I discovered Canada last year during a no-kid trip to Vancouver. It took me just three months to make it back to British Columbia, this time to explore Richmond with my daughter. The list of great neighborhoods and activities grew quickly, but when it came to getting the feel of classic Canada, the third time was the charm.
Halfway between Ottawa and Montreal, the Fairmont Le Château Montebello, exudes Canada. The pictures, as amazing as they are, don’t prepare you for what you see when you turn in the entrance and head up the driveway to the hotel lobby. This hotel is a great choice for a family vacation in Canada with kids. Here’s why …
World’s Largest Log Building
Back in 1930, 10,000 red- cedar logs traveled by train from British Columbia to build the immense structure that from the air, looks like a six-pointed star. Thousands of laborers worked around the clock completing the building in a record three months. According to lore, the local priest was conveniently sent on a trip to Italy, so working on Sundays wouldn’t be a problem.
For the next 40 years it served as a retreat for the exclusive Seigniory Club, whose elite membership included former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, Prince Rainer and Princess Grace of Monaco. The last part of the hotel to be completed is the first thing that captures your attention when you walk into the lobby – the six-sided stone fireplace. Check-in, drop your bags in your room and set out exploring. If you see a shiny golden retriever come darting by, don’t be alarmed, that’s just Monte. More on his job later, but feel free to take a few minutes to make a fuss over him.
Where to Go First?
It’s just one of many decisions you’ll have to make during your stay. I recommend heading through the lobby to the underground tunnel. If you head out the back of the property and walk along the Ottawa River you’ll find the marina. Maybe next time you can come by boat? Head the other direction and you’ll discover the outdoor pool and horse stables.
The list of summer activities for the family to choose from is long. Swim in the outdoor pool or in the largest indoor hotel swimming pool in Canada. Go horseback riding, bicycling, kayaking, play mini-golf or get behind the wheel at Canada’s only Land Rover Experience Driving School.
What might be one of the Château’s most popular pursuits isn’t listed in the official activities guide. Visitors young and old, sign up and patiently wait for their turn to walk Canine Ambassador Monte. He was trained by the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind Association to be a guide dog. Due to his “incredible social skills” the folks at Fairmont Le Château Montebello offered the Golden Retriever a new career where he gets to socialize constantly.
It’s not uncommon to see hotel chefs in full garb, especially on the back side of the hotel, headed for the herb and flower garden. Watch them work because there’s a good chance you’ll see something they harvested on your dinner plate at Aux Chantignoles. The dinner menu includes many Canadian specialties and locally produced cheeses. A kid’s menu is also available if nothing catches your young one’s eyes.
One of Canada’s Sweet Sides
If you can tear the family away from Le Château, head into Montebello. The town has a certain charm that comes in part from a population of less than a thousand people. It’s an easy walk from the hotel to the Montebello Train Station. Built in 1931, with the same red cedar logs used to construct the Fairmont, it has a tourist information center but your nose will lead the way to the star attraction.
ChocoMotive is an artisanal chocolate company where you can watch chocolatiers at work behind a glass-walled kitchen. See how long it takes the kids to find the chocolate dispensing gumball style machine. No coins necessary, so once they find it, the gig’s up. There’s also a tiny café that serves up tasty sandwiches and salads, in case you try to convince the family to eat some “real” food.
One of Canada’s Wild Sides
Montebello is most likely home to more animals than people and you can get to know many of the furrier residents at Parc Oméga. After you enter, your first stop should be the gift shop to stock up on carrots. My recommendation, get at least one bag for every kid and kid at heart. The 1,500 acre park is a drive through safari.
As you roll along, it won’t take long to discover many of the animals are more than eager to say hello because they know lunch has arrived! Grab a carrot and you’ll make a new friend, or two or three. The park asks you keep your windows half closed, so the animals can’t stick their entire head in the car, and trust me they will try.
Along with all sorts of deer, you’ll see boars, geese, raccoons, bison, wolves and if you keep your eyes peeled maybe even a moose that’s known to hang out with a friend that’s a goat. But the highlight of the experience for my daughter and I were the bears.
There were so many, it was hard to decide which window to look out of until we caught sight of a momma bear and five feisty cubs. The car came to a halt and we squealed at high octaves as the cubs romped and rolled, often on each other. One sibling made a successful escape, climbing a nearby tree to watch the playful ruckus from above.
When my daughter declared she wanted to take one home, I knew there’d be a new stuffed animal taking up residence in the carry-on. That’s ok.. we packed light. There was plenty of room on top of the chocolate.
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