It’s been quite the dud winter so far, with little sign of improvement on the horizon. No snow to speak of until just after Christmas, and generally much warmer than usual so what snow there is keeps melting and, even worse, it sometimes rains! My plans for lots of winter fun, including skating, snowshoeing and tubing down snow slides, has been badly impacted. Fortunately, one keenly anticipated weekend of winter activities worked out perfectly, as a generous 40cm of snow fell in one day shortly before my beau and I checked into Le Château Montebello.
Fairmont’s luxurious, giant log cabin of a hotel set on extensive resort grounds has got to be one of the best places for travellers looking to tick off a bunch of Canadian winter pleasures: snow-and-ice-based sports, crackling fires, a huge Christmas tree, rustic-meets-luxurious vintage decor that’s the epitome of Canadiana (in my mind, but it might seem old-fashioned to locals?). After driving about 90 minutes’ west of Montreal, I was enchanted the moment we drove under the property’s big log entrance arch, across the snow-covered grounds, then checked in in the grand central foyer.
This vast space is made for lounging around on sofas and armchairs of rich wood and plaid fabrics, among the golden light of numerous lamps and, at that time of the year, shimmering festive decorations. At the heart of the foyer, which soars upwards three storeys, log upon log, and of the hotel overall, is a massive stone chimney and the six inviting fires around its base. I couldn’t wait to sit by the flames with a hot chocolate or glass of mulled wine.
But first we headed to the skating rink, only to discover it’s bizarrely small. We skated for about 10 minutes, but found it too crowded and cramped, so essentially brought our skates for nothing. This was the nearest thing to a low point during our stay, but it just meant I was able to relax by the fire with a hot chocolate sooner than expected (turns out there was no mulled wine on offer – something to introduce to your Québec winter wonderland, Fairmont?).
Our room, in one of four long accommodation wings leading from the central foyer, was spacious, comfortable and decorated in a smart, retro-woodsy Canadian style reminiscent of the era in which the hotel was built. So a couple of what looked to be vintage paintings of dapper 1930s gents out hunting (walking around with a dead deer draped over one’s shoulders never looked so serene), a cast-brass-bear lamp stand, and more wood and plaid fabric. After a tasty, well-priced, room-service dinner, it was lights out in preparation for two days of outdoor adventure, albeit with the genteel convenience offered by a luxury resort hotel.
After a hearty buffet breakfast in the large dining room overlooking grounds covered in pristine snow (the little maple-butter crepes are awesome!), we headed for the activity HQ to suit up for two hours of snowmobiling. This was one of the main prompts for our visit, as my beau had never experienced one of Québec’s greatest inventions, the motoneige (this and dog-sledding, both of which I’d had the good fortune to enjoy twice on travel writers’ trips).
I was happy to be passenger while he drove, alongside several other riders and an excellent guide (who gave about five times more practical advice than what I was told on my two previous snowmobiling outings combined!). We were really lucky as it was only the second day snowmobiling had been possible this winter, and the landscape was a picture covered in fresh, white snow. It’s a little pricey, but no matter where you go this is not a cheap sport, and Montebello certainly makes it convenient.
We then tried cross-country skiing for the first time (equipment rental is included in the resort fee, as are skates and snowshoes). It took some getting used to as I’d only skied (downhill) once before, years ago – during my first visit to Canada, actually. Once I got the rhythm it was quite enjoyable, though I will need plenty of practise before being able to go downhill without falling over (though conditions not looking good for practise this winter!). We did the easy 4.5km circuit twice, which had a pleasantly varied landscape, but there are 42km of ski/snowshoe trails of various lengths and difficulty.
The next day we strapped on our snowshoes and did a couple of intermediate trails, admiring the white landscape, and wondering what the resort is like during summer as we shuffled across the golf course hidden a metre below all that wonderful powder snow. My beau also enjoyed his first dog-sledding experience (even though it’s passenger-only here; I was so lucky to try “mushing” previously; for some reason travel writers are supposed to be capable of anything!). Meanwhile, I had fun taking photos of the dogs raring to go, flying around the corner on their way back, and also those waiting impatiently for the sled teams to return.
Apart from the miniature skating rink, the only aspect of my stay I wasn’t entirely satisfied with was dinner at the chateau’s restaurant (while a glimpse at the basement bistro was underwhelming). Though prices are similar to Montreal’s best restaurants, the service wasn’t seamless (for example, waited and waited in vain for the waiter to pour the wine bottle’s final glasses), the heating vent next to me constantly blew cold air, and the food was somewhat bland (perhaps those tucking into duck breast or deer Wellington were happy, but why offer a vegan menu, and a few vegetarian dishes too, if they aren’t particularly interesting or flavoursome? Points for trying though, as most good Québec restos are all about the flesh).
After the big snowshoe shuffle, there was no time to try curling or hockey, but I couldn’t resist sitting by those monumental fires again … which of course meant being unable to resist a late-afternoon glass of wine before heading back to normal life. For non-Canadians, especially visitors from warm countries, Le Château Montebello should be high on the wish list of winter pleasures. For Montrealers (and Ottawans, as the nation’s capital is also nearby), this is a gloriously easy getaway, and could turn around those winter-phobes among you – if only the thermometer would stay low!