Get Out is a monthly column in Bangor Metro magazine featuring a different destination each time that’s easily accessible from Bangor. This month, we visit Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
I do love a good springtime road trip. And when you live in Maine, just about any compass point you choose to follow for a few hours is going to lead somewhere great.
In this case, let’s travel west to go east.
More to the point, a four-hour drive west of Bangor takes you over the Maine-Quebec border and smack into Quebec’s Eastern Townships, a region packed with lakes, agriculture, farmers markets, gourmet restaurants, quaint inns, spa hotels, concerts, vineyards, art and some of the friendliest folks you are going to meet west of Maine. There is plenty to see, do and taste for a long weekend escape or weeklong vacation.
So, let’s break it down.
Sherbrooke: Quebec’s Queen City
For a long weekend, one of the best Eastern Township destinations is Sherbrooke, which is located in the middle of the region. If you don’t have a lot of time to spend in the Townships, Sherbrooke is a perfect representation of the region. It has all the excitement of an urban area, the cultural opportunities of a heritage center and the activities available in a gorgeous natural setting.
It was the natural outdoors offerings — alright, and the food — that drew me to the area, so once I checked into The Grand Times Hotel Sherbrooke [1 rue Belvédère Sud, grandtimeshotel.com] I changed into cycling clothes, grabbed my bike off my car rack and went off to check out some of the 60 miles of dedicated bicycling paths in and around the city.
It was a perfect early summer day for pedaling. Warm but not hot, sunny, clear and gently rolling trails. For my inaugural ride in Sherbrooke, I opted for a loop that took me around Lac de Nations for about 3 miles. From there I followed paved routes that took me along the Magog and Saint-Francois rivers and eventually back to my hotel. All in all, I spent about two hours and covered about 15 miles, with plenty of stops for cool drinks and photo ops.
The online site bikemap.net has some great routes mapped out to ride both on pavement and dirt in Sherbrooke.
Taste of the Townships
There’s nothing like time spent on a bike to work up an appetite and no place quite like Sherbrooke to satisfy that appetite.
Taking the advice from the kind folks at the front desk at my hotel, I walked the short distance to Marche de la Gare de Sherbrooke [720 place de la Gare, marchedelagare.com].
It may not have been the wisest choice to go in there as hungry as I was.
Simply put, it’s the kind of place you can eat your way through a region without ever leaving a building. Well, except in summer, when you want to step outside to check out the overflow of vendors and craftspeople offering the best of eastern Quebec food, wine, beer and handmade goods.
These seasonal vendors come and go depending on the time of the year — mid- to late-summer is the best time to catch the greatest variety — but Marche de la Gare always has something to offer thanks to its permanent residents.
At Fromagerie de la Gare [fromageriedelagare.com] I was able to sample from among more than 150 varieties of local, national and international cheeses. In the end, I happily left with a package of fresh Louis d’Or, a Quebec cheese which has been named Canadian Cheese of the Year several years running.
At William J. Walter Saucissier [williamjwalter.com], I shifted my attention from cheese to meat. There they’ve been upping the Quebec sausage game for more than three decades.
Now, I do love good sausage, and what I saw at William J. Walter blew my mind. Among the 60 or so varieties were bison, dark chocolate and port; duck with orange peel; turkey, pear and brie cheese; pork, figs and rosemary; pork, goat cheese and mangos; rabbit and hazelnuts; and my personal favorite of wild boar with blueberries and ice cider.
With a fresh baguette from a nearby bakery I had the makings for a perfect post-bike ride afternoon rapaste.
Oh, and for dessert? Marche de la Gare had me covered at Savoroso [savoroso.com] where the fresh mango gelato was a refreshing finishing touch.
For dinner I headed over to Restaurant La Table du Chef [11 rue Victoria, latableduchef.ca]. Located in a former presbytery, this is yet another dining option that pays homage to the foods of the region. Chef Alain Labrie with his wife Joelle Beaupre use that local fare to create French-inspired cuisine. I found the atmosphere cozy, relaxed and welcoming.
As for the roasted elk medallions served in a black tea sauce with roasted vegetables? Sublime.
Walking with locals
For my second day in Sherbrooke, I decided to take advantage of the city’s “volunteer greeters.” These are residents who know Sherbrooke and the surrounding area like the back of their hands. In fact, they only thing they love more than their city is showing it off to visitors.
Greeters are personal tour guides and must be booked at least 48 hours in advance through sherbrookgreeters.com where you can select your greeter based on areas of expertise including food, history, art, music, religion, sports or night life.
So, bright and early on a Saturday morning I was grabbing a cup of coffee and getting to know my personal greeters Karine and Marcel, a retired couple with a shared fondness of food, microbrew beer, nature and city life.
After we got to know a bit about each other, we headed out on foot to explore the city. Along the way we made a bit of a game seeing if I could spot any of the 16 massive murals that celebrate Sherbrooke’s history and culture [murales-sherbrooke.com], not to mention turn neighborhoods into wonderful street museums.
I’m proud to say I found about half the murals during our four-hour walk.
Along the way Karine and Marcel chatted with me about the city’s history and indulged my desire for a return trip — cooler in hand — to Marche de la Gare, where I purchased more cheese, sausage and bread to bring home with me.
Marcel even carried the loaded cooler back to my hotel for me. Talk about a greeter who went the extra mile.
