"Can you smell the sugar in the air?"
We stood still in our snowshoes and turned our noses up into the wind, animals in tuques trying to attune ourselves to the stirrings of nature.
"The sap has started to run already," explained our guide, Jacques Robidas, stopped in a woods of sugar maples and white birch on the edge of a hill. "The winter is strange this year. The birds are confused. Can you hear them?"
He rested on his poles and surveyed the landscape of Quebec's Eastern Townships. That lonely dark mountain laced with long, white ribbons of ski runs is Mount Orford and in the distance, the Appalachian Range stretches out on its side, a long, lean giant. Glacial lakes appear as a smooth skin of pale ice in a valley between low, rolling hills.
We had come for a little exercise from Manoir Hovey, a five-star Relais & Château resort just outside North Hatley on the edge of Lake Massawippi, one hour southeast of Montreal. Robidas is a local guide who takes guests snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, horseback riding or for a ride in a sleigh.
It's impossible not to want to slip into the pristine winter landscape when you sit inside the thick walls of the historic inn, built as a summer home in 1898. It's the juxtaposition of the two environments – the winter one outside so austere and monochromatic against the lush interior on the other side of a window pane – that makes this kind of weekend getaway so romantic. Each asks you to take notice, to appreciate its textures and colours, to hear its sounds, to smell its aromas. Each beckons to the other; a beautiful foil.
Fortunes build this kind of house with its huge, stone fireplace in the wood-panelled library on the ground floor. "Ah, here comes the baron," a man joked to his friend who appeared after Sunday breakfast for a read of the weekend papers as his wife knitted in one of the deep, comfortable chairs. His friend stood by the fireplace in his corduroys and wool cardigan, speaking about the local landscape, as though he were Henry Atkinson himself, the southern gentleman and owner of Georgia Power in Atlanta, the original proprietor.
The area had been settled by Loyalists after the War of Independence, and again after the American Civil War an influx of people came over the border. The front of the original house has a grand veranda in a style inspired by George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, Va. Sit there in a wicker chair, even in winter, to peruse your private masterpiece of painterly nature – sculptural silhouettes of bare trees against the ghostly grey tones of the frozen Massawippi, meaning "deep waters." In 1950, the house became an inn, named after Colonel Ebenezer Hovey, who travelled to Canada from Connecticut in 1785. Atkinson's private golf course has disappeared, but the property offers a heated outdoor pool in summer, tennis courts and a pier for boating activities.
Just as nature is a salon, with its own particular charms, each guest room at Manoir Hovey is a delightful environment with wallpapers in the style of William Morris; heavy, handsome furniture; and high beds. No two are alike. It's no surprise that John Hay, a renowned set and costume designer for Hollywood productions, who has a house in North Hatley, has created the interiors at the inn for close to 20 years. They have the feel of a mise en scène, a careful arrangement of elements that create the impression your room is not one of 37 but a singular, quiet retreat in someone's lovely home. Most have a small balcony and a gas fireplace. The most spectacular is "Treetops," in a separate rustic cottage up on the hill. In that room, with its huge four-poster bed and netting, and beautiful bathroom wallpapered to look like you're bathing amid white birches, there's no excuse for a couple who couldn't write themselves into some fantastic romantic script.
To add to our outdoor enjoyment, we were encouraged to go to the Spa Nordic Station about 20 minutes away outside Magog, a village of boutiques and restaurants. With saunas and outdoor hot tubs as well as treatment rooms, it draws the après-ski crowd from the hills of Mount Orford. But after snowshoeing, we would have been just as happy to return to our room and soak in the two-person Jacuzzi – which we did as well, of course, glass of scotch in hand. That's the thing about the Manoir. You want to be in it or outside in the fresh air. Those two experiences seem more than enough.
By far, the best indoor activity at Manoir Hovey is eating in the award-winning restaurant, Le Hatley. Before dinner, though, we found our way to the Tap Room at the far end of the inn for a drink. Situated in the former barn, it has a huge open fireplace, an ancient birch canoe hanging from the rafters and rustic antiques, including old farm tools. It was still and cozy, quite the opposite of the large dining room on the ground floor, which was abuzz with a fashionable bilingual crowd.
The atmosphere in Le Hatley was all Saturday night – sexy, electric and sophisticated. You could have been seated in one of Montreal's best restaurants. Decorated with a sort of textured papier-mâché wallpaper in golden colours with irregular white columns, resembling birch trees, the room is graceful and fresh – a perfect theatre.
When it arrives, the food takes centre stage, high in drama with exquisite presentation and filled with a promise of subtle flavours and textures. The attention to detail on the square canvas of the white plate is that of an artist. Indeed, chef Roland Ménard is self-taught, having worked at the Manoir for 30 years where he perfected his skill, winning numerous awards in the process. His passion is reflected in the care of the staff, who lean in to explain to customers the wine and menu choices as if giving crucial road directions. Many have come from far away to work here. Franck Trutet, the restaurant's French-born maître d' has worked all over the world, in Paris, Dubai and in London for Gordon Ramsay.
The next morning, one of the waitresses approached our table to ask if we had enjoyed the eggs Benedict. "What makes the difference is the caramelized balsamic vinegar on top," she volunteered when we told her of our delight. She held one hand up, the thumb and forefinger touching on the tips in an expression of precision. "Caramelized," she repeated for emphasis.
The scent of sugar in the forest air. Laughter in the birch grove of the restaurant. The smell of a wood fire in the library. The crunch of snowshoes on icy snow. The whoosh of the wind in the night. The feel of a crisp sheet and heavy blanket. The slant of light on the ice.
"Ah," I replied. "So that's it."