Rolling on the River

re:porter, February/March 2011
Head east from Ottawa, along the river, and you’ll visit a land that some might call Ontaribec. Here, the official language is Franglais, and the culture represents a worthy mashup of French and English Canada. Had Hugh MacLennan spent time here, instead of penning the Two Solitudes, he might have written about the unifying power of poutine.
About an hour’s drive from the capital is the area’s main attraction – the Fairmont Le Château Montebello. Established in 1930 as a private club for the international beau monde, the Château was constructed using 10,000 red cedar logs from BC. Since its conversion to a hotel in 1970, the asterisk- shaped lodge has continued to host prominent personalities, from Sandra Bullock to George W. Bush. A-listers and world leaders may favour the isolated lodge because it’s easily secured to Secret Service standards, but folks without bodyguards will relish the privacy, too.
If the world’s largest log cabin starts feeling small, then head to the nearby Fairmont Kenauk, an astounding, 65,000-acre nature reserve that’s ideal for fishing and hunting – or seriously unplugging. For a gentler commune with nature, head a few minutes north to Le Parc Omega. The 1,500-acre park is a drivable, mostly fenceless zoo that’s home to dozens of species, from beavers and bison to elk and timber wolves. Twenty-two discrete zones simulate different habitats; buffalo graze on prairie-like pastures while black bears pop in and out of hibernation-friendly caves. But be warned: many of these well-socialized animals are far from timid, so leave extra time for your journey (and extra battery life on your camera) in case you get stuck in a wild boar traffic jam.
As you drive back to town, shake that image of adorable deer from your mind. In the neighbouring town of Papineauville, in an unassuming 130-year- old red brick house, is La Table de Pierre Delahaye – home to sublime red deer medallions and some of the best French cuisine this side of Montréal. For the past 25 years, the Lower Normandy-born Delahaye has been masterfully turning out classics from his small, adapted home kitchen. Although culinary awards adorn the walls, the star, no doubt, is the food: from raspberry onion soup to melt- in-your-mouth sweetbreads served with butter- whipped turnip, each dish is executed with expert precision. As the only man in the kitchen, Delahaye plays saucier and poissonier, sous-chef and head chef, pâtissier and sommelier. (“This,” he says, “is a chef.”) Delahaye is also an ambassador for the local chapter of the Grand Order of Calvados (apple brandy), and so no meal is complete without a trou normand, a ritual in which diners do a shot of Calvados after the appetizers in order to stimulate the appetite for the main course (trou means hole). If you’re unfamiliar with the tradition, his wife Jacqueline will happily walk you through it – and make sure you down that Calvados in one big gulp.
The morning after, take breakfast, along with some strong, fresh coffee, at Mary’s Country Kitchen. Mary’s is in Vankleek Hill, a town of about 2,000 known as the Gingerbread Capital of Ontario for its beautifully detailed Victorian homes. Mary’s, run by former fashion designer Chantelle Lascelles and her husband Mario, is famed for its delectable hummingbird cake, which is so addictive that customers drive in from Ottawa for a slice. If you favour something savoury, opt for steak and mushroom pie, another house specialty. And before you leave, stock up on Lascelles’ homemade, organic prepared foods and pantry items, like strawberry balsamic jam, Guinness beef stew, and dill pickles. If you’re hoping to walk off your meal at Mary’s, make it short: Pridham’s Antiques & Art, among the region’s most discerning antiques dealers, is just down the block and it’s a must-see. Owners and husband and wife Josée and Robin Pridham meticulously curate the shop, stocking authentic period pieces, like deco alarm clocks, art nouveau ashtrays, and such rare finds as the 1850 rosewood Foo Dog that obediently (and probably ineffectively) guards the shop. For a smaller scale indulgence, browse Pridham’s chocolate counter, which sells creamy pralines from the century-old Belgian chocolatier, Leonidas. It may seem unlikely for an antiques dealer to traffic in chocolate, but for Josée Pridham, it’s a logical connection. “We just love the finer things in life,” she says.
These days, it seems, Vankleek Hill is bursting with the finer things in life; the Vankleek Hill Vineyard, the region’s first, and the posh 159 Spa, set in a nineteenth century convent, have both arrived recently. At the heart of this high-taste flourishing is Beau’s, a brewery that Tim Beauchesne started as a lark in what he calls his “freedom 55 year.” After a career in the leather finishing business, the recovering Torontonian “wanted to do something fun,” and so, with his son, Steve, he converted his textiles factory into a brewery. By 2006, they were shipping kegs of Lug Tread, a crisp, hoppy and slightly fruity lagered ale that’s brewed in the style of a Cologne Kölsch, across Eastern Ontario. The accolades – and orders – have been rolling in ever since, and the brewery has expanded to include Beaver River, a robust India Pale Ale, and My Community Brew, a citrusy Belgian-style beer that raises funds for the United Way. Beau’s affable staff offers brewery tours through the day, and the gift shop is packed with covetable, eco-chic items, like recycled malt sack carrying cases and vintage-style wood crate 12-packs. What you won’t find, however, are the handsome ceramic, maple syrup-style bottles Beau’s originally used. The brewery recently switched to glass. “Nobody was returning the ceramic bottles,” says Tim. The small samples at Beau’s will whet your palate – but they won’t quench your thirst. To find that thrill, head to Blueberry Hill, a cozy, wood-paneled pub that evokes the English countryside. Little surprise, then, that the owner’s a Brit. A key distinction, however: you won’t find über-fresh pints of Beau’s anywhere in Britain – nor outside Ontario, for that matter – but you will here. (The large ornamental alphorn mounted on the wall, too, is rather distinctive.)
If you’re craving some calories on the way back to the hotel, go west: you’re a short jaunt away from the self-proclaimed French Fry Capital of Canada – Alfred, Ontario. Until Highway 417 was completed in the 1970s, the town was a popular stop on the Ottawa–Montreal route; its legacy is a handful of casse-croûtes that cut their own fries and use fresh cheese curds, often from nearby dairy co-op St. Albert. Of course, not all poutine is created equal, and many swear that Miss Alfred’s serves the region’s finest. Suzanne Villeneuve, whose mother, Marie-Claire, opened the stand in 1970, is humble about her accolades; she’s less excited about her VIP customers (Prime Ministers Trudeau and Chrétien have both indulged) than the giant “fries” – wood beams – that sit out front, adorned with signatures of poutine pilgrims from the world over. As the crow flies, Alfred’s is only about 11 kilometres south of Montebello, but the nearest bridge, in Hawksbury, means a 45-minute drive. Fortunately, you can follow the crow’s path – almost – thanks to the Lefaivre Ferry, which will zip you across the Ottawa River to the edge of Montebello before you can say Outaouais. But it’s not merely a time-saver; with stunning views up and down the river, you’ll wish the ride were just a little bit longer. You’ll wish, in fact, that your weekend were just a little bit longer, because although the area around Montebello is compact enough to navigate easily, it invites endless exploration; this isolated, forested region is a world apart from the big cities that flank it. So when the weekend here ends too soon – and it inevitably will – take comfort from the fact that this faraway land is less than an hour’s drive from the Ottawa airport. It makes saying goodbye just a little bit easier.

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