheese using only milk from local farms, including several types of blue, firm Swiss-type cheeses and creamy Fontina.
Calories in demands calories out. The Eastern Townships is a great location for people who appreciate good food but also like to be active in the outdoors. There are bike rental shops in Sutton and a marked biking trail through the countryside outside the village, although the terrain is hilly so it’s best for bicyclists in good shape. This year, the region has launched a new bicycle guide and map, with attractions, vineyards and microbreweries marked along the route (available at the visitor centre on Sutton’s main street).
Not far outside of the village we stopped at Au Diable Vert, a four-season campground and outdoor activity centre. Sadly, they have no sites for RVs (only small cabins and rustic tent sites) but they do have RV-friendly parking for day visitors and a whole menu of unique outdoor activities. Top of that list is the VéloVolant, a network of recumbent bikes hooked on a one-kilometre long circuit of high performance cables suspended through a canopy of maple trees. The rider controls the speed of the bike by the intensity of pedal strokes.
Visitors to Au Diable Vert can also rent stand-up paddleboards, inner tubes and kayaks for playing in the calm water of the nearby Missisquoi River. For a modest fee guests can explore the campground’s 14-km network of groomed trails. With spectacular views over the Green Mountains of Vermont, it’s a great choice for RVers who are travelling in the fall and want to combine an Eastern Townships road trip with a little exercise and a splash of autumn colour.
A half-hour north of Sutton is the village of Bromont, an active sports hub with mountain biking, well-marked cycling routes, a summertime water park and four-level aerial parkway of climbing walls, zip lines and rope games with routes for both children and adults. The nearby Granby/Bromont KOA campground has pull-through and back-in sites with full hookups, but due to the pandemic units must be self-sufficient (public showers and bathrooms are closed).
At a time that is challenging for travel, RVers find themselves in a unique position. Exploring close to home may be just the way to scratch that travel itch. With our “rolling self-isolation units” and always following best practices, unfolding the map and exploring the sideroads and pretty villages of the Eastern Townships may be the perfect form of pandemic-era travel.
At the time of publication, the province of Quebec is open to inter-provincial travel. The Quebec government website has the most up-to-date information on openings and closures.
For general information, suggested routes and ideas visit the Eastern Townships website.