Travel: Montreal, Quebec

After the thrill of the city, relax at the spas and lakes of the idyllic Eastern Townships

The world is full of feuds but none is quite as endearing as Montreal and New York’s bagel rivalry. Montreal justifiably prides itself on being Canada’s New York, a bustling melting pot of nationalities that’s bursting at the seams with creative energy. Mention New York’s bagels, however, and Montrealers will bristle with indignation and launch into a tirade about their jaw-breaking chewiness. Outside Fairmount, a bagel bakery in Montreal’s bohemian Little Italy district, a heavenly, sweet, yeasty aroma wafts out of the wood-fired ovens. The shop dates back to 1919 when a Russian immigrant, Isadore Schlafman, opened Montreal’s first bagel bakery.

His descendents still run the business and their hand-rolled breakfast bagels are legendary in Montreal. The secret is in the city’s soft water, the long boiling time of the dough and the addition of a few drops of honey. The result is a lighter, fluffier bagel that many food connoisseurs consider the crème de la crème of North American bagels. I was eager to choose my side in this bagel battle. Biting through the aromatic hot crust, delicious toasted sesame seeds spilling from my lips, I had to agree that Montreal’s bagels win hands down.

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From Fairmount I wandered over to Jean-Talon Market, one of four city markets that champion locally farmed Quebecois produce. It was Saturday morning and in the July sunshine the similarity between Montreal and New York seemed less and less convincing. Immaculately tanned women in sunglasses were sipping cafés crème at pavement brasseries, watching cyclists pedal by with fresh baguettes poking out of their panniers. The atmosphere was far more Côte d’Azur than frenetic American metropolis, a feeling only compounded when I ambled into Premiere Moisson Boulangerie and a smiling shop assistant offered me a delicious mousse aux framboises to taste.

Montreal has a wonderful summer vibe and from May to September plays host to an astonishing array of outdoor festivals. The tradition started in the 1970s when struggling musicians clubbed together to give free live music performances in parks. The idea caught on and at any time over the summer months several festivals will be running simultaneously. This makes strolling around the city a delight. During my visit, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the largest in the world, was in full swing and the Quartier des Spectacles, Montreal’s entertainment district, was buzzing. In the city parks, acrobats and jugglers from the Montreal Circus Arts Festival were wowing crowds with their antics and at 10pm I wandered down to the St Lawrence River to see the International Fireworks Festival light up the skies above the graceful Jacques Cartier Bridge.

The festival lasts for four weeks and watching the spectacular pyrotechnic displays explode over the river, I couldn’t understand why Montrealers would want to leave the city during these exciting summer months. Deep down, however, most Canadians have a love of the Great Outdoors and when the city gets too hot to bear, Montrealers flock to the nearby Eastern Townships, a beautiful region of undulating mountains, lakes and forests that straddles the border with the US. Getting there couldn’t be easier. The wonderfully empty Route 10 whisks you over the St Lawrence River and within half an hour you’re driving through dappled maple woods in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

My first port of call was Vignoble de La Bauge, where I met vineyard owner Simon Naud, a smiling wine enthusiast with an endearingly chirpy Quebecois accent. He invited me to take part in a multisensory wine tasting experience on a wooden pavilion he’d built in the middle of his vineyard. One simple exercise involved matching a complex Frontenac Noir to different textured fabrics. I sipped the wine and gazed out over the sunlit vines shimmering in the summer breeze. Listening to unfamiliar birds twittering in the fields, a wave of well-being suddenly spread over me; if Montreal was relaxing, then the Eastern Townships felt positively tantric.

A popular leisure activity in the Quebec countryside is to spend the afternoon unwinding in outdoor Nordic spas. The location of Spa Nordic Station near Magog is straight out of Rivendell in Lord of the Rings. Wood-decked pathways meander down a thickly wooded ravine where steaming outdoor hot tubs and rustic-style Finnish saunas sit beside a gurgling river.

I’d never tried a Nordic spa treatment so was keen to adhere to the correct three-stage cycle. Following a sublime 20-minute soak in a fizzing hot tub I wandered down to the river for a cold dip. Plucking up courage, I took a deep breath and made the plunge…

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The feeling was sensational, akin to millions of icy pin pricks cascading over my skin. After a couple of minutes I collapsed, gasping, on a sun lounger and gazed up into the sky, my eyes watering as I tried focusing on a hawk circling above the tree tops. Three 
cycles later and I’d never felt so energised and invigorated.

That night I checked into Manoir Hovey, one of Quebec’s most beautiful hotels, on the shore of Lake Massawippi. Dating from 1900, this elegant colonial-style manor was built by Henry Atkinson, a business magnate from Atlanta, and was modelled on George Washington’s home at Mt Vernon in Virginia. Since visiting Jean-Talon Market in Montreal I’d been struck by the passion Quebecois have for locally grown produce and, feeling ravenous after my afternoon at the spa, I was eager to try out the acclaimed restaurant’s culinary delights.

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With lovingly tended vegetable plots, a foraging chef de cuisine and a string of organic farms within a ten-mile radius, the constantly changing menus are as fresh as a daisy. For a starter I tried Fiddlehead soup, made from delicate wild woodland fern tips. For a main course I ordered a meltingly tender duck magret, whose rich flavour was perfectly counterbalanced by the fresh earthiness of baby beets pulled straight from the kitchen garden.

In the morning I got up early to take a swim in Lake Massawippi. It was another perfect summer’s day and, although it was only 7am, the temperature was already a balmy 23˚C. Diving into the refreshing lake, I’d almost forgotten how beautiful northern summers can be. In the extreme continental climate, Canadians live for the summer months and in this chilled-out corner 
of Quebec, this glorious season 
rarely disappoints.

The Facts

Timeless Travel offers a Charming Inns and Gastronomy of Quebec Tour including two nights in Montreal, two nights in Quebec City and six nights in the Eastern Townships. Prices from £1,855pp including international flights, accommodation and car hire. Tel: 0844 809 4299, or visit www.timelesstravel.co.uk. For more information on Quebec, visit www.bonjourquebec.com