Like a good French wine, this drive offers a complex blend of history, culture, and scenery.
This rewarding loop drive begins in Montreal, one of the world's largest French-speaking cities, with more museums, cultural events, restaurants, and shops than you can count. The route then leads to "the regions" outside the city, first southeast through pastoral Montérégie, then rolling through the British-settled Eastern Townships and Quebec's picturesque wine country, crossing into the Mauricie Bois-Francs region and over the St. Lawrence River. The loop is completed along two historic river roads, le chemin du Roy, which traces the St. Lawrence, and le chemin des Patriotes, which follows the Richelieu.
Start in Montreal
Montreal is a city at once northern and Latin, sophisticated and provincial, and conversant in two languages. First explored in 1535 by Jacques Cartier, the city was founded as a missionary colony in 1642. The most dramatic entrée to the island of Montreal is via Pont Champlain. At dusk, the skyline soars and glitters against silhouetted Mont-Royal.
This generally walkable city can be divided into five sections. The first, named Mont-Royal by Cartier, offers lovely Parc du Mont-Royal, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. A pilgrimage site, the magnificent Oratoire Saint-Joseph (3800 chemin Queen Mary; tel. 1 514 733 8211) boasts a massive copper dome and lofty views.
Downtown caters to every taste, from the trendy Quartier Latin centered around rue Saint-Denis, to elegant rue Sherbrooke, where the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal (1379-80 rue Sherbrooke ouest; 1 514 285 1600; fee) displays a world-class collection of historic and contemporary art. As if there weren't enough to see at street level, the Underground City offers some 18 miles (29 kilometers) of seamlessly linked pedestrian malls.
The narrow, cobbled streets and solid, centuries-old buildings of Vieux-Montréal, the once fortified old city, offer endless amusement. A lively nightspot, by day its galleries, boutiques, and historic sites entice. The colorful Vieux-Port harbors historic Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours (400 rue St.-Paul est), where sailors prayed before setting to sea.
In the east-end area of Maisonneuve, visit Olympic Park (4141 av. Pierre-De Coubertin; tel. 1 514 252 4141; fee to some sites), which includes the 1976 Olympic Stadium and boasts the world's tallest inclined tower. Nearby, the 185-acre Jardin botanique de Montréal (4101 rue Sherbrooke est; tel. 1 514 872 1400; fee) contains about 30 outdoor gardens, notably the Chinese and Japanese, and the rose garden. The indoor Insectarium houses some 160,000 live and mounted insects.
The islands, île Notre-Dame and île Sainte-Hélène, comprise the vast, green Parc-Jean-Drapeau. The former, man-made for Expo 67, claims the Casino de Montréal (1 av. du Casino; tel. 1 514 392 2746) in the old French and Quebec pavilions, while the latter hosts the Biosphere (160 chemin Tour-de-l'îsle; tel. 1 514 283 5000; fee), the United States Pavilion's giant geodesic dome, now Canada's first Ecowatch Center.
To leave Montreal, follow Highway 10 east across Pont Champlain. The flat, open plains of the Montérégie region soon replace the urban congestion. Exit at Chambly and drive through town to watch the keepers manually operate the old locks at historic Chambly Canal (1899 De Périgny Boulevard; tel. 1 450 658 6525), inaugurated in 1843 as a shipping link between Chambly and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. Nearby, Fort Chambly National Historic Site (2 rue Richelieu; tel. 1 450 658 1585; fee), overlooking the Chambly Basin, preserves the site of a 1665 French stockade. Exhibits provide background for a self-guided tour of the fort, restored to the 1750s.
Proceed south on Route 223 through the flat Richelieu Valley, noting signs of seigneurial influence in the region's planning and architecture. For example, the way the fields are planted at odd angles is a legacy of the old French colonial system, in which the land was partitioned in narrow strips always perpendicular to the waterways.
Just beyond Saint-Paul-de-l'île-aux-Noix is the British fortification at Fort Lennox National Historic Site (1 av. 61e, off Rte. 223; tel. 1 514 291 5700; fee). A ferry transports you to l'île-aux-Noix, the small island on which the fort stands. Along with the well-preserved fortifications, you'll find a restaurant and a picnic area. Pick up Route 202, la Route des Vins ("the wine route”), along the U.S. border through Quebec's rolling wine country, known for its white Seyval (wine-tour brochure and map available locally).
Lake Champlain appears suddenly in all its glory near Venise-en-Québec, a modest summer resort that in no way resembles its eponym. The road winds around the lake's north shore before veering northeast into the Eastern Townships, or les Cantons-de-l'Est, region. Look south for a breathtaking view of the Vermont and New York lakeshores, and the Adirondack Mountains. To the east lies the heart of wine country, Dunham, a quaint village blessed with beautiful forested plains, a backdrop of Appalachian peaks—and a microclimate that produces excellent apples as well as grapes.
Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac
Find your way to Route 245 and Bolton Centre, detouring toward Austin and following the signs to the Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac (tel. 1 819 843 4080). Magnificently situated above Lac Memphrémagog, the Benedictine abbey's grounds offer a soothing time-out. Their acclaimed choir recites prayers in Gregorian chant. Recordings, abbey-made cheese, and other items are sold in the shop (closed Sun.).
Head north to Magog via beautiful chemin Nicholas-Austin and catch Highway 112 east to Sherbrooke, the regional "capital"of the Eastern Townships. For an introduction to the history of Sherbrooke and the townships, begin with the Centre d'interprétation de l'histoire de Sherbrooke (275 rue Dufferin; tel. 1 819 821 5406; fee). From here, take the self-guided walking tour through the historic Old North neighborhood. Next door to the center, the Musée des beaux-arts de Sherbrooke (241 rue Dufferin; tel. 1 819 821 2115; fee) exhibits historic and contemporary work by regional artists. The theme is natural history at the Musée de la nature et de sciences de Sherbrooke (225 rue Frontenac; tel. 1 819 564 3200; fee). Down in the Magog River Gorge, walk along the interpretive Magog River Trail.
