There has been a tradition in my family of spending at least a summer, during one’s youth, working at one of the great Canadian railway hotels. I started the trend, taking the train from Ottawa across the prairies to work as a waitress at Jasper Park Lodge in Alberta. Jasper Park Lodge belonged to the Canadian National Railway chain at the time, later to be owned by Canadian Pacific Railway.
Jasper Park Lodge was just one of the grand hotels built alongside Canadian railway lines. The first was Hotel Vancouver, opened in 1888 by CP Railway, followed by the Banff Springs Hotel (where my son worked in security) and the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City (where I subsequently organized several conferences). One of the largest was the Royal York in Toronto, right across from Union Station. There are many others—from Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta, Château Laurier in Ottawa, to the Algonquin in St. Andrews, New Brunswick—all impressive properties.
In those days, you had to know influential people to get hired for the summer at Jasper Park Lodge. Two of my friends had extraordinarily connections and I was invited to tag along. CN gave us the train ticket for the cross-country journey and since we lasted until the end of August they paid our way back home. We waitresses were assigned to a station in the dining room and as I recall my working partner was a tall, attractive member of the Canadian Establishment (the Weston family empire), which had no impact on me at the time.
I have many wonderful memories of my summer at Jasper Park Lodge and I couldn’t imagine a more exquisite place to stay in summer than at one of their cabins that border the lake. Since then, I have stayed at most of the railway hotels and while they are all exceptional, if pressed, I think I’d say my favourite is Château Montebello—the world’s largest log cabin.
I first heard of Château Montebello back in 1981 when Canada was hosting the economic summit of world leaders for the first time and it was to be held there. Newspapers were filled with articles on the history of the Château and of the restoration work that was being undertaken to ready the property for this historic occasion. Pierre Trudeau was the prime minister and he was there to welcome German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who, according to CBC Archives, was the first to arrive via helicopter, followed by Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, American President Ronald Reagan, French leader François Mitterand, Italian President Giovanni Spadolini, and Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki Zenko. For two days, “all eyes” were on Château Montebello, including mine.
This is no ordinary log cabin. First of all, it is luxurious and it’s huge—one of the largest log buildings in the world. At its centre is a rotunda with a six-sided stone fireplace that is more than 20 m (66 ft) high. Four wings fan out from the rotunda and that’s where the guest rooms are.
It was built during the Great Depression (1930) in just four months, which was no small feat. It’s situated on the shores of the Ottawa River in the Laurentian Mountains in Quebec, about mid-way between Montreal and Ottawa, a lovely but rather secluded location. In order to bring in the 10,000 red cedar logs from British Columbia that were used to build it, they had to extend the nearby CP rail line to the site. As many as 3,500 workers were sheltered there, working in shifts, day and night, cutting the logs and setting them in by hand.
Until 1970, when it was taken over by CP Rail, Château Montebello was used as an exclusive private retreat for business and political leaders. Today it is a glorious place all year round but my favourite time to go is during winter because I know of no other property that celebrates that season with such old-fashion class.
One year my then-husband, two kids, three sisters and I spent three nights there over Christmas. That is surely when Château Montebello is at its best. The lodge may have the largest indoor swimming pool in the country (and an exclusive spa) but they also know how to put on a traditional country Christmas. Outdoors there are sleigh rides and hay rides, cross-country skiing, and skating on the pond. Inside there’s a huge Christmas tree, choral singing and a visit from Santa.
The property once belonged to the prominent Papineau family and the chapel that they built was where Christmas Eve mass was held. Le Réveillon—a feast that always includes tourtière—followed, in the French Canadian tradition. On Christmas day there was a sumptuous brunch and later a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. It all added up to a fabulous family celebration.
Château Montebello may be a luxury resort that hosts the powerful and the rich. But it makes all its guests feel welcome, especially when it’s cold outside.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013