Canadian Skiing Trail Is the Inn Place to Be
For skiers, L’Estrie, the Eastern Townships in Quebec province, has always been synonymous with screaming speeds and negotiating one mogul after another.
But taking the cross-country path along the Skiwippi Trail around Lake Massawippi may be a more comforting way to enjoy the area’s soft, deep snows.
The best part of the trail, however, is that it links three of Quebec’s best inns. After a day in the frosty outdoors, the inns--Auberge Hatley, Hovey Manor and Ripplecove--glow in the darkness, beckoning skiers to evenings of fine dining and vintage wines.
In the province of Quebec, these are among only a handful of restaurants and inns to rate “four-fork” status. All provide excellent regional cuisine and the very best lodgings.
At Auberge Hatley, innkeepers Robert and Liliane Gagnon greet their guests with a steaming mug of Gluewein , a hot-wine punch. The Gagnons’ passion for their home province is evident--Robert is fond of entertaining guests with local tales and a bit of history.
North Hatley is a village that was originally the site of summer homes of Canadian industrialists and aristocrats. Their lavish legacy includes Auberge Hatley, which dates to 1903. It’s one of more than 15 inns and hotels that were in the immediate vicinity, a surprising number for such a tiny hamlet.
The village is also blessed with a gentle micro-climate. Sheltered on all sides by large hills, the flora and fauna are distinct to the region.
By 1922, farsighted, caring individuals recognized that fact and laid the groundwork for North America’s first preservation association--the Village Improvement Society--to protect the environment. The group is still active today.
Robert Gagnon is a founding member and current president of Canada’s arm of Relais et Chateaux, the well-known association of luxury inns. And Auberge Hatley meets all of the France-based Relais’ standards of character, charm, comfort and cuisine with spirit and grace.
Last year it was the recipient of the “Best Restaurant in Quebec” award presented by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Within walking distance of the Auberge Hatley are the Jeannine Blais Art Gallery, which features primitive art, watercolors, and village scenes.
In North Hatley’s antique shops, where real bargains abound, there are spinning wheels, butter churners, cradles, kettles, antique quilts, old cookware and furniture.
After shopping, toss skates over your shoulder and cut some figure-8s at the lighted outdoor rink.
From Auberge Hatley, the Skiwippi Trail skirts the lake for about two miles before reaching Hovey Manor. A replica of George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Virginia, the manor is run by native Quebecers Stephen and Kathryn Stafford.
Lace-canopied beds and fireplaces in many of the bedrooms wrap the Staffords’ guests in warmth. The Manor’s steep lawn, where, in summer, elaborate English gardens cascade towards the lake, is now buried thickly in winter white. The snowy view from the upstairs balconies is panoramic perfection.
The lake is crisscrossed by ski tracks that on sunny, windless days allow the hardy to skim the entire 8.8 miles. Ice-fishing holes, where perch, gray and brown trout and northern pike can be caught, dot the lake, as do a few skating rinks created by shoveling the snow off the ice.
In Hovey Manor’s Tap Room, the chef often grills steaks, salmon and local lamb on the hearth of an enormous brick fireplace. Skiers relax by quaffing locally brewed, somewhat nutty Massawippi ale and lager.
The Staffords have just introduced, in addition to their regular menu, dishes from L’Estrie. This collection of regional food, developed by chef Roland Menard, features locally smoked and fresh trout, tender lamb, apples and their cider, and cheeses from the Benedictine Abbey at St. Benoit du Lac.
The third in the sparkling trio is Ripplecove Inn, in Ayer’s Cliff, a country hotel now operated by Jeffrey (Stephen’s brother) and Debra Stafford.
Ripplecove was founded in 1945 by Stephen and Jeffrey Stafford’s parents as an escape from the city. At first it was a somewhat shaky enterprise--guests had to travel down a dirt road, beyond barbed-wire fences and a pasture, to the rambling inn on the southern edge of Lake Massawippi.
