A Winter's Tale: 'We were transported to a Christmas past'
Saturday 16 November 2002
Flames from giant bonfires burst into the night air, illuminating the tepee on the edge of the woods and the gently flowing Ottawa river. It is Christmas night in Canada... la belle province de Québec. My husband and I cradle mugs of hot chocolate in gloved hands. Squeals ring out as both young and old, balanced precariously on huge inner-tubes, skim down the icy slopes, faces lit up by bright arc lights flooding the hillside.
Was it only 48 hours since we turned off Highway 148 from Ottawa? Unfolding stiff limbs from the car, we had entered a magical world. We were staying at the Log Château, better known today as the Fairmont Le Château Montebello.
It is a giant six-sided log structure that transports you to a Christmas past. Here, sleigh bells jingle. Cross-country skiers follow paths criss-crossing the woods. Excited dogs strain at harnesses, impatient to set-off, their cargo of heavily muffled figures bouncing along in green and white striped sleds. At the midnight service in the Papineau chapel, jubilant voices soar. Hushed voices continue the refrains as the congregation treks back through the still night air towards the glow of the main hotel buildings where a regional buffet awaits.
From the depths of an overstuffed sofa, my gaze drifts upwards to the high timbered roof of the vast hall. Le Château Montebello began life in 1930 as a private club, the Lucerne-in-Québec Seigniory Club. Three thousand workers, many from Finland, toiled seven days a week in round-the-clock shifts to complete what was hailed as "the largest cedar-log hotel in the world".
The church did not approve of working on the Sabbath – the curé, Monseigneur Chamberland, was promptly dispatched on an all-expenses paid trip to Rome for two months. Three days after opening, a magnificent costume ball was held, attended by the Governor General of Canada and other such luminaries.
Early on Christmas morning, the dress code is less formal. Figures clad in pyjamas and slippers scurry to the breakfast buffet. Accordion music adds to the merrymaking. Mid-afternoon, everyone assembles on the terrace for maple- butter crêpes, hot chocolate and coffee.
A huge cry goes up as sleigh bells are heard. Children dash across the snow as they catch a glimpse of Santa's bright red coat. The reindeer must be having a well-earned rest as the sled is pulled by husky dogs. They speed on, hotly pursued by a gaggle of children.
Within minutes, Santa is spotted on the roof, performing a daring balancing act around the massive chimney. He disappears. The excited crowd heads inside to haul an exhausted Santa out of the fireplace. He has a gift for each child.
We slip away for a swim in the indoor pool. It is quiet, bereft now of the soundbites of children splashing and calling to parents to watch their latest accomplishments. The hot tub relaxes muscles aching from inexpert attempts at cross-country skiing, skating and snowshoeing. We have still to try curling and snowmobile-ing. Beyond is the village of Montebello, with antique shops and eateries boasting the friendliness for which the area is known.
Another meal awaits in the Fairmont's rustic and romantic restaurant, Aux Chantignoles. Between courses of squash soup with leek and cumin custard, and halibut with piquant seasoning, we whirl around the dance floor. Children dash off to watch movies with new friends. We sip a late-night digestif by the fire.
All too soon, it is time to take our last walk along the riverbank. Family groups skate on the outdoor rink. The hiss... hiss... of blades mingles with the murmur of the water. The afternoon light slowly fades, from lilac, to mauve, to violet. The lengthening shadows of fir trees darken the sparkling expanse of snow.
Snatches of a poem by Robert Choquette run through my head: "Is there anything finer than a dream lived out all day long under the fir trees and a blue sky? For a moment, the agitation of the city is forgotten".
Getting there: the closest airport is Ottawa (56 miles), though Montreal Dorval (78 miles) has many more flights. Air Canada flies daily from London Heathrow to Ottawa, with fares of around £380 return through discount agents. It competes on the Heathrow-Montreal route with British Airways; discounted fares are around £360 mark for non-stop flights, but connections in Paris (on Air France) or Amsterdam (KLM) are available for £300.
Staying there: the Fairmont Le Château Montebello, 392 rue Notre-Dame, Montebello, Quebec (001 819 423 6341; www.fairmont.com) has three-night Country Christmas packages for C$680 (£273) per adult
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