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Ultimate farm to fork in the Great Outdoors: Outaouais in Québec, Canada

lobby of the Fairmont Le Château Montebello
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lobby of the Fairmont Le Château Montebello

Canada’s province of Québec is one of our favorite getaway destinations. This French-speaking province offers the ambience of an international vacation with the comfort and convenience of a bilingual population fluent in English.

We had booked Holland America’s Maasdam from Montréal to Boston. We flew to Montréal a week early, spent some time revisiting favorite places in the city, and set aside five days to explore the countryside.

We picked up a rental car for a leisurely road trip to the Outaouais region, about a two hour drive from Montréal. This agricultural area in the southwestern part of the province is bordered by the Laurentian Mountains and Canada’s capital city, Ottawa.

The are pristine parks, rejuvenating spas, and historic attractions. Regional foods are available right from the source, in little bistros, or prepared by top chefs. And accommodations range from simple to rustic elegance.

fois gras course of the tasting menu at the Wakefield Mill Inn & Spa
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fois gras course of the tasting menu at the Wakefield Mill Inn & Spa

With all the gastronomic temptations, it’s good to know that this region of lakes and forests is also ideal for activities like boating, hiking, and cycling.

For the more adventurous, there’s, skydiving, North America’s highest bungee jump, or spelunking then ziplining 550’ over a lake.

Moorside Tearoom of the MacKenzie King Estate
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Moorside Tearoom of the MacKenzie King Estate

From spotting inhabitants of a marshy maze to sipping afternoon tea at the former home of a Prime Minister, we were steeped in the essence of Canada.

Accommodations–earthy to ethereal

 walkway to beaver habitat in the Parc national de Plaisance
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walkway to beaver habitat in the Parc national de Plaisance

Down-to-earth: Birds were chirping and there was rustling in the woods in the Parc national de Plaisance, in an area of rivers and rapids key to the fur trade that shaped Canada’s history. With about 250 species of birds, and 50 kinds of fish, there’s even a boardwalk to a beaver habitat.

Though it’s only about ten square miles, we noted the full range of camping options–from campsites (from $22.25/night), fully furnished tents and yurts (from $99/night), to a cabin for 8 (from $202). Rental boats or bicycles are available.

boat tour at the Parc national de Plaisance
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boat tour at the Parc national de Plaisance

Summer Saturdays and Wednesdays there are evening pontoon boat nature cruises. Park rangers also take small groups on rabaska canoe cruises.

Auberge Old Chelsea, Outaouais, Quebec, Canada
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Auberge Old Chelsea, Outaouais, Quebec, Canada

Cozy: There are charming B&Bs like the Auberge Old Chelsea B&B, right by restaurants and the entrance to Gatineau Park. It’s easily recognized by the red exterior draperies and slipcovered pieces on the porch, created in the lower level the owner and upholsterer. (From $95, shared bathroom)

Rustic elegance: The charming village of Wakefield is known for of festivals, history, little shops, and its red covered bridge.

The entrance to the Wakefield Mill Inn & Spa is flanked by wheels dating to an oatmeal and flour works built there in 1838. Fire destroyed the mill, but the original stone walls remain, and now bear historic photos that reveal the provenance of this 4-star inn.

spa entrance at the The Mill Inn & Spa
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spa entrance at the The Mill Inn & Spa

Some guests were hiking to Gatineau Park, others were reading on the patio by falls that once powered the mill, and others were enjoying the spa. Hillary Clinton had been here for a conference.

We savored the finest of dining experiences while overlooking the falls from the former engine room, now a solarium.

 lobster tempura at the Wakefield Mill Inn & Spa
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lobster tempura at the Wakefield Mill Inn & Spa

The à la carte Table d’hôte with soup or salad, main course, and dessert is a bargain at $32, but the ultimate experience is the six-course Discovery Menu, ”an artistically crafted collection of small tasting courses selected by our Chef Romain Riva …our personal recommendations for adventurous and food-savvy diners.” ($75).

Wines we added included Neige, the regional apple ice wine. Dinner–an amuse bouche, lobster claw and shrimp tempura, rack of lamb and lamb tartar, fois gras, duck with chocolate sauce, pineapple and local honey with caramelized Tête à Papineau cheese (named for the intelligence of an area politician), cakes, biscotti and sorbets, exceeded even the expectations generated by our waiter’s enticing descriptions. Together with the exceptional service, the meal set a standard difficult to surpass.

The onsite circa 1860s Maclaren House, perched above the mill, and Fairbairn House, home of pioneer, builder, and miller William Fairbairn, are now used for meetings.

