We stood surrounded by lush rows of bright purple blossoms, enveloped in the fresh scent of lavender flowers that bloomed almost as far as we could see.
Provence? No, we were in Canada, in the province of Quebec, almost within sight of northern Vermont, breathing in fragrances we never expected to find growing north of the Green Mountains.
It was only one of the surprises we found in Quebec’s Eastern Townships (Cantons de l’Est), where we found a Wine Route that connects more than a dozen vineyards whose aperitif, dinner and dessert wines are winning international prizes. We were, we learned, in a micro-climate not unlike like those of some French wine regions. But lavender fields?
The second-largest lavender plantation in North America, Bleu Lavande spreads across 60 acres of gently sloping hillside above the small town of Fitch Bay, on a long arm of Lac Memphremagog, the 23-mile-long lake shared by Quebec and Vermont. While there is plenty to see and do throughout the growing season – and even in the winter – we were fortunate to be there at the very end of June, when the long mounds of silvery green foliage were turning purple with fragrant blossoms. Creating a landscape of successive lavender stripes, the fields drop through a rolling terrain that molds the stripes into undulating curves. Blue Lavande is as beautiful for the eye as it is for the nose.
The blooming season lasts from late June through July and into August, during which time the millions of lavender blossoms are first hand-picked –to choose the most perfect spikes for drying into bouquets – then harvested by machine to crush and distil into pure lavender oil and lavender water.
All season long, visitors are invited to wander in the fields, relax among the plants, even bring a picnic to enjoy at tables in the fields of in the large covered pavilion overlooking them. The distillery is also open to the public, and the barn where it is located has big interpretive panels in French and English explaining the process and telling the history of lavender.
The bright, airy boutique sells products developed here -- pure lavender oils, soaps, lotions, sachets and scrubs, bath salts, even lavender chocolate bars. Helpful staff is on hand to demonstrate, describe and offer samples of the products, which are beautifully displayed. A regular schedule of cooking and craft demonstrations are all free with the $7 admission.
The greatest luxury of all is to book a massage in one of the pavilions overlooking the lavender fields, or a heavenly foot massage, 15 minutes of pure bliss. All the products used are made from Bleu Lavande’s lavender.
Between strolling in the fields and inhaling the air, learning at a workshop, exploring the flower and herb garden, having lunch on the terrace of the café (where the menu features lavender bread, salad dressing and other lavender-seasoned foods) and relaxing with a massage, it’s easy to while away a fragrant summer afternoon here.
Quebec’s Eastern Townships are only an hour from Montreal, and are filled with farms that produce a mouthwatering variety of foods, from sweet berries that are turned into jams and jellies to an impressive array of farmstead cheeses. Helpful free guidebooks available at any tourist office and most hotels list many of these, and for a more detailed guide, take along a copy of the brand new guidebook, “Food Lovers' Guide to Montreal “ by Patricia Harris and David Lyon.
For more information on the eastern Townships, visit www.bonjourquebec.com