As I let go of the T-bar and roll off the tube that carried me up the mountain, I take a deep breath and sit on my Zipfy, a strange-looking plastic gizmo with a handle. Then I take off, laughing and hooting, sliding so quickly that groups of young kids on the mountain dart out of the way to watch me speed by in awe. (In retrospect, I realize they were likely afraid I was out of control). Nonetheless, I haven’t had so much exhilarating fun in a long time. After a couple of tries, I get the hang of using my body weight to steer, rather than wearing holes in my gloves by dragging my hands.
The other options for sliding fun here at Parc du Mont Hatley, an old ski hill that has been cleverly transformed into the only alternative sliding centre in Quebec, are a GT racer or a large tire tube. I remember the GT racer from when my kids were young – those things are fast! But the tube seemed, well, just a bit tame. The Zipfy is perfect.
I’m in Quebec to explore winter activities. As a Canadian, seldom do I consider a snow destination as a winter getaway, so I am eager to check this out. Two days earlier, I’d arrived at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport and made the hour drive to the Cantons de l’Est (Eastern Townships), a largely rural area scattered with quaint villages, farms, and lakes, in time to dine on a regional specialty, duck confit (raised just down the road at a 100-year-old farm) at the restaurant at Château Bromont, where I am staying.
My next day starts with a visit to the Centre National de Cyclisme de Bromont, a national cycling centre that, in 2000, bought the 1996 Atlantic Olympics velodrome. Nicolas Legault, the general manager, advises that in the summer it is used by athletes preparing for world competitions and the Olympics. According to Legault, to use the velodrome you must go through a try-out to ensure you can drop in to the 250-metre oval at 25 km/hour (or you will fall to the bottom of its steeply banked corners). I realize this counts me out, but as I stand at the top of the velodrome, I am in awe of those who can do this. The Centre also rents fat bikes, so I try a ride. I love the feeling of snow biking; like riding on air, the traction is good, even in the fresh snow.
Later, as I continue towards Bromont Sur-de-Lac, I pass beautiful wine estates and rows of bare, snow-covered vines overlooking Lac Brome. I arrive at Balnea Spa, a thermotherapy spa located on a 400-acre private forest reserve. The facility boasts several different saunas and pools, a lounge and a restaurant for healthy fine dining, a sweat lodge and even a waterfall overlooking a private lake.
As he hands me my robe and a water bottle to stay hydrated, my host, Charles, says it is best for the health to follow the traditional three-step thermotherapy cycle: 15 minutes in hot, 15 seconds in a cold plunge (head and all) and 15 minutes rest. Repeat as desired. At Balnea, there are so many different combinations and permutations of hot-cold-rest options that you would be hard-pressed to try them all in one day. Although I’m told that Quebec has a spa culture, I can’t believe the price for all of this luxury is only $60 for the day, or $135 with a massage.
At the charming French alpine-style Auberge aux 4 Saisons d’Orford, where I’m staying for the night, I dine at the Bistro 4 Saisons. I decide to go regional again with a spicy beef tartare, delicious with its garnishes of capers and pickled cauliflower, followed by a Quebecois classic entrée – moules frites (steamed mussels and fries) with mayo as the dip for the fries in classic French style, plus a glass of fine local red wine (there was a wine room in every restaurant I saw, how French is that?).
I go to bed so full that it’s a good thing the next day I am at Mont Megantic National Park to do a six-kilometre hike (there are snowshoes available for deep snow) on a loop called Pain de Sucre. The guide for my group, Camille Antoine, points out coyote tracks, which are smaller than those in the West, and squirrel and rabbit tracks in the snow. The maple groves are massive and I know I must come back some time in the autumn to see the red foliage. At 1,105 metres, Megantic is one of Quebec’s largest mountains, but Camille jokes that it’s still just a hill by BC standards. Nevertheless, at the summit, I can see forever and, on the way up, I learn a lot as Camille explains this is one of the few subarctic boreal forests found for miles, and points out the progression of forest growth as we ascend: yellow birch, giving way to white birch, and eventually spruce.
I had never thought about light pollution until that evening when I went to see a presentation at the Astrolab in Megantic National Park. The Astrolab is a member of the International Dark Sky Reserve, meaning its sky quality and natural darkness are protected – one of only 11 such facilities in the world and the only one in Canada. On my tour, I learn we are losing our dark skies due to light pollution from nighttime electric lighting, meaning future generations will be hard-pressed to see stars and constellations. It’s already been estimated that the Milky Way is no longer visible to one-third of humanity.
That night, I stay at the most unique accommodation of my trip at the EXP cabins, located within the park. These small cabins were obviously designed by an architect who went to the Ikea-design school, as not a centimetre of space is wasted. There’s a compact kitchen, bathroom, and even a skylight over the bed to continue the star-gazing theme. A small, wood stove is a romantic touch, and the kitchen table flips sideways into a chair for a place to cuddle up in front of a flickering fire.
Some places have cities with a Chinatown or Little Italy, where you can feel like you are temporarily in another country, but with Quebec, we have a whole province where we can be transported with its French language, and unique food and customs. Definitely a great place for a winter adventure!
For more information, visit: www.easterntownships.org
photos by: Kate Robertson