It's hard to know which season to recommend visiting this part of Québec's Eastern Townships.
Late spring's apple blossoms are spectacular for the senses, with waves of fragrant blossoms for all the world resembling an undulating ocean of pink.
But during autumn's fine cool days, when its so lovely to go on a country drive, who can resist an excursion whose rewards will include delectable, crisp apples you can hand-pick yourself?
Now that fall is approaching, we're all set to head off to this region… and not just for apples. There's that mouth-watering Belgian chocolate shop to visit… not to mention the little village of Chambly with its Unibroue Brewery… and Fort Chambly.
Located about an hour's drive east of Montreal via Highway 20 and then south on Hwy 133, this region (named Montérégie) is well worth discovering. And by all means take your bicycles, for the back country roads are both pretty as well as being safe, particularly on weekdays when the apple-picking public aren't out in droves.
Your first stop could be Mont St. Hilaire (Centre de conservation de la nature du Mont-Saint-Hilaire) which was Canada's first UNESCO biosphere reserve. It's an unlikely-looking bump, or "mini-mountain" sticking out of a fairly flat plain. It has 22 km of hiking (or skiing) trails and its wooded slopes are home to 84 species of birds. Pack binoculars, your day bag, and head off for a happy several hours of observation.
In fact, you'll soon notice that there are several "bump-like" mountains rising from the plain here. It's an intriguing geological phenomenon in this part of Québec.
Continue south along the east bank of the Richelieu River, along Chemin des Patriotes and at Otterburn Park turn left on Rue Prince Albert. Another left brings you to that wonderful Belgian chocolate place we mentioned, above, named La Cabosse d'Or Chocolaterie.
We cannot resist good chocolate. Why bother trying? Go on and indulge. We cannot think of anywhere else you can get such a richly delicious dark chocolate milkshake. If you're fortunate you may be able to tour behind the scenes, but for sure you can wander the little "chocolate trail" outside. Depicting the history of chocolate through the ages, it adds a bit of fun en route and gets you outside, away from the car.
Now that you are fortified adequately, we'll introduce you to your first cidrerie, or orchard.
Go north on Chemin Ozias Leduc, right onto Chemin de la Montagne, then watch for Cidrerie du Verger Gaston (1074 Ch. de la Montagne). This is a totally organic orchard.
It is also one of Québec's Economuseums, special museums which focus on explaining old-time crafts and industries. You may not find many explanations in English, but don't fret: we found that between our French and the English that most employees speak, that there was no problem whatsoever. Besides which, the basics of gathering, sorting, and pressing apples is fairly easy to comprehend.
For sure pick up some of the cider, though leave sampling it until you've finished driving as it's quite alcoholic.
And, buy some apples. There are many varieties to choose from: call ahead if you wish, at 450-446-2552 to ensure there are some varieties ripe enough to gather.
Continue along the pretty backroads that undulate through the orchards: this is the Rougemont region. Sir Etienne Rougement set sail from France in1665 to do battle with the Iroquois here. Find the Rougemont Tourist Information Center at 11 Chemin Marieville. Not only are there lots of excellent brochures here, there is also a sample orchard featuring heritage apple trees, all of which are labelled. Find rare varieties we'd never heard of previously, such as the Lubsk Queen from Russia, or Laid or Lady Apple.
Now press on to Chambly, heading west on Highway 112 through Marieville and Richelieu. The Bassin de Chambly (Chambly Basin) forms a pretty lake.
At number 2, Rue de Richelieu right in Chambly, do not miss visiting Fort Chambly which is operated - and bilingually interpreted - by Parks Canada. Watch the video on the history of the fort which was originally erected from wood in 1665, then rebuilt in 1709 in stone, so as to withstand the British cannon fire. Alas, the French lost the battle and surrendered to the Brits on September 1, 1760. It briefly fell in to American hands in 1775 for only one year, then during the War of 1812 the anxious British updated their fortifications.
By 1870 it was closed: no longer required as a fort, thank goodness!
Nearby, you will possibly want to cool down with a fine beer made by award-winning brewery called Uniebroue at 80 Des Carrières, Chambly, 450-658-7658; www.unibroue.com/indexa.htm.
The tour is a must… as is sampling their different beers. Just do take care. The alcohol content is high and, with names for their beer like Fin du Monde (End of the World) perhaps they're trying to tell you something! As ever, don't drink and drive.
Where to stay, you ask? There are several delightful looking inns and B&Bs in the region. We stayed at a B&B called L'Air du Temps which overlooks the Bassin de Chambly.
And we dined on delicious "wild foods" such as heart of bullrush and other fare at a spot called Forquet Fourchette, a restaurant and beer appreciation centre. Here the servers all wore old-style homespun clothes. More than this, the foods were prepared featuring Unibroue beers. This was a real treat, particularly after being on the Unibroue Brewery tour.
Whether its apples, old battles and forts, or beer, this part of Québec offers a rich kaleidoscope of offerings for most tastes.
From Montreal, take highway 20 East. Drive about 24 km to Mont-Saint-Hilaire, then go south on Highway 133 to Otterburn Park.
Contact the Montérégie tourism office at:
Association touristique régionale de la Montérégie
989, rue Pierre-Dupuy
Longueuil (Québec) J4K 1A1
Tel: (514) 674-5555
Fax: (514) 463-2876
Hours: Monday to Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Web site: www.destinationquebec.com/region/ereg_det_montregi.html
Centre de conservation de la nature du Mont-Saint-Hilaire (450-467-1755); La Cabosse d'Or Chocolaterie (www.lacabossedor.com/en/home.htm; 450-464-6937).
L'Air du Temps B&B: 80 rue des Carrières (toll-free 1-888-658-1642).
La Maison Ducharme, 10 de Richelieu Street (514-447-1220). An old armory, this was used to house about 400 soldiers during the war of 1812.