Eastern Townships | Fall Flavours
When autumn arrives, we ride for the Eastern Townships.
Country roads explode with colour; fresh harvests explode with flavour.
As a bonus, our favourite dirt road in Québec happens to be here.
Autumn made the Eastern Townships famous.
At any other time of year, this region is quietly enjoyed for its charmingly slow pace. Its inhabitants are well-regarded as gentleman farmers and neighbourly neighbours. The sprinkling of tiny towns, tucked into the nips and folds of the rolling landscape, are occasionally visited by escapists from Montreal.
But autumn made the Eastern Townships famous.
People flock here from all over the world in this season. They jostle for position in the few B&Bs and country inns. They breathe the crisp air, watch the forests explode in colour and taste the harvest’s first fruits.
But fall is a hard season for motorcyclists. The lack of sunlight is what causes the leaves to change, so the colours peak during the shortest, rainiest days. And the harvest’s autumn flavours arrive at the exact same time, crunching our timescale even more. We have a few short hours to experience a cornucopia of colourful riding and flavourful tasting.
The race is on.
Whenever I have a small amount of time to ride a large amount of terrain, I use a lifeline. This time “phone a friend” meant calling on an Eastern Townships local named Luc.
Luc epitomizes the “hard ass” motorcyclist. He spends half of his time on a Goldwing, racking up enough kilometres to make a trucker jealous. The other half of his time is spent on a Yamaha Super Tenéré, which I just spotted through the window of this Magog rest stop.
I’m chewing on a Tim Horton’s breakfast wrap when he walks in – both my hands are pressed around the tinfoil, willing the chorizo and scrambled eggs to warm my frozen fingers. It was a cold ride from Montréal this morning.
You want something to eat? I ask.
Nah, I have a granola bar in my jacket pocket. Let’s get riding.
My kind of guy. We head south and leave the pavement behind a few minutes later. The next hour is spent crisscrossing farmland. I know that the tourists must be here somewhere, but we only pass one tractor-driving farmer. I suspect that city folk stick to the concrete.
The fields dip and swell at random, which makes for spectacular farm roads. These aren’t the flat, right-angled tracks of Saskatchewan. This is more like an Austrian rally stage.
The tacky dirt winds through a treed-in tunnel of red, amber and yellow. The next moment it turns gravelly, scraping across the sun-baked fields. This alternation is enough to keep me on my toes. One minute the Strom is happy to lean into the teens. The next minute I have to get sideways just to change direction.
Picture the corniest country scene you can think of – something from a painting in your grandmother’s living room. There’s a low, crumbly stone fence in front of a white farmhouse – green shutters up top, the farmer’s wife knitting in a rocking chair below. Two chickens and a cow mingle off to the side. In the background you see long grass riding the waves of a field. At the far distance, a line of gilded trees separates green from blue.
I ride by this scene every five-friggin-minutes. The townships are so picturesque that the temptation to stop and take a photograph is unbearable. Our videographer looks like he’s about to have a seizure.
We loop past Lac Lyster and head east. It isn’t a question of following the ADV terrain, because dirt roads are everywhere out here. It’s more like, “Hey that mountain to the east looks nice. Let’s ride up that…” The fact that we can follow dirt roads between here and there is almost a given.
We arrive at Mont Hereford in the late afternoon. It makes for an epic climb and the sun drops to the horizon by the time we summit. Our riding day came and went too fast, but I feel that I’ve experienced a good chunk of what the Townships have to offer.
It’s so easy to ride here – so free. You don’t need maps, itineraries or a list of waypoints. A few hours of daylight and a willingness to get lost is all that’s required. If you see a mountain, find a trail up it. If you come to a crossroads, flip a coin. The off-road terrain is so extensive and consistently stunning that day planning becomes pointless.
We wake up colder and wetter than yesterday. Judging from the foliage plastered onto my motorcycle, autumn has advanced while we slept. I watch a stream of brilliant leaves floating downwards like the sand in an hourglass. Not much time left.
We're packing today with fall flavours. I’ve distilled the region’s palate into a single day trip. Eight hours, seven foods, five stops and four hundred kilometres.
