It was a brutal act of nature that first sent my wife and me to Hovey Manor. That was two years ago, when Hurricane Georges washed out our long-planned Caribbean holiday. A colleague who had grown up in Montreal offered an alternative out of hurricane range: a country inn in rural Quebec.
In a wonderful twist of fate for us, Hovey Manor turned out to be an idyllic retreat. Situated near North Hatley on the northwest banks of Lake Massawippi in Quebec's Cantons de l'Est (Eastern Townships), the 40-room inn offers quiet charm amid a breathtaking setting that's near perfect in all four seasons. It also boasts a superb dining room that has been lauded by such magazines as Gourmet and Wine Spectator.
Add in the weak Canadian dollar, and it's no wonder that Hovey, a 20-minute drive from the Vermont border, is becoming increasingly popular with Americans. New York is six hours away by car and Boston only four. Rooms, depending on their type and the season, range in price from $135 to $315 a night for double occupancy (819 842-2421; www.manoirhovey.com). That includes a five-star dinner, full breakfast, an array of activities, and gratuities.
Hovey Manor's style is distinctive--that of a magnate turned country gentleman. It was originally the summer home of Henry Atkinson, onetime owner of Georgia Light & Power. Fleeing Georgia's scorching summers, Atkinson headed North. After crossing the Canadian border, he built his home--a la Mount Vernon--in a birch grove on Lake Massawippi in 1900. Although the estate was converted to an inn in 1950, some of Atkinson's books remain on the shelves in the library, a cozy room with a huge stone fireplace, plush sofas, wing chairs, and chess table. Stephen Stafford and his wife, Kathryn, the current owners, bought Hovey Manor in 1979.
700 WINES. The inn's 40 rooms, decorated in such rich colors as burgundies and russets, are filled with antiques or tasteful replicas. Many have canopy beds, and 26 have fireplaces. Bathrooms look old but all have modern fixtures. Several cottages are also available.
The most beautiful and increasingly popular season at Hovey is autumn, with the foliage peaking during the first week of October. "Remember, this is the land of the maple leaf," Stafford says. In the winter, the garden area is transformed into a skating rink.
But it was the inn's dining room that made our visit most magnificent. Roland Menard, chef for the past 12 years, claims to have no formal culinary training, yet the food he serves is exceptional--"a new light French cuisine," in his words, emphasizing low-fat ingredients and plenty of fresh herbs, plucked from the inn's gardens. Local farms provide everything from goat cheeses and grain-fed chickens to duck, rabbit, and venison, and the farmers' names often appear on the menu: "Fricandeau of Mr. Gagnon's choice rabbit" was one recent entree. The wine list boasts 700 wines from more than 20 countries. Prices range from $20 to $350 a bottle.
After a few days of walking off those meals in peaceful strolls along the lake, you begin to feel reinvigorated. For all the accolades from magazines and peers, "the most important recognition for me is that the guests leave happy," says Stafford. We did. And as we drove off, I suddenly realized: In three days at Hovey Manor, we had not seen one person with a cell phone.