Country charm across the border

Americans of the vacationing sort enjoy hopping across the border to enjoy the rolling hills of Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

Lake Massawippi 311 (photo credit: George Medovoy)
Lake Massawippi 311
(photo credit: George Medovoy)
AYER’S CLIFF, Quebec – When the newly minted United States of America declared its independence from England, several thousand Americans – including many Loyalists – left the country to settle newly-available lands across the border here in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
Now, many generations later, Americans of the vacationing sort are still hopping across the border to enjoy the area’s rolling hills and pristine lakes, all a mere 75 minutes east of urban Montreal.
If you choose to fly in as we did from the US, consider Burlington, Vermont’s small, easy-to-handle airport, where you can rent a car and drive up through the Vermont countryside to the Quebec border.
Then it’s a short drive northward to Lake Massawippi, where two five-star inns owned by members of a local family offer what can be your first taste of legendary Quebec hospitality.
Auberge Ripplecove & Spa, on the southern shore of the lake near the village of Ayer’s Cliff, and Manoir Hovey, a Relais & Chateau on the northern end near the village of North Hatley, are easygoing places full of country charm and fine service.
They’re partially hidden away in a setting of birch and maple trees, whose colors metamorphose into riotous oranges and reds in the fall and succumb soon enough to winter’s snowy embrace, when sleigh bells punctuate the crisp Quebec air.
Visitors can enjoy both properties with a four-night package of two nights at each one, including an inn-to-inn boat tour on Lake Massawippi or an inn-to-inn bike tour, with the inns supplying the bikes, daily packed lunch, and car and luggage transport.
There is no charge for the boat tour if passengers have lunch at one of the inns.
Ripplecove, owned by Jeffrey Stafford and his wife Debra, looks like a grand country home, its charming facade resting at the bottom of a grassy expanse on the other side of Lake Massawippi, over which migratory birds make their appearance every year.
When it was opened in 1945, Ripplecove was just a tiny summer fishing-and-hunting resort, opened by the elder Staffords.
“There was nothing here at that time,” said Jeffrey Stafford, adding that his pioneering parents had had to build a road to the property.
Lake Massawippi, 450 feet (137 meters) deep, has long been known for monstrous grey trout, offering anglers an exciting challenge.
“Fishing is still very good,” Stafford said over breakfast under Ripplecove’s covered, lakeside veranda. “We still have lake trout, rock trout and rainbow trout.”
And talk about fish stories! Over the years, people have reported sightings of the “Massawippi monster,” a creature said to be between 7 feet and 12 feet (2.1 m.- 3.6 m.) long, swimming on the surface on warm days.
“I’ve seen it myself,” said Stafford, “but I’m not sure what it is. We had a guest who took photographs of it in August just off the beach. It stayed on the surface of the water for about 20 minutes, so it wasn’t something that was questionable. It was a perfectly clear day, and it just floated around in the bay there and did a circle.
“The only thing I can think of is that it might be a monstrous northern pike, because they are known to grow to 50-60 pounds [22 kg. -27 kg.].”
Ripplecove has 33 comfortable rooms and suites, some with fireplaces and terraces, plus three cottages, one of which, the Appalachian Cottage, is a fully restored, hand-hewn log cabin built in 1890 with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fireplace and a lakeside covered porch.
Another cottage, the Owl’s View Chalet, is a completely restored three-bedroom log cottage on Lake Memphremagog, about 20 minutes from Ripplecove, offering 300 feet (91 m.) of waterfront with a dock and a canoe.
And The Birches, the former innkeeper’s residence, comes with a heated pool, three bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths.
You’ll also find some unusual conversation pieces at Ripplecove. One is a scale model of The Hampton Trawler, a maritime fishing vessel once used to pull lobster traps and now, with its 130-year-old original distress lantern, used as the breakfast buffet table in the dining room; the other, in the Nag’s Head Bar, is a ship’s wheel from The Tadeusac, which sailed between Montreal and Quebec City.
A cozy lobby room has a big comfy couch, perfect for curling up with a book or a magazine, and an ornate walnut-andmahogany hutch, originally made for a Quebec politician in 1880 and adorned with a carving of the goddess Diana.
The inn’s spa offers a variety of treatments, and if you go in for a hot tub with that woodsy feeling, there’s a four-season one overlooking the lake.
The inn has a heated outdoor pool and 18-speed touring bicycles available free of charge to take on the 20-kilometer bike trail that starts at the inn’s door.
Tennis buffs will find a tennis court, rackets and balls available, as well as lessons from Ripplecove’s tennis pro.
You can also take a canoe or a paddleboat out on the lake, or choose the more sedentary approach and take a seat on the pier after breakfast.
TRADITION AND hospitality continue at the 37-room Manoir Hovey, which was once the luxurious private estate of Henry Atkinson, an Atlanta industrialist.
Like so many other wealthy 19th-century Southerners, Atkinson loved coming up here to vacation, and in 1900 he built his estate, calling it “The Birches.” What’s more, he modeled it after George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, complete with classic pillars.
It’s a glorious setting: a broad veranda overlooking a grassy expanse decorated with a pretty English garden – and all of it in full view of Lake Massawippi.
