Browsing through tantalizing ‘round-ups’ in high profile publications such as Travel and Leisure and National Geographic Traveller, I found that Canada generally features in the top 10 in adventure, cultural, or cuisine categories. Who could dispute prominence and dominance of 3.85 million square miles of the world’s second largest country? Certainly, not I.
As a writer and a former airline employee, I’ve made it my business to explore as much of the land of the strong and free as possible. Since immigrating from Britain decades ago I’ve been privileged to criss-cross the country repeatedly by road, rail and air. It never fails to impress me.
Earlier this month I was in Quebec for a travel media conference. I’ve worked in Montreal, and I visit Quebec City as often as possible. For me, it’s a way of savouring the essence of France on a Canadian dollar budget.
One evening a friend and I were snapping some dockside night scenes when a couple from Maine asked if we would take some cell pictures of them near the funicular, the glide ride from the lower town to the hilltop crowned by the majestic Fairmont Chateau Frontenac.
They had recently visited Paris, and had decided to stopover in Quebec City to see how French Canada compared with its European counterpart. In addition to other compliments, they remarked on the noticeable lack of armed police patrolling the streets, and the courtesy of everyone they’d met. Until then we realised public safety is something we had been inclined to take for granted.
We rambled on more respectfully, absorbing the sense of history emanating from the surrounding historic stone buildings and the golden glow spilling onto cobblestones from brightly lit sidewalk cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops. On this balmy evening in the only UNESCO fortified World Heritage city north of Mexico it was sobering to remember that such joie de vivre isn’t universal.
For me it was particularly poignant that on the night before our departure we were surprised with an escort to dinner by the band of the internationally respected Royal 22nd Regiment, known affectionately as The Van Doos. My late aunt, a British Women’s Voluntary Service member based in Germany, always referred to The Van Doos as “my boys.” Marching down the street toward Laval University I thought of how absolutely delighted Aunt Ninga would have been.
Following the conference we were treated to a few days exploring the pastoral Eastern Townships. If you’re a cyclist, this area is for you, if you’re not – it’s for you, too! Choose the Tea Route, the Wine Route (22 wineries scattered over 140 km), or just download a map from the Eastern Townships website and mix and match as you please.
Highlights are hard to pinpoint, but forgive me if I start with being on hand for a baby’s birth. Les Alpaga de la ferme Norli in Bromont was founded by Lise and Normand Pollender in 1983. Both grew up on local farms, so cattle and other animals remained their focus until 2009 when Lis fell in love with alpacas. As an experienced knitter, Lis knew the value of alpaca fibre, but says it is the character of the delightful creatures that has made them her favourite farm animals.
The recently sheered alpacas with their fuzzy top-knots, inquisitive eyes, and long lashes, looked like perfect children’s story book candidates. Lis explained the lineage, husbandry, and quirks of her charges. Some were worldly two-week-old characters, some were young bucks showing off, others were about to give birth. As she explained what to watch for a young female went into labour and the ‘maternity’ support team went to assist. Within half an hour a cria (an alpaca baby) was safely delivered in the paddock. After being inspected by the parents, the grey female cria struggled valiantly for about another 30 minutes before finding her feet, albeit a bit wobbly. Instinctively she located Mom’s built-in lunch counter, while we, naturally, cheered her on enthusiastically.
Roaming along country roads, we taste-tested local wines, cheese, homemade ice cream, memorable baking, and overnighted at properties such as the utterly relaxing Ripplecove Hotel & Spa at Ayer’s Cliff. Fortifying myself with a selection of their delicious crepes and refusing to leave my lake view spa room was tempting, but civility and good sense prevailed.
This year Vignoble de l’Orpailleur celebrates 35 successful years under the vigilant eye of owner and wine maker Charles-Henri de Coussergues. Located in Dunham (near the US border), l’Orpailleur is a recognised pioneer in a demanding field with over 130 international medals to its credit.
Guided tours are available for $10 from June 1 to October 31. In addition to a wealth of information, you’ll be treated to three wine tastings and depart with a souvenir wine glass. For $15 you can learn the fine art of ‘sabering’ champagne. Product prices are very reasonable, so I’d suggest indulging (as I did) in a little onsite shopping.
Also, while in Durham, stop in for a visit to UNION LIBRE cidre & vin if you haven’t sampled fire cider or ice cider. I prefer ice cider to ice wine, but had never sipped fire cider before. It pairs well with dark chocolate. Need I say more?
Bees are global bigwigs, plus honey is my confirmed coffee sweetener preference, so let’s drive to Miellerie Lune de Miel in Stoke. Here you’ll discover an excellent bee museum, as well as a shop well-stocked with assorted bee gifts and local honeys. It’s the guided apiarist tours which fascinated us. I’ve seen beekeepers at work before, but not at such close quarters. Our guide demonstrated that the busy little creatures would roam safely over his hands, as well as close to his face. He explained how the hives work, the intricacies of bee life, his role in managing and protecting the hives, and how he and his bees interact with neighbouring farms during pollination periods. When you drop by, ask about how honey and other bee products can improve your health. For example, local wildflower honey is said to counteract some allergies. Apiarists in your area can update you on this natural science.
We also checked in at Fromagerie la Station in Compton. Founded in 1928, this family farm not only produces award-winning cheeses, maple syrup, and milk, but demonstrates how a couple and their three sons found different passions, and roots, on the same land. Here you’ll see cheese-makers on the job beginning with curds and progressing to the stacks of finished products. “The cheese factory is born of the enthusiasm of the one who believes everything is possible,” says founder Carole Routhier.
Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a former Black Press managing editor and photographer.