Chateau Montebello wing
Ten thousand giant, hand-hewn red cedar logs shipped from British Colombia went into its creation. Thirty-five hundred workers worked around the clock for 4 months, on the first-ever jobsite lit with electric lights to accommodate three shifts. And in order to get around the ‘no work on Sundays’ restriction in this very Catholic of French-Canadian communities, the builder shipped the local priest off to the Vatican for a 2-month all-expenses-paid sabbatical. The result: the magnificent Château Montebello, North America’s largest ‘log cabin’ ever built and one of Canada’s premier wilderness lodges.

What better place, almost 90 years later, for Henk and I to soak up some history, sleep in the same place that world leaders and royalty have slept, and celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday year. Here’s our experience at Le Château Montebello, stop number 2 on our ‘Chateau-hopping’ tour of Ontario and Québec:

An engineering feat even by today’s standards

Chateau Montebello historic photo
The sheer scale and speed with which Château Montebello was built is remarkable in and of itself, but when you consider that the first log was laid in place almost 9 decades ago (April of 1930), you can begin to appreciate just how enormous an accomplishment this was. Each one of those 10,000 logs, (some of which were 60 feet long for use as roof rafters) came via a special railway spur line, built to ship them directly to the remote site on the shores of the Ottawa River. Half a million hand-cut cedar roof shakes were needed to cover the multi-gabled roof, and the interior required 166 km of moulding. And these are just some of the materials needed to construct the building, nevermind furnishing it and outfitting it for its well-heeled clientele.

A Design-Build Dream Team

It took much more than just manpower to complete this build: it took vision that came from Harold Saddlemire, the wealthy Swiss-American entrepreneur behind the project whose inspiration came from the design of chateaux in the Swiss Alps; and it took Master Builder Victor Nymark, a Finnish log-builder who taught his saddle-notch joinery technique to over 800 workers (despite the fact that he spoke little French). Together, they realized a vision that few would have thought possible, especially given the timing of such an expensive venture.

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“Lucerne-in-Québec” becomes the Seigniory Club

The great stock market crash of 1929 had occurred just 6 months before, and despite the fact that 25 billion dollars had been lost in the Crash, there was obviously still money to burn when it came to constructing luxury private members’ clubs for the upper classes. Construction of the Château proceeded as planned and by June 30, work was completed on the club that became known as Lucerne-in-Québec. That name didn’t exist for long, however, since the property itself had a history of its own already, going back to the 1600s. It was then that the property had been deeded to the first Bishop of Quebec by the King of France, so the club name was soon changed to the Seigniory Club, after this seignoral system of land distribution.

Where the wealthy came to play

For forty years, the Seigniory Club operated as an exclusive recreational wilderness retreat, open to monied white members who came here to escape the city and enjoy rustic luxury and every amenity their money could buy. This included tennis courts, a waterfront marina, and a spectacular indoor/outdoor pool with a hand-painted wooden ceiling and an underground tunnel that gave guests access to the main lodge.

Chateau Montebello pool

The impressive pool at Château Montebello with its original hand-painted ceiling

Roof of Pool Chateau Montebello

Detail of the wooden ceiling

If there weren’t enough activities to keep you entertained at the main lodge, there was also a private hunting and fishing reserve on Kenauk Lake, a few kilometers away that served as an exclusive playground for the Club members.

Kenauk wilderness

Kenauk Nature Reserve is now open to the public

Canadian Pacific Hotel takes possession in 1970

With its days as a private members’ club drawing to a close, the Seigniory Club was purchased by Canadian Pacific in 1970 and opened to the public as one of the grand railway hotels in the country, renamed Château Montebello. Although no longer restricted to private members, Château Montebello continued to host some of the world’s most elite guests, including the G7 Summit leaders, NATO chiefs of state, and the leaders of Mexico, Canada and the US in 2007.

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The G7 Economic Summit Leaders in 1981 at Château Montebello

Chateau Montebello dining Room

The massive dining room is spectacular even without the G7 leaders

Now a Fairmont Gem

Today Château Montebello is operated by Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, and continues to preserve the legacy and grandeur of its past, while offering guests a modern but still authentic ‘luxury wilderness’ experience.

chateau Montebello room

Cozy rooms have original cabin-like decor with luxurious bedding

Visiting the Château Montebello today is like taking a step back in time, in the best possible way. There’s something about this solid log structure, cozy cabin-like rooms and unique ‘snowflake’ design that is quintessentially Canadian and as such, speaks to your soul in a way that other hotels cannot.

Aerial view Chateau Montebello

An aerial view shows the unique ‘snowflake’ design of Château Montebello

The impressive 66-foot-high hexagonal fireplace in the centre of the soaring rotunda draws you in, not just because it’s the nexus for the 4 wings leading off it, but because it feels like the heart of the lodge and as such is a natural gathering place for guests.

hexagonal fireplace Chateau Montebello

The hexagonal fireplace is the centrepiece of the Rotunda

Settle in to play a board game, or explore the history of the Château through the photographs that line the walls on the two mezzanines.

Chateau Montebello rotunda

There are 2 mezzanines filled with historic photos and trophy cases from the Château’s ‘club’ days

For anyone who’s ever had a cottage or even visited one, staying here is like that cottage experience on steroids. And did I mention the dining?

Dining par excellence at Aux Chantignoles

Restaurant Chateau Montebello

Beautiful ambiance and delicious food at Aux Chantignoles

It’s not just the ambiance of Château Montebello’s dining room that makes it a stellar choice for dining: the meals, international wines and local craft brews served at the hotel’s restaurant, Aux Chantignoles, are excellent. Definitely start with the Cream of White Onion and Smoked Gouda soup (OMG delicious) and you’ll want to finish off your meal with their Chocolate Fondue. This is unlike any fondue you’ve probably tried – it’s a little piece of gastronomic theatre that elicits oohs and aaahs from the table. See for yourself:

Gold Leaf Chocolates Chateau Montebello

Gold Leaf chocolates courtesy of Fairmont Le Château Montebello

Our escape to Château Montebello felt like just that: a departure from the always-on, always-connected digital world we live in. Whether you come here to connect with nature, connect wth each other, or just disconnect, I’m betting you’ll sleep better to the sound of crickets outside your window.

As I snuggled in under the down duvet in our room, I couldn’t help imagining previous club members like Prince Rainier and Princess Grace doing the same thing in a very similar room. Not many hotels, never mind ‘log cabins’, can make that claim.

TIP: If you are looking for more things to do or see while visiting Château Montebello, read why you should check out Parc Omega, where you can go on a Canadian wildlife safari. And there’s always Kenauk Nature Reserve, which is now open to the public for canoeing, kayaking, fishing and other outdoor adventures. Either will give you a great Canadian experience to complement your luxury wilderness lodge accommodations!

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Special thanks to Tourisme Outaouais who hosted Henk and I on a tour of the region that included a stay at Fairmont Le Château Montebello.
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