The following story first appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of AFAR.
When I stepped into the grand lobby of Québec's Le Château Montebello, I felt like I was entering Paul Bunyan's living room. Giant timbers braced a three-story-high ceiling, and a massive fireplace in the center radiated warmth in all directions. After checking in, I joined the guests gathered around the six-sided hearth and sank into a leather club chair. I spent the rest of the day by the fire, sipping hot toddies and napping, as the comfort of the crackling flames sent me and the other fireside dozers snuggling deeper into our cushions. I had come to ski some of the 65,000 acres of wooded backcountry that neighbor the resort, but the château was so welcoming that I found it hard to leave.
Often described as the world's largest log cabin, the lodge and two other main buildings were constructed in 1930 from 10,000 red cedar logs and 500,000 handmade wooden shingles. The houses and the vast surrounding forests were long owned by the politically prominent Papineau family, and until 1970, the estate remained a private nature retreat for Canada's upper class. As I walked through the château's halls, the intricately carved banisters and exposed beams reminded me of the great western lodges in the U.S. national parks--only without any grumpy tourists demanding to know where the animals are.
In the guest rooms, deluxe amenities such as flat-screen TVs and rain-dome showerheads upstaged anything found in Yellowstone or Yosemite. Despite the modern perks, rawhide lampshades and other rustic details helped my suite retain its frontier appeal. When I got up to pull the plaid drapes closed that night, I watched a horse-drawn sleigh pass by, glowing in the moonlight against the dark ribbon of the frozen Ottawa River.
Without fresh snow to ski the next morning, I was left to explore the lodge's other activities. I opted out of getting scrubbed with maple sugar at the spa or unsuccessfully flirting with French-Canadian women by the fire, and instead devoted the day to learning the inscrutable rules of curling. The château has an indoor ice rink dedicated to the sport, a national favorite that's best described as a combination of shuffleboard and falling down a lot. My instructor was Henri, a kindly sexagenarian who, like many in Québec's western Outaouais region, seemed more comfortable speaking French than English. As it turns out, kindly reassurance sounds the same in either language. But as my backside repeatedly hit the ice, Henri's patient polyglot insistence that I was doing "une belle job" grew progressively less convincing.
After my rough-and-tumble day, I dined in the white-tablecloth Aux Chantignoles restaurant. Québecois cuisine dominates the menu, and I followed a dinner of tender venison osso buco with a slice of Québec's famously sweet and jiggly sugar pie--think pecan pie sans pecans. Snow fell just in time for me to ski through the nearby forest on my last day. I spent a long afternoon there, gliding among stands of birch, pine, and spruce in the rolling Laurentian Highlands. Now and again, I paused to admire one of the countless frozen lakes, their smooth surfaces dotted with tracks left by moose and white-tailed deer. I skied in the silent wilderness until just after sunset. As the scent of a wood fire began to tickle my nose, I grew eager to cozy up by the hearth again. I turned back toward the château's stone chimney, its rising plume of smoke signaling for my return.
- Brian Kevin
Fairmont Le Château Montebello, Montebello, Quebec. 866-540-4462. From $200. Photo courtesy of the hotel.
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