Comfortably ensconced in wicker chairs on the wide veranda of Hovey Manor, we’re sipping sparkling wine and talking about life as sheets of rain pelt down on the lake.
“It’s a play of light and dark. Let’s just hope that the dark doesn’t come out tonight,” says Louise Penny, with an air of mystery and a mirthful grin. Clearly, this renowned mystery writer speaks as she writes, giving you pieces and leaving you to puzzle out the parts left unsaid.
“I’ve gone through periods in my life that have been difficult – and dreamed of a place that was safe,” she says. She found it in the Eastern Townships, the setting of most of her seven books, an hour southeast of Montreal.
We’re here exploring Ms. Penny’s Quebec, driving winding roads around Lake Memphremagog and Lac Brome, through Sutton, Lac-Brome (Knowlton), Georgeville and North Hatley, stopping in bookstores, bistros, boutiques and country inns that have inspired one of Canada’s bestselling mystery writers. We even get to spend the first evening with the author herself.
There’s “a sense of idyllic place,” Ms. Penny says of the region. And it’s usually here where murders take place in her books – shattering the seemingly indestructible beauty. “Place is really character for me. It’s really a love letter to this area.”
By reading her first four books in order, she hopes people “will get a sense of what it’s like to live in Quebec,” as each is set in a different season. But she wants you to actually come, to smell the pines, feel the air and enjoy the local dishes.
At Hovey Manor, where we start our trip, Ms. Penny jokes that she “sleeps around,” referring to the many rooms she and her husband, Michael Whitehead, have stayed in on their numerous visits. You can see why they had their two-day wedding party here. This stunning Relais & Chateaux property was inspired by George Washington’s home in Mt. Vernon, Va. It’s steeped in history – and romance. It is also the inn on which Manoir Bellechasse ( The Murder Stone) was loosely based.
I could easily while away the evening next to the fireplace, if not for the Magdalen Islands lobster, the chocolate custard and sesame seed ice cream that beckons me to the table. At night, I eat chocolates laid out for me on the bed, slip under my quilt, and sleep until the birds sing me awake the next morning.
The Old Mansion House in Georgeville is our next stop. Formerly Auberge Georgeville, it was the inspiration for the possibly haunted Hadley House in The Cruelest Month. Despite the real-life rumour about a young girl falling from her horse to her death, this rambling, pink estate has a welcoming vibe. Originally built as a rooming house in 1889, it has eight bedrooms, eight bathrooms, seven living rooms, a wraparound porch on the first and second floor, a renovated kitchen with a beautifully lit coffered ceiling and a wide lawn for croquet.
Our next stop is Brome Lake Books in Lac-Brome (Knowlton), where you can buy a Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mug (for the uninitiated, he’s the steady and likeable crime-solving detective in Ms. Penny’s books), and get a free licorice pipe with your mug, the same old-fashioned candy that the Inspector gets when solving mysteries in Three Pines, the fictional village Ms. Penny’s readers long to visit.
Or, as I did, you can buy a signed copy of one of Ms. Penny’s books. Owners Danny McAuley and Lucy Hoblyn hosted the author’s first book launch here, and they have held an event for each new book. But because the last turnout was so big, they will be hosting the launch of Ms. Penny’s next book, The Beautiful Mystery, on Aug. 25 at the local community centre.
Our final stop for the day is at the Auberge du Joli Vent in Lac-Brome, owned by Quebec-born Patricia Provencher and her eccentric but affable German-Swiss husband Hans Christiner. With a doctorate in endocrinology, Ms. Provencher – recognizing the link between stress and disease – creates a relaxing experience for her guests. The rooms are basic but comfortable, there’s swimming in the outdoor pool or the lake, which is just minutes from the Auberge. When I set out to explore the 46-hectare property, I have trouble finding a hiking trailhead until Mr. Christiner – emerging from the kitchen in chef’s apron – insists on taking me out on the back of his four-wheel-drive tractor for a personal tour. Then he’s back to the kitchen to create a spectacular dinner of marinated Atlantic salmon with Asian-style rice noodles and seaweed salad, home-grown asparagus risotto, Brome Lake duck leg, and a dessert sampler that includes to-die-for chocolate terrine. Their restaurant is one of about 20 in the first year of the Chefs Créateurs program, which recognizes Eastern Township chefs who use local food producers.
At Vignoble Domaine Bresee in Sutton, on the Quebec Route des Vins, vineyard co-owner Stacey Richardson introduces us to a fabulous rosé with hints of strawberry and cranberry (Rosé Nessa) and the winery’s impressive white Bressoc, which is made from the first clear drops of juice from the flesh of red St. Croix grapes. This is a labour-intensive process that has yielded close to 5,000 bottles since she and her husband Rick Bresee began producing it in 2008.
Feeling lazy and content after a picnic and glass of rosé on the lawn, we get back into the car, this time headed to Gîte Vert Le Mont B&B in the heart of Sutton village, not so far from Ms. Penny’s home, for our last night. The 1916 Loyalist-style bed and breakfast is typical of many homes in the Townships, influenced by Loyalists who settled here after the War of Independence. British owner Lynda Graham shares gossip and information on all things Sutton, and I take her lead when I explore. I visit CaféTintoretto, the bistro Ms. Penny drops into for soup and scones; La Rumeur Affamée, with its fabulous selection of cheeses, the Galerie Farfelu, a co-operative of local artists selling jewellery, leather and other wares frequented by Ms. Penny, and the Sutton Museum, with its special exhibit on Jehane Benoît, the culinary author who lived on a sheep farm in the Townships until her death in 1987.
Our final supper of the trip is at the Auberge des Appalaches up the road. John Kostiuk, also a member of Chef Créateurs, has concocted an intriguing menu – Darjeeling tea-poached scallops with fennel and radish to start, a rillette of house-smoked trout and a duck leg confit as a main. By the time we finish our meal, it is late, and we drive the short distance back to the B&B in satiated silence.
It’s almost time to leave this idyllic B&B but we’ve got time to linger over breakfast: homemade rhubarb, pear and apple compote, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on the wraparound porch. We’ll soon be heading north across the Champlain Bridge, and the bruised and swollen grey sky that we arrived in now a brilliant clear blue. The journey home seems long, but I have a copy of The Murder Stone in my purse, and I know time will fly.
Where to stay
Manoir Hovey: Rooms start at $150 a person, double occupancy, which includes dinner, breakfast and gratuities. 575 Hovey Road, Lake Massawippi, North Hatley; hoveymanor.com
Vignoble Domaine Bresee: The vineyard’s owners rent out a small secluded chalet only minutes from their vineyard. Rooms from $150 a night or $700 a week. 450-538-3303; vignobledomainebresee.com
The Old Mansion House: You can rent the house for about $2,500 a week, more if you want a private chef. 71 chemin Channel, Georgeville; mansionhousegeorgeville.com
The Auberge du Joli Vent: The auberge is open Fridays and Saturday nights, as well as Thursdays beginning in July. Rooms from $130. 667 chemin Bondville, Lac-Brome. 1-866-525-4272; aubergedujolivent.com.
Gîte Vert Le Mont B&B: Each room has a small ensuite bathroom. Rooms from $89. 18, rue Maple, Sutton, 450-538-3227; bbsutton.com
What to see
The Townships also boast 17 vineyards as part of the Quebec Route des Vins. Bike or drive between them for wine tastings routedesvins.ca
For more information on the Eastern Townships, visit easterntownships.org.
Special to The Globe and Mail
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Quebec.