Story and photos By Stephanie Levin.
Warning! This is not a quiz. But if you’re not from Canada, or your geographical antenna isn’t pointed toward Quebec, the Lower Laurentians might bypass your radar screen, and that would be too bad, particularly for the traveler who thrives on unassuming pristine landscapes, sporting adventures, family farms and wide-open spaces.
The Laurentians divide splendidly into three regions beginning with the Lower Laurentians, an hour drive from Montreal, the Heartland, think Mont Tremblant, a three-hour drive and the Upper Laurentians, comprising 4,500 lakes and rivers throughout the region. Due to Montreal’s convenient location, the Lower Laurentians makes a fine day excursion. Rural and quiet, the agricultural district of Mirabel, which boasts the largest number of sugar shacks-yes, sugar shacks, a smorgasbord of Canadian maple syrup delights, is an easy drive.
September and October are the perfect months to visit, but winter also offers a concert of delights. Fall arrives unannounced cloaking the countryside in crimson and gold. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Cidrerie Les Verger Lafrance‘s 350-acre apple orchard. The 12,000 organic trees, pregnant with plump apples, bring tourist and families in mid-October to pick apples and picnic on the grounds. For the intrepid wine taster or the curious, the fascinating process of making ice-wine and ice-cider (only made in Canada) is best told over the ice-wine tasting bar with an enthusiastic ice-wine maker. The ciderhouse proposes 17 varieties of cider including the Domaine Lafrance ice cider, winner of multiple awards. Homemade meals from the café are an added treat for the hungry.
From bucolic apple orchards, expect to encounter a buzzing business at one of the sweetest family businesses on route, Intermiel, home to 6500 beehives. Like many of the businesses along this route, I arrived with little understanding about beekeeping, but came away with a headful of knowledge. I learned that these busy bees pollinate flowers all over Quebec, terminating in one of the most interesting honey farms in Canada. In the educational center I garnered a thing or two watching the beekeepers smoke the hives. Did you know that bees orient themselves with the sun as a reference point in navigation and communication? A taste of honey is a must and I savored blueberry honey, and chocolate-honey spread, and if my friend hadn’t moved me along, I might have spent the afternoon savoring a variety of honeys as well as honey products.
Down the road and around the bend, 125,000 lavender plants send the nose a quiver at La Maison Lavande. Summer is the best time to meander through this field, divided into different rows of lavender, each with its own history and lavender expert revealing the medicinal secrets of this much loved plant. Lavender lovers bundle up in the fall, picnic on the lavender grounds, then spend the afternoon wandering through the two lavender boutiques that boast 50 exclusive handcrafted products produced onsite from perfume to all-natural cosmetic products, or you can munch on lavender- infused snacks from the snack bar.
While much of the Lower Laurentians thrives during the three milder seasons, Parc règional éducative bois de Belle-Rivière is a unique natural site offering year round activities from walking trails, picnic areas to horseback riding. Ice-skating, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing dominate winter while swimming, cycling and fishing are favorite summer activities. If you are looking for more than a day activity, huts and big top tents are available to rent. Dog lovers can bring their pooches for an extra $1.
What better way to wind down a scenic afternoon than with wine tasting. Coming from Northern California, where one can be a bit of a wine snob, I was delighted to discover Vignoble Rivière du Chêne a family-owned vineyard founded by a passionate young wine maker in love with viticulture. The domain is committed to producing “Certified Quebec Wines” respecting both tradition and the land where the grapes are cultivated. Tastings are offered in an intimate, casual environment with the winemaker on hand. Small is beautiful has my vote when it comes to this winery.
After a fine glass of wine with the sun descending over the trees, I tour Route des Gerbes d’Angelica, a sensorial thematic garden. This is not your typical garden, but a large swath of land divided into various types of thematic gardens from whimsical to herbal, all connected by paths. The lovely ladies that attend to the gardens also produce and sell wood-burning artisan breads from local products as well as herbal teas and jams. The organic herbs, all plucked from the garden, are a delight to sip and savor on a chilly, crisp fall afternoon, and in spring 50,000 tulips and daffodils assert their colorful blossoms drawing tourist from afar for one-hour guided tours.
Winter, spring, summer or fall, the Lower Laurentians offers the curious, intrepid traveler a window into the Canadian countryside and its way of life, all a mere hour from bustling Montreal.
IF YOU GO:
For more information, visit Tourism Laurentians here.
Cidrerie Les Verger Lafrance‘s apple orchard: 1473, chemin Principal, Sainte-Joseph-du-Lac, Exits 2 or 8 Highway 640 West
Intermiel beekeepers: 10291, rang de la Fresnière, Mirabel, Exit Highway 8, 640 West
La Maison Lavande lavender farm: 902 chemin Fresnière, Saint Eustache, Exit, 11 Highway, 640 West
Parc règional éducative bois de Belle-Rivière regional park: 9009, route Arthur-Sauvé, Mirabel, Exit 279, Highway 50, or Exit 11, Highway 640 West
Vignoble Rivière du Chêne vineyard: 807 chemin de la Rivière Nord, Saint-Eustache. Exit 11, Highway 640
Route des Gerbes d’Angelica garden: 6015, rang Saint-Vincent, Mirabel, Exit 11 Highway, 640 West