Every day I receive press releases about the next glitzy resort opening, set to make its splashy debut in some corner of the globe. Many of these upscale properties charge in excess of $1,000 a night, your entrance fee to a world of exclusivity. Forget the local community. You’ll be hidden behind gates and fences, where maybe, if you’re lucky, your server that night comes from somewhere inside that country. Sustainability, the buzzword of the 90s and 00s, seems to have been replaced, as of late, by excessive opulence. Then I laid eyes on Hotel La Ferme in Quebec’s Charlevoix region and I can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that someone gets it. They have finally built a resort worthy of the new millennium.
By Everett Potter
It’s safe to say you’ve never skied anywhere quite like Le Massif, which lies about two hours north of Quebec City. For starters, you first click into your bindings at the top, and ski down toward the shimmering Saint Lawrence River 2,526 feet below before you ever sit in a lift chair. This vertical drop, the biggest east of the Rocky Mountains, accounts for the jaw-dropping scenery that led this place to be designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. This is the Charlevoix region, known for rich farms, mountainous beauty, and — arguably — the best skiing in eastern Canada.
You may also start at the bottom, dropped at a base lodge by a new train that runs from Quebec City to Petite-Rivière-Saint-François on rails that seem to barely cling to the rocky shoreline. The train stops literally at the base of the ski lift, a nice Euro-ski touch. The cushy train is owned — with a few other partners — by the same guy who owns Le Massif: Daniel Gauthier, who is more famous as co-founder of Cirque du Soleil.
Read more in the current issue of SNOW …
Everett Potter is the Editor-in-Chief of Everett Potter’s Travel Report
By Steve Jermanok
Home to 14 downhill ski areas, including the renowned Tremblant, the Laurentian Mountains is Quebec’s foremost winter playground. Once the white stuff starts to fall (an almost daily occurrence in these parts), a lineup of SUVs and minivans make the hour drive north of Montreal. Yet, from 1920 to 1940, the favorite mode of travel in the Laurentians was aboard “Le P’tit Train du Nord,” the snow train. Connecting Saint-Jérôme in the south to Mont-Laurier in the north, the 218 kilometer railway helped spur on tourism at villages along the route.
The last train stormed through the region in 1989. Nine years later, Le P’tit Train du Nord reemerged as a rail trail. The so-called Linear Park is now a beloved biking locale in summer and an excellent cross-country skiing destination in the cold weather months. From Saint- Jérôme to Val-David, a 42 kilometer section of the trail is groomed daily in winter, creating the perfect three-day, two-night inn-to-inn skiing adventure. No snowmobiling is allowed, so you’re guaranteed a peaceful glide through towering forests of pine, snowcapped peaks looming overhead, stepping off for a meal or bed in one of the French-Canadian towns.
The first day, a 14 kilometer run from Saint- Jérôme to Prévost, is relatively flat, requiring little snow to get cruising. Most of the time will be spent in the National Park, Parc Régional de la Rivière-du-Nord. Day Two is an 11 kilometer ski from Prévost to Sainte-Adèle, home to the Mont Rolland Train Station, one of the many restored stations along the route that now serves as tourism office and café. The final day is a slight uphill climb to either Val-Morin (12 km) or Val-David (17 km), depending on how limber those legs are. If you’re still aching for more, simply head to any of the hills you see from Val-David. The Laurentians features 1000-plus kilometers of Nordic skiing.
From Montreal, take Route 15 to Exit 43 and follow Rue de Martigny to the east. Turn south on Labelle Boulevard to Rue Parent, where you’ll find the old train station and parking lot in Saint- Jérôme. Motel de la Rivière in Prévost, Auberge de la Gare B&B in Sainte- Adèle, and Le Chalet Beaumont in Val-David are all good lodging choices. Visit Tourism Laurentides for a map and listing of lodgings, restaurants, ski shuttles, and rentals.
Steve Jermanok As a columnist for National Geographic Adventure, adventure travel expert at Budget Travel, and regular contributor on outdoor recreation for Outside, Men’s Journal, Health, and Sierra, Steve Jermanok has written more than 1,000 articles on the outdoors.He’s also authored or co-authored 11 books, including Outside Magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England and Men’s Journal’s The Great Life. His latest book is Go Now! Put Your Life on Pause and See the World. He’s currently an adventure travel expert at Away.com and blogs daily at Active Travels.
By Steve Jermanok
Writer Walt Whitman described the waters of Quebec’s Saguenay Fjord as “dark as ink, exquisitely polished and sheeny under the August sun.” That’s exactly the time of year you’ll be headed to Saguenay on a weeklong camping trip with the highly reputable sea kayaking outfitter, H2Outfitters. From August 13-20, you’ll kayak the length of the fjord as you slice through this St. Lawrence estuary, a Marine Park in Canada, alongside walls of ash colored rock that rise some 1,150 feet. An added bonus is that this sheltered cove is a rich feeding ground for whales. Humpbacks, smaller minkes, and the cuddly white belugas have all been spotted on past trips. The put-in is located 2 ½ hours northeast of Quebec City and cost is $975 per person, including camping fees, guides, kayaks, and all meals.
Steve Jermanok As a columnist for National Geographic Adventure, adventure travel expert at Budget Travel, and regular contributor on outdoor recreation for Outside, Men’s Journal, Health, and Sierra, Steve Jermanok has written more than 1,000 articles on the outdoors. He’s also authored or co-authored 11 books, including Outside Magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England and Men’s Journal’s The Great Life. His latest book is Go Now! Put Your Life on Pause and See the World, due out late 2010. He’s currently an adventure travel expert at Away.com and blogs daily at Active Travels.
