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Staying in the World’s Largest Log Cabin: Château Montebello

Dustin Abbott

April 15th, 2017

Staying in the World’s Largest Log Cabin

A Visit to Le Château Montebello

There are a few evocative things in the minds of human beings. Perhaps it is a white sandy beach along azure waters on an island somewhere. Maybe it the glitz and nightlife of one of the world’s great cities. But at least one of those fantasies involves a cozy log cabin with the fire blazing while fat snowflakes drift down outside. The Fairmont Le Château Montebello has got that last one covered. What began as just a clearing in the woods has became one of the most unique five star hotels in the world.  It was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that most famously called the Château Montebello the “world’s largest log cabin”, but she was hardly the last!

The History of Château Montebello

A little history. The year is 1930 in the bitter cold of February. The place was a storied piece of property rich with Quebec’s (and Canada’s history). The modern nation of Canada was birthed in the expansion of two rival European nations (France and Britain). Both nations made half-hearted efforts at colonization in the attempt to discover and exploit the natural resources of the massive new continent to the west of them. Many of these early efforts were derailed by internal politics, wars, and shifting interests. Above all it was the popularity of furs as the fashion of the day that kept the European powers interested in the “New World”, along with the influence of a few key individuals that had a vision for what could be accomplished there. Some imagined the economic opportunities (Champlain and Frontenac), while others saw religious opportunities in what then called Nouveau (New) France.

One of the earliest European beachheads was in Quebec, and one of the early, influential French immigrants was a churchman by the name of Laval. He moved to Quebec and became its first Roman Catholic Bishop.  One of the last land grants from French kings in the 17th century to settlers in New France (what was called the seigneurial system) included the location where Montebello now stands.  Bishop Laval purchased the land where the Chateau now stands from the French West Indies Company in 1674, and it was later inherited by the Quebec Seminary from Bishop Laval.  Much later, in 1801, the land was purchased by Québec’s prominent Papineau Family and the grand Manor House was built. It still stands on the property today and can easily be walked to (or even skied by).  It is still very grand today, as these photos show.

The Manoir-Papineau National Historic site of Canada is open as a museum in the summer.  Another lovely site a few hundred meters away is the beautiful Papineau memorial chapel built by Louis-Joseph Papineau when his son died.  The little chapel was built in 1851, and stands in a beautiful wooded area.

So while there was some history in the area, the place where the Château now stands was little more than a clearing in the woods.  But in the freezing cold of February, 1930, the vision for what could be became as crystal clear as the February Quebec air.  The idea came to a Swiss-American named Hubert Saddlemire, who was inspired by the châteaux of the Swiss Alps. What was initially envisioned was an exclusive retreat for the rich and powerful (what was then known as the Lucerne Club). And the rich and powerful are capable of great achievements when their minds are set to it! A Finnish master builder named Victor Nymark was brought in to oversee the project because of his experience with building with logs on a larger scale. He spoke little French, but somehow managed to communicate to his crew of more than 800 laborers how to employ his techniques.

The Fairmont website says this, “The construction team started by building a spur line from the nearby Canadian Pacific rail tracks; a line that would transport in a total of 1,200 carloads of timber and building materials for Saddlemire’s Montebello luxury resort. Camps were built to house the construction workers, who were as many as 3,500 at the peak of construction. Craftsmen used 10,000 red-cedar logs to build the resort’s three main buildings, all cut and set by hand.”

Every day there were four railroad cars arriving on a special line from British Columbia with massive cedar logs. Just four months later, the massive cedar Château was complete: a building feat which captured the popular imagination of the time, inspiring newspaper features across North America and attracting crowds of onlookers. Crews had worked around the clock, using electric lighting at night and working in shifts to get the project finished. A placard on the wall of the Château commemorates Monsieur Nymark’s achievement.

The article on the Fairmont website adds, “For 40 years after its completion in 1930, the log château was the private retreat of the Seigniory Club, whose elite membership included reputed Canadian businessmen and politicians such as former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, and foreign dignitaries such as Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco. In 1970, the resort was taken over by Canadian Pacific Hotels, who re-named it Le Château Montebello, and opened its doors to the public for the first time. It swiftly became known as one of the prime luxury resorts in Quebec and throughout Eastern Canada.”

In more recent history the Château Montebello has served host to summits and leadership meetings, including a G7 Summit hosted by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and a North American leadership summit hosted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  There is a “wall of fame” lined with photos of the various major events that have taken place there.