Drive north along the sometimes elusive Highway 143, which parallels the river and the train tracks, a legacy of Sherbrooke's glory days as a 19th-century rail hub. Notice the British influence here in the town names and the distinctive architecture. At Ulverton, you are in the Mauricie Bois-Francs region. Visit a restored 19th-century woolen mill, Moulin á laine d'Ulverton (210 chemin Porter; tel. 1 819 826 3157; fee), which contains a complete set of original, working machinery, with demonstrations and related exhibits.
Press on to Drummondville and Le Village Québécois d'Antan (Off Hwy. 122, E on rue Montplaisir; tel. 1 819 478 1441; fee). This open-air museum convincingly re-creates a rural Quebec village during the century of townships settlement. Period-dressed interpreters bring to life the settlers' world, demonstrating their crafts and daily tasks among 70 renovated and reconstructed buildings and a working farm. Sample the cheese, bread, and molasses cookies made on site.
Highway 143 leads northwest, where the land levels out again and the air is grassy sweet. Take Highway 132 into the Wabanaki (Abenaki is the French spelling) Reserve at Odanak, a Wabanaki homeland since the mid-1600s. The small Musée des Abénakis (tel. 1 450 568 2600; fee) displays artifacts and crafts. There are also several souvenir shops in the community.
Highway 55 travels across the St. Lawrence to Trois-Rivières, capital of the Mauricie Bois-Francs region and Quebec's second oldest city, founded in 1634. The name refers to the three channels branching the mouth of the St. Maurice River. Trois-Rivières begs a pedestrian's pace (information on self-guided theme walks available at the Tourist Office). Start at the Musée québécois de culture populaire (200 rue Laviolette; ttel. 1 819 372 0406; fee) for a colorful overview of Quebec life. Exhibits in the adjoining 1822 prison paint a riveting picture of life behind these walls. The heart of the old city, rue des Ursulines, is a preserve of 18th-century landmarks, including Saint-James Church, the Maison Hertel-de-la-Fresnière, and the Musée des Ursulines (734 rue des Ursulines; tel. 1 819 375 7922; fee), which encompasses an eclectic collection of glass-cased shrines and religious objects. Promenade along the waterfront and visit the splashy Centre d'exposition sur l'industries des pâtes et papiers (800 Parc portuaire; tel. 1 819 372 4633; fee) for a comprehensive look at Quebec's pulp-and-paper industry, of which Trois-Rivières forms the center.
Forges du Saint-Maurice National Historic Site
Take a side trip to the Forges du Saint-Maurice National Historic Site (10000 boul. des Forges; tel. 1 819 378 5116; fee), Canada's first ironworks, founded in 1730 and in operation for 150 years. Along with exhibits on forge history in the old blast furnace, an interpretive path guides you around the site.
Drive west along the expanse of Lac Saint-Pierre on historic Highway 138—le chemin du Roy ("the king's way”), Canada's first viable road, opened in 1737. Only the passing commercial boat illustrates that this so-called lake is actually a widening of the St. Lawrence. Take Highway 158 east to its end, where a ferry (no reservations; fare) delivers you to the shores of pleasant Sorel-Tracy (Tourist Office, 92 chemin des Patriotes; tel. 1 450 746 9441). The giant grain elevators are a sure sign you're back in the bountiful Montérégie. Wander the historic district (self-guided tour information available at Tourist Office) to visit the old town market (Wed.-Sat.), and the 1832 église Saint-Pierre de Sorel (170 rue George).
Le chemin des Patriotes
The last leg of the drive, Highway 133, follows the Richelieu River along a beautiful, historic corridor known as le chemin des Patriotes, named for the nearby clash of Patriote and British troops during the Patriotes Rebellion of the mid-1830s. Watch for examples of traditional Quebec architecture. Drive through the bucolic Montérégie countryside to another charming community, Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu. Stop at the lovely old stone church at the edge of the village; the cemetery is a work of art, with stark white statuary forming the Stations of the Cross against a backdrop of fields and the mountain of Mont-Saint-Hilaire.
At the foot of the mountain awaits the artist colony of Mont-Saint-Hilaire. The Centre de conservation de la nature du Mont-Saint-Hilaire (422 chemin des Moulins; tel. 1 450 467 1755; fee), a UNESCO biosphere reserve, contains a nature park.
Take Highway 116 west, across the river, to Beloeil, a quiet village with a charming old quarter and a stunning view of the mountain. From this tranquil reprieve, Trans-Canada 20 leads back toward the bright lights of Montreal.
Mid-May through October is the ideal time to drive this 385-mile (620-kilometer) route. Allow five to six days to complete the loop. For general Quebec travel information, see www.bonjourquebec.com/qc-en/accueil10.html. For Montreal sights, see www.tourisme-montreal.org or visit the Montreal Infotouriste Centre (1255 Peel St., Suite 100; ttel. 1 514 873 2015 or 877 266 5687). Contact the local Tourist Office for sights in Sherbrooke (tel. 1 819 564 8331 or 800 561 8331) and Trois-Rivières (1457 rue Notre-Dame Centre; tel. 1 819 375 1122). For local weather conditions, see www.weather.com.
—Text by Allison Kahn, adapted from National Geographic's Driving Guides to America: Canada