Ooh-la-la perfection in the Eastern Townships

This is my first destination trip to the Eastern Townships, but it certainly won’t be my last. After fewer than 12 hours here, I’m hooked. Hooked on the scenery–rolling farmlands, mountains and lakes; hooked on the sights–the Haskell Library and Opera House, in Stanstead, straddles the U.S./Canada border and the nearby Colby-Curtis House is on my list to return to for afternoon tea; and the the food and lodging already have made me a convert.
I’ve been fortunate to stay and often dine at a handful of Relais and Chateau-member properties over the years, and the latest is Manoir Hovey, fronting on Lake Massawippi, in North Hatley, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Located about 30 minutes north of the Derby Line, Vt./Stanstead, Quebec border (I-91 to Canada 55), it’s an elegant country inn that gets everything right.

Built in 1900 by Henry Atkinson, owner of Georgia Power in Atlanta, Manoir Hovey, then called The Birches, was inspired by Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia estate. The Atkinson family was one of many southern families who began vacationing in the area in the era after the Civil War. Their home was one of the grandest, fronting right on the lake and having not only stables, coach house and servants quarters, but also a private nine-hole golf course. In the 1950s, it became an inn, and Kathryn and Stephen Stafford have owned and operated it since 1979. The current name honors Colonial Ebenezer Hovey, a Loyalist who relocated here from New England after the Declaration of Independence.

Per person, per night rates (ranging $130 economy to $230 luxury, Jan. 3 through June 19 and Oct. 13 through Dec. 23, 2008; $150 economy to $295 luxury high season) are quite reasonable, given all that’s included: a fabulous dinner–more about that below, a full breakfast, a cozy room and gratuities, as well as seasonal recreation (snowshoeing, ice skating, boating, biking, pool, tennis), entertainment and at an additional fee, massage. And everything, from the service to the amenities (Aveda toiletries, Frette towels) is top notch.

But if the accommodations sing, the dining is an aria. The wine list is actually a book, with a resident sommelier available to assist diners in pairing wines with food selections. Dinner begins with an amuse bouche, a teaser for the tastebuds, followed by an appetizer, entree and dessert. A seven-course tasting menu, with wine parings, is available at an additional fee. The dining room is divided into two areas: a winterized porch overlooking the lake and a main room anchored by a fireplace. Chairs are comfortable–vital for a relaxed, well-paced meal that easily stretches to two hours.

Our appetizers, tuna tartare and Quebec lamb with grapefruit and cilantro, were both so good that neither of us wanted to share. Portions were ample, but not oversized. For entrees, we ordered the Quebec lamb and milk-fed veal. Again, we savored every bite. Instead of dessert, we opted for the cheese plate choosing three from about 15 cheeses–sheep, cow and goat, most from Quebec. Our waiter, Marc, explained each. Also of note is the tea menu–a plus for tea lovers. The loose-leaf tea is served in a French press. If all this weren’t enough, a plate of “sweeties” was our parting kiss. Parfait!

The last word: Memorable

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