Great reasons to visit the Outaouais in winter!
Aside from my family, cooking and reading, one of the other abiding passions in my life is travelling. This year, I’ve decided to focus on some of the amazing destinations that are relatively close to my home in Ottawa. This zest for exploring my more immediate surroundings was fuelled in part by the fantastic time I had checking out the Ottawa Valley and the Pontiac region of Quebec last year as well at finding new fun in the Eastern Townships the year before. I’ve now got an extensive list of spots within a few hours’ drive that I want to visit (or revisit). Near the top of my list was the Montebello area, just over an hour from Ottawa. I’ve enjoyed a number of visits to the Fairmont Le Château Montebello over the years and truly love it there. However, for a recent trip to the Montebello region, my favourite travel buddy (my husband) and I decided to venture just a little farther afield, and I am so glad that we did.
About fifteen minutes north of the town of Montebello is perhaps one of the most unique places I have ever visited – the Kenauk Nature Reserve. From the moment we drove through the gate, we felt as though we were in the absolute middle of nowhere, in the best possible way. Offering a range of accommodations from small and rustic to large and luxurious, I can confirm that Kenauk is the ideal place for those wishing to get away from it all and reconnect with nature. With more than 60 lakes scattered across 65,000 acres, Kenauk is one of North America’s largest private fish and game reserves.
I was intrigued to learn about the property’s rich history. In 1674, it was a huge wilderness domain granted by the King of France to Francois de Laval, Bishop of New France. In 1801, the land was transferred from the Catholic Church to Québec’s prominent Papineau family, and then in 1929 a Swiss-American businessman acquired the land and founded the Seigniory Club, an exclusive organization with an elite and impressive membership roster that included prominent Canadian and American businessman and politicians as well as foreign dignitaries. As for the nearby Château, the hotel was constructed in 1930 as the private retreat for the Seigniory Club and remained as such until 1970, when the resort was taken over by Canadian Pacific Hotels, who opened its doors – and the grounds of the nearby Commandant Properties (now Kenauk) to the public for the first time. In 2013 a small group of private investors, along with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, purchased Kenauk and have been operating it to the most exacting standards ever since.
Kenauk is truly dazzling in winter. Eight of their sixteen private cabins are four-season ones, available for rent at rates that I found quite reasonable for all that the property has to offer. I was pleased to discover that you won’t find televisions, Wi-Fi or microwaves at Kenauk. What you will find is luxurious simplicity in the newer chalets while the vintage ones offer rustic comfort with modern amenities. They’re sensibly furnished with super comfortable beds, ample kitchenware and a minimum of clutter. I’m not sure if it is intentional, but the lack of distractions in the décor meant my attention was more focused on the gorgeous views from the many windows of our chalet than on the interior environment.
Generations of guests know Kenauk as a summertime destination, but winter offers loads of options as well, including the chance to fulfill a longstanding dream of mine, which was to go dog sledding. Kenauk has partnered with Aux Solstices, a local organic farm that also raises and trains sled dogs with care and kindness. When I asked owner Marc De Repentigny why he chose to get into dog sledding twenty years ago, his answer was simply that he loves spending time outdoors with these majestic animals. After a safety demonstration and a quick lesson on how to drive a sled, we got settled while the friendly dogs gave a chorus of gleeful barks as they leapt up and down in their harnesses, eager to get underway.
It is a good thing my husband is both agile and athletic as being a solo musher – especially on a 25 kilometre loop – is quite the workout (but one that he absolutely loved). I, on the other hand, was completely content to relax in the larger, handmade sled Marc called ‘the Cadillac’, snuggled under a fur blanket, with a hot water bottle for company. It was the perfect vantage point to watch the dogs at work and observe their different gaits and playful behaviour. The dogs clearly love to pull and required only a minimum of guidance from Marc who issued only the occasional soft whistle, called out a dog’s name to encourage it, or gave a gentle command such as, “Allez les chiens!” Even when we stopped for a short break, complete with hot chocolate and homemade cookies supplied by Marc, they dogs rested only briefly then many of them began barking and leaping as they could not wait to get going again.
It was so incredibly peaceful to glide along the trails, listening to the swish of the runners and the gentle scraping of the brakes being applied as we coasted down hills. Icy branches glistened in the sunlight as we zoomed along seemingly effortlessly, thanks to the dogs’ combined energy and strength. The dogs are muscular and lean, being a mix of Alaskan Husky, Siberian Husky, Greyhound and other breeds, making them ideally suited to long distance pulling. Similarly, Marc’s commitment to properly training and caring for his animals makes Aux Solstices an ideal partner for Kenauk.
