Visit Québec in early November and you’ll just catch the tail end of the vibrant yellow orange autumn leaves. The sunny but brisk weather signals that winter is coming soon. Because this is shoulder season, rates for both airfare and accommodations are much more affordable. Some might think it’s not the prettiest time of year, but I discovered a peaceful beauty in this French-speaking province. Life moves at a slower pace in Québec, and I breathe a little more slowly and deeply. I found myself appreciating nature more, finding joy in mundane things, like the crunch of leaves beneath my feet.
I began in Québec City and took a Relais & Châteaux Route du Bonheur road trip, starting with a couple nights at Auberge Saint-Antoine. This hotel embodies local history, displaying more than 700 artefacts throughout the rooms and public spaces. Yet the atmosphere is never stuffy, but bright and contemporary. Each of the 84 rooms and 11 suites is one-of-a-kind. I especially loved the decor in the Victorienne suite, where I stayed.
The hotel is composed of three historic buildings, tracing back through four centuries of Québec’s history. Specifically, archaelogical digs begun in 1988 unearthed fragments of porcelain, glass and wrought iron, hinting at the lives of past inhabitants. Panache Restaurant, located in a former stone warehouse, has great views of the Saint Lawrence River. Much of the produce used on the menu comes from their own organic garden on the Île d’Orléans. This bucolic island is a great agritourism day trip in the summer months, just 20 minutes away by car across a suspension bridge.
Right around the corner from Auberge Saint-Antoine is Restaurant Initiale, another Relais & Châteaux member serving fine French cuisine with gracious, understated service. Chef Yvan Lebrun has a delicate touch with seafood, cooking everything from scallops to halibut just perfectly. His various sauces are also exceptional, including an unctuous sea urchin purée accented with citrus.
From Québec City it’s a straightforward 2.5 hour drive to North Hatley and Manoir Hovey. This country retreat is sweeping the awards this year. Most noteworthy, both Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure have given it top honors as the Best Hotel in Canada. I was lucky enough to stay in the 1400-square-foot Heron Suite, with two bedrooms and bathrooms – including a lovely tub and steam shower in the master bathroom. After spending the day exploring, a soak with verbena bath salts is the perfect way to warm up.
There’s plenty to do during the day, from hiking around the 30-acre property to doing yoga in the teepee to running around the Eastern Townships tasting local wines and cheese. But please save room for dinner. The food at Le Hatley Restaurant is simply outstanding. Québécois Chef Francis Wolf has cooked here for 15 years. Above all, he has an innate love of the land and respect for local ingredients, both flora and fauna. For example, heirloom squash gnocchi with foraged mushrooms, local sea sails and white wine cream sauce made for a winning appetizer. Main courses included wild guinea fowl, bison shank and red deer loin with red cabbage and haskap berries.
I normally long for warm beach destinations during the depth of Chicago winter. Yet I can imagine that Manoir Hovey is a real winter wonderland, with ice skating and ice fishing on Lake Massawippi or snowshoeing along the shore and into the woods. However, if you prefer to relax, simply curl up with a book by the fireplace enjoying tea and scones.