A mother and daughter journey to Quebec’s Eastern Townships
My mom had been trying to get me to go to Three Pines for years. A tiny village in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Three Pines doesn’t appear on any map. Rather, it exists in the mind of author Louise Penny, whose 17 mystery novels have inspired a following of millions of readers, including my mom and brother (and mother-in-law and aunt and…). I resisted joining them until the summer of 2020, when, stuck in my tiny New York City apartment and needing an escape, I dove in. During that isolating time, all I had to do was curl up on the couch and open a borrowed library book, and I was there: in the bistro with Chief Inspector Gamache, sipping a whiskey and speculating about his latest murder case; helping Clara, the town’s kooky but immensely talented artist, make a salad for an impromptu dinner party at her house; sifting through paperbacks in Myrna’s bookshop; or listening to Ruth, the cranky old poet, recite a particularly cutting verse while petting her duck, Rosa, on a park bench. I could close my eyes and see the three towering pines at the center of the village green, feel the cool autumn breeze on my cheek, smell the French bread baking at Sarah’s Boulangerie.
With each book I finished, the idea of actually traveling to Three Pines became more and more imperative. I knew it wasn’t a real place—not exactly, anyway—but I also knew it was very much based on the part of Quebec in which Penny has lived for the past two decades. So as soon as Canada opened its borders to U.S. travelers late last summer, I booked a trip. And, of course, I invited my mom along with me.
“No wonder Gamache fell in love with Three Pines,” Mom says. “It’s gorgeous.” She’s looking out the window of our rental car as I drive east along Autoroute 10, from Montreal to the village of Knowlton, both of us marveling at the sea of fiery maples and oaks on either side of the winding road. “I’ve never understood why people travel to see fall foliage. Now I get it.”
It’s shocking, really, how beautiful it is. I pull off to the side of the road and we stare, letting the image sink into our brains. “You know, Gamache first came to Three Pines in autumn, too,” I say. “Oh, I know,” says Mom, who has spent much of the car ride reading aloud favorite passages from the series. By the time we curve around Lake Brome, near where Penny lives, we’re ready to give up our lives stateside and relocate.
Books have always been my family’s currency. We had a library in my childhood home in Murray, Kentucky, plus bookshelves in every room stuffed with paperbacks, their pages crinkly from Mom having dropped them in the bathtub while she was reading. Once a month, when I was a kid, we’d drive 120 miles to Nashville to go to Davis-Kidd Booksellers. “I’ll see you in two hours,” Mom would say as soon as we walked into the two-story shop. My brother, Rob, would head upstairs to read choose-your-own-adventure books, while my mom would make her way through historical novels, biographies, plays, somehow managing to read entire books standing up in this brief time. I would take 10 minutes to choose one book with some kind of medal on the cover (Caldecott, Newbery—I was such a snob) to take home, and then I’d spend the 110 remaining minutes looking at magazines. I’m now the editor of this magazine. My brother is a library manager. No one who knows our mom is surprised by this.
Mom started reading Penny’s books from the start, back in 2005. And though it feels like everyone I know has read the books now, here’s the obligatory breakdown for the uninitiated: Inspector Armand Gamache is the head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, and in Penny’s first book, Still Life, he investigates a murder in Three Pines, a town that, according to the map, doesn’t exist. He manages to find it—and then he can’t seem to leave. Not only because there seems to be a murder here every few months (seriously, this is, like, the murder capital of Canada!), but because he simply falls in love with the place, the people, the French onion soup at Olivier’s Bistro. Each book—the 18th is due in November—is centered on a murder, yes, but it’s just as much about the people and their relationships. Later this year, Prime Video will premiere a series, Three Pines, starring Alfred Molina as Gamache (genius casting) and introducing a new audience to Penny’s oeuvre.
Researching where to go for our Three Pines pilgrimage wasn’t difficult. From the beginning, fans have pored over Penny’s books, noting which locations are based on real places and which are fully from Penny’s imagination. In Knowlton, there’s also a true expert on the books’ real-life inspiration: Danielle Viau, who started the Three Pines Tours in 2018. Obviously, talking with her is our first priority. We pull into Knowlton and park outside the Lac-Brome Museum, where we meet her at a picnic table, in the shade of a particularly photogenic orange-leafed maple. “You do know Three Pines is very dangerous?” Viau asks in a hushed voice. Then she winks and hands us green WWGD—What Would Gamache Do—bracelets.
