Making Memories on a Wintry Jaunt Through Quebec's Countryside
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"Je Me Souviens,” say Quebec's white-and-blue license plates. I remember. You can drive north or east from Montreal for a whole day and still be in Canada's French-speaking province, notorious for its political and emotional separateness from the rest of English-speaking Canada.
The saying is Quebec's motto, but until 1978, the license plates read “La Belle Province.” Some trace the new phrase, which was adopted during a surge of support for the province's independence movement, to a poetic fragment: “I remember that, born under the lily, I grow under the rose.” The lily is a symbol of France, the rose of England.
My own remembrances of Canada are dappled. I've lived in New York since 1998, but I was born in Toronto, and over the past dozen years, I've spent an increasing amount of time in Montreal with my family. In 2019 we bought an apartment there—partly because, with four kids and three pets, it had become difficult to find people willing to rent to that much chaos. Owing to a couple of Canadian citizenships, we were able to decamp to Montreal for much of the pandemic. It was during this period that we also adopted a kitten, Tamaki, from Quebec City. But spending so much time in Montreal these past few years made me realize how little I'd seen of the rest of the province.
Of course, there have been occasional bursts of exploration, mostly in the warmer months. We've ventured north, into the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains, and east, through gentle northern plains, speeding past fields of lavender and stopping along the roadside to pick and eat some of the perfectly tiny blueberries or the mercilessly sweet little strawberries. But winter is my favorite season. And it was time, I reasoned, to give our snow tires a proper challenge.
For the first few nights, our motley crew—my partner Joe and our daughter Georgie, along with our friend Anastasia, our dogs Pompom and Nettle, and Tamaki—stayed in a cabin at Beside Habitat, a community of 75 modern rental homes set in a forest in Lanaudière. To get there, we turned off a main road and drove into a wood with many birch trees. Outside our dwelling, we could see their thin silvery barks and branches, with a few pale-yellow papery leaves holding on through the winter. The curvy byways had been cleared of snow, which even in March often reached as high as a few feet.
Late one afternoon, Georgie, Joe, and I set off to snowshoe toward one of the property's three ponds. In spring or summer, the walk would have probably taken 45 minutes; our clumsy traipse over the icy snow took about double that. Someone's foot would occasionally sink down, and our caravan would stop until it was extricated. Still, the walk sustained the wonderful illusion that the world was, for a moment, just us and the woods. When we arrived at the pond, it was smooth and white and frozen, with ripples blown across its snowy surface. We stepped out a bit, then a bit more, gaining confidence in the ice. Joe ventured to the middle, and Georgie started shouting with worry—but the ice, impermanent and irresistible, was plenty thick. The sunset appeared gray and lavender in the wintry haze. We headed back down the trail to our cabin, which glowed in the darkness.
“We think we're the first real estate project that started as a literary magazine,” Jean-Daniel Petit, Beside's president and cofounder, told me later. Petit, a natural storyteller, explained that he himself was more of a country boy from Abitibi-Témiscamingue, a rural region in western Quebec. He moved to Montreal for school, studied graphic design, and worked a longish spell in advertising—which meant he became a city boy too. But after working on a 30-second TV spot filmed in Los Angeles, featuring DJ Lunice, the baseball player Matt Kemp, and a pet sloth in a Ferrari, he had a change of heart. “For a 26-year-old, it was exciting. But when I called my dad, he said, ‘That's nice, I'm here playing with your niece,’ and I thought, That's where I want to be too.” Petit left advertising and went back home to found Abitibi&Co, a canoe and kayak outfitter, with his friend Guillaume Leblanc. Later, driven by a desire to marry nature with culture, they established Beside with their friend Eliane Cadieux. The trio purchased this stretch of woods and set about building an environmentally sound development. “I wanted something of both the city and the countryside,” Petit said. “That was our vision.”
