Archive for February 13th, 2010

Since I stumbled upon photographs of Fairmont Le Château Montebello online, I’ve had a hankering to visit the site myself. Located on the east shore of the Ottawa river, south of the city of Ottawa, the resort is about a 1 1/2 hour drive from Willow House. On Friday, the day dawned bright and sunny (not that I was up for the dawning), the latest in a string of beautiful, crisp, blue-skied days that we have been enjoying here lately, and RailGuy and I decided it would be a good opportunity to make the trip.

We had a pleasant, cross-country drive, stopping in Hawkesbury for lunch. Hawkesbury is reputed to be the third most bilingual town in Ontario, after the northern communities of West Nipissing and Hearst, with about 69.6% of its inhabitants being fluent in English and French (according to Wikipedia). On the west side of the Ottawa river, the land is remarkably flat. Once you cross the river at Hawkesbury and begin the drive north, you find yourself cradled between the river to your left and a rocky ridge to the right, a much more rugged landscape.

The Montebello resort is comprised of a large forested property along the Ottawa river, with what Margaret Thatcher, and no doubt other less famous persons, reportedly described as the world’s largest log cabin. We parked our car and made a circuit around the original log structure and its more modern additions. The grounds must be very beautiful in the summer, overlooking the river as they do. They were lovely in winter, but it was cold enough to keep us moving quickly. We were surprised to see that the horseback riding facility was still operation in the winter. We also saw the handsome team of Clydes pictured below, who were being readied for a sleigh ride.

The main lodge is ringed by outbuildings that support activities such as swimming in an indoor pool, curling, and tennis. We crossed a trail marked as a sled-dog route. The facility was the site of the 2010 Canadian Ski Marathon this weekend, and the lobby was busy with skiers arriving.

The entrance to the main lobby is surprisingly unprepossessing. However, the lobby itself is very impressive. The Chateau is built around a massive six-sided stone fireplace that dominates the central space. The lodge was the dream of Harold M. Saddlemire, a Swiss-American entrepreneur. He envisioned a private wilderness retreat for business and political leaders and called this project “Lucerne-in-Quebec”. However, it subsequently became known as the Seigniory Club. The hotel’s website offers this information about the hotel’s history:

In February of 1930, the site where Fairmont Le Château Montebello luxury hotel now stands was a clearing in the woods. Just four months later, the massive cedar Château was complete: a building feat which captured the popular imagination of the time, inspiring newspaper features across North America and attracting crowds of onlookers.

A Finnish master-builder named Victor Nymark supervised the construction and woodworking teams, who worked in overlapping shifts around the clock, using electric lighting at night. The construction team started by building a spur line from the nearby Canadian Pacific rail tracks; a line that would transport in a total of 1,200 carloads of timber and building materials. Camps were built to house the construction workers, who were as many as 3,500 at the peak of construction. Craftsmen used 10,000 red-cedar logs to build the resort’s three main buildings, all cut and set by hand.

For 40 years after its completion in 1930, the log château was the private retreat of the Seigniory Club, whose elite membership included reputed Canadian businessmen and politicians such as former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, and foreign dignitaries such as Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco. In 1970, the resort was taken over by Canadian Pacific Hotels, who re-named it Le Château Montebello, and opened its doors to the public for the first time.

Today, Fairmont Le Château Montebello luxury hotel attracts visitors from across Canada and around the world. The resort has hosted a number of historic meetings, including a G-7 International Economic Summit, attended by political figures including Ronald Reagan, François Mitterand, Pierre Trudeau and Margaret Thatcher as well as NATO meetings. More recently, the Quebec luxury resort hosted the North American Leaders Summit welcoming President Bush, President Calderon and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The fireplace in 1930. Photo: Wikipedia

The Chateau Montebello is associated with the nearby Fairmont Kenauk:

Fairmont Kenauk at Le Chateau Montebello was formerly known as “Reserve de la Petite Nation”, a 100 sq. mile, 65,000 acre protected wilderness domain originally granted by the King of France in 1674. Fairmont Kenauk at Le Chateau Montebello is one of North America’s largest and longest-established private fish and game reserves, boasting more than 70 lakes within its borders. Fairmont Kenauk at Le Chateau Montebello employs its own biologists to ensure preservation of the spectacular resources, and naturalists are available for guided exploration of the property.

The word “kenauk” comes from “mukekenauk,” the word for turtle in the language of the original inhabitants of the land, the Algonquins. The symbol for Fairmont Kenauk at Le Chateau Montebello is the turtle, an amphibious animal that lives in water and on land: the elements of nature that are the basis of most activities here. The turtle is an important symbol in many cultures, including native folklore, representing earth, longevity, healing, perseverance, tranquility and stability, and always plays the role of friendly companion.

How generous of the French king to give the lands of the Algonquins to French settlers!

After our brief tour of the grounds, and a look around the rotunda, RailGuy and I availed ourselves of the bar services and settled ourselves in front of one side of the fireplace. It was pleasant to relax and watch the comings and goings of the hotel staff and visitors.

Montebello is also the site of the historic Papineau Manor, open to the public from May to October. We’ll have to make a return trip in the summer.

Ariel View of Chateau Montebello in summer

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