Viau used to lead historical tours in the area, and a few years ago a tour operator reached out to her about doing a Three Pines itinerary. “So I put one together,” she says. “Meanwhile, here in Knowlton more and more people were just showing up.” Sensing a business opportunity, she approached Penny about putting together an author-approved tour and got the green light. In April 2018, Penny shared it in her monthly newsletter. “The first tour was one man from Philadelphia,” Viau says with a laugh. “And it’s been absolutely crazy ever since.”
Viau pulls out a map of Quebec—Knowlton is only about 30 miles from the Vermont border—and gives us a mini history lesson, explaining how after the Seven Years’ War the British divided up the area into townships. Supposedly, during the American Revolution, people planted three pines together so the Loyalists to the British crown who crossed the border knew where they’d be welcome. “That’s where Louise got the idea of Three Pines,” she says. Today, the Eastern Townships are in general home to more French speakers, although Knowlton is about 50 percent anglophone.
We gather our things and walk down the hill into the center of town. While there are spots all over the area that serve as fodder for the books, Viau notes, “Knowlton is the heart of Three Pines.” As we stroll, she mentions that the week before she visited the set for Three Pines, which is currently filming in the fittingly named Saint-Armand, only about 40 miles away. She saw Olivier’s Bistro, the General Store, the B&B… Mom and I look at each other, eyes wide: We have to go! But first, lunch: We bid farewell to Viau and head over to Sapin Bistro du Lac for fish and chips. We can’t help but eavesdrop on the family at the table next to us talking about visiting “Myrna’s bookshop.” Turns out they’re doing their own pilgrimage. “I just started reading the new book this morning!” the grandmother says. “Don’t tell me anything!”
We keep the plotline secret, and after lunch we stroll over to Myrna’s, aka Brome Lake Books, where we’re greeted by Watson, a shaggy sheepdog mix, and shop owners Lucy Hoblyn and Danny McAuley. Their previous pooch, a golden retriever named Jessie, was a bit of a celebrity. “Fans would come in and say, ‘This is Louise Penny’s dog’s mother!’” Hoblyn recalls, laughing “They loved it. They took pictures of our dog. She was on famous blogs!”
Hoblyn and McAuley lead us back to the “Louise Penny corner,” a cozy area with three pine-tree-shaped bookshelves full of Penny paraphernalia, copies of the books in 32 different languages, fan-made artwork, and a map of the world on which guests have marked their homes with flag-shaped pins (Cameroon, Jordan, Suriname, Iceland…). Mom adds her flag to Kentucky; I search for space to pin one on New York, but there’s no room. “It’s surreal that fans include us in their trips,” says Hoblyn. “We say Three Pines fans are the nicest people. I think they believe in her mantra: Goodness exists.”
Hoblyn and McAuley have been friends with Penny for years, serving as early readers and hosting release parties for each new book. “At the beginning, it was like a tea party, and four people showed up,” Hoblyn says. “By book four, we did it at Manoir Hovey, and it sold out. Two years later, there were so many people there was a line out the door.” Penny’s publishers from St. Martin’s Press came to one event, and Hoblyn and McAuley joined them for dinner. “The publisher said to Louise, ‘We thought you were making up this village, but it’s real!’” McAuley recalls.
From here, we drop our bags at Le Pleasant Hôtel & Café, an inn located in a beautifully restored Victorian home in nearby Sutton (another town that serves as a muse for Penny’s books). Then we head to dinner at Bistro West Brome, where I order the Brome Lake duck three ways. As I go in for a bite of confit-filled wonton, Mom stops me: “You know, you’re eating Rosa,” she says, referring to the character Ruth’s pet duck. I feel guilty, but not that guilty—Rosa is delicious.
