By Tim Johnson
Tracing the languid flow of the big, beautiful Ottawa River along its northern banks, the Outaouias region of Quebec is a pleasing a mix of water and wild. Add in a dash of Quebecois cuisine, some high-flying adventures and one of the quirkiest hotels in the nation and you’ve got a great drive. And best of all? The region, which includes an area around Montebello known as La Petite Nation (an old Algonquin term), lies roughly halfway between Montreal and Ottawa, so you can take it all in en route, driving from one of Canada’s best cities to another.
1. The charming village of Montebello, right on the river about a two-hour drive west of Montreal, is a place where you’ll want to linger, with its abundant green spaces and compact main street lined with cute shops and cafes.
2. Just north of town, hidden out in the woods, the Fairmont Kenauk—an institution since 1930 and a private club until the 1970s—offers stylish access to the great outdoors. Now owned and operated by luxury hotelier Fairmont, the Kenauk spans a stunning 65,000+ acres of Quebec wilderness and includes 70 lakes and countless hills and small mountains. Go fishing, take out a canoe or kayak, shoot some clay pigeons with a 12-gauge, hike, bike, and even bed down for the night in one of their lovely, rustic cabins—each of which comes with its own private lake.
3. Nearby, Parc Omega is a weird, wonderful place, a sort of drive-through theme park stocked with a wide variety of animals. You can see black bears, caribou, bison and deer through your windshield and even feed carrots to the elk through your car window.
4. Closer to Ottawa, Lafleche Adventure is a giant aerial adventure, with four courses of high-ropes obstacles, including a set of steps that swing 40-feet in the air and vertiginous tightropes, all connected by zip lines that spirit you across lakes and valleys to the next station. There’s also an impressive cave on site that features a number of large underground chambers and one of the tallest chimneys in eastern Canada.
5. If you love paddle boats, make sure to visit Eco-Odyssey, where you can pedal through a complicated labyrinth in search of clues on a scavenger hunt.
6. Afterward, cool your heels in Gatineau at Spa Nordik, a secluded Nordic-style spa complete with Finnish saunas, outdoor fireplaces, hammocks and hot and cold pools.
In Montebello, whet your appetite at Chocomotive, a chocolate shop in the village’s historic train station—you can watch as the chocolate is made, then enjoy a tasting of their fresh, gooey treats (try the one with caramel and sea salt, the perfect balance of sweet and salty). Then head a few doors down to Resto-Bar Le Zouk, which has hearty burgers and the biggest patio in town. In the Gatineau area, visit the funky main street in Chelsea and make sure to stop in at Café Soup’Herbe, which serves up hearty vegetarian food in a sylvan setting back in the trees.
The largest log building in the world, the Fairmont Chateau Montebello is arguably Canada’s quirkiest luxury hotel. Built in just four months during the Great Depression (when there was plenty of labour available to staff the 24-hour shifts), the Chateau has four wings and the largest indoor hotel pool in the nation and was built from more than 10,000 cedar logs. But quirky doesn’t supersede sumptuous—accommodations here are certainly luxurious, too.
Just a tick off the main route, the Wakefield Mill is situated next to a rushing waterfall. Not your average Inn, it has played host to top-level government conferences (Hillary Clinton visited recently for a foreign-affairs meeting), and includes a haute-cuisine restaurant serving gourmet fare made with local ingredients, an outdoor hot tub overlooking the falls and a number of small platforms with Muskoka chairs nestled in the woods by the river.
To celebrate the two great cities that bookend the trip, start out by spinning some of Montreal’s best—perhaps a little bit of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, maybe some Leonard Cohen or The Dears, then mix in more and more Ottawa as you move closer to the nation’s capital—the poppy, slightly weird sounds of the Hilotrons are a good choice for something modern, as is Bruce Cockburn, for old time’s sake.
Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport services major cities across Canada and abroad with regular, often direct flights with major carriers. It is also a hub for national rail service VIA Rail, with trains arriving daily at the city’s Gare Centrale from Atlantic Canada and Southern Ontario. Start here, divide your itinerary into two or three days, and work your way west along Autoroute 50 and provincial highway 148 to Gatineau and Ottawa.