On the other side of the river from Canada’s capital, a land of delicious stuff and fresh air awaits
As I sipped a tea in the café of Le Nordik, a nature spa specializing in thermal baths that’s a 10-minute drive from downtown Ottawa, a woman across the room talked with friends about the great weekend she was having in Ottawa. The fact that she was actually in Outaouais, the region of western Quebec that lies just across the Ottawa River from the country’s capital city, likely didn’t register. After all, there isn’t much to indicate you’re in a new province other than a change in languages on street and shop signs.
Those in Outaouais seem to shrug when the geographic blur is pointed out. What can they do other than revel in the fact that many of the area’s most notable draws are actually on the Quebec side of the provincial border? For visitors to Canada’s capital, Outaouais towns like Gatineau and Aylmer offer history, nature and fantastic culinary options – so much so that a trip to Ottawa need not involve spending time in that city at all.
Any spell in Outaouais should start with a meal at Les Fougères in Chelsea, Que. Its exterior is nondescript, a one-storey building covered in white siding, and it sits on the side of the highway with not much else of note nearby (unless you’re looking for an outdoor gear supplier). Retro snowshoes are nailed above the door into the restaurant, a hint of what’s inspired the menu. Inside, it’s a different story (so much so that my travel companions and I perhaps too audibly said “Wow!” as we stepped into the restaurant).
Windows span all sides of the room, and the sun lights the minimalist, chic space. Local art and craftwork (think art, textiles, vases and candle holders) adorn the walls, windowsills and tables, and local cuisine that shows off the province’s culinary heritage fills the menu. Quebec foie gras, tourtieres and duck confit are necessary indulgences, as is a visit to the adjacent gourmet shop, where you can take home your own tourtiere and more (the best souvenirs are the ones you can eat, after all).
From there, head north to Wakefield, a community on the edges of Gatineau Park. The Wakefield Inn and Spa is the only hotel in the park, and for outdoor adventurists there isn’t a better spot to spend a night. Two hundred kilometres of ski and bicycle trails are on the property’s doorstep and rewards in the form of hot tubs and spa treatments await back at the Inn.
The historic property, formerly a working mill, recently opened a 13-room eco lodge to add to the 27 suites in the main building, and it is in the process of expanding its spa. The main building is also home to the property’s restaurants, where the home-cooked weekend brunch is worth making a priority for – especially if you’re spending the morning or afternoon outdoors. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, did that very thing while out for a day of skiing on the park’s cross-country trails.
Moulin Wakefield Mill Hotel and Spa
The village of Wakefield has some spots of note, including The Black Sheep, a bar at the end of the Inn’s road that serves as a premier music destination for the Ottawa/Gatineau area. And down the street is La Confiserie, a maker of candies, chocolates, preserves and other sweets that make for tasty little road trip snacks.
After you’ve filled your lungs with fresh, forested air, head southwest to Aylmer, another small Outaouais community, but with a decidedly more urban air.
The commercial and administrative capital for the region in the mid 1800s, the old town of Aylmer is filled with heritage homes that show off the simple charm of that era. Many are preserved inside and out, while others have kept their handsome Georgian-style facades as they’ve modernized on the inside.
The 10-room British Hotel is an example; it’s a beautiful stone building that first opened in 1834 and has been hosting travellers since – including prime ministers, senators and royalty. In 2014, the building was restored and renewed; a restaurant and pub that honours the traditions of English pubs and attracts a serious crows on the weekends is on the street level, with spacious, Scandinavian-inspired rooms above.
The hotel sits in the middle of Aylmer’s main strip, Rue Principale, which is home an impressive number of gastro-centric destinations. There’s sweet shop Beatrice et Chocolats, and William J. Walter, which specializes in Quebec food stuffs, sausages in particular – it has more than 60 varieties on offer, including bison, dark chocolate and port, boar, Guinness and pepper, and épices à steak Montreal.
La Confiserie de Wakefield
Antonyme, which opened in early 2016, has converted an old house into a cosy eatery, and is the place for a weekend brunch (think arctic char gravlax with beet and ginger mousse or pancakes with carrot and maple meringue). And the brand new La Maison Conroy, one block from the hotel, has a fun, varied menu (“lame duck” is sous vide duck breast, “scallops in paradise” is poached scallops in beef).
It’s fair to expect a food coma at the end of a day in Aylmer (ask for a late checkout if you’re staying at The British), but one last Outaouais stop before crossing back into Ontario will keep you on your feet – the Canadian Museum of History.
As well as offering one of the most spectacular views of the Parliament buildings, its Grand Hall is home to the world’s largest indoor collection of totem poles. With exhibitions this year on everything from mining towns to hockey, the museum is offering a true retrospective on our national history and identity.
From there, it’s bridge crossing back to Ottawa. After a weekend in Outaouais, you’ll be sure never to confuse the two again.