Winter’s Embrace: Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello
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