Ours to Discover: Quebec – Following the chemins d'eau

A road trip along the Ottawa River to Montreal offers an introduction to Quebec culture and history

By Dean Lisk Wheels.ca

Feb 24, 2022 7 min. read

Article was updated 2 years ago

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In this 4-week special series, Wheels takes a road trip through Quebec, learning more about the people, culture and history of Ontario’s eastern neighbour. We learn why La Belle Province is “Ours to Discover” this winter and beyond.

For hundreds of years, the Ottawa River was a watery roadway – a chemins d’eau – that allowed Indigenous peoples and later the voyageurs and coureurs des bois to travel and trade. They paddled upstream to the Mattawa River and, after a portage near present day North Bay, onto Lake Nippising, the French River and the Great Lakes. But this road trip is a journey east not west to learn more about French-Canadian culture. It is a voyage through Quebec’s Outaouais region, the northside of the Ottawa River, eastward to Montreal.

COVID-19 need to know

A vaccine passport is currently in place for Quebec. Consult the provincial website for the most up-to-date information and contact individual businesses to confirm how they’re currently operating.


In the morning: Take Hwy 401 east from Toronto, turning north on Hwy 416. The drive to Ottawa will take just over four hours depending on traffic.

In the afternoon: Arriving in the nation’s capital, cross one of the bridges spanning the Ottawa River to Gatineau. Located across the waterway from Parliament Hill, the Canadian Museum of History chronicles the story of this region of North America we now call Canada.

The lower level of the building is dedicated to Indigenous culture, with a grand hall showcasing six traditional houses against a Pacific Coast backdrop, totem poles and the plaster pattern for “Spirit of Haida Gwaii” sculpture by Haida artist Bill Reid. Beyond the hall are the exhibits “First Peoples of the Northwest Coast” and “From Time Immemorial: Tsimshian Prehistory”, which are full of historic and contemporary artifacts.

The museum’s third and fourth floor are dedicated to the Canadian History Hall, which is designed to guide you from Indigenous creation stories to modern Canada. Among the exhibits are those about the formation of New France and more recent events, including Expo ’67, the October Crisis and the Meech Lake Accord.

Leaving Gatineau, drive north along Autoroute 5 for half an hour to the picturesque village of Wakefield. Located on the Gatineau River, it is known for its artistic community, and is home to small cafes, pubs, galleries and even a covered bridge.

Ours to Discover

In the evening: Check into the historic Wakefield Mill Hotel and Spa that boasts 40 guest rooms split between the original 1838 building and a modern structure a short walk away. Once settled in, take advantage of one of the treatments at its Holtz Spa in Nature or explore Gatineau Park, a 361-square-kilometre recreational area steps from the Inn’s entrance. For dinner, sit in the main dining room of the hotel restaurant, La Muse, or book one of its Starlight Chalets, glassed-in tables for two located outside near the waterfall that once powered the mill, and enjoy traditional French and Quebecois cuisine.


In the morning: After a breakfast of buttermilk and orange zest French toast at La Muse, drive back toward Gatineau and merge east onto Autoroute 50 toward Montebello. In less than an hour and a half, take the exit for Route 323, but before driving south toward town, drive north a couple of minutes to Parc Omega. A day pass ranges from $33.05 for adults to $13.92 for kids two to five years old.

Ours to Discover

Operating for more than 30 years, the park is home to around 450 wild animals – among them bison, caribou, bears and wolves – that roam more than 2,200 acres. A series of roadways meander through the park, so you can drive to different areas and watch the animals in a natural setting.

A popular activity is to buy a bag of carrots for $3.25 from the Park House and feed the elk from your car at one of the first stops along the route. It isn’t uncommon to see the animals milling around vehicles as young children wave carrots at them. Drive slowly and take you time so you don’t miss anything.

In the afternoon: Follow Route 323 south toward the community of Montebello to enjoy a wood-fired pizza at Le Bistro before walking Rue Notre-Dame and exploring some of its stores and artisanal shops, such as the chocolate makers at Chocomotive and the soaps and beauty products made from lavender at Lavandine et Cie.

Stay at the historic Fairmont le Chateau Montebello, a resort on the bank of the Ottawa River that offers snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, along with skating, fat biking and tubing. It also houses a spa and an aquatic centre with health club.

Ours to Discover

The resort is located on the site of the Seigneurie de la Petite-Nation, an estate once owned by Bishop Montmorency de Laval, the first Roman Catholic bishop of New France. It was later purchased by the Papineau family, and was the home of Louis-Joseph Papineau, who played a role in the Rebellion of 1837 and whose manor house is still located on the property.

The resort’s main building was constructed from 10,000 hand-cut red cedar logs from British Columbia and features a central open rotunda with four guest wings extending from it. Originally a private retreat called The Seignory Club, it hosted Canada’s business and political elite, royalty and Hollywood stars. The interior of the rotunda features two upper-level balconies, the walls of which chronicle the property’s impressive history. Be sure to get there by 2 p.m. so you can take part in its last curling clinic of the day and try sliding rocks down its indoor rink.

In the evening: Seated at a table in resort’s Aux Chantignoles restaurant, start with a bowl of its famous onion soup featuring Montebello cheese before dining on the pan-seared gnocchi served with bison and a bone marrow and red onion puree. After, enjoy a glass of wine and spend the evening playing complimentary board games around the rotunda’s multi-sided central fireplace, its chimney rises 20 metres above the lobby.


In the morning: Montreal is only an hour-and-a-half drive from Montebello, so there is ample time to enjoy a breakfast at the resort before continuing east on Autoroute 50. Once you arrive in Montreal, head straight to Place Ville Marie.

Recently remodeled, it features opportunities for shopping and is the temporary home of the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal while its original location at the Place des festivals undergoes a redesign and extension. Its current exhibit, called “Terror Contagion,” mixes art, activism, architecture and investigate journalism to explore human rights and environmental crimes.

A few steps away from the museum is Le Cathcart Restaurants & Biergarten, a newly opened food hall perfect for a light lunch. Try the chicken bowl filled with rice, pico de gallo, feta cheese and a crema lima sauce from Tulum Taqueria, or an order of pho or pad Thai from southeast Asian kiosk Hà.

In the afternoon: There is no shortage of things to do in Montreal, but to get a true sense of the city’s history spend an afternoon at Pointe-à-Callière, an archeological museum built over the site of Fort Ville-Marie, which was established 1642. At the museum, you can walk on a glass floor over the archeological remains of the fort, see the stone walks of later buildings, and also stroll through a sewer tunnel dating from the 1830s.

Check into the Montreal Marriott Chateau Champlain for the night. Recently remodeled, the hotel is located downtown within walking distance of the Bell Centre, Place Ville Marie and the old city. Its contemporary rooms are sumptuous and comfortable, with ensuites that include heated toilet seats.

Ours to Discover

In the evening: Depending on how hungry you are, you can head straight to dinner or experience one of the immersive lightshows the city is famous for. The Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal is home to “Aura,” a 20-minute experience where enchanting visuals are projected on the interior walls, columns and ceiling of the Gothic revival building accompanied by a sound show. After, it is a two-minute walk from the basilica to Babacool MTL,  a modern eastern Mediterranean restaurant with a menu featuring shