The Eastern Townships are a collection of communities situated just east of Montreal and north of the Canada and U.S. border. New York and Toronto are both about 6 hours, while Boston, Ottawa, and Quebec City are all less than 4. And Vermont, well, it can be measured in minutes -- even if you were on foot! In short, they’re easy to visit but remarkably hard to leave. You might just find it hard to tear yourself away.
While many of the Eastern Township communities are just a few miles from the United States, you’re in an entirely different world once you cross over into Canada. Francophone and Anglophone culture mixes together over food, breweries, markets, spas, orchards, and so much more. These pretty, vibrant hamlets are the perfect four-season destination, whether you’re looking for a day trip from Montreal or a more rural escape lasting a week or more.
There are dozens of small villages sprinkled throughout the Eastern Townships, and it’s hard to narrow down the list of charming spots to just a few. The villages highlighted here are the heart and soul of Quebec’s Eastern Townships, in more ways than one. Many of the places on this list are designated Coeurs Villageois, regional ambassadors that are the heartbeat of the region and showcase the best cuisine, hospitality, and attractions. Each community has its own unique personality, and it’s so much fun to explore them all and find the one which is “yours.” You can see a full list of the Coeurs Villageois here to get started on your adventure.
Located just 6 miles or so from the Canada and U.S. border, Dunham guards several sweet secrets. It’s home to one of the most luxurious sugar shacks in all of southern Quebec. A sugar shack is where maple syrup is produced (sap is collected from trees, boiled down, and through exhaustive work and a bit of magic, transformed into syrup and sugar) and also consumed. Your basic sugar shack experience usually involves eating pancakes, but Vignoble du Ruisseau is anything but basic. They offer a three-course and a six-course tasting menu. Homemade baked beans with maple bacon, house-made cretons (pork spread seasoned with herbs, spices, and onions), gougeres packed with local cheese, maple glazed chicken, salmon confit with maple syrup, and my personal favorite, maple marshmallows, are often on offer.
The second draw is that Dunham’s Vignoble du Ruisseau is also a vineyard! Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Gewurztraminer are produced using the grapes of their 18-acre estate. Eco-friendly technology, including geothermal heating and wastewater reclamation, is used to enhance the growing season. It’s just one of 22 vineyards in the region, which you can explore via the Brome-Missisquoi Wine Route.
The unbelievably sweet village of Piopolis is a photographer’s dream. Exactly 348 people call Piopolis their home, but there’s as much to see and explore here as in any of the Eastern Townships destinations. The views of the lake and the distant mountains are just incredible. You can take it all in by the marina, where there’s a picnic spot featuring a miniature lighthouse, a pergola with a sail-shaped roof, and benches modeled after the design of a boat hull. In autumn, when the seasonal colors are at their best, it’s hard to imagine a prettier place.
The community is also a cultural destination. At Halte des Zouaves, you can learn about the region’s heritage at the mini interpretation center and see works by local artists and writers. They can also give you the inside scoop about special events in the region, including Piopolis’ own St-Zenon-de-Piopolis Festival, which hosts concerts in the village church.
The tiny community of Frelighsburg, just an hour or so from Montreal (and a 2.5-mile hike from the border) is home to about 1,000 people. Beloved as one of the most beautiful villages in the province, the community is filled with old buildings (including the old grammar school, which dates to 1856) and surrounded by apple orchards.
Frelighsburg is famous for cider and all things apples. You can get alcoholic and non-alcoholic cider, sparkling or still, and ice cider in the area. At Clos Saragnat orchard, where ice cider was first created in 1989, operations have evolved to create organic products. Both there and at the nearby Domaine Pinnacle orchard, you can buy ice cider at the tasting rooms. And at the riverside property of Au Coeur De La Pomme, you can buy apple jellies, sauces, preserves, and apple cider vinegar.
Danville is less than 2 hours away from Montreal, but the food scene in this small town is so good, you’d be mistaken for thinking you’re in the heart of the big city with all its culinary offerings. At the top of your travel list is Le Temps des Cerises, Danville’s star restaurant. This intimate eaterie was a local pioneer of farm-to-table dining. Fiddlehead pannacotta, guinea fowl, beef from nearby community farms, European style venison, and halibut with eggplant, radish, and maple have all appeared on the menu.
Things are a bit more casual but every bit as delicious at the Restaurant la Binnerie du Carre, where gourmet takeout treats are extremely popular. Here, house-made pates, red or green tomato ketchup, pickled beets, classic or chocolate fudge, rocky road squares (more marshmallow, so, of course, I love these!) are nearly always in stock. But the real star is homemade spaghetti sauce. Grab a mason jar of it before you leave.
More homemade indulgences and local produce are available at the Mante du Carre public market, which takes place every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Vendors offer homemade pasta, beeswax candles, locally milled flour, baked goods, meat, and fish, in addition to the usual fruit, vegetables, and flowers.
Just an hour from Montreal, Eastman is the kind of destination with a little bit of everything for everyone. It’s home to one of the oldest spas in Canada, Spa Eastman, where you can combine traditional spa experiences like massage therapy and thermal baths with longer retreats filled with nature activities (and, if you’re brave, no electronic connectivity -- there’s an option to hand over your phone and tablet at the beginning of your retreat). If you prefer attractions that are more lively than introspective, the Theatre de La Marjolaine runs a summer theater program every year (mostly in French, and mostly comedies), along with a dinner program for some events. The community is also home to a walking trail honoring Quebec actress Louise Porter, whose thespian roots include performances at Theatre de La Marjolaine.
Visitors can also use Eastman as the launch point of a canoe or kayak trip, moving south along the North Missisquoi River to the border town of Highland. The 28-mile trip isn’t without its challenges, and the obstacles like dams make portaging essential in some spots. Still, if you’re up for it, you’ll find it’s one of the least used rivers in the area, and you’ll have an unspoiled nature experience.
6. Ayer’s Cliff
Yes, there really is a cliff at Ayer’s Cliff, and it offers stunning views over Lake Massawippi. But you don’t go here just to take in the views. The community is home to a fairground, where public markets are held every Saturday in the summer, as well as the Stanstead County Agricultural Society fair. One of the oldest agricultural events in the province of Quebec, the exhibits range from horticulture to horses. However, if you just want to get away from it all, the community has a beautiful sandy beach with boat rental options. A shuttle boat,Le Wippi, goes between Ayer’s Cliff and other lakeside communities and is a convenient option for bikers who want to explore different trails.
Though fewer than 4,500 people live there, Waterloo is a residential city and one of the smallest in Quebec at that. While its name is undeniably English, it has the distinction of being the world’s only Francophone “Waterloo.” Just an hour from Montreal, the municipality is famous throughout the province not just for its unique name but also for cycling. Waterloo is situated near three major cycling trails: The Estriade, the Campagnarde, and the Montagnarde. All three follow segments of Route Verte, the world’s most beautiful cycling trail (as per National Geographic). As well, the Waterloo heritage trail takes riders past buildings and points of interest that date to the 1800s. Throughout Waterloo, you’ll see funky bike racks that are crafted in the shape of bikes, plus there is a bike repair shop at the tourist office. If you want more fun outdoors, kayaks and canoes can be rented at the municipal beach.
But no matter how active your visit might be, you have to make time to visit Beignes d'Autrefois Phil's. This beloved local bakery creates divine lemon pie with pillowy-soft clouds of meringue, apple pies so tall the tops are dome-shaped, old-fashioned donuts and croissants, and savory treats like bagels and tourtiere meat pie.