A Long Weekend (or a Short Week) in the Eastern Townships
Journalist and photographer Léa Beauchesne winds her way through the eastern countryside, marvelling at starry skies and the best hidden gems in this remarkable place.
Text et photos—Léa Beauchesne
In partnership with
– Day 1 –
Rain is in the air as my friend Gabrielle and I leave Québec City on a long-weekend road trip to discover the Eastern Townships. No big deal; we slipped raincoats and good books into our bags before we left. We haven’t even had time to put on music when we arrive in the Des Sources Region in the heart of Québec.
There are plenty of mountains to climb and valleys to explore in the Eastern Townships. This incredible playground boasts a dozen municipal and regional parks, a hundred hiking trails, seven specialized mountain biking areas, four provincial parks, and many bodies of water.
Before long we come across the first regional park of our journey: Mont-Ham. I’m partial to stopping here when driving from the east: the mountain dominates the landscape with its 713 m summit. The pouring rain forces us to postpone our climb for now, but it’s only a matter of time. I really want to come back to admire the 360-degree view and camp at the summit. The park offers this unique experience all summer. With its status as a biological refuge, you have to reserve early in the season as spots are limited. Several places in the park educate visitors on local First Nations culture. In the reception building, the Abénakis interpretive space showcases the traditions of this nation, who have inhabited the region since thousands of years before Europeans first set foot on its soil.
When we arrive in Lac-Mégantic, we feel like eating breakfast for lunch. We spot a lineup in front of Bistro la Brûlerie and decide that’s a good sign. A glance at the menu reassures us: there’s no doubt we’re dealing with brunch specialists. Coffee feels great after the drive and the rain, and the copiously filled plates do us good. On nice days, a lovely patio welcomes foodies. Around the restaurant, new buildings are a reminder of a not-so-distant tragedy. We take time to discover the history of this small municipality by visiting an outdoor photo exhibit located next to the railroad tracks. Right next door, the heritage train station serves as a gathering place for the public market.
We spend the rest of the afternoon visiting the ASTROLab in Parc national du Mont-Mégantic. This working astronomy laboratory allows us to reconnect with our younger selves’ imaginations with an added dash of realism. We take a dizzying plunge into cosmic evolution with the film Emergence. The images flash by: life, its origins, dust, the universe. For a few minutes, we forget about the screen in front of us, and we’re in space. On top of the mountain is the famous Mont-Mégantic Observatory, the largest in eastern North America. Currently it’s closed, so we say “see you next year!”
Between two rain showers, we take advantage of a sunny spell to set up the tent in the Franceville sector of the Parc national du Mont-Mégantic. After inflating a mattress on the ground, we don’t feel ready to bid adieu to our first day of the trip together. So we settle in with a glass of wine under the welcome building’s pergola. The air is wet and smells like ozone.
We imagine which of the surrounding mountains we’ll discover tomorrow. I win our game of Monopoly Deal, and it’s time to take refuge in our shelter. Each with a novel and a headlamp, we climb into our sleeping bags for the night.
– Day 2 –
“I’ve never been to the top of a mountain before 10:30 a.m.” Gabrielle is the type to impress a group of guys with her climbing talent, less the type to rise at dawn to go hiking. Once we’ve had our coffee, our climb begins peacefully while we follow the curves of one of the mountain’s streams. We ascend to the lookout on the Porte-du-Ciel trail in the Franceville sector, one of the park’s must-sees, located just a few kilometres from Mont Mégantic. Snakes, butterflies, and a small hare listen to our conversations as we work out how to change the world, one step at a time. Surrounded by deciduous trees and huge ferns, we realize how beautiful this place must be in the fall.
Walking on the huge slab of rock that forms the lookout, we discover a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains. The wind sweeps our faces, the horizon gently rippling with our hair.
With outstretched feet, we calmly make our way to Piopolis, a small village along the shores of Lac Mégantic. The secret of its charm is no longer well kept: its 350 residents were assailed by tourists last summer. It is, however, totally calm and peaceful during our visit. We savour this as we settle into the Auberge Au Soleil Levant, so we can check out the lake while we eat our comforting meal. There are several trails, charming buildings, and pretty streets in Piopolis, where you can lose yourself while admiring the lake from different angles. Our preferred vantage point is from the water. Solstice Plein Air offers boat rentals directly at the marina and even guide services nearby.
In the hills around Piopolis, we follow winding paths to cutlery maker Étienne Verreault’s workshop. He has set up his antique forge in a hidden barn in the middle of a field. Summer and winter, this is where he works metal corkscrews to transform them into unique knives. The craftsman shares his passion during visits, or even over several days, allowing you to make a precious knife yourself.
