The Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello bills itself as a luxury wilderness retreat in the heart of the pristine Canadian backwoods, and that description is spot on the mark.
Closer to Ottawa (1 hour drive) than Montreal (90 minutes distant), this historic resort, on the western slopes of the Laurentian mountain range (think Mt. Tremblant), Montebello offers visitors both wilderness and luxury — a combination that fit the bill of our traveling family.
Exploring the Real Canada Landscape
We were looking for a place to celebrate a daughter’s May graduation from McGill University – a nearby escape from the city before the drive back to Washington. Sadly it was too late for ski season, and I felt a sharp pang of regret as we drove past the turnoff for Tremblant, which beckoned, only an hour away.
We wanted a real authentic Canadian experience … somewhere out in the middle of nowhere where a man-made environment surrenders to the rural expanse that is most of Canada. As the road from Montreal evolved into a rural byway, I was reminded of the seemingly endless rolling hilly terrain on the route to Rangely, Maine.
Rural Maine is a close geographic cousin to this part of Canada. Like Maine, the Montebello shines in summer and winter. Visitors can ski, skate, dogsled, cross-country ski, and generally try best not to freeze in winter. Summer features all manner of water sports on the Ottawa River, biking, swimming, and of course golf.
Le Chateau Montebello: Home Base for Wilderness Fun
The scions of Canadian industry who patronized the Montebello — the largest log structure in the world when it was built in 1930 — were into a different, more genteel sort of recreation. From its 17th century origins as a landed estate, Montebello offered its wealthy visitors year round hunting and fishing. They no doubt enjoyed each other’s company and a good stiff Scotch around the roaring fire set in the center of what is today the spectacular hotel lobby.
In more recent times, the property has hosted an alphabet soup of international meetings and summits.
Outdoors Adventure Keeps Grown Kids Busy
Like the privileged elite of yore, we all but had the place to ourselves during our May visit. And the fact that we were in between seasons did not mean that there was anything less for us to do.
My daughter, the newly minted college graduate, has always tended towards the more cerebral, luxury offerings of the places we visit. She easily found herself an oversized chair in the grand lobby, a spectacular example of Canadian camp-style architecture, and settled into one of many books she had brought for the stay. After reading, she and my wife headed for the spa. During our visit they hardly stepped outside, and were none the worse for their choice.
I have trouble staying indoors no matter what the season or the weather. There were daily long walks with my wife on the multitude of walking trails throughout the 65,000-acre property. The grounds abutting the river were particularly appealing. The scenery is not grandiose in a spectacular way. Your heart won’t stop the way it does in the Dolomites or the Rockies. The vistas are defined by Canada’s endless wilderness, with its more subtle beauty.
I often traded my hiking shoes for an off road bike provided by the hotel. The property features all manner of trails—including an endless supply of steep inclines and hairpin turns on and around the nearby golf course.
Golf is not my favorite sport but the rough informality of this course reminds me of the courses in Scotland and northern New Hampshire.
I’d head to the indoor pool after my outdoor excursions. In keeping with the outsized pretentions of its original owner, Montebello boats the largest hotel pool in Canada. Unmolested lap swimming was no problem in the pool, sited in a building that looks more like a rustically sophisticated palace ballroom — always followed by a late afternoon recuperation in the steamy hot tub.
By 5, I was ready to rejoin the family for pre-dinner refreshments around the immense hexagonal fireplace and a raucous game of checkers.
Real Driving Lessons for Real World Adventurers
Montello boasts another signature feature — it is the site of Canada’s only Land Rover Experience Driving School. Many reading this article already spend far too much time in a car. For them (us), the notion of vacation spent in front of the wheel, even a venerable Land Rover, does little to excite the senses.
Not true for my 17-year-old teenage son, who has thought of little else but cars since he was old enough pronounce the word. For an afternoon my son was at the wheel of a Ranger Rover. He was guided by the resident expert through the menacingly steep if purposely constructed terrain park, fording streams and traversing what appeared to novices to be impossibly steep and rough rock outcroppings. I would never risk my vehicle, even the Jeep I had as a teenager on such terrain, and certainly not without some hands-on guidance.
Josh was in driver heaven, having fun maneuvering the big machine over rocks and water and through mud. But he also learned that guiding a vehicle safely through such terrain is not as simple as turning on the key and shifting into Drive.
It takes skill, caution, and a proper respect for the challenges involved.
Not a bad life lesson to learn on vacation.
Trip Planning Details for a Chateau Montebello Weekend
The Fairmont le Chateau Montebello (819/423-6341 or 866/540-4462) is located at 392 Notre Dame, Montebello, Quebec, Canada J0V 1L0.
The award-winning resort is a AAA four diamond property and the recipient of many environmental honors, guaranteeing visitors top service and amenities in an authentically rustic, wilderness ambiance. Its awards as the place for spa and golf getaways are equally impressive.
Double rooms with two double beds begin at CAD$260 including taxes and range upwards from there. We found the large rooms (CAD$380 and up) in the Historic Building, with two queen beds and a pullout sofa, ideal for our family.
The closest airports to Fairmont Chateau Montebello are Ottawa MacDonald-Cartier Airport (YOW) (one hour) and Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL) (1.5 hours).
Information on the Land Rover Driving Experience – a memorable graduation gift — can be found at the Land Rover website.
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