Montreal and Quebec City are unforgettable destinations, but they definitely aren't all the province has to offer. So take some time to hit the road between the two cities, and explore the slower pace of Quebec's countryside. Along the way you can wander woods, enjoy farm-to-table fare, see old sites of New France, and savor the uniquely Québécois culture.
Cosmopolitan Montreal is a beguiling blend of old and new, where North America's largest concentration of historic buildings rubs shoulders with a towering modern metropolis. And the whole is infused with a diverse cultural mélange that's reflected in its food and art and expressed through the francophone city's unique joie de vivre. (Dive into the international restaurant scene of Montreal or discover the charm of its many urban parks.)
Heading east from the island of Montreal, the A-10 begins to reveal the fertile farmlands of the Richelieu River Valley, which stretches south to the United States border and Lake Champlain. The river spreads out into an attractive basin in Chambly, a commuter town with historic roots. The banks of Chambly Canal National Historic Site are an excellent choice for a stroll. The waterway was completed in 1843 and still lifts boaters through a system of nine locks—though today it's for fun rather than trade. The old stone citadel at Fort Chambly National Historic Site, built in 1711, hosts interpretive programs and provides a glimpse of what life was like for the soldiers of New France.
From Chambly the road runs east into an area perfect for foodie exploration. This is Quebec's wine, maple, and apple country—especially delicious for both the eye and palate during fall foliage season. The well-marked Cider Route offers a tour with taste-tempting diversions, including plenty of visits to local producers of regional drink and foods including cheese and honey. Naturally, the Cider Route visits a dozen cideries offering many varieties, alcoholic and nonalcoholic, sparkling and ice. Michel Jodoin is in Rougemont, about 20 minutes down the Cider Route (Rte. 112) from Chambly. It's among the oldest and most famed producers, but Rougemont is home to at least four others.
The Eastern Townships
From Rougemont, the A-10 leads east into Quebec's beloved Eastern Townships (Les Cantons-de-l'Est), a rolling region of farms, forests, and sparkling lakes that's an all-season escape for many citizens of Montreal. The bustling town of Magog, at the north end of Lake Memphrémagog, is about an hour from Rougemont and a great base from which to begin your adventures in the area—or simply enjoy the many outdoor activities that the lake and nearby Parc National du Mont-Orford have to offer.
But before arriving in Magog consider leaving the A-10 in Eastman for a 15-minute detour down Rte. 245 to Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac (St. Benedict Abbey). It’s perched on a spectacular lakeshore site, but the real attraction here is a chance to hear the monks' Gregorian chants, attend a service (plan well in advance), and visit the shop for blocks of the award-winning cheese made on-site. From the abbey, enjoy a 20-minute drive up the lake's west side to reach Magog.
Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook is about 40 minutes east of Lake Memphrémagog via Rte. 141. The park is famous for its suspension footbridge—one of the world's longest—that spans the 164-foot deep gorge and definitely isn't an experience for the faint of heart. But the dramatic views here are well worth a few knocking knees, and they might inspire you to further stretch your legs by exploring the park on foot, mountain bike, or horseback.
From the gorge it's about a 70-minute drive east to Parc National du Mont-Mégantic—but that short journey opens a window to an entirely different world. The park is located in the heart of the world's first International Dark Sky Reserve. That means stargazing doesn't get much better than you'll find here, and the AstroLab astronomy center is a fun way to make sense of all the celestial scenery. From its perch near the park's entrance station, AstroLab buzzes day and night with a wide range of exhibits and activities that explore the cosmos.
From Mont-Mégantic, several roads head north toward Quebec City, some three hours’ distance. Those interested in a look below the Earth's surface after all that sky-watching can stop at Thetford Mines Mineralogy and Mining Museum, which documents the local mining industry, explores regional geology, and showcases minerals from around the world.
Closer to the Quebec City, this trip runs through Beauce, a lovely region of valleys and forests. These maple-rich woods yield almost 20 percent of all the world's syrup production. If you're lucky (or smart) enough to be here in early spring, the region's many sugar shacks come alive with festivities, fun, and foods of every flavor—especially maple.
Before crossing the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City, pause in Lévis on the south shore to linger at the Terrasse de Lévis (Terrace of Lévis). Inaugurated in 1939 by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, this riverside park offers stunning views of the old city across the water and of the powerful river itself, which is especially impressive when it's choked with moving ice.
It's clear from first sight that Quebec City offers a touch of Europe that's distinct on this side of the Atlantic. Dominated by the historic Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, it's the only existing walled city north of Mexico, and the city's extraordinary people and attractions—as well as its architecture—will tempt you to linger. (See how to spend three excellent days in Quebec City.)
Montmorency Falls, via Rte. 440 just a few miles northeast of downtown Quebec City, is a cataract of serious size—at 272 feet it's actually higher than Niagara Falls, though its water volume is far lower. If time allows, consider continuing north of Quebec City for an extended trip along the shores of the St. Lawrence. As the great river widens on its journey to the Atlantic, visitors soon find themselves in one of the world's best whale-watching areas. Visit the enchanting, historic communities of Charlevoix, and venture farther along the St. Lawrence by driving the Whale Route.
Chemin du Roy
The route back toward Montreal is, in some ways, also a trip back in time. The Chemin du Roy (King's Road) is one of the oldest highways in North America and opened to traffic in 1737. Much has changed since then, but some things have not, including some of the picturesque homes that line the route and the wonderful views of the St. Lawrence River at lookouts along the shore.
Be sure to pause during your drive along the King's Road and discover photogenic villages like Cap-Santé (Cape Health), with its ancient church. Farther down the river, Trois-Rivières (Three Rivers), dating back to 1634, is among the oldest towns north of Mexico. The historic quarter here can be explored with guided tours, by foot or bus, that showcase notable homes and deliver visitors to the town's many galleries and museums.
North of Trois-Rivières, the region of Lanaudière offers a nature escape not far from Montreal itself. Hiking, biking, fishing, paddling, and all manner of winter sports are on offer here—as are nature-based retreats for relaxation after all that activity. Leave Rte. 138 in Berthierville and drive some 45 minutes on Rte. 345/348 to Rawdon and La Source Bains Nordiques. This indoor/outdoor spa complex, designed in harmony with its natural surroundings, pampers with pools, tubs, and treatments that can restore weary travelers for the next leg of their journey.
Finally, head for heart of the Laurentian Mountains. The most famous destination here is Mont-Tremblant, some 75 minutes from Rawdon, with its sprawling ski slopes, sparkling lake, and European-style walking village. (Plan the perfect day in the Laurentians.) But the Laurentians are ripe for much wider exploration. One special way to do so is via the P’tit Train du Nord bike path, which follows the abandoned railway that once helped to develop the charming mountain retreats of the Laurentians by whisking Montrealers north. Mont-Tremblant lies near the route's midpoint, so you can explore the many sights in each direction at a slower pace, pausing to climb mountains, wander charming villages, or enjoy Québécois cuisine at a trailside inn.
When your mountain idyll comes to an end, as all things must, Montreal lies less than two hours’ drive down the A-15 from Mont-Tremblant.