"Where are the tepees?" It wasn't a subtle question from our three-year old, but one that's possibly on the minds of a few visitors to Quebec's Hotel-Musée Premières Nations, given that this hotel has not only been built by the Huron-Wendat, one of Canada's pre-eminent First Nations, but also is largely owned and run by them too. This four-star hotel is all about celebrating indigenous North American culture, and is set in a wooden longhouse-style building constructed with traditional materials and techniques. It's also about refined-rustic elegance and modern comforts. There's not a wigwam in sight, but there is a gourmet restaurant and a hi-tech annex museum.
Canada's First Nations weren't generally favoured with prime pieces of real estate by land-grabbing 18th-century European settlers, and today's "reservations" can be bleak places to visit. But half-an-hour's drive from Quebec City we found a thriving village rather than a fenced-off dusty reservation, with early 19th-century wooden houses, a pretty clapboard church and this impressive hotel sitting like a giant wooden ship on the shore of the Akiawenrahk (St Charles) River.
Soaring glass picture windows and stripped pine pillars bring the outdoors in. The river makes one of the "thousand meanders" that give it its name right past the hotel terrace, onwards to an impressive waterfall that you can trek down to along easy trails. Open fires and an outdoor fire pit ensure this is an all-season experience. Add to this draped animal pelts, warm rugs and lots of modern leather sofas and you can see why the likes of Quebec's renaissance man film director, Robert Lepage, regularly beats a retreat here to read and write.
The hotel's museum is set off the main foyer in two low-lit rooms. Here you'll find everything from intricate models of traditional longhouses and films of native culture to full-size dugout canoes and cabinets crammed with ancient tools, weapons and Huron clothing. It's all very tasteful and low-key, but if you want the full costumed experience, complete with wigwams and war dances, there's always the Traditional Huron Site (huron-wendat.qc.ca) a few blocks from the hotel.
The hotel itself has plenty of curios, with a zoo's-worth of stuffed and mounted animals displayed from restaurant to guest room, a by-product of local hunting traditions rather than tasteless taxidermy. The overall effect is neither too folksy nor too chrome-and-glass chic for the surroundings, but it is novel. However, it needn't be so. It would be nice to think that this unique hotel and business model could soon be seen in First Nation communities across Canada.
Since opening two years ago, this hotel has put the tiny village of Wendake, 17km north-west of Quebec City, on the map, but there is more to see here than the hotel itself. If you want to extend your exploration of Huron Wendat culture beyond the hotel's excellent museum, the village has museum-piece properties open to visitors and a couple of affordable restaurants, including one serving good Quebecoise-Huron cuisine. The Notre-Dame-de-Lorette chapel has 18th-century silver and liturgical treasures, and Tsawenhohi House, built for enigmatic Grand Chief Nicolas "Tsawenhohi" Vincent in the early 1800s, gives a slice of early settled native life. Highly recommended village walking tours are offered by the tourist office.
The hotel's range of 55 rooms and suites differ primarily in size. Executive suites are huge and can be converted into meeting rooms. All feel somewhere between boutique and business hotel, albeit the quirky variety. Simple, bright modern decor is punctuated with standout soft furnishings made with natural materials (wood, stone, animal skins and leather) and items crafted locally: hand-woven baskets, beaver fur cushion covers, bold line-drawn pictures, much of which can be purchased on site. Fluffy robes, Keurig coffee machines and Natur Algo bathroom products are in all rooms, and there's free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel. Most rooms have balconies or terraces.
The hotel has an ambitious restaurant serving dishes devised from local, native ingredients (bison steak with cranberry sauce, fish smoked in-house, deer pâté and even seal). However, on my visit, the food was let down by very patchy, if friendly, service that may well improve as the hotel matures.
Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations, 5 Place de la Rencontre "Ekionkiestha", Wendake Québec, Canada (001 418 847 2222; hotelpremieresnations.ca).
Doubles start at C$138 (£89), room only.