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Experiencing a French flavor in Canada

How do you experience France without the tiresome and expensive flight to Europe? Areas of French Canada are a convenient option. Montreal and Québec City are obvious choices, but another kind of France lies in between.

Both of those cities offer upscale, urban ambience and are the bookends for an enchanting tour through a farming landscape of villages, lakes and rolling hills so much like the French countryside. The experience starts when you cross the international border and immediately the architecture changes from New England’s red barns and white chapels. The road signs are in French and kilometers, forcing you to immediately adapt to a new environment. It’s truly an abrupt shift in culture.

Officially called the Eastern Townships, this section of Québec province is not known as a tourist destination. However, it has been a popular retreat from city life in Montreal for many generations of French Canadians. Summer homes on scenic lakes and in forests offer a variety of recreational choices. Small villages also serve the farming communities.

Two of the popular lakes for fishing, sailing and kayaking are Lac-Brome and Lac Massawippi (no, it’s not Mississippi) where summer homes and attractive auberge inns welcome travelers to bed and breakfast style hospitality in addition to dining rooms serving regional dishes. Walking in the fall through the flat farmland and forests attracts the “leaf peepers” for the glorious autumn color. Winter ice fishing is popular at Lac-Brome.

After Labor Day weekend, apples and other harvest crops keep the country stores and farm stands stocked with colorful products. A unique tasting room at The Pinnacles near Dunham treats you to a range of applejack that reaches beyond simple country cidre or calvados. Try their maple-flavored apple butter and jellies.

A most unusual regional industry is the Brome Lake Duck Farm. The product is shipped to all the fine restaurants in Montreal, Toronto and Québec City where the classic French dish of canard sauvage is a delicacy. But don’t wait to savor duck in the city. It is served in most of the village inns of the Eastern Townships. A popular duck festival in October offers a wine and food extravaganza.

By mid-October the full force of autumn color blends into the approaching Canadian winter. At Bromont and Magog, winter sports centers are uncrowded for skiing. A world-class center for snowmobiles covers more than 1,000 miles of trails.

Entry and departure ports by air are Montreal and Québec City or by auto at any border crossing. A good start is the sophisticated, upscale city of Montreal, which sets the mood for the French experience in cuisine and culture — Canada style.

Famous for gourmet dining, Montreal also has a Museum of Fine Arts, a 190-acre botanical garden (mostly under glass and open all year) and a Chinatown full of Asian stores and restaurants.

If you start or finish in Québec City, there is more of an Old World environment within the walled city perched on the rocky bluff with a spectacular view of the St. Lawrence Seaway below.

The iconic Château Frontenac Hotel towers over the picturesque town settled by traders in the early 17th century. Here again, classic French cuisine is served in cozy restaurants tucked among narrow cobblestone lanes.

With some extra time in Québec City, drive out to the Ile d’Orléans in the St. Lawrence Seaway for some insights into early French settlements and country style of life. Farther along the north shore of the seaway are winter sports resorts.

To plan your preferred area to visit and activity in the Eastern Townships, contact Tourisme Québec for the Official Tourist Guide, www.easterntownships.org or call 800-355-5755. The guide includes maps, a portrait of the region and recreational, accommodation and restaurant lists.

Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com

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