It’s still early in the morning when I ride into Boutique Canards du Lac Brome. The ground is steaming, the twilight is breaking, the city is sleeping … and we’re going to feast on some duck. Knowlton has been in the Pekin duck business since 1912. Birds outnumber humans 400:1 out here, so business is good. The chance to try some duck pâté and prosciutto within earshot of the quackers is a real treat.
After the fattiest and most delicious breakfast of my life, I sprint from Knowlton to Saint-Benoît-du-Lac. This place wins the award for the smallest town in the Townships – one street, one house. But it’s a doozy.
The monastery was founded in 1912 by monks exiled from France. Today it’s a flourishing prayer house for fifty frères. They practice a rigid Benedictine order, which includes a minute-by-minute day plan of prayer, Gregorian chanting, meditation and silence. At this point I decide to shut up about how “tight” my riding schedule is.
The monk’s liturgy is interspersed with labour. And at Abbaye de St-Benoît-Du-Lac, that labour includes orchard-keeping, cider-brewing and cheese-making. Lovely!
The Bleu Bénédictin is the monk’s best-known cheese, taking third place at the World Cheese Awards a few years ago (that’s the MotoGP of fromagerie). This velvety and punchy cheese lives up to the hype.
After the blue cheese comes the cider. I’m not a cider drinker, so I expect the sparkling apple juice that kids get for Christmas dinner. The monk’s cider is absolutely nothing like that. It’s an assault of carbonation that electrocutes the palate. Then you taste the bitter tang of fermentation, followed by an aftertaste of orchard-fresh apples. It’s interesting, but not my favourite drink for a frosty weekday morning.
I escape a second round of cider by stepping outside for an imaginary phone call. I can hear the muffled melody of Gregorian chanting through stone walls. Mass has started, which means it’s 11am on the dot (because monks are never late).
That also means I’m ahead of schedule. I take the opportunity to stretch my riding legs in the orchard. I feel like I’ve wandered into a storybook illustration yet again. Picking a fresh apple from the tree, I immediately forget the taste of Benedictine cider.
The abbey is a special place. Its silence and pastoral charms are nothing new to the Townships, but the timelessness is striking. I might have ridden into the sixth century for all I know. Hundreds and thousands of years have been stilled and distilled into one daily schedule – practiced and re-practiced by monks throughout history. Considering my fast-paced life in Montreal, there’s comfort in finding something that never changes.
We leave Saint-Benoit-du-Lac for Coaticook. I put my head down and shift up – eager to get further ahead of schedule. But I enter a decreasing radius corner too fast and lean the bike too far. My rear tire hits a wet leaf and immediately releases its grip. I’m almost sideways when it hooks up again, sending my motorcycle into a death wobble.
I’ve seen enough YouTube videos to know that this ends on the high side. Fortunately my feet slip off the slick rubber footpegs, making me involuntarily loose on the motorcycle. As it turns out, staying loose is the best way to straighten a wobbly situation. I emerge at the other end of the corner – Blue Bénédictin back in my throat – but rubber side down.
I spend the rest of the ride to Coaticook lecturing myself – making promises to never repeat that mistake again.
If you grocery shop in Quebec, you’ll know Coaticook from the frozen foods aisle. The town is well-known for providing the ice cream of your childhood. Or for my generation, the ice cream we missed out on.
Modern creameries use whey powder and vegetable oil instead of milk and cream. But having passed a million cows on my way into Coaticook, I’m assured that this place is different. Indeed, the taste is remarkably raw and dairy-ish. You wouldn’t think that tasting a cow in your ice cream cone is a good thing. But it is.
My shadow is getting taller than I am, so it’s time to loop back towards Montreal. We hit Trois Acres en route and meet the Eastern Township’s "gentleman farmer" firsthand. Or gentleman beekeeper, as it were.
Trois Acres is at the end of a very long dirt road, so the ride itself is worth the trip. The honey store is small and homey – a little rectangular room that is merged with the beekeeper’s living space. Yet again, storybook references are all too tempting.
The owner is happy to chat with us, perhaps because we are essentially standing in his living room. He talks passionately about his bees and their honey. I can see why, because the tasters make me swear off the grocery-store variety for the rest of my life.
