Montebello: A log cabin with class

Even Maggie Thatcher was impressed when she visited Le Château Montebello hotel. And it takes a fair bit to impress the “Iron Lady” of British politics. She called it the largest log cabin in the world, as have many others before and since.

Le Château Montebello, however, is much more than a mere log cabin — it is a red cedar log cabin with CLASS. Once a very exclusive private club, it is now one of Canada’s most glamorous and gracious hotels with 210 rooms and suites in a spectacular setting of 65,000 acres of forest, mountains and lakes. The hotel lies in the heart of a 100-square mile private estate on the Quebec shore of the Ottawa River, between Ottawa and Montreal.

As soon as you enter the lobby, you know you are in for something special. The rustic charm and elegance of Montebello unfolds in the lobby with its three-storey atrium, featuring a massive six-sided fireplace. The interior balconies, stairs and beams surrounding the lobby, also of red cedar, glisten as the flames dance in the huge fireplace. A far cry from the usual sterile decor of concrete, steel and plastic in modern hotels.

“From the moment our guests step inside, they are taken back to a grand time. A time when hotels were built by craftsmen and hospitality still meant a rich ambience in which to relax, play or conduct business,” comments Werner Sapp, Montebello’s courtly and genial general manager. The resort is built on what once was a 17th-century Seigniorial estate. It was purchased by Quebec’s prominent Papineau family in 1801. They built the grand Manor House, a focal point for Quebec social and political festivities for many decades. The imposing 19th-century house has been restored to its former glory and stands near the hotel. Designated as a National Historic Site, Manoir-Papineau is open during the summer as a museum. Try to take one of the guided tours which describes the life of Louis-Joseph Papineau, one of Quebec’s revered early leaders.

The massive wooden structure was completed in 1930 and opened as the Seigniory Club, an ultra-private retreat whose elite membership included the mandarins of Canadian business and politics, such as former prime minister Lester Pearson. International members included Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco. Among the many titled visitors was the Prince of Wales who revisited when he became the Duke of Windsor.

In Feb. 1930, the site where Le Château Montebello now stands was just a clearing in the woods. Four months later it opened, a construction marvel which attracted attention throughout North America.

A construction team of 3,500 craftsmen and laborers worked around the clock. First they built a spur from the nearby rail line which ran from Montreal to Ottawa. The new line transported 1,200 carloads of timbers and building materials. The craftsmen used more than 10,000 giant red cedar logs to build the resort’s three main buildings, all cut and set by hand. The project was the dream of a Swiss-American named Hubert Saddlemire, who was inspired by the chateaux of the Swiss Alps. He dubbed the project “Lucerne-in-Quebec.”

In 1970, after 40 years as a private club, the resort was taken over by Canadian Pacific Hotels, who re-named it Le Château Montebello. It quickly became one of Canada’s prime resorts. Since it’s opening, Le Château Montebello has hosted the powerful and famous of the world — the 1981, Economic G7 conference, a 1983 meeting of NATO chiefs of state. In 1995, an unusual conference was a “tasty” gathering of the chefs of the world’s leaders, including Jean Chrétien’s and Bill Clinton’s. They cooked up a gourmet storm.

Sapp strives to keep Montebello at the top of the culinary rankings. For example, in 1995 CP Hotels launched the best-selling Northern Bounty, a celebration of Canadian cuisine a cross-Canada exploration of this country’s culinary heritage edited by well-known food writers Anita Stewart and Jo Marie Powers. To launch the book, Montebello’s chefs created a weekend of culinary excellence.

Montebello is a blend of both old and new, the best of both worlds. For example, the large, comfortable bedrooms are filled with the latest electronic gadgets, including air conditioning. However, you’re not trapped within the usual hermetically sealed hotel room — the windows open to let in the delightful country breezes and sounds from the surrounding forest. In 1995, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a prestigious U.S. heritage organization, awarded a membership to Le Château Montebello, one of only two Canadian hotels so honored. The other Canadian member is the ageless and elegant Empress Hotel of Victoria, B.C., also a Canadian Pacific property.

For those who want to get away from it all, there is Kenauk, the Seigniory of Montebello, 10 km (6 miles) away. Also operated by Canadian Pacific, as part of the Le Château Montebello package, Kenauk is a 100-square-mile private preserve with more than 70 lakes and 65,000 acres of protected habitat for moose, deer, bear, wolf, coyote, fox, beaver, mink and muskrat wildlife. Accessible only to hotel guests, it is a wilderness paradise sheltered by vast forests of maple, oak, pine and hemlock.

Scattered among Kenauk’s lakes and beaver ponds are 13 private chalets ranging in size from one to three bedrooms. Guests can either commute from Le Château Montebello or stay in one of the chalets and fish for trout, pike, bass or salmon. Or you can just sit back and enjoy the peace and serenity. Several cabins are located on their own private lake with most modern conveniences with two exceptions: no intrusive telephones or television sets.

Not far from Montebello are a host of attractions, such as the Montebello Train Station, now a historical centre; and the Pioneer Museum displaying artifacts of the lifestyle of area’s settlers in the last century. The Hull Chelsea Wakefield Steam train operates throughout the summer with trips around the scenic Gatineau Valley. One of Canada’s last operating steam trains, “Le Petit Train” chugs along a 64-km route from Hull to the village of Wakefield and back. Another treat is a river cruise, including a jaunt up to Ottawa and back.

But all in all, there is plenty to keep guests completely content within the 65,000-acre estate including indoor and outdoor swimming pools, golf on a championship par 70 course, river-rafting, canoeing, tennis, fishing, and horseback riding. Absolutely something for everyone.

Le Château Montebello is located on highway 148 between Ottawa and Montreal. For information and reservations, call toll-free 1-800-441-1414.