Lester B. Pearson, Canada’s 14th Prime Minister, who initiated Canada’s universal health care and pension plan, is buried in the cemetery behind Maclaren House. He received the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in resolving the Panama Canal crisis.

lobby of the Fairmont Le Château Montebello
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lobby of the Fairmont Le Château Montebello

The ultimate lodge: We looked up when we entered the lobby of the region’s renowned resort, the 5-star Fairmont Le Château Montebello. The hexagonal fireplace in the world’s largest log castle soars to 68’.

Monte at the Fairmont Le Château Montebello
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Monte at the Fairmont Le Château Montebello

There’s even a canine ambassador who offers companionship, Monte, a cuddly golden retriever.

Seigniory Club trophies, Fairmont Le Château Montebello
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Seigniory Club trophies, Fairmont Le Château Montebello

What became known as the Seigniory Club, named for the area’s history as a feudal estate, was originally a private sportsmen’s retreat. It was the largest resort of its time and playground of the rich and famous. Members included presidents of major banks and the railway, Prime Ministers, Presidents, and royalty like Prince Ranier and Princess Grace of Monaco.

Fairmont Le Château Montebello construction crew
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Fairmont Le Château Montebello construction crew

Finnish builder Victor Nyback, who spoke little French, trained his workers in the Scandinavian  “saddle technique” of log construction. Newspapers throughout North America covered the progress. A 3,700’ railway line was built to bring red cedar logs daily from British Columbia. In 1930, the height of the Great Depression, round-the-clock construction made its completion possible in just four months.

Land Rover Experience Driving School at the Fairmont Le Château Montebello
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Land Rover Experience Driving School at the Fairmont Le Château Montebello

It is now the 5-star Fairmont Le Château Montebello, with over 40 activities including golf, horseback riding, and Canada’s only Land Rover Experience Driving School.  The restaurant, Aux Chantignoles, offers a menu of regionally sourced foods prepared in a manner befitting this legendary property.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were among the dignitaries here for summit meetings. Summer rates as of July 1 start at $200.

Parks and spas

We laughed at the hearty crunch, crunch, crunch as we fed enormous carrots ($2.50 a bag) to the friendly deer, wapiti, and ibexes who sauntered up to the car at the nearby Parc Oméga.

This 2,220 acre park is packed with Canadian creatures in lake, mountain, forest, and prairie habitats.

bison at Parc Oméga:/Omega Park
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bison at Parc Oméga:/Omega Park

We could practically touch the bison and wild boar, but bears and wolves were behind fences.

There are walking trails, a farm, sugar shack,  and hayrides on weekends.

Michel Leclair, who studied beavers and other wildlife for many years, created Eco-Odyssée, a nearly 4 mile maze in a marsh in Wakefield.

We navigated our pedal boat for an hour or so through most of the 64 intersections of a water labyrinth designed to mimic the underwater canals dug by beavers.

Armed with an adventure guide for identifying flora and fauna at eye level, we began our search for clues to use with an anagram card in our adventure in ecotourism. ($48.50 per paddleboat)

Eco-Odyssée webcam and beaver habit
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Eco-Odyssée webcam and beaver habit

Webcams follow the antics of the site’s beavers, who generally come out at dusk. You can view the action on a webcam with night vision at http://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/beaverwhisperer/

Nordik Spa-Nature is a place to to bask in the sunshine while surrounded by nature, Nordic baths ranging from 50º to 102º, heated quartz stone beds, dry, steam, and aromatic saunas, relaxation areas and waterfalls. This beautifully maintained property is North America’s largest spa and just outside Gatineau Park.  ($48, $54 weekends)

It was sheer bliss floating in their new subterranean Källa salt-water floating pool. Maintained at 12% salinity with Epsom salts, it is an experience in weightlessness similar of that of the Dead Sea. Silence is maintained in this silent subterranean adventure cut over sixteen feet deep into the rock. The only other facility of this type is in Switzerland. (additional $30)

Culinary experiences

Artisan chocolatiers Gaëtan Tessier and Luc Gielen are chefs and instructors living their dreams at ChocoMotive, named for its building’s heritage as a railway station built to bring materials to what is now the Fairmont Le Château Montebello. Certified organic fair-trade chocolate is molded into shapes like trains or made into pralines filled with local products like strawberry wine, maple butter, and ice cider.

The workshop is an Economuseum, or interpretation site for artisans at work. It is open daily 10-6. Admission and tastings are free. The café-bistro offers local foods listed on menus made from Tintin books, a tribute to Chef Gielen’s Belgian heritage.

sheep sculpture at Fromagerie Les Folies Bergères (The Crazy Shepherds)
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sheep sculpture at Fromagerie Les Folies Bergères (The Crazy Shepherds)

An enormous sheep scarecrow, part of an artists’ competition, stands upright in front of Fromagerie Les Folies Bergères (The Crazy Shepherds), where Maggie Paradis & Christian Girard run a farm, cheese factory, and shop.