The sleek Scandinavian-modern cabins are a good reflection of this. All wood and windows and light, they seem as though they could have sprung from the earth. Inside, locally crafted items combine high design with humble pragmatism: a leather-strapped canvas bag for gathering wood; ingenious wooden chairs that fold and unfold like toys; ceramic bowls and plates in earthy hues. The only things that didn't seem local were the small saunas in each cabin—that idea, Petit told me, came from Finland.
The next morning, Anastasia and I drove out to Grand Dérangement, a distillery in Saint-Jacques. Neither of us is great with directions, but we spotted the building easily: It looks like a boat whose prow is sinking under water—but here the water is dry land. Its window lines are parallel to the earth, the edges of its roof pitch forward.
Here we found a clue about what those license plates might be asking us to remember. In Canadian history, Le Grand Dérangement refers to the mid-18th-century expulsion by the British of the French-speaking Acadians during the French and Indian Wars; many had been living in the area for as long as a century. Close to half died, as ships sending them elsewhere capsized or became crowded with disease, and only a couple thousand Acadians are estimated to have remained in the area. A small museum inside the distillery explains the episode, with staged historical photos of some of the real Acadians from that time period, such as Pierre Melançon, nicknamed The Wizard for how he found aquifers, and Madeleine Doucet, an Acadian midwife who was deported and returned to New Acadia.
It's all largely a labor of love for the distillery's founder, Marcel Mailhot, whose nursery grows organic vegetables for the Arctic Gardens frozen line sold across the region. A lifelong resident of Saint-Jacques, Mailhot took over his parents' farm when he was 17; about 15 years ago, it became one of the first large farms in the province to adopt organic practices.
The head distiller, Louis-Vincent Gagnon, showed me around the enormous silver vats where organic grains were being processed; they would be used to make gin and vodka. “In Quebec, most distilleries don't produce the alcohol. Our grain comes from 2 to 10 kilometers away—and it's all done right here,” he said, gesturing to the modest two-room compound. At a long table at the head of the room, a man was hand-dipping the gin bottles in bright yellow wax to seal them. “With vodka, unlike gin, it's not so much about the taste,” Gagnon told me and Anastasia. “It's a way of showing respect for the land that the grain comes from—of remembering that this is our home.”
A few days later, Joe had to return to Montreal for work, taking the dogs and cat with him. Anastasia also had to head home, back to New York City. Georgie and I went ahead for a day of sweetness and, for me, a kind of vicarious nostalgia. In Quebec, and also in other parts of Canada, the visit to a sugar shack (in French, a cabane à sucre or érablière) is practically a requirement for graduating from childhood. You go as a kid to see how maple syrup is harvested from trees, how it is transformed by a series of distillations into the familiar sweet substance; you eat an instant lollipop made from maple syrup poured onto a bank of snow and then twisted on a stick.
Part of remembering, I would argue, is recognizing how many people and things have come to Quebec from elsewhere
I somehow reached adulthood without ever visiting a cabane à sucre! (I also never saw E.T. or went to a summer camp with canoeing.) I wanted Georgie to be more excited than she was, but she doesn't like maple syrup or even, somehow, candy. “But it's the woods,” I said, “and there might be wildlife.”
When we arrived at Érablière le Chemin du Roy, there was the best kind of wildlife: a crowd of schoolchildren on a field trip. Many were lined up at a small hill, waiting their turn to ride down on inflated tubes that would deposit them into a forest of spindly maple trees.
The owner, Réal Boissonneault, told us that he'd bought the sugar shack 31 years ago from the legendary hockey player Guy LaFleur. “We wanted to keep it in the old-fashioned way,” he said, explaining that this particular sugar shack had been around since 1925. He still used many of the same wooden barrels, which impart flavor to the syrup much like the barrels in which wines are aged. He also connects the practice of maple-syrup harvesting by the modern Quebecois to the techniques Indigenous people taught French and, later, British settlers: cutting into the tree with a tomahawk and then using the removed wedge of wood to channel the syrup flow outward into a mokuk, or bark basket. Georgie politely declined the various maple-syrup treats but happily headed to the hill where the schoolkids were.
