With Spring arriving early this year and the U.S./Canada border still reserved for essential travel only, the urge to drive out for a roadtrip has never been so appealing. After months of being tied to our homes due to massive COVID-19 lockdowns, Canadians can finally hit the road again and explore their own turf.
If you happen to be in the Montreal area, I recommend heading out to the Eastern Townships region and visit the ever so peaceful Saint-Benoît-du-Lac neighborhood. It’s a short one-day drive that’ll have you let off some steam, while enjoying beautiful scenery along the way. And while you’re at it, why not grab some fresh cheese and wine?
Located some 130 km East of Montreal, and accessible through highway 10, Saint-Benoît-du-Lac is home to the historical Saint Benedict Abbey. Erected in 1912 (but completed in 1962) and designed by Father Paul Bellot, the architect monk who was also behind Montreal’s Saint Joseph’s Oratory and other historical buildings in Europe, this massive yet elegant structure towers the picturesque Eastern Townships region from a peninsula situated on Lake Memphremagog, not far from the Quebec/Maine border.
Beautiful all year and connected to New England-style roads that carve their way through the region’s rolling hills and rich farmland, the Abbey is currently home to some 30 monks who seek God through prayer, meditation, work and fraternal life under the Rule of St. Benedict.
What’s particularly fascinating about the Abbey’s community is how self-sufficient it is. The monks predominantly earn their living with a cheese factory, two orchards, a cider mill and a shop where all of their homemade products are sold. The area remains open to the public all week for casual visits, prayer or to purchase some items at the shop. There’s no cost to enter and wander about. It’s a very peaceful place to spend some time alone, or with the family. Plus, the road to get there is a popular destination for motorcyclists and automotive enthusiasts.
A Car As Peaceful As The Place Itself
Even when St Benoît is swarmed with tourists on a warm summer’s day, the Abbey’s vast surrounding land remains as quiet as a library. There seems to be an aura the moment you arrive that instantly forces you to slow and quiet things down. I got there on a fresh Sunday morning, the first day of spring actually. I was the only one there, which made the experience feel even more special.
The Toyota Corolla hybrid is arguably the best automobile for a place as secluded and as peaceful as this. Not only is it highly self efficient thanks to its combination of gasoline and electric propulsion, its EV mode, which only allows you to drive under 50 km/h using only electricity, allowed me to slowly creep up to one of the Abbey’s two available parking lots without disturbing the peace.
Throughout most of the year, the area is open to everyone to walk around, except for some sections, like the Abbey’s docks down by the water or its orchards, that only open during special occasions. One can still wander around and enjoy the beautiful scenery, sit down and breathe in some fresh township air, or simply admire this 20th-century man-made work of art protrude from an otherwise nature-rich environment.
Whilst the Abbey doesn’t produce its own maple products, its shop will offer some of the region’s finest sirops, tars and butters during the maple season. However, its speciality is cheese, wine, compotes and jellies, which is why you’ll mainly find these products at the shop, as well as some crafts and souvenirs.
While you’ll be at the Abbey, I strongly recommend walking down that long colorful corridor that links the shop to the actual church. There you’re not only be exposed to more historic architecture, but you’ll be able to find out more about the location’s history, its members and the type of work the monks take part in year-round.
Although it is possible to just show up and visit without an appointment, the Saint-Benedict Abbey organizes guide tourers seven days a week. These tourers, which are split in three sections: education about monastic life, observation and explanation of the building’s history and architecture, and presentation of its cheese and wine production, can be organized via the Abbey’s website at the cost of $12 per adult, or $30 for a family bundle.
It isn’t the first time I personally visit the Abbey. It was once commonplace my parents would take my brother and I for a slice of fresh cheese or simply to go run around its surrounding land. But each time I leave the visit, driving back on its winding road that leads to the nearby Austin village, I feel replenished as if I just dumped a chunk of my stressful life inside the majestic building. Give it a try. And I highly suggest you stack up on cheese because it’s darn good.