The most interesting part is the beekeeper’s philosophy on business. He loves the dirt road that leads to his house precisely because it brings less people to his store. He recognizes that success isn’t always successful. He sees that the growth of his operation would only hurt its quality. Trois Acres could be greater, but that would only make it lesser.
This is so quintessential of the Townships. My city is always moving at the same rate as its ambitions, chasing something it will never catch. But the countryside is a world away from Montréal. Its means rest within its ends. There is no desire to change – no need to change. The word “Townships” could be read “Contentment.”
When I jump on the bike for the final stretch, my dashboard clock assures me that I’m going to make it. I still have time for the final stop of our food tour. I managed to eat duck at dawn, cider and cheese for breakfast, ice cream for lunch and honey for dinner. This evening’s glass of wine will be the only well-placed sampling of the day.
The setting sun is filtering through rows of grapes when I pull into Vignoble de la Bauge. The Eastern Townships are milder and more fertile than the rest of Québec, creating a little enclave of viniculture. A tiny sign in the parking lot notes that I’m on La Route des Vins. It must be the route less travelled by, because the film crew and I are the only ones here.
I mistake the main building for a supply shed. Growing up in the Okanagan Valley, I’ve come to expect grandeur from a winery – bell towers, pyramids, gilded archways – that’s what I’m used to. But this vineyard takes a refreshingly humble approach.
The sommelier is dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt. She lights up when we mention touring the Eastern Townships and talks lovingly about her countryside. We chitchat for ages before she pulls out six glasses and pours with pride. Two reds, two whites, one rosé and one ice wine. This Okanagan boy didn’t expect much from the supply-shed winery, but my eyebrows shoot up when I reach the rosé. She nods knowingly and points to the back wall. Tucked into the far corner is a plaque from a Canadian wine competition: gold medal.
As I head back to Montreal – leaves dropping behind me – the image of that stashed-away plaque sticks in my mind. The Townships might be famous in the fall, but this world-class region wants nothing to do with the world or its classes. The monks live in timeless tranquility. The beekeeper doesn’t want his business to grow. The winery lets the wine speak for itself.
I realize now that I took a city approach to the countryside. Yes, I crammed all the autumn colours and flavours into two days. But the Townships were never about racing time.
They’re about escaping time.
We chase after our endless to-do list while the Eastern Townships – quietly, deliberately – step to the side. There is comfort in watching the leaves change year after year, and knowing that everything else will stay the same.
Tips for Motorcycling the Eastern Townships
- The best fall colours and flavours arrive during the first and second weeks of October. If you want to be more precise, check out Québec’s leaf colour tracker.
- Road riders will enjoy one of the pre-planned riding routes. The Eastern Townships have put together three itineraries: Route des Sommets, Route des Vins and Chemin des Cantons. Each one is complete with suggested stops, restaurants and hotels.
- ADV riders should stick to the dirt. The Eastern Townships are extremely popular with tourists and fortunately, most rental-car warriors avoid dirt roads like the plague. So stay off the tarmac and you should stay out of traffic.
- Avoid Thanksgiving weekend. There’s a Montréal tradition of taking a road trip to the Eastern Townships at Thanksgiving. And when you cram Canada’s 2nd largest city into a small countryside, bad things happen.
- Bring your passport. Halfway through our riding day, I found myself staring longingly at a cheap gas station with a cool-looking diner. The problem was, the other side of the road happened to be Vermont.
- Bring sunglasses. The Eastern Townships are the perfect day trip from Montréal. But that means you’ll be riding east in the morning and west in the evening. In other words, you’ll have two long stare-downs with the sun.
- Don’t plan ahead. This is probably the only time that I’ll advise this. But the Eastern Townships are best experienced from the seat of your pants. Go with the flow, leave your watch at home and get lost in the magic of this place.
- Ride on a clear night. We didn’t have time for a night ride, but it’s something that would be high on my to-do list for next year. The Eastern Townships contain the world’s first international dark sky reserve, so the starlight is special.
- Ride Chemin de la Slouce. It feels like a manicured racing track – twisty, two motorcycles wide and surfaced with flawlessly soft dirt. Out of everything that I rode in the Eastern Townships, this road was my favourite.