The Queen’s Hunting Lodge

Looking around the massive retreat it feels like you are staying at the Queen’s own hunting lodge. It’s “rich-rustic”, with abounding dark wood and stone. The modern touches of glass, ceramics, and slick, shiny surfaces are few and far between, but there is something about the timeless look that resonates.  Roaring fires, stone and wood, and an amazing sense of space and solidity lets you know that you are in a special place.  The outside of the massive logs are painted black, but inside you can see their rich, natural beauty.

Tonight was a perfect example of the genius of the Chateau Montebello. A freak March blizzard hit the Northeast in the past 24 hours, and by this evening it was hitting the Montebello region in full force. We had a reservation at a lovely restaurant (Le Napoleon) in Montebello. My wife and I had gone out for a cross country ski on the large grounds of the Chateau earlier in the evening, and knew that the weather was worsening.

By the time we left for the restaurant the short walk to the vehicle and then to the restaurant was pure misery. The wind was whipping little snowflakes/ice shards straight into our eyes, while the wind seemed to penetrate right into our bones. We had a table near the fireplace at Le Napoleon (greatly welcome), enjoyed a great meal, but we knew what was waiting for us outside. It was just as bad as we remembered. We had parked on the street, and as soon as we rounded the corner the wind seemed to be blowing straight out of the Arctic. We were all shivering by the time we got in the vehicle to drive the short distance back to the Chateau Montebello. I dropped off my wife and kids, and my oldest son and I went to park. It was the same situation as we trudged up towards the Chateau, but when we pushed through the door into the cozy warmth of the massive lobby/lounge area it was like entering the cozy family cabin I remember as a child full of people hanging out, playing games, with the fire roaring the fireplace.

All of the dark wood is warm and comforting, and that massive, massive fireplace that rises some 80 feet (and weighs 80 tons!) up the center of the great rotunda. All around there are families and couples gathered around tables playing…board games. Bring your own, or borrow them from reception. We waited out the blustery weather in the warmth of the massive lobby playing family games, laughing, and feeling cozy. The Chateau really does evoke that cozy, comfortable feel that some will remember from childhood.  No one really wants a blizzard on vacation, but I know of no better place to experience one.  It was cozy, warm, and, well, fun in the Château Montebello.

Nothing like reading in front of an 80 foot tall fireplace (open on six sides!)

No Reason to Be Bored

It’s not hard to stay busy at the Château Montebello. Our day today involved swimming, tennis, squash, weight lifting and working out in the gym, cross country skiing, and then hanging out in the hot tub and sauna. Other options include snow-shoeing, skating on several rinks, Zumba classes, curling, and more.  One day my wife and I went cross-country skiing while the kids played hockey on one of the rinks.  During the week there the children got tennis lessons (they have indoor tennis courts) and we all had a curling lesson and learned how to throw the rock and sweep away!

All of these activities are included in the $25 per day Resort Fee. Also included in this fee is parking and internet access. The charge is for your room, so that $25 covered our whole family, making it a bargain (and there aren’t many of those around Fairmonts!). If you want more exotic activities (at additional cost), the resort also offers dog-sledding, horse-drawn sleigh rides, snowmobiling, and even a Land Rover experience (driving a Land Rover vehicle off-road over the 65,000 acres of property owned by the Chateau).  They know how to do winter right at Château Montebello!

Summer activities switch to all kinds of water sports, tennis, golf, and more.  I had a conversation with a family that has come back to the Château Montebello on multiple occasions and they said that it was even better in the summer.  I’m very tempted to find that out for myself!  I hear the golf is very good…

I must also take a moment to highlight one of the most amazing pool locations I’ve ever seen.  Though the snow was thick on the ground when we visited, you never had to step out into the cold.  There is an underground tunnel that connects the main building to the incredible building that houses the pool/spa/health club/hot tubs, etc…  The Château Montebello provides Fairmont monogrammed robes for every member of the family for the duration of your stay, which makes the experience extra special.  The tunnel begins at the end of the one of the four wings that fan out from the center of the main building and takes you underground to the pool building (with cool skylights along the way that reminded me that it was still winter outside!)  Also interesting is the “butterfly room” at one juncture.

When you step into the massive pool room, though, you have a moment where your breath is just taken away.  It’s massive, for one, but with that same rich, dark wood elegance that seems more like a giant nave of a church rather than the pool building.  

