20km-160km (12-99 miles) SE of Montréal, toward Sherbrooke
The rolling countryside of Cantons-de-l'Est has long served as the province of Québec's breadbasket. Still referred to by most Anglophones as the Eastern Townships (and, less frequently, as Estrie), the region is largely pastoral, marked by billowing hills, small villages, a smattering of vineyards, and the 792m (2,598-ft.) peak of Mont-Orford, the centerpiece of a provincial park. Cantons-de-l'Est's southern edge borders Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, and just past the Knowlton exit, at Km 100, there's an especially beguiling vista of the Appalachian Mountains that stretches toward New England, not far over the horizon.
Sherbrooke is the gritty, industrial capital at the center of the region, but the highlights noted here are located before you reach it, in an upside-down triangle approximately bordered by the villages of Bromont and North Hatley in the north (with 62km/39 miles between them) and Dunham in the south.
Serene glacial lakes attract summer swimmers, boaters, and fishers. Bicyclists zip along rural roads, passing day-trippers touring the region's grape and apple orchards (for wine and cider, natch). Except for a few disheartening signs for fast-food stops, the region is largely advertisement-free.
In winter, skiers who don't head north to the Laurentians come this direction; the Ski Bromont center , just 45 minutes from Montréal, offers 67 illuminated trails for night skiing. Fun fact: In 1922, Armand Bombardier, who was born near Sherbrooke, invented the prototype for the Ski-Doo, the first snowmobile, to get through the region's unplowed rural roads.
The Cantons-de-l'Est kick into another gear when spring warmth thaws the ground; crews penetrate every sugar-maple stand to tap the sap and "sugar off." The result? Maple festivals and farms hosting sugaring parties, with guests wolfing down prodigious country repasts capped by traditional maple-syrup desserts. Montréal newspapers and local tourist offices keep up-to-date lists of what's happening and where during the sugaring; most spots are within an hour's drive from the city.
Autumn has its special attractions, too. In addition to the glorious fall foliage (usually best from early Sept to early Oct), the orchards around here sag under the weight of apples of every variety, and cider mills hum day and night to produce Québec's "wine." Particularly special are the ice-cider aperitifs produced by vineyards such as Domaine Pinnacle from apples that have frosted over. Visitors are invited to help with the harvest and can pay a low price to pick their own baskets of fruit. Cider mills open their doors for tours and tastings.
English town names such as Granby, Sutton, and Sherbrooke are vestiges of the time when Americans loyal to the Crown migrated here during and shortly after the Revolutionary War. Now, however, the population of Cantons-de-l'Est is 90% French speaking, with a name to reflect that demographic. A few words of French and a little sign language are sometimes necessary outside hotels and other tourist facilities, since the area draws fewer Anglophone visitors than do the Laurentides. Most locals speak at least some English. Best of all for tourists, the Cantons are one of Québec's best-kept secrets: It's mostly Québécois who occupy rental houses here. Follow their lead. For extended stays, consider making your base in one of the several luxury inns along the shores of Lac Massawippi and take day trips from there.