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Footloose in Canada

Eastern Townships Are Quebec's Rural Secret

March 06, 1988|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

NORTH HATLEY, Canada — Just as Canada's early 18th-Century treatment of the French Acadians is still considered a blot on that country's past, our own harassment of colonists loyal to the British Crown during and after the American Revolution was equally contemptible.

About 80,000 of these Loyalists chose to accept Britain's offer of refuge in Canada, many of them settling in the Eastern Townships, called that because they lay east of Montreal and spread out just north of the Vermont border.

They chose well. It's a lovely and bucolic land with some of Quebec province's most beautiful lakes, gentle mountains, rolling farmlands and verdant Appalachian forests of spruce, pine, birch, maple, cedar and beech.

Many Scots also chose to emigrate here, probably because the area so resembled their homeland. The language is still predominately Quebecois French.

For all its beauty, year-round outdoor activities and convenience to Montreal's airport, the Eastern Townships remain a relatively unknown part of Canada to outsiders.

Those in the know come here for the fall foliage, superb cross-country skiing in winter, lively theater in the summer or for just exploring the many colorful hamlets that lie along lake shores.

North Hatley, at the head of Lake Massawippi, is surely one of the region's most fetching small towns. The lake is rimmed by delightful inns, several of which take rightful pride in the way their four-star kitchens treat classic French and Quebecois dishes.

Here to there: Fly Air Canada's daily one-stop to Montreal. American, Eastern, USAir and Canadian Airlines get you here with changes. Your best bet is to rent a car at the Montreal airport, then drive the 90 minutes and still have wheels for exploring.

How long/how much? A couple of days for sightseeing around the Townships, but a full week, summer or winter, will make a memorable vacation of it. Even with hotels requiring half-pension, prices are still moderate and meals excellent.

A few fast facts: Canada's dollar was recently valued at 78 cents, ours buying $1.28. Fall has spectacular foliage, winter has cross-country and some alpine skiing, while summer has just about every outdoor activity.

Getting settled in: Auberge Hatley (North Hatley; $125-$140 double, half-pension), a member of the Relais & Chateau group, is a handsome former summer house overlooking the lake, 22 rooms in colonial style decorated with country-rustic antiques, some rooms with fireplaces.

Lounges ramble here and there under low ceilings. There is a fine collection of contemporary Quebecois art, and 20 miles of cross-country trails start at the front door. The auberge also has a small pool, cozy bar and offers relaxation and total comfort. A French chef of Canadian renown creates meals most worthy of the Relais & Chateaux chain's considerable reputation.

Auberge Ripplecove (Ayer's Cliff at other end of lake; $108-$148 double, half-pension) is more contemporary yet retains the country feeling throughout with knotty pine everywhere. Boats dock right at the inn's terrace.

Each room is individually decorated, and there are plenty of antiques. On the lovely grounds you'll find several fully serviced cottages, one a log cabin built in 1880. Ripplecove carries out the lake motif with a 27-foot bar built as a boat. Non-guests may dine there and at the inn above.

Trilliam Bed & Breakfast (2165 Lake Road; $47 B&B double), recently renovated from top to bottom, is a private home at lakeside. Bedrooms are large, cheerful and bright, with white curtains and white wicker furniture.

There's a huge communal room downstairs with an old wood-burning stove and fireplace, plus a marvelous view of the lake and a deck-terrace outside. Full and delicious country breakfasts at the Trilliam.

Hovey Manor (North Hatley; $125-$181 double, half-pension) is another comfortable inn on the water with day-night tennis courts; water sports from its pier.

Regional food and drink: Farmlands of the Eastern Townships region abound in fresh produce which, given the French touch in the kitchen, make for wonderful meals indeed.

Rainbow, gray and brown trout are on most menus. The supply of rabbit, lamb, duckling and partridge is a seasonal gift to the table, as are the fresh strawberries, mushrooms and apples.

Brasserie Massawippi Brewing Co. in North Hatley runs off a steady stream of lagers, stout and a mild, English-style bitter, using imported malts, hops and barleys. It's Quebec's first micro-brewery and they get high marks for the noble effort.

Moderate-cost dining: Auberge Hatley has the largest and most adventurous menu on the lake, one that you might find in a very good French restaurant.

Start with leek and snow crab soup, warm pheasant salad or duckling pate. Then move on to a civet of rabbit, squab in puffed pastry with cabbage and mushrooms, fillet of lamb bearnaise or other fish, meat and game selections. The desserts are endless and enticing. A cheese board is served with warm walnut bread.

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