There are murals on the roof, which has a criss-cross pattern of “ribs” in a Gothic style.  On one end there are truly magnificent (and massive!) windows in that dark wood frame.  It is exquisite!

Swimming laps in there was an utterly unique experience.  If you want to just relax, there are all kinds of pool chairs around to just relax and enjoy…and yes, there is Wi-Fi in the building!  Massive windows along the sides of the building let in wonderful natural light.

A big, modern gym space is on one side, followed by the squash court, and beyond that a tunnel into the giant inflatable dome that houses in the indoor tennis courts (along with some basketball hoops).  You can check out all tennis rackets, squash gear, and even swimming goggles from the activity desk.

There’s also a fully-featured spa on site there for those looking for to be pampered for a while.  The claim to fame there is that no treatment is less than an hour!

What was great is that while our vacation was short (we were there for three nights), we felt like we packed so much into it.  We were able to go from one activity to another without dealing with traveling to another location.  I recognize that some just want to relax on vacation, and you can do that at the Château Montebello, but I do feel like it will be most enjoyed by those that want to experience new things and stay active.  But if you are bored while at the Château Montebello, there’s something wrong!

While you are in Montebello, don’t miss out on the chance to visit Parc Omega, an amazing wildlife preserve that is open year round.  It is a massive, natural area where the animals roam in completely natural settings.  It is primarily a drive-through experience, with animals often coming up to your vehicle, but there are also a lot of walking trails, too.  It has been one of my preferred places to go and take wildlife photos for years!  It is only a few minutes from the Fairmont property and is well worth your time!

Fine Dining

I’m a breakfast guy, and while the breakfast buffets at Fairmont resorts are far from cheap, they are an experience not to be missed if you love breakfast.  The breakfast buffet is served in the exquisitely beautiful Aux Chantignoles, where you can also come in the evening for a fine dining experience. The quality of the food is a clear cut above your typical breakfast buffet.  From the quality of the bread for toast, to the fancy yogurts, to the freshly made fruit smoothies and omelet bar, everything is high quality.  There was wide variety of fruits, crepes smothered in maple syrup, meats and breakfast potatoes.  And, in one of my favorite Quebec traditions, there is always brie and other Quebec cheeses cut straight from the wheel to spread on baguettes or toast.  Yummy!

And what a spot to eat breakfast in!  It’s feels like having breakfast in Canada’s senate chamber, with the rich stone structure and provincial flags above.  I loved the beautiful light coming into the building while I had my morning tea!

Later in the day the Aux Chantignoles offers both an evening buffet along with a more formal fine dining experience.

There is a secondary restaurant on site, the Seigneurie Bar (you’ll find it downstairs), which serves bistro-style food at prices a little less expensive than Aux Chantignoles and in a more casual dining environment.

If drinks are your thing, there is also a bar right in the massive lobby area, with servers circulating through the space ready to take your order.  There’s some shopping there, too, if you have a few minutes while you are waiting on someone.

A treat during the March break season was a “sugar shack” serving freshly made chocolates and a Quebec special – maple taffy made by pouring hot maple syrup onto snow and then rolling up the taffy on a stick.  Yes, my kids were more than a little delighted!

Besides the before-mentioned La Napoleon in the nearby village we also enjoyed some killer crepes at Le Cafe Entre Amis.  Great, friendly service from the owner that had my kids smiling the whole time.  We definitely enjoyed some great meals while at Montebello.

Would I Go Back?

I think the key question I could ask anyone after visiting a new place would be, “Would you go back?”  The answer for the Château Montebello is a definite “yes”!  There is so much to do there and it was a great experience.  The rooms are “rustic charm”, and aren’t the finest I’ve ever stayed in. But they were nice, and the service is great.

But frankly, with so much to do, we mostly used the room to sleep and change in.  In the morning it was easy to find a quiet nook for some reading (morning devotions for me!)  Little reading nooks and crannies are everywhere with so much space.

No Fairmont property is going to be noted as an “inexpensive” place to visit, but your visit there will be a memorable one.  The value may be more in the memories than on the financial end.  If you’ve ever wanted to stay where Kings, Queens, Presidents, and Prime Ministers have stayed, you may just be able to make that fantasy a reality at the Château Montebello.  I’ve never been to a place quite like the Château Montebello, but I look forward to experiencing it again in my next visit to the world’s largest log cabin!

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