It seems fitting that the Eastern Townships originated in 1796 when the British granted land to Loyalists fleeing the United States after the American Revolution. Today, this region, which borders the U.S. for more than 186 miles, is a popular all-season vacation destination for New Englanders seeking a convenient, yet distinctively different, vacation in predominantly French-speaking Quebec.
"Americans coming from Vermont might feel they've changed continents as well as countries," says resident Shannon Gallup. "I encourage visitors to travel around the area, because even the people who live here travel quite a bit to visit all the pretty little towns. We have one of the largest concentrations of organic farms in the country, and there are lots of vineyards and farmers markets."
Meander the highways crisscrossing the region to visit apple orchards, maple sugar shacks, and pristine villages and lakes. And to appreciate the bond between the Eastern Townships and its southern neighbors, stop in at the Haskell Free Library and Opera House in Stanstead. Designed to straddle the border—the stage is in Quebec and the audience is in Derby Line, Vermont—the gray granite building has been providing equal access to Canadian and U.S. patrons since 1904. There's no passport required to take a book from the Canadian stacks and check it out at U.S. circulation desk.
When to Go: Eastern Townships is an all-season destination. Winter offers downhill skiing at Mont Orford, ice fishing on Lake Massawippi, and snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling on trails throughout the region. Summer is busiest, with golf, tennis, sailing, kayaking, windsurfing, fishing, hiking, and biking. Spring and autumn bring fewer crowds and colorful foliage. "I tell people to come in spring or fall when there's less people around," Gallup says. "North Hatley gets really quiet, but most things don't close in winter."
How to Get Around: Driving gives you the most flexibility. From Montreal, it's only about an hour's drive southeast via Autoroute 10, and I-91 north from Vermont becomes Highway 55 when you cross the border into the Eastern Townships. Three designated road trips help visitors navigate the region's attractions. Quebec's only Wine Route takes you to local vineyards known for their ice wines and rosés. The 260-mile Townships Trail leads through 31 picturesque towns, by grand Victorian houses and round barns, and over covered bridges. Focusing on the region's natural beauty, the 100-mile Summit Trail leads to scenic viewpoints, parks, and hikes. Cycling and hiking are ideal in the summer. Sailing is popular on lakes Memphremagog and Massawippi.
Where to Stay: The Eastern Townships offers inns, cottages, B&Bs, and hotels for every budget. Glen Sutton Valley's Au Diable Vert is a 320-acre resort with mountain suites, cabins, prospector tents, and tree houses. Aux Jardins Champêtres in Magog is an old-style country inn that serves meats and produce from its farm. Historic Manoir Hovey and the four-diamond Ripplecove Lakefront Hotel both overlook Lake Massawippi and are ideal bases for visiting nearby vineyards.
What to Eat or Drink: Follow the wild boar plate at Vignoble de La Bauge with their sweet Novembre dessert wine. Call ahead to book a two-hour tour, including tastings at the private Chapelle Ste. Agnes estate, known for its medieval-style cellars, Romanesque stone chapel, and award-winning ice wines. Chocolats Vanden Eynden in Magog offers all things chocolate: ice cream, hot chocolate, fine chocolates, chocolate bars, and even puck-shaped chocolate lollipops bearing the Montreal Canadiens iconic CHC (le Club de Hockey Canadien). Manoir Hovey's Le Hatley Restaurant reportedly has the province's biggest cheese cart, plus a Wine Spectator-approved, 700-label wine list. In Frelighsburg, stop by Domaine Pinnacle, a family-owned apple orchard, to pick up a bottle of their signature ice cider. In spring, visit one of the ubiquitous sugar shacks, such as Cabane du Pic-Bois in Brigham, to sample taffy, pies, and other treats made from freshly boiled maple syrup.
What to Buy: Browse among the collectibles, antique furniture, and jewelry crafted by local artisans at Emporium North Hatley. One corner is a sweets shop lined with shelves of glass apothecary jars filled with brightly colored candy. The Galerie Knowlton, in a Victorian mansion on Brome Lake, showcases paintings, blown glass, ceramics, sculptures, and jewelry by Eastern Townships and other Quebec artists. Take a contemplative detour to Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, where you can buy abbey-made cheese, applesauce, and cider in the gift shop.
What to Read Before You Go: The Eastern Townships provides the backdrop for How the Light Gets In (Minotaur Books, 2013), the latest installment in Quebec mystery writer Louise Penny's best-selling, critically acclaimed crime novel series about the exploits of Chief Inspector Gamache.
Fun Fact: Mont-Mégantic was designated as the world's first International Dark Sky Reserve in 2007. Covering almost 2,123 square miles in Mont-Mégantic National Park, the area offers exceptional starry night viewing. The park's research and outreach programs work to reduce light pollution throughout Quebec.
Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is author of The Great Canadian Bucket List and was the host of the Nat Geo Adventure TV series Word Travels.