Saturday, July 12, 2008

Back from Appallachia

A few notes:

The Lake Memphremagog Valley is a little slice of the better parts of Europe, places like Lake Como except without as much old money. I bought cheese and hard cider from the monks of St. Benoit du Lac. No sign of Maxime Bernier, who, I believe, is still hiding there, on "retreat". Seriously. And no fossils worth bothering with.

The countryside is gorgeous. It reminds me of the Beaver Valley west of Collingwood and the Trenton-West Canada Creek-Mohawk Valley of New York. The weather is less pleasant than in those places, though.

There are a lot of vineyards taking shape in the region. I hope there's a market for all this Quebec plonk.

The Eastern Townships do have a level of pretentiousness that becomes quite comical once you clue into it. There are an awful lot of folks, especially among the Francophones, who are convinced they are living in the Loire Valley. The upside is they eat like they're in France -- there's lots of great food. The downside is the place is pretty much kid-unfriendly: few public beaches, and all are small and rather disgusting; store staff that seem terrified of school-age kids; no places to buy kids' books, videos or games for rainy days. In fact, with such high levels of precipitation, it's strange there's little sign that anyone has given any thought to what to do when it rains.

I get the feeling everyone in the region has The Barbarian Invasions on video and watches it any time they feel they need to refresh the cultural template.

There's a big tourism recession in Quebec. Gas prices range from $1.40 at Mansonville, on the US border (No sign of Charlie. I asked around.) to 1.45 off the beaten track and $1.48 in tourist traps like Bromont. In Ottawa, gas was selling for a seemingly-reasonable $1.33. During one week in the Eastern Townships, wandering on one one of the main tourist routes up past Jay Peak, and having travelled nearly every stinking highway, road and dirt trail in search of something to keep my kids busy, I noticed precisely two US plates (both Vermont) and one Ontario plate. The main streets of Bromont, Knowlton (last known hide-out of Paul Martin), Magog and small towns were empty. You could find a parking space easily. And this is the height of the summer tourist season.

The skiing does look great. I hope they make some money in the winter. Are there enough skiers in Montreal to keep five or six big resorts on the Quebec side of the border, plus Jay Peak just across the Vermont line, going?

There's an awful lot of property for sale. It reminded me of the Georgian Bay area in the 1980s. It's not much of an exageration to say every second cottage and hobby farm is for sale.

So my advice: book four days in a nice B&B sometime, suck it up and accept the nasty gas prices, and drive the lake road from Magag down through Austin and Knowlton Landing. It's up there with the Sunshine Coast highway and the Tiny Beaches Road as one of my favorite driving roads. Stop at the monastery and at Jewett's Store in Vale Perkins (My kids called it "The Happy Store". It's a wonderful old general store). Go across through Mansonville to Knowlton and ask where Paul Martin lives. (The locals get kind of strange when you do). Head over to Bromont and see the Chocolate Museum for its huge, bizarre carvings in chocolate. Find your way northeast through Waterloo and Eastman to Bonsecours and try to find the Crystal Mine two miles north of the village.

Then maybe head over to Lennoxville and Sherbrooke.

Try not to get pissy about the tattered Canadian flag over the Post Office in Magog and the real lack of any sign at all you're in Canada. I suppose the sponsorship program might have changed some of that, but someone stole all the money. You are in Quebec, and, as Stephen Harper says, Quebec is a nation. Believe it. "Canada" is only in Ontario.

Take your next holiday in the Maritimes. That's my plan.

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