The next day, we had a chance to explore Kenauk with the reserve’s general manager, Bill Nowell, who helped us understand how committed he and his team are to balancing guests’ enjoyment of Kenauk with operating the property sustainably. Bill has lived in the park for over three decades and takes obvious pride in the reserve’s pristine state. As he explained, development is only undertaken at Kenauk in a controlled way and with as minimal an environmental impact as possible. He first took us to see a number of cabins, ranging from secluded one bedroom ‘honeymoon’ chalets to vintage cabins crafted almost a century ago using leftover logs from the Chateau Montebello’s construction. We also toured the gorgeous Papineau chalet which sleeps 19 and can accommodate up to 40 for events, making it ideal for corporate retreats, weddings or family reunions. Next, Bill led us on a multi-hour snowshoe trek through the forest, pausing to point out moose, deer and coyote tracks along the way. We passed frozen ponds, rushing streams and then, to my absolute delight, rounded a bend to discover an old school bus perched on a platform in the woods (tires and engine removed, of course). On the side of the bus, a message in bright red letters said “Paint Me” and Bill dug down through a metre of snow to uncover a cache of spray paint tucked into a wooden box. It was my first experience as a graffiti artist and it was so much fun.
Aside from exceptional snowshoeing, also on offer for winter visits to Kenauk are fabulous groomed trails for cross country skiing plus skating and ice fishing on some of the lakes. In summertime, the reserve is popular for fishing, canoeing and kayaking; it’s also a hiker’s paradise, with over 120 kilometres of trails and a few campsites including several tepees and a yurt. A newly renovated fish hatchery on site annually produces 25 tons of rainbow and speckled trout to supplement the lakes’ natural stock. Year round you can also enjoy sporting clays and the only Land Rover driving experience school in Canada. You can also learn about the important work being done at the Kenauk institute, dedicated to research and environmental education on the property, including biodiversity and establishing a vital corridor for north-south species migration.
After our blissful stay at Kenauk, we found ourselves a little reluctant to go home, so we decided to linger a while in town of Montebello where we discovered four treasures worth visiting: Les Brasseurs de Montebello, Fromagerie Montebello. Chocomotive and Le Bistro. The genial co-founder of Les Brasseurs de Montebello is Alain Larivière and he kindly gave us a tour of both his brewing facility and cozy pub. Alain has long been an enthusiastic connoisseur of beer and turned his passion into a business in 2014; the microbrewery now enjoys wide distribution throughout Quebec. Les Brasseurs de Montebello produces numerous different varieties of beer, each with intriguing names and backstories like Kenauk Ale (brewed with honey from Kenauk Nature Reserve), Jackrabbit (for legendary cross country skier Jackrabbit Johanssen), Phantome d’Elzide (named for the ghost of the nearby Manoir Papineau national historic site) and more. They also brew up seasonal delights such as their current Carnav’Ale. The pub on Rue Notre-Dame (the main street) is small but cheerful, with a spacious patio, live music and friendly service.
Just a few doors from the pub we found Fromagerie Montebello. Their wonderful cheeses, made on site, pay tribute to the region’s history with names such as Tête à Papineau, Rébellion 1837, Manchebello and Adoray, along with fresh cheddar and curds. We had to restrain ourselves and brought just a few wedges home to sample; the good news is several of Ottawa’s better cheese shops do stock their products.
Nearby, Chocomotive is part of the Economusée network, a growing international collective founded in Quebec that now boasts more than 70 member artisans renowned for their excellence. Located in the old Montebello train station, it’s a working specialty chocolate factory and gift shop, showcasing products made in house as well as well as those from other artisans. Unlike the cheese, the chocolates I bought as gifts did not make it home to Ottawa, as they were just too irresistible.
Our last stop was another delicious find. Le Bistro is most well-known for its pizzas, cooked to perfection in a wood-fired oven. It’s housed in a charming building that’s over 200 years old and is very popular with locals and tourists alike. We savoured the warm atmosphere while waiting mere moments for our pizzas to be delivered and wished we’d had time to sample more from their eclectic menu.
In case you were wondering, the word kenauk is derived from mukekenauk, the Algonquian word for turtle, and I have to say, I felt a bit like a turtle during my time there. It’s a place that makes it so easy to slow down, recharge and savour the beauty of nature in a whole new way. If you came here just to watch the incredibly sky show of stars at night, you’d be amply rewarded. I cannot wait to go back.
Note: While catering can easily be arranged for your stay at Kenauk, including the option of having meals provided by the Chateau Montebello’s kitchen, true to form, we brought some delicious meals with us. Wondering what great food we enjoyed to fuel our outdoor adventures at Kenauk? Watch this.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Kenauk Nature Reserve and Aux Solstices but opinions, as always, are entirely my own.