By Everett Potter
What did we do on our winter vacation? We went dog sledding, walked through the vast Quebec woods in snowshoes, and skated on a rink in the bracing air at Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello. My daughter and her cousin swam in a 1930’s era pool with a hand painted wooden roof. They shyly joked in their beginning French with the waiters, seasoned pros with a well-practiced repartee with children. My wife took to the Spa, and I enjoyed every minute of a few glorious days of winter in one of the most remarkable lodges in the world.
Chateau Montebello is a venerable Canadian resort that is said to be the world’s largest log building, built with some 10,000 red cedar logs that were hauled from British Columbia in 1930. It is a classic lodge but with a multitude of outdoor activities, it is also a bastion of winter sports.
Set on the Quebec shores of the Ottawa River, a wide frozen waterway dotted with the occasional ice house and traversed by the odd cross country skier, Montebello is about midway between Montreal and Ottawa. You’re at the edge of French-speaking Canada here but you look south, across to the shores of English-speaking Ontario. Sled dogs bark as you arrive, down a long drive past cross country skiers gliding on an adjacent trail. Guests are skating or playing hockey on a diminutive rink, or heading out to explore Kenauk, the 100 square mile wilderness area originally deeded by the King of France in 1674 that the hotel now manages.
The wooded river setting is amazing but it is the lodge itself that commands the center of your attention. The Chateau was built by some very wealthy Canadian and American sports who formed what was called Le Seigniory Club. It looks nothing like those quaint chinked log cabins one sees in the Quebec countryside. It is imposing, a mass of black logs with sawn ends painted bright red. Call it north woods baronial. You could be in Norway or Finland or even somewhere in the heart of Russia. A Tolstoy novel would be a fitting tome to bring along.
Its Euro-looks are courtesy of architect Hubert Saddlemire, an American architect of Swiss origin who wanted an alpine lodge. But it was actually built by Finnish master builder Victor Nymark – and 3,500 laborers — in a record four months. Methinks that the Finn won the inevitable tug of war between architect and builder, since Montebello looks more Scandinavian than Swiss, bearing a passing resemblance to the stave churches you encounter in the Baltic region.
It’s vast, laid out like an idealized snowflake in an asymmetrical hexagonal, with long wings containing the 211 guestrooms. There are even outbuildings in the same style, including an indoor curling rink.
But the focal point of the hotel — and everyone’s experience — is the vast hexagonal lobby, which is centered on a majestic six-sided stone fireplace, made of cut stone and the rough stone found on traditional Quebec farmhouses. It rises like a lighthouse some 65 feet to the peak of the roof. Surrounding it are dozens of wooden lounge chairs and rattan sofas, with arts and crafts lamps and dozens of tables, turning it into the mother of all great rooms. If that’s not enough, there are two balconies, all done in gleaming dark cedar, that rise around the perimeter. The lower one has chairs and tables outfitted with checker and backgammon boards, as well as an array of vintage photographs of Montebello with storied visitors (Pierre Trudeau, of course, consorting with various American presidents). The second balcony is high above, like the upper deck of ship, and here you’ll find chairs and reading lamps. It is a breathtaking bit of architecture, a space where you can be alone and be social simultaneously, the European ideal of a hotel with loads of public seating. From the standpoint of the girls, it was just an incredible place to explore.
Montebello changed from private club to hotel in 1970 and was run by Canadian Pacific Hotels until they were bought by Fairmont a few years ago. The guest rooms are quite comfortable and to their credit, Fairmont left the creaks and the charm while modernizing things that needed updating, like the bathrooms. But the raison d’etre of this hotel is to get you out of your room and into either the great Canadian outdoors or that vast living space for reading, cocktails, conversations board games, or computer time. Your room is for sleeping and downtime.
We ventured to the wildlife preserve called Parc Omega, where elk and Waipiti and wild boar surrounded our car, awaiting handouts of raw carrots and turning our car into a salt lick. The kids loved every second of it and so did we. We walked on the edge of the frozen Ottawa River and could hear the deep booming of the ice below. The kids loved the vast breakfast buffet and we ate out one night at Le Napoleon on decent Italian fare in the sleepy village of Montebello.
What was the most fun?
“Dogsledding,” said the girls. Indeed, the background music of our stay was listening to the sled dogs barking, excitable beasts ready to pull a sled. They are indeed born to run, and 1,000 times more fun than the ubiquitous snowmobile.
For my wife, it may have been the chance to pad down the hall and spend some rare quiet time, undisturbed, before a huge fire early in the morning.
And for me, it was the chance to be in a place where winter is embraced, not cursed, and celebrated in all of its glory.
The Bed & Breakfast Package starts at $249 (CAN) per room, per night, based on double occupancy. For more info, visit Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello
I just finished a story on winter carnivals in North America. One of the finest is in Quebec City, where for 17 days (January 28-February 13, 2011), the party never stops. More than one million people descend upon the fortified city to cheer on the competition in Le Grande Virée, a dogsled race that cruises through the heart of the historic Old City, or watch paddlers sprint across the turgid waters of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The French-flavored festivities continue with tours of the Ice Palace, a giant medieval castle constructed of pure crystalline water, parades, snow sculpture contests, inner tube sled rides, dancing to live music, and late night jaunts to heated tents to sample the potent drink called Caribou, made of whiskey, red wine, and maple syrup. One swig of this and you might be running naked through the snowfields.
While in Quebec City, spend a memorable night 30 minutes outside of town at North America’s only ice hotel, Hotel de Glace. 32 new rooms are created each year out of 12,000 tons of snow and 400 tons of ice, along with an Absolut ice bar, Jacuzzis, and a dance club. Bring those long johns. Temperature inside is a mere 27 degrees Fahrenheit.
Visit Active Travels.