We’re now heading west to reach the regions of Memphremagog and Brome-Missisquoi. This is where we find the well-known Bromont, Orford, and Magog communities. We exit the highway. Houses with architecture inspired by different styles ― Victorian, Anglo-Saxon, neoclassical ― match an equally diverse and luxurious terrain. The beauty of the landscape makes me long to get on my road or gravel bike, a particularly popular activity in the region, for good reason. Tourism Eastern Townships suggests several routes for travelling on two wheels.
Our itinerary takes us directly to Sutton, but I definitely recommend taking some time to visit Magog and the surrounding area (read on till the end for a few good suggestions). As soon as we arrive in the village, we fall under the spell of its main street. Young entrepreneurs have given new depth to the already well-established mountain experience of Mont Sutton. We stop in at the À l’Abordage microbrewery, a great example of this new generation of businesses promoting sustainable and local tourism.
The best place to pitch a tent in the area is Au Diable Vert. The owners, Julie and Jeremy, also focus on sustainability at their magnificent facilities. The campsites blend into the environment, and each one has a little something extra. Special mention goes to Tumulus, which offers a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. Au Diable Vert is much more than a campground. A true outdoor “all inclusive,” you can spend several days immersing yourself in nature, from hiking and kayaking to sitting around the campfire, in both summer and winter. Complete your trip with the VéloVolant experience. Unique in Canada, this activity lets you soar to the top of centuries-old maples and observe nature without disturbing it.
– Day 3 –
The sun wakes us up by gently warming the tent. It’s a perfect day to play in the water. We enjoy a hearty breakfast at Le Cafetier before we get moving. A few kilometres from the campsite, we come to the Missisquoi River, at au Diable Vert rental location. Upstream is the American border; downstream are kilometres of calm waters to paddle in peacefully. Alone on the waterway, we listen to the trees rustling and the birds chirping. The sun lulls us to sleep and gently bronzes us. This brief aquatic journey is drawing to a close.
Before long we’re back on the road, with its lovely houses, its streets that make you feel like singing. The weather is idyllic. A few minutes from our destination, we stop at Beat & Betterave in Frelighsburg. Their raspberry-rhubarb lemonade is the perfect solution to the heat wave sticking to our skin. In season, the menu is almost entirely composed of the riches of the garden that we admire while sipping our drinks. To stop time, we make our way to Oneka’s workshop, right next door. The air is filled with a bouquet of scents from all-natural personal care products made on site. Once a year, the family opens the doors of their farm for a visitor-friendly “rural weekend.” The organic flowers and herbs that they use are all grown on this land and cultivated with great respect for the ecosystem.
For our final stop, we pay a visit to Louise and Christian at Clos Saragnat. These two provide a perfect example of the power of nature with their ciders and spirits that come from their back-to-basics guiding principle of culture fondamentale. The creator of ice cider, Christian was also one of the first to make orange wine in Québec, without any thought to trends. At first, the abandoned land didn’t look like much. It took about 15 years to prove Christian’s stubbornness right: let “nature sort itself out.” His vines and apple trees spread out in a happy labyrinth where all insects are invited to do their part in creating a natural equilibrium. There are no external inputs, except manure from his free-range hens. The love of these two creative spirits and the balance of the ecosystem give rise to exceptional products with delicate flavours. If you can’t visit this place, which is unique in Québec, take a few minutes to read this portrait of Christian.
– Extend your stay –
The Eastern Townships are full of gourmet hot spots and essential stops for playing outside. In the Magog area, we take our time at Café Les Estries; we stock up on provisions in Eastman (of note: Chez Dora bakery and delicatessen, the Savonnerie des Diligences, and LA Station café). We visit the fields at Bleu Lavande and enjoy the sunset from a paddleboard along the bucolic Marais de la Rivière aux Cerises. On the way to Bromont, you can take a quick detour via Mont Orford to go hiking or mountain biking. In Bromont, we take advantage of the ski lift to bike downhill. We treat ourselves to a nice evening at Chardo with its superb selection of wines and fresh and wild local cuisine. And there are endless detours in the surrounding area. You can choose to stop in Waterloo to enjoy the patio and local market at Robin bière naturelle, or head to La Knowlton Co. for a winning pairing of beer and pizza. I hope you have more than three days, because the list could go on and on! Visit the Eastern Townships’ website for suggestions that match your interests. You’ll make plenty of great discoveries!
Léa Beauchesne prefers escapes and open spaces over walls and asphalt. A journalist and designer, she likes to play with words and images to create timeless moments where humans and nature meet. She doesn’t like to worry, except about the environment. You’ll find her as often as possible in the mountains, at the end of a climbing rope, on her bike or skis, surrounded by too many dogs, and preferably with one other human.
The mission of Tourism Eastern Townships is to make the Eastern Townships region one of the best tourist destinations in Québec, in all seasons. The organization works to promote and develop the many natural and heritage assets of the region by working on a cohesive approach between the actors of the tourism industry, but also of other sectors. This is done in order to reinforce the identity and values of the region and to offer citizens and visitors a unique experience marked by a lifestyle that cannot be found anywhere else.