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Bonjour, Quebec.

For too long, French Canada has been touted as the next best thing to you-know-where. Can't make it to Paris this year? Consider Quebec, goes the advice. Then the advantages are ticked off: No jet lag, no time change for East Coast residents, no visas, no francs, and no hassles with electrical converters or pocket dictionaries. Even the menus are bilingual; nice touch, especially since entrees often range from basic boar to truffled turkey. Somehow, dining on filet mignon de porcelet sounds less savage than eating piglet.

Quebec-the province and the city-is about to be discovered, again. Montreal is gearing up for its 350th anniversary celebration in 1992, and the entire region is expected to benefit from tourists trekking north. To beat the rush, the time to travel may be now-if you don't mind missing a few landmarks.

"All the monuments are at the cleaners," one Montreal resident says, struggling to find the right words in either of her two languages to explain the bare pedestals and empty shrines. Translation: Statues are being refurbished and museums are under wraps of plastic sheeting, all to emerge postcard perfect in time for the yearlong birthday party. Among the new attractions integrated with the old is the giant bug-shaped building housing the Montreal Insectarium, with its display of more than 4,000 insects. The former Olympic Velodrome, built for the 76 Summer Games, is being transformed into a biosphere that will replicate tropical jungles, northern forests, the St. Lawrence River, and polar environments with all their typical plant and animal life.

If a preview of Montreal's celebration nudges you north this season, how far you wander beyond the city may depend on your schedule, your stamina, and your appetite for adventure. Not everyone relishes the idea of schussing the outback of the Far North (see sidebar); but for travelers who like their rustic settings to include well-stocked wine cellars, cozy bistros with singing waiters, and overstuffed chairs pulled close to a hearth, two destinations are recommended. The Eastern Townships, better known as Estrie ("kingdom of the east"), are 50 miles southeast of the city, and Quebec City ("the cradle of French civilization in North America") is 169 miles northeast. Against the country backdrop of both locales, Americans may bump into more ancestors than they bargained for.

Numbers can be deceiving in this part of Canada, and anyone who equates low population with little to do will be surprised by the tiny towns of Estrie. A favorite stop for history buffs is North Hatley (pop. 715), with its magnificent old manor houses linked geographically by cross-country ski trails, and economically by inn-to-inn vacation packages. Although French is spoken and the "mother cuisine" is served, the original accommodations were designed by disgruntled colonists from New England and were refined by aristocratic Southerners from the Confederacy.

Many of the early comers to North Hatley were United Empire Loyalists, an intimidating label for the farmers who sided with the Redcoats during the American Revolution. Since these loyalists weren't popular after the war, the British government granted them consolation prizes of plots of land in the hilly townships of Canada. Many of their sprawling farmhouses, later transformed into auberges (inns), still dot the countryside.

Other great manor houses of the region owe their existence to another time and another war. After the collapse of the Confederacy, wealthy American Southerners boycotted New England as a holiday destination and continued north to Canada, some by private railway car. The story goes that these well-born travelers quietly snubbed "Yankeeland" by drawing their blinds as they passed through New England.

The genteel Southerners brought with them the trappings of the good life; butlers and maids, horses and carriages, and the oh-so-civilized pastimes of sailing, tennis, and golf. They built their vacation "cottages" on the west bank of Lake Massawippi, an area still referred to as the American Side. The amenities remain intact today and include graceful antiques,wood-burning fireplaces in most bedrooms, and private pocket balconies that all seem to overlook the water. Pampered guests have access to indoor swimming pools, saunas, and whirlpools, and if visitors aren't up to plodding the trails on skis or snowshoes, they can always ask to have a sleigh brought around.

An easy way to sample three of the finest inns in Estrie is to take advantage of the "movable feast" package offered by Hovey Manor, built as a private estate in 1900 and inspired by Mt. Vernon; Auberge Hatley, a 1903 converted country estate filled with leather sofas, original art, and beamed ceilings; and Ripplecove Inn, circa 1945, awarded the highest rating of "four forks" for its excellent French cuisine and "four diamonds" for its elegant accommodations. The movable feasts are often accompanied by live chamber music, and the service is friendly but impeccable. Innkeepers mingle with guests, fetch logs for the fires, and stand ready to recommend a good book from the library or bottle from the cellar.

The tradition of great food and hospitality continues north in the old walled city of Quebec, which is reputed to have the largest per capita number of gourmet restaurants in North America.

Making a bad choice of restaurants in Quebec is virtually impossible, since the chefs, often schooled in Paris, are experts at blending delicate French cuisine with hardy lumberjack fare. In cozy cafes such as La Caravelle, Le Cafe de la Paix, and Le Parmesan, culinary masters enjoy inching their way around the tables to accept toasts to their treatments of salmon, elk, quail, and caribou.

Although Quebec is sometimes considered a fair weather destination to be visited from May to September, its ruggedness is best appreciated in the off-season. Sitting atop a 300-foot cliff that offers a magnificent view of the St. Lawrence River, it is a city of stone walls and gates, ancient cannons poking through holes in the fortifications, quaint churches, and winding thoroughfares. Like the province whose name it shares, it is more than an echo of old France in the new world, better than the next best thing to you-know-where. Quebec is a unique mix of north and south, cultured and wild-us and them.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Miller, Holly G.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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