Off to the side and down some narrow steps is the heated outdoor pool.
Atkinson’s mansion became an inn in 1950 and was purchased in 1979 by Steve and Kathy Stafford, who are semi-retired.
(Son Jason Stafford now keeps things running smoothly.) At Manoir Hovey, after getting up in our rustic lakeside cabin, it was a short walk past the tennis court and herb gardens to the dining room for breakfast.
Our table had a view of the lake, and one morning, with the strains of “Stella by Starlight” in the background, we had pancakes as light as crepes, served with fresh Quebec maple syrup, a sprinkle of cinnamon and a cup of coffee.
Before or after breakfast, depending on your mood, you can always take a seat on the veranda with another cup of coffee...
and contemplate the lake.
The Tap Room used to serve as Atkinson’s coach house, but now it’s a pleasant gathering place before or after dinner and has a fireplace with an impressive 10,000 bricks.
Manoir Hovey’s library, a cozy place on winter nights with the fireplace going, contains some of Atkinson’s books.
The inn offers free use of kayaks, canoes, paddle boats and windsurfers, as well as 12- speed touring bikes with helmets.
In the dining department, both inns offer sumptuous dinners, and their wine cellars have won impressive Wine Spectator awards.
With all those fish stories, we decided to take advantage of the fish items at both inns.
At Ripplecove, the tasty pave of walleye (served with the skin on) came with mashed beets with rare peppers. The appetizer was an opportunity to sample Quebec’s legendary cheeses, in this case the excellent Domaine de Courval goat cheese produced in Waterville.
At Manoir Hovey, an appetizer of smoked organic salmon came with birch syrup, wild garlic ashes and mint cucumber, and the main course was a delicate organic trout filet, served with celery gnocchi, trout roe, and Swiss chard prepared both ways.
Desserts put the finishing touches on great dining, like Manoir Hovey’s dark chocolate custard with toffee sauce, spiced marshmallow and candied pumpkins, and Ripplecove’s almond hazelnut Dacquoise with mango confit and blueberry emulsion.
IT’S USEFUL to remember that with winter just around the corner, you can enjoy seasonal activities at the inns.
For example, Ripplecove has complimentary sleigh rides every Saturday at 4 p.m., along with free skates and broomball equipment for skating in Ayer’s Cliff.
Snowshoes are also available at the inn for use in the surrounding woods and on the frozen lake.
Ripplecove will also supply rods and a hole cutter if you want to try your luck ice fishing. And while you may not catch that elusive northern pike, you might catch trout or perch, which the inn’s chef will cook for you.
At Manoir Hovey, you can snowshoe on the inn’s private trails, go skating on its private skating rink with skates supplied, and fish on Lake Massawippi (with a guide available at an extra charge). Manoir Hovey’s chef will cook your catch for you, too.
The influx of Americans has left its mark in this part of Quebec: Many Loyalists intermarried with French Quebecers, and the places they settled still bear English names, like North Hatley, the charming lakeside village of 750 inhabitants you may have seen in films like The Human Stain with Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins, or Secret Window starring Johnny Depp.
On a leisurely walk around the village, we stopped to chat with a vacationing family who had driven up from Boston, and later we sat under a covered gazebo at the end of the village pier to enjoy baguettes and cheese we purchased at a nearby shop.
After lunch, we stepped back in time at the J.B. LeBaron grocery, a North Hatley fixture since 1888.
“People say that you can find anything you want here,” said Josephine LeBaron, whose grandfather and father ran the place – creaky wooden floors and all – before her.
“So that’s what we try and do.”
LeBaron called her Main Street grocery “sort of a meeting place,” where people can chat with friends at the cash register, just like in the old days, and she noted that the store could be seen in Secret Window.
The next day we took an afternoon drive down country roads to visit the Abbey of Saint Benoit-du-Lac, whose steeple looks out over above Lake Memphremagog.
Interspersed with their monastic lifestyle, the Benedictine monks produce some very popular apple cider products, which are sold in their monastery store.
For men seeking a few days of spiritual retreat, the abbey has a guest house; a nearby retreat house for women is run by nuns.
About midway along Lake Massawippi and somewhat to its west, lies the picturesque village of Sainte-Catherine-de-Hatley, where a Catholic church dominates a small hill.
It’s worth stopping in Sainte-Catherinede- Hatley to see the many rose gardens at Rose des Champs, sample the rose products in the boutique, and have your own picnic.
Of course, one thing not to miss on any visit to the Eastern Townships is an excursion on the water.
We boarded Escapades Memphremagog’s Grand Cru sailing vessel at Quai MacPherson in the small town of Magog – founded by Loyalists from Vermont in 1776 – for a two-hour afternoon cruise on Lake Memphremagog.
We sat outside on the upper deck, enjoying a drink and hors d’oeuvres as the boat circumvented the lake. Dinner cruises are also available.
After getting back to port, we stopped in Magog for dinner at a busy Italian bistro on Rue Principale, rushing inside to get out of a sudden downpour. But no matter what the weather or the season, you’ll find Quebec’s Eastern Townships a pure delight.