Luxury meets relaxation
After saying goodbye to my new friends, I packed up my bike and car and drove a half-hour south to Ayers Cliff, Quebec, and Ripplecove Lakefront Hotel and Spa [700 chemin Ripplecove, ripplecove.com].
Located down a windy private road and hugging the shore of Lake Massawippi, Ripplecove Lakefront Hotel and Spa is the kind of place that manages to strike that perfect balance of rustic and luxury, attention to detail and relaxed atmosphere. I was smitten the moment I walked in to the lobby that looked like something out of an 18th century hunting lodge. There was gorgeously crafted wooden furniture, bookshelves jammed with an eclectic selection of reading materials, oil paintings on the wall, decorative sculpted animal heads looking down from several corners and massive windows overlooking the lake.
The first thing I did upon arrival was schedule a massage because, you know, luxury.
The spa is located down on a lower level and furnished with the kind of crafted rustic chairs, lamps and tables you find at many upscale Maine sporting camps. Lots of wood, comfy cushions and walls paneled in knotty pine.
The masseuse Vincent ushered me into a private room where the window was open to let in the smells and sounds of the lake — lapping water, rustling leaves and birdsong.
It’s not a stretch to say I was asleep before any muscle was massaged and all too soon my 60-minutes were up.
Wrapped in a fluffy robe and sipping herbal tea on the patio just outside the spa I think my post-massage classification could be listed as liquid.
Later on I walked around the inn’s 12-acre grounds where, if I wanted, I could have borrowed any of the canoes, row-boats, kayaks or bicycles available for guests.
Instead, I headed back to my peaceful room for a nap.
That evening, feeling refreshed and remarkably hungry given my lack of physical activity, I headed to the inn’s Le Riverain Restaurant, where I was joined by owner and innkeeper Jefferey Stafford who gave me a history of the inn. He said it began in 1945 as a seasonal sporting camp for fishermen coming in from New York City and Montreal to fish the lakes and escape the heat of the cities.
These days Ripplecove Lakefront Hotel and Spa is still a popular destination for those who like to fish. In fact, according to Stafford it’s still possible to pull 25-pound gray trout of Lake Massawippi. And the chef will prepare that catch, if you want.
The inn is also now open year-round and offers a full spectrum of winter activities from snowmobiling options to ice fishing to skiing or snowshoeing with days ending wrapped in Hudson Bay Blankets in front of a bonfire sipping hot chocolate.
In the summer there’s hiking, cycling, water activities and simply sitting on the dock next to the lake taking it all in.
“People who come here want to escape and disconnect from their daily lives,” Stafford said. “We mostly get couples who want to recharge.”
Ripplecove Lakefront Hotel and Spa does not discourage guests with children, but Stafford stressed any children are expected to be well behaved and under the complete control of their parents at all times.
And if not?
“Our staff is trained to deal with kids,” Stafford said with a laugh. “But really, we are not a family resort.”
Rather, he describes his inn as “12 acres of some of the most idyllic settings you will ever experience.”
I believe him. The night I slept at Ripplecove was one of the best nights of sleep I had gotten in some time.
Then there is the dining, which draws heavily from the area’s local meats, produce and other seasonal edibles.
While there I had the Ripplecove smoked salmon with citrus crème fraiche for an appetizer before my dinner of arctic char with almond and sweet pepper crust, roasted nuts, basil oil and celeriac purée. Each course was accompanied by a wine from the inn’s 5,000-bottle cellar featuring a selection of 500 different wines.
As full as I was from dinner, I was amazed how hungry I was for breakfast the next morning.
Hungry enough for the inn’s eggs benedict on an English muffin with lobster, spinach and Mornay sauce — and a really, really good cup of coffee.
Then it was time to say goodbye to Mr. Stafford and Ripplecove. But I vowed to return. Among the things I did not have a chance to do was a 22-mile bike ride that would take me from Quebec into Vermont. How fun would that be?
Poutine U for me
On the way home I took a bit of a side trip to Drummondville, Quebec, for one reason and one reason only: poutine. That hot, gooey mix of layered French-fried potatoes, gravy and fresh cheese curds called to me.
Drummondville lays claim to being the birthplace of poutine, which is somewhat debatable. What is not debatable is that the city is also home to what is informally known as “Poutine University” in the former College d’affaires Ellis.
There, the owner of the restaurant chain Planete Poutine has developed a training facility for potential Planete Poutine franchise owners to get schooled in all things poutine.
This I had to see and sample.
The extensive menu had the standard fries-cheese-gravy option along with signature versions made with sausage and bacon or hot sauce and over the top “prestige” selections, including poutine topped with smoked meat, pulled pork or an entire green salad.
Then it was on to home, a cooler packed to the brim with edible goodies, a camera full of images and my mind already full of plans for a return trip.
Know before you go:
— You need a valid passport or passport card to cross in and out of Canada. If you are a Maine resident or resident of any US-Canada border state, you may also use your valid passport card.
— If you are shopping, especially for food or alcoholic beverages to bring home, check what you and can’t cross back into the U.S. by looking at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection online site under “Travelers bringing food into the U.S. for personal use.” [cbp.gov]
— Quebec’s people are very proud of their French language and heritage. But don’t worry about being understood or talking to people. Virtually everyone in the province is French-English bilingual, and they love sharing information.
— Detailed information on traveling to and in The Eastern Townships can be found online at easterntownships.org
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s May 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.