Debra has decorated many of the rooms with a stencil design, whileJeffrey has overseen a recent major renovation that included the addition of an English-style pub with a brass-trimmed, solid-oak bar.
The three inns rotate as starting points for a Skiwippi trek, with innkeepers chauffeuring luggage (and tired skiers) from one inn to the next. Guests can also take sleigh rides into Gaetan Cyr’s maple forest.
Skiwippi’s 20-mile trail winds through maple farms, spans creeks full of ice-encrusted rocks, slides through “un cedriere” or cedar forest, and climbs to a plateau where the lake spreads out below.
Wild rabbits, partridges and raccoons haunt the stands of white birch along the trail.
Clearly marked in about one-foot-sized fluorescent-blue symbols, the Skiwippi Trail is being upgraded to international touring standards.
As in Europe, the hills are about 15 feet wide, the flat surfaces are about nine feet, and the whole system is double-tracked. Grooming equipment keeps them in almost-perfect condition.
At least one lunch on the trail should be spent in the barn-like, hand-hewn Refuge Les Sommets, where you can see all the way to Vermont to the south, the Ripplecove on the far shore and up the lake to North Hatley.
Juliette Deland, replete in white chef’s hat and starched apron, serves old-fashioned Quebecoise cooking--from the ragout with tiny meatballs to flaky crustaed tourtiere and, according to Ripplecove’s Jeffrey Stafford: “The best pea soup you’ve ever tasted.”
Refuge Les Sommets gives you a chance to knock the snow off your boots and relax in comfortable French Canadian ambience.
Skiwippi’s sparkling, clear morning air is purple at first light. Tiny poufs of snow fall lazily, almost suspended in the cold. Night skies are splashed with stars.
L’Estrie is a tiny corner of heaven because, as Robert Gagnon, says: “We have all said our prayers.”
For skiers: Although the trail is designed for intermediate-level skiers, novices can still take part in most lengths of the course. The Katesville Loop, behind Hovey Manor, is an easy beginner’s run that can be combined with a picnic.
Trail-maintenance people turn on the heat in the little huts that provide shelter. It’s a comfortable run for those who have their ski legs.
Within a few years, Skiwippi will be linked with an 85-mile trail through the Eastern Townships. The frozen lake not only provides a superb outdoor ice-skating rink, but opportunities for ice fishing as well.
Excellent alpine skiing at both Mount Orford and friendly Owl’s Head is minutes from Lake Massawippi. Rentals are available at Mt. Orford.
At present, the area is experiencing an unusual rainy season that the locals worry may wipe out any cross-country skiing for the rest of this season. The best time for visiting the area is January through March, when the snow is heaviest. For an update on weather conditions, call any hotel listed below.
However, after the snow season, when the weather begins to warm up, vacationers can shop, hike, take walks, fish, tour and even ice skate.
Getting there: Air Canada offers direct flights from Los Angeles to Montreal’s Dorval Airport. American, Delta, Eastern and Canadian Airlines International also fly to Montreal. Cars equipped with ski racks can be rented at the airport.
Settling in: Vacationers can ski inn-to-inn for about $480 U.S. for seven days and six nights per person, including six dinners, six breakfasts, taxes and gratuities. Also included is transportation between inns, which have bedrooms with private baths.
Each inn also offers weekend and five-day packages.
For those who don’t ski, the three inns have “A Movable Feast” of gourmet dining. One- or two-night stays come with seven-course dinners. A three-night package is about $305 U.S. per person, double occupancy. Tax and tips are included.
For more information, contact:
--Auberge Hatley, Box 330, North Hatley, Quebec, Canada JOB 2C0, (819) 842-2451.
--Ripplecove Inn, 700 Ripplecove Road, Ayer’s Cliff, Quebec, Canada JOB 2C0, (819) 842-2421.
--Hovey Manor, BOC 60F, North Hatley, Quebec, Canada JOB 2CO, (819) 842-2421.
For more information on travel to Quebec, contact the Quebec Government Office, 700 S. Flower St., Suite 1520, Los Angeles 90017, (213) 689-4861.
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