We reached Quebec City proper as the sun was setting. Slowly we walked toward our hotel, with the wind at our faces. The St. Lawrence River looked like it was streaming in ice from centuries ago. We've seen the river look slushy in Montreal, but here it was almost like a giant's sidewalk. All around, the past felt a bit taller and louder than the present.
Except, perhaps, at Arvi, an experimental restaurant where we were greeted by a young man who looked like a goalie. “I'll be your host now,” he said, “but all of us work all roles here. So over the course of the evening, we'll rotate places as chef, dishwasher, sommelier—whatever is needed.”
The waiters and sommeliers were also storytellers—each dish was a journey. The oyster mushrooms, harvested from just across the St. Lawrence River, were dressed with local camelina seeds, which taste a little like sesame. The leeks, from nearby Bellechasse, were paired with a chèvre from a town closer to Montreal and then served in a sauce made from sea buckthorn.
“Sea buckthorn?” Georgie asked. I looked it up on my phone: It's a cold-loving shrub with cantaloupe-colored berries. These days it's common throughout Quebec, but it is endemic to Siberia. That, Georgie pointed out, made it just like Tamaki; she is a hypoallergenic breed, brought over from Siberia.
Part of remembering, I would argue, is recognizing how many people and things have come to Quebec from elsewhere. I wondered if Georgie would remember this meal, where the waitstaff was nice enough to recognize that this eight-year-old would pass on the pâté, and on the chaga mushroom cola, and even on the sea buckthorn—but would happily eat four courses of cavatelli on a tiny plate.
The restaurant was full, and it seemed like everyone was there for a special celebration—a birthday, an anniversary, or some other marking of time. “I miss Tamaki,” Georgie said, lamenting how long we'd been away from her (which was somehow always too long). We'd be heading home soon, but now we could also come back here, in the future, for a memory, if for a day we wanted a dollop of the past to have with our present.
Where to stay
Old and new worlds commingle at Hotel William Gray, where an 18th-century graystone houses 127 stylish, contemporary rooms and a buzzy rooftop bar. Since its opening in 1912, afternoon tea has been a ritual of the Ritz-Carlton Montreal, and now guests can roll right into happy hour, with Dom Pérignon served (atypically) by the glass.
Where to eat
At Beba, brothers Pablo and Ari Schor honor Argentine food's Spanish, Italian, and (for them, most personally) Jewish influences.
What to do
Do as the Montrealers do and embrace the chilly temps: Join a guided snowshoe walk through Mount Royal Park; hit the free ice-skating rink in Esplanade Tranquille (there's a rental counter for skates); or cross-country ski in Parc Jean Drapeau.
Lanaudière & Mauricie
Where to stay
With their cathedral-height windows, Beside Habitat's 75 spare, sleek cabins—which come outfitted with wood-burning fireplaces and saunas—showcase the surrounding Lanaudière forest. Strung across 1,000 acres in bucolic St.-Paulin, Le Baluchon Éco-villégiature's four quaint lodges make a fine base for wintry activities like dogsledding and snow tubing.
Where to eat
Stop in for house-smoked brisket and a pull of foamy stout at Le Temps d'une Pinte, a hip microbrewery in the Mauricie hub of Trois-Rivières.
Where to stay
Housed in a former monastery where, in 1639, the continent's first hospital north of Mexico was established, Le Monastère des Augustines counts wellness experiences among its offerings; guests can sleep in a contemporary room or a monastic cell. Looming over the St. Lawrence River like a royal fortress, Fairmont Le Château Frontenac epitomizes old-world splendor.
Where to eat
Staff rotate among roles at free-kitchen spot Arvi, but the inventive, elegantly plated food consistently impresses. At Restaurant Le Clan, former Château Frontenac chef Stéphane Modat spotlights Indigenous Quebecois ingredients, like walleye from Lake Saint-Pierre and partridge from Cap-Saint-Ignace.
What to do
No cold-weather trip to Quebec is complete without a visit to a sugar shack—Érablière le Chemin du Roy is a sure bet.
This article appeared in the March 2023 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.
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