Ayer’s Cliff, Quebec — Winter in Quebec’s woodsy Eastern Townships can mean sleigh rides and a cozy corner by the fire with a good book. Or perhaps, for the more adventurous, ice fishing. Americans have been crossing the border into Quebec since Loyalists moved here when the United States declared its independence from England.
These days Americans are coming up for Quebec’s legendary hospitality, and many of them are visiting two charming inns on Lake Massawippi that are owned by members of the local Stafford family — Auberge Ripplecove & Spa near the village of Ayer’s Cliff, and Manoir Hovey, part of the luxurious Relais & Châteaux chain — near the village of North Hatley.
Both inns are close to the Vermont border and about a 75-mile drive to Montreal.
Visitors can enjoy both properties with a four-night package of two nights at each, and when the weather warms up, the package includes an inn-to-inn boat tour on Lake Massawippi, or an inn-to-inn bike tour, with the inns supplying the bikes, packed lunch, and car and luggage transport.
Over the years, people have reported sightings of the “Massawippi monster,” possibly a northern pike said to be between seven and 12 feet long, but anglers do pretty well fishing for trout on the lake.
Ripplecove has 33 rooms and suites, some with fireplaces and terraces, plus three cottages, one of which, the Appalachian Cottage, is a fully restored, hand-hewn log cabin built in 1890 with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fireplace, and a lakeside covered porch.
Another cottage, the Owl’s View Chalet, is a three-bedroom log cottage on Lake Memphremagog, about 20 minutes from Ripplecove, with a waterfront dock and a canoe.
The Birches, the former innkeeper’s residence, comes with a heated pool, three bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths.
Ripplecove’s dining room contains a scale model of “The Hampton Trawler,” a maritime fishing vessel once used to pull lobster traps; in the Nag’s Head Bar, there’s a ship’s wheel from “The Tadeusac,” which sailed between Montreal and Quebec City.
The 37-room Manoir Hovey was once the luxurious estate of Henry Atkinson, a 19th-century Atlanta businessman who modeled the place after George Washington’s Mount Vernon home.
After waking up in our rustic, lakeside cabin, it was a short walk for our Manoir Hovey breakfast, which, on one memorable morning, was pancakes as light as crepes, fresh Quebec maple syrup and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Both inns offer sumptuous dinners, and their wine cellars have won impressive Wine Spectator awards.
Ripplecove has complimentary sleigh rides every Saturday, and both inns offer a variety of winter sports activities, including ice fishing.
The influx of Americans has left its mark in this part of Quebec: many Loyalists intermarried with French Quebecers, and the places they settled still bear English names like North Hatley.
Ukrainian Jews also settled in the Eastern Townships in the late 19th century, primarily in Sherbrooke, the Eastern Townships’ main city, about 12 miles from the lake.
They built a synagogue there called Agudath Achim and prospered, but over time their numbers dwindled, and the synagogue was sold to a church, though the bima and the mikveh still remain.
Today, the rebirth of the Jewish community is taking place under the Agudath Achim Society, led by Newton, Mass., expat Lisa Stern and her husband, Zachary Gillman, whose grandfather arrived from the Ukrainian town of Ostropol and helped start the original synagogue.
By Stern’s estimate, Sherbrooke and the Eastern Townships now count about 100 Jews, some drawn by the University of Sherbrooke and the local hospital.
The Canadian Jewish Congress has offered assistance, and things seem to be looking up for Jewish life in the area.
“We have Jews here from all over the world,” said Stern.
“We have Israelis, we have Argentinians, we have people from Europe; so more and more Jews are coming.
“It’s a diverse group,” Stern continued. “We have people who are secular to people who are observant. But regardless of all that, I think our common goal is to have a large enough community to support a shul.”
In the meantime, the group continues to hold holiday celebrations, and invites visitors who may be here from the U.S. The group’s website is www.agudathachim.ca.
When those early European Jews arrived in the Eastern Townships, it’s likely that some of them would have visited the J.B. LeBaron grocery, open since 1888 on Main Street in North Hatley.
“People say that you can find anything you want here,” said Josephine LeBaron, whose grandfather and father ran the place before her, creaky wooden floors and all.
One thing not to miss in the warmer seasons is an excursion across Lake Memphremagog with Escapades Memphremagog. After our own excursion, we stopped in Magog for dinner at a busy Italian bistro, rushing inside to get out of a sudden downpour.
But no matter what the weather or the season, you’ll find Quebec’s Eastern Townships a pure delight.