Story and photos by Helen Hewetson
This past summer I was invited to explore Quebec’s Eastern Townships for a few days with a group of journalists. Of course I accepted in a flash: this land of English-speakers has long intrigued me. A holdout region in a sea of Francophones – the notion vaguely reminded me of visiting the Falkland Islands, where the residents vigorously assert their Britishness in the face of all contrary efforts by the Argentinians. Although with fewer penguins, the Eastern Townships (or Cantons de l’Est as they are called in French) must surely be similar?
Well, not so much. As it turns out, the whole Anglophone holdout idea isn’t entirely true any more. Many people in the 16,000km² area known as the Eastern Townships do speak English, and many more can get by well enough to communicate basic needs, but English hasn’t been the norm in the area since the 1870’s. So despite what I’d always thought, now only about 35,000 people in the Eastern Townships (or 8% of the population) identify themselves as English speakers.
As it turns out, some of the English speakers associated with the Eastern Townships are pretty famous. For example, Conrad Black started here with his first newspaper; the Eastern Townships Advisor in 1966. And Donald Sutherland is rumoured to live here part-time in a little village called Georgeville.
But what really lured me on the trip wasn’t the famous people – nor was it the lack of translation required (I can get by). It was the promise of some fabulous food, great long hikes through the mountains, and the chance to stay in a treehouse overnight. I needed a break!
So, I grabbed my hiking boots and my duffel bag and hopped on a flight to Montreal. The best way to get around is by vehicle, so we picked up our rental car and took an easy drive for an hour and a half, straight to the town of Sutton. Our first stop was Au Diable Vert.
This outdoor centre, sitting high in the rolling hills, has a little bit of everything. As with many places nearby, activities like fishing, kayaking, swimming and hiking are readily available, but what sets Au Diable Vert apart is their unique Flying Bike! This bizarre- looking contraption (called “Vélo Volant”) is, as the name suggests, the only way to pedal your way through the treetops of the Eastern Townships. I’m not keen on heights but I’m not one to turn down a challenge either. So, after a reassuring number of explanations, I took a deep breath, buckled my seatbelt and went.
At first it was a little difficult to get used to – I wasn’t pedalling smoothly and found myself jerking around and stopping and starting often, but after only a couple of minutes I was flying! It was a blast to see the scenery from that vantage point and there were some spectacular views.
The same complex – Au Diable Vert – also has several types of accommodation, ranging from fully-equipped condo-style suites to camping, and my two favourites: the “perched cabins” and the treehouses. These are pretty rustic – with wood-burning stoves for winter heat and outhouses nearby, but so much fun. I wished I had my nephew with me.
Despite what I’d always thought, English hasn’t been the norm in the area since the 1870’s
We chose the treehouse and loved it – the beds were surprisingly comfortable and it had a cozy feel to it. We had sleeping bags
with us, but it should be noted that they are not provided- and there is no drive-in access, but the staff will transport your stuff (and you!) to your site for $10 each way. We couldn’t help but fall in love with the traditional highland cows roaming around part of the property, the relaxed vibe, and the family – and dog-friendly approach.
The food we had in Sutton was quite marvellous. The first night we had dinner at a nearby Inn, the Auberge des Appalaches. The food was exceptional and the portions generous. I highly recommend it. And the following morning we had a satisfying breakfast at Sutton’s Cafetier. This little restaurant is part of the Cafés de Village program – these are small local establishments with one thing in common: to serve coffee (of course) but also a healthy menu, local and seasonal products. Some also offer local beers and wines.
After lunch (and a snooze) we did try to go for another hike in Parc national du Mont-Orford, but after a very short while the weather turned on us, so we did what most people would: we settled our stuff into our brand-new cabin, cranked up the electric stove and had an impromptu picnic, including some delectable local cheese made by monks (from the nearby Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac), and some nicely chilled rose. It was a perfect substitute.
Our new cabin was exactly that – called “Chalet Nature”, it had only been built for about 9 months and it was gleaming. It was as well appointed as a downtown condo, but had plenty of room, trees all around and it still smelled like fresh pine. These incredible pre-fab cabins were purpose-built for the Quebec National Parks, and they allow for four-season use of the nearby region. All in all, a fantastic idea and a very comfortable way to spend the night.
The next day we moved on again, this time starting with a hike up and around Mont Orford with our attentive guide, Jean-Marie Croteau. Jean-Marie is part of a non-profit organization called Les Sentiers de l’Estrie, whose sole mission is to promote walking. They provide maps, route advice, friendly group walks, events and workshops throughout the Eastern Townships. The volunteers maintain the trails and help visitors discover the region by foot. We spent most of the day hiking and had a wonderful time – Jean-Marie is an amiable host and a knowledgeable guide.