Story by Diana Ballon
MONTEBELLO, QUEBEC — Fairmont Le Château Montebello is no ordinary chalet in the woods. It’s the largest log cabin in the world. Entering this property through a cedar log underpass, amidst forest and with the backdrop of the Outaouais River, only to be greeted by bellmen at the front door, is like stepping into a grand country estate. Constructed in 1930, the project was overseen by Finnish master-builder Victor Nymark, and designed to replicate a chateau in the Swiss Alps, in keeping with the dream of a wealthy Swiss American. In four months, it was built from 10,000 hand-cut red cedar logs that had been transported from British Columbia.
The result is grand but intimate. Cozy but imposing. Rustic but chic. Exclusive but also welcoming.
Late on a cold Monday afternoon in January, six fires are roaring in the fireplaces that surround a grand hexagonal stone chimney at its centre. And around each fireplace is a cozy living room scene, with sofas and comfy armchairs arranged to create six unique scenes. A couple plays Scrabble in front of the fire on our left, a woman sits quietly in front of her e-reader to our right. There’s a father and son chatting behind us, and a group of friends drink beer and laugh together across the room. Some guests speak English while others speak French: the co-mingling of anglo- and francophones is not surprising, given the Château’s close proximity — about an hour’s drive — from both Ottawa and Montreal.
Although every season at Château Montebello is special and unique, with a fireplace this grand, and a clean white blanket of snow across its 300 acres of property, it’s the perfect setting for a cold-weather family vacation. One can’t help but use many verbs when describing life at the Château in winter. Over two short days, our family managed to dog sled (available on property), cross-country ski and snowshoe (on groomed trails of 24 and eight kilometres, respectively), swim in its stunning pool with the seahorses painted on its tall wood ceiling (the largest hotel pool in North America), and join in one of its free daily curling clinics on the hotel’s own curling lanes. Of course, we also engaged in more sedentary activities, like playing many games of Bananagrams around the fire, and sleeping under white billowy duvets at night.
History and Opulence Meet in Montebello
The black and white photos framed on the walls of its second-floor mezzanine tell the story of the many dignitaries and politicians who have graced these premises, from the time of its opening in 1930 as a private club, and then since 1970, when it welcomed the public, to its current standing as an expansive three-storey, 211-room resort. Its size makes it an ideal meeting place for extended family reunions and other group gatherings.
As we are instructed upon arrival, the more casual Bistro Bar La Seigneurie and higher-end Aux Chantignoles restaurant are located to the left of a Snoopy-like structure — the stately dog house of the Château’s canine ambassador, Monte, a floppy golden retriever. The brightly lit bistro has the feel of old-school club dining, with upscale pub food (mains $16 to $38) such as fish and chips, steak frites, pasta and burgers, served by waiters with black aprons and starched white shirts. The more elegant Aux Chantignoles serves a delicious breakfast buffet ($25.75 per person; half price for kids six to 12), which we ate each morning on the glassed-in terrasse overlooking the frozen Outaouais River, a waterway traversed by the first voyageurs. Some buffet highlights were their maple butter-drenched crèpes, homemade granola, rhubarb compôtes and fruit smoothies.
[box_light]Read About Monte, the Canine Ambassador of Château Montebello[/box_light]
Although the dinner menu looked excellent, at $34 or $39 per main (kids’ meals at $13 and $18), we chose to eat in the nearby village of Montebello, a five-minute drive away. It has a few fun options, including Les Brasseurs de Montebello (for excellent craft beer and paninis) and ChocoMotive (for all things chocolate). But take note: many restaurants are shut for the winter, and also on Mondays and Tuesdays.
A stay at the Fairmont property also gives you the opportunity to visit nearby attractions and the National Capital Region. Here are additional highlights:
Parc Omega: No more than five minutes from the resort, on a mid-week afternoon, our car was the only one to grace the 12-kilometre road that winds its way through this magical safari. With elk peering their heads into our open windows, and bison, coyote, red fox, bison, muskox and other wild animals roaming freely, this is an exciting destination for families. Allow at least two hours — four hours if you really want to take your time. Stop in at the Park House on your way inn to buy carrots to feed the animals, have lunch ($10 or less), check out the gift shop or rent snowshoes to explore one of the walking trails. There you can feed deer from your hand, visit a sugar shack or check out 12 First Nations totem poles. Don’t forget your camera.
Fairmont Château Laurier: Making a stop for a night or two in Ottawa en route to or from Montebello can be a great way to break up the trip. Château Laurier may seem like a stuffy castle for the establishment, but it’s not. Our kids loved the half-hour iPad tour of the hotel. (iPads are available at reception.) One of the wait staff made and flew paper airplanes with us in the lobby. And we even got a back-of-the-house tour of the main and pastry kitchens, silver polishing area (run by a man named Bright, go figure!) and laundry area.
Rideau Canal: A few minutes’ walk and you can skate at the 7.8-kilometre long historic canal, or have a meal at one of the many restaurants at the touristy Byward Market (byward.market.com).
Drive to Gatineau: And a break for Mum and Dad? Drive to downtown Gatineau for deliciously upscale gastro pub food and beers brewed on site at Les Brasseurs du Temps or BDT. While dad takes his beer for a meander through the brasserie’s beer museum, the rest of the family can step out back for a hot chocolate around a firepit and a skate at the Brewer Creek neighbourhood rink. Or cross the creek and in a few minutes to find yourself at the intriguing Axeneo7 art gallery. (Free art workshops for kids on Sunday afternoons.)
MORE ABOUT CHATEAU MONTEBELLO
Address: 392 Notre Dame, Montebello, Quebec (see map below)
Location: Chateau Montebello is a one-hour drive northeast of Ottawa and a 90-minute drive north of Montreal.
Telephone: 1-866-540-4462 (toll free) or 1-819-423-6341