The next morning, we wander over to La Rumeur Affamée, the inspiration for Sarah’s Boulangerie in the books. Affable co-owner Jean-Philippe Maurice leads us past glass cases filled with delectable tarts and cakes, local cheese and charcuterie, and flaky croissants. Maurice, a Francophone, admits he wasn’t up on Louise Penny before he took over the bakery in 2019. “But I’ve read a few of her books now,” he says. The author occasionally comes in, and she recently brought along her friend Hillary Clinton (with whom she wrote the 2021 thriller State of Terror).
“The Louise Penny tours—sometimes they come in big buses,” says Maurice, clearly still surprised by this. “They line up around the block to get croissants, because they’re mentioned in the books.” He motions to the case behind him: “The tartlets aren’t in the books yet, but once Louise tries them, they will be!” One of the recent items Penny has added to the books is the brownies. I try one and am momentarily at a loss for words, stunned by a rich, deeply chocolatey bite.
We leave with a bounty of goodies and motor on to the town of Saint-Armand to see if we can spot Alfred Molina filming Three Pines. We don’t know where we’re going exactly, but we keep an eye out for film trailers or people wearing headsets. Or just people in general; it’s pretty sleepy here. Google Maps tells us we’ve arrived, but we don’t see anything. I slow down, looking for a place to turn around, when suddenly Mom squeals: “The bistro!” Tires screeching, I turn left into a parking lot. Here it is, the Three Pines set, all in one place and in real life: Olivier’s Bistro, Myrna’s bookshop, the General Store, and the B&B. And no one is here but us! I park, and we walk up to the bistro and peek in the windows. It looks just like it’s supposed to, with Persian rugs, a long wooden bar, and mismatched tables and chairs with price tags on them. (Olivier also sells antiques.) Mom and I giggle with glee and take photos of each other standing in front of the sign, which we immediately send to my brother, with the caption, “We’re at Olivier’s Bistro!!!”
Mom and I toast to our sleuthing skills over a lunch of French onion soup and duck confit poutine (when in Canada!) at Le Relais, a bistro in Knowlton that also makes an appearance in the books. Then we head east to the village of North Hatley and Manoir Hovey, a Relais & Châteaux property that’s the setting of Penny’s fourth novel, A Rule Against Murder. (Penny called it Manoir Bellechasse, and the real hotel now has a Bellechasse Suite in her honor.) In the book, Gamache comes for his annual summer vacation with his wife, but instead of a relaxing week of sipping lemonade in Adirondack chairs by Lake Massawippi, he ends up investigating a murder in the garden. Mom and I eye the staff and other guests as we check-in. “I hope homicide isn’t one of the amenities of our own one-night stay,” I whisper.
Of course, we’re perfectly safe. Spoiled, really. Our sumptuous suite has a private terrace with a stunning view of the lake, framed on all sides by a riot of autumn colors. We wander through the stately main house, which was built as a summer vacation home in 1900, noting that Penny’s description of the scent as a “combination of woodsmoke, old books, and honeysuckle” is spot on. I want to bottle it.
That night, we enjoy the Discovery Menu at Le Hatley restaurant, where we’re wowed by each of the eight courses: a duck egg whipped with sparkling wine and topped with sturgeon caviar, whelks with a black garlic sauce, bison served with honey-seared eggplant. It’s no surprise Gamache returns every year… and that Penny had her wedding here.
We don’t want to leave the next morning, but we have plenty on the docket for our last day in the Townships. First is the Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, which inspired the fictional Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups in The Beautiful Mystery. That book takes place entirely at the abbey, moving the setting away from Three Pines for the first time. (You can only have so many murders in a town with 100 residents.) At the entrance, we meet David Morel, the communications manager, who recounts the abbey’s history in hushed tones as we walk through the long halls, which feature a polychromatic brick-and-granite design meant to evoke Quebec’s fall colors.
When we arrive at the sanctuary, the doors are closed, but we can hear the monks singing mass. Morel holds his fingers to his lips and motions for us to follow him in. We take a seat on the balcony, looking down on the 12 white-robed monks and letting their monotone sotto voce chanting wash over us. “It’s not traditional Gregorian chants,” Morel whispers, “because it’s in French.” I look over at Mom who is smiling contentedly, eyes closed.
Our last stop is Georgeville, and as soon as we pull into this township of 1,000 people I feel like we’ve found the Three Pines that I’ve been picturing for the past year. There’s an actual village green, with a general store at one end and a historic inn, Auberge McGowan, at the other, plus a simple wooden church up the hill and the stately pink mansion that inspired Penny’s A Fatal Grace. I half expect to see Gamache walking his dog, Henri, across the carpet of fallen leaves on the green.
After lunch at Auberge McGowan, I get a chance to chat with Penny herself, although it’s over the phone, as she’s on a book tour promoting State of Terror. Mom retreats with a book to an Adirondack chair overlooking Lake Memphremagog, while I head to the village green and pop in my headphones.
“I’m glad you’re there with your mum!” Penny says. “I bonded over books with my mother, too. They often became like the common ground when we didn’t think we could find any, as a kind of a white flag that one or the other of us would raise when we were on the verge of saying something we didn’t really mean or did mean and should never say. One of us would always ask, ‘What are you reading?’ That was the surrender.”
It turns out Penny did her own mother-daughter literary pilgrimage when she was young. “I loved Sherlock Holmes,” she says. “And I had a crush on, of all people, Dr. Watson! The first time I went to London with my mother, she indulged me, and we went on a Sherlock Holmes walking tour. I wish I could have chosen, you know, Thoreau or James Joyce or one of the great masters, but no, no, not so much. Sherlock Holmes…”
Although she’d had a penchant for mysteries since she was a girl, it wasn’t until Penny moved to Knowlton, in 1999, after a long career as a CBC news reporter in Toronto, that the idea for Gamache and Three Pines was born. “Had we not moved to the townships, I’m convinced the books would not exist,” she says. For her, the series is “a love letter to where I found home. I had been looking for a home all my life, and I found it there. It was that sense of belonging that I wanted to capture. I wanted to create a village that people could read about and retreat to and feel safe and valued.”
“Safe and valued… but they might get murdered,” I say.
“Or they may be the murderer,” she replies, laughing.
It wasn’t until she’d written the third or fourth book that Penny discovered how much readers felt this sense of belonging: They wanted to come to Three Pines. “And, you know, I had to explain that Three Pines doesn’t really exist, and that it’s inspired by all sorts of places,” she says. “It really is a state of mind as well. What every author tries to do—what I try to do, with varying degrees of success—is drop that fourth wall, so that people don’t feel like they’re voyeurs. They feel like they’re actually living in the village. They’re eating the food, they’re smelling the wood smoke, they’re feeling what Gamache is feeling. They’re walking beside these characters. And I think that’s why people feel so at home in Three Pines.”
I can’t help but agree. I thank Penny for the chat, and for creating this opportunity for me and my mom to take this journey together. “That’s the only reason I continue writing—for you and your mum,” she says with a laugh.
“So, how was she?” Mom asks when I plop down in a chair next to her.
“Perfect,” I say, recapping all the best bits from our chat. Mom is especially tickled by the Sherlock Holmes pilgrimage.
We sit for a while, watching the boats gently rocking on the lake. A wave of gratitude washes over me—for my mom, for good books and good people, for falling leaves and gentle breezes, for maple tarts, for community, for travel.
I think about Penny’s 16th book, All the Devils Are Here, which is actually set in Paris. Paris. Maybe the pilgrimage doesn’t have to end. I look at Mom and smile. “What?” she asks. “Why are you smiling like that?”
“Oh, I just had a good idea…”
Take the Trip
Start your Three Pines pilgrimage in Montreal. Stay at Hôtel Place d’Armes in Old Montreal, the neighborhood that houses Gamache’s office at the Sûreté du Québec, and do dinner at Brasserie 701. Kick off your time in the Townships with Danielle Viau’s Three Pines Tour, and book one of the 10 cozy rooms at the lovely Le Pleasant Hôtel & Cafe in Sutton. Savor the scenery at Manoir Hovey in North Hatley, whose only crime is being too perfect. Dinner at Le Hatley is a must. Extend your leaf-peeping tour at Espace 4 Saisons in Orford and raise a glass to a great trip at Taverne 1855 in Magog.