Story by Candice Walsh
MONTEBELLO, QUEBEC — There’s a special region in southern Quebec where few tourists have yet to plunder. Between the Laurentian Mountains and the Canadian Shield you’ll find Outaouais (pronounced Oo-ta-way), just across the Ottawa River from Canada’s capital and far from the hustle and bustle of Montreal.
I arrived here at the end of September 2013, when the leaves were just starting to turn a cocktail of reds, oranges and golds. The theme was a luxury getaway with a handful of girlfriends — a collection of foodies, fitness freaks and adventurists. It felt like Outaouais had been curated just for us.
A Scandinavian Spa with French Flair
A girlfriends getaway weekend didn’t feel right without visiting one of the largest spas in North America. At the Nordik-Spa Nature it’s easy to appreciate the blend of relaxation and social activities, making it an ideal fit for all five of us. Any spa that serves local beer is a great spa, in my books. The whole idea here is to alternate between hot, cold and relax. There’s a certain shock reserved for when you jump from a sauna to a cold pool. But the sensation isn’t unwelcome. The infinity pool overlooking downtown Ottawa is worth the trip itself, as is the Kalla saltwater pool beneath the spa. The 12% Epsom salt content keeps you afloat, as you might experience in the Dead Sea. We had the pool to ourselves, gently bobbing on the saltwater in the blissful silence for over an hour.
The Infusion heat therapy session is right up there in pleasurable experiences. Based on a Finnish tradition of using bursts of hot, humid air by pouring water on heated stones, the technique is used with essential oils to give the room an aromatic sensation. Ours was lavender. The infusion “master” used a towel to sweep the air at us, and we inhaled the vapors. The master — a young brunette in her 20s — rotated the towel in circles around the room, often venturing dangerously close to our chins with her tiny fists. My friend Anne later admitted she had once been smacked in the face during such a spa experience, but this lady obviously didn’t feel like pummelling anyone, thankfully.
After the session, we plunged into a cold-water pool. Unable to contain our shrieks, we were instantly shushed by attendees. Be mindful of the quiet sections.
A Log Cabin Castle on the Ontario-Quebec Border
Our accommodations were at the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello, essentially a log cabin castle. This nearly 100-year-old hotel was originally designed to be a private wilderness retreat for business and political leaders before being bought by Fairmont. Now it’s a modern-day luxury resort hotel. My room, with its red tarlatan curtains and its mildly creepy grizzly lamp, made me feel like I was in the middle of the wilderness in a rustic (yet ritzy) winter cottage. The rooms are built like an octagon around the hotel’s centrepiece — a giant floor-to-ceiling brick fireplace. This chateau is made entirely of western red cedar — altogether measuring 4 million cubic feet — and was built in only four months. I took five minutes to ditch my luggage before making a beeline to the massive lap pool and the hot tub in the hotel’s fitness area.
Also onsite is the Manor House, originally built in 1805 by Joseph Papineau, one of the first colonizers in Quebec’s heyday. It burned down several years later, but was rebuilt with much of its original features, including wallpaper and furniture.
The wilderness around the hotel is full of hiking trails, and during our visit they were set ablaze by autumn colours. These routes turn into cross-country ski trails when the snow hits. Few things rival a wintery night of skiing under the Milky Way, followed by a cup of hot chocolate beside the domineering fireplace set ablaze only during those coldest months.
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Fine Dining and Chocolate Paninis in Quebec
The Moulin Wakefield Mill in the middle of Gatineau Park is a former mill turned into a luxury hotel, rebuilt in 2001. Its Eco Spa has been dubbed Canada’s most romantic, and you can literally hop onto your skis right outside the front door and hit the 200-kilometre Gatineau Park trail system. The property retains much of its old décor, including original hardwood floors and stonewalls. Some rooms, like the one I stayed in, are built to resemble the inside of a grain silo.
But the real highlight for we foodies was the hotel’s restaurant. Our table was set against a wall of windows overlooking the property’s waterfall. The girls and I opted for the Discovery Menu. The title is apt. The multi-course meal included the likes of pineapple lamb tartar, swordfish tempura and sashimi with apple fennel and celery sorbet, foie gras, and beef medallions grilled with hazel olive and truffle. There was sheep milk’s cheese, and white chocolate cake to finish. We were rolled to our rooms when the wonderful ordeal was over.
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For something a little different, the chocolate artisans at ChocoMotive in Montebello put together a good ham and chocolate panini ($8). It’s a lot better than it sounds (although the same could be said for my terrible pronunciations of “Outaouais”). As you might guess by its name, the small chocolate company also features fine desserts, including pralines and seasonal moldings, and organic and fair-trade chocolate. The workshop is open to the public; so chocolate enthusiasts may have a little glimpse behind the scenes.
At the Coronation Hall Cider Mills in in Bristol, Quebec we showed up just in time to watch apples being unloaded by the barrel into a crushing machine. Genuinely, I’m not one for apple products, but we spent an hour sampling the ciders and the other homemade goods. Run by a family, the cidery is situated on a green and grassy little orchard with a reputedly haunted barn. The experience brought back memories of my own grandmother’s cooking. We spread apple butter onto pieces of bread and then tried the apple pie. Among the other products: apple mustard and syrup. We all went home laden with bottles of the sweet stuff — the alcoholic kind.
MORE ABOUT FAIRMONT LE 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