The label on their award-winning flagship cheese, La Petite Folie, features an umbrella-toting ewe in a tutu riding a unicycle.

La Petite Folie cheese at Les Folies Bergères
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La Petite Folie cheese at Les Folies Bergères

It’s part of the tongue-in-cheek attitude shared by Christian and Maggie, who added “We take what we do seriously, not who we are. Food is fun. It’s all about sheep and the pleasure of eating cheeses”.

Rinds are washed in local products like strawberry wine or beer. My favorite–La Coulée Douce, is washed in apple cider from a local orchard.

Chelsea Pub, by the entrance to Gatineau Park, was consistently packed with hikers and other customers, an indication of hearty meals and quality that proved true.

Chelsea Pub moules et frites (mussels and fries)
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Chelsea Pub moules et frites (mussels and fries)

Sandwiches were large enough to share and the daily special –a heaping bowl of mussels with a mountain of plump golden fries ($15.45) and a Traîtress draft beer ($7) were perfect in its laid-back ambience.

Biscotti & Cie, near the entrance to Gatineau Park
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Biscotti & Cie, near the entrance to Gatineau Park

quiche and fruit, Biscotti & Cie
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quiche and fruit, Biscotti & Cie

The  owners’ other eatery, Biscotti & Cie, just around the corner, offers sandwiches and  home-baked goodies, jars of local products, and fair trade coffee in a bright and arsty setting. Dine in or take out.

It’s by the entrance to the 90,000 acre Gatineau Park’s hiking trails and scenic parkways. Panoramic overlooks include Champlain Lookout, with a spectacular view of Outaouais Valley.

Moorside Tearoom of the MacKenzie King Estate
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Moorside Tearoom of the MacKenzie King Estate

While there we strolled the gardens and stopped for lunch at the Moorside Tearoom of the MacKenzie King Estate. Once renovations are complete, the other rooms of the former summer home of William Lyon Mackenzie King, 10th and longest-serving Prime Minister of Canada, will reopen for tours. Afternoon tea is also served.

langoustine special at Le Café du Bistrot
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langoustine special at Le Café du Bistrot

For dinner, locals recommended Le Café du Bistrot, a comfortable little restaurant filled with French-speaking clientele. The menu was substantial and innovative, and food attractively presented. We couldn’t resist the specialty of the day–a salad and vegetables with a scrumptious mound of langostinos.($20)

Locals line up at the Chelsea Smokehouse in search of fresh smoked fish and seafood. This popular shop is also the place to find a full range of fine picnic supplies like specialty mustards, salmon spread, regional honey, fois gras or Outaouais caviar.

Proprietor Lyne Boyer bought the smokehouse so a savoir, a knowledge going back to voyageurs of Canada’s early fur trade, would not be lost. She also operates the convivial Le Resto, just down the street. The popular fish and chips, made with sustainable cod, was voted best in the capital region. (meals $12-22).

Les Fougères, on the same road, is an award-winning choice for an elegant dinner in the beautiful Gatineau Hills.

charcuterie plate at Les Fougères
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charcuterie plate at Les Fougères

The impeccably presented tasting menu of seasonal and regional products included a charcuterie plate with game, Québec fois gras, wild boar, and Québec duck.

There were mushrooms with truffle oil, confit of Québec Moulard duck with caramelized pear, spinach, local goat cheese and a partridgeberry compote, venison, and crème brulée, all paired with wine.

(4-course Table d’Hôte $49, $79 with wines; tasting menus range from 5 courses at $69 to a 9 course extravaganza with wine at $149)

Their cookbook won numerous prestigious awards and their gourmet preparations are also available for purchase in the boutique.

L’Orée du Bois (The Edge of the Woods) is aptly named for its location just outside Gatineau Park. In a century-old former farmhouse, it is a repository of fine art reproductions in an intimate setting and one of Quebec’s foremost restaurants for traditional French and regional cuisine.

Our tasting menu began with a local strawberry wine aperitif, and continued with dill flavored beet and cucumber soup, and a mixed salad with feta cheese, fruits, nuts, and orange blossom dressing.

L’Orée du Bois strawberry wine
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L’Orée du Bois strawberry wine

dill flavored beet and cucumber soup at L’Orée du Bois
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dill flavored beet and cucumber soup at L’Orée du Bois

There was duck foie gras fondant with a maple glaze, confit of duck with shiitake mushrooms in port wine sauce, and iced nougat terrine. A fitting finale to our delightful trip!

For more information go to Outaouais Tourism: www.outaouaistourism.com or

www.bonjourquebec.com
prices listed are in Canadian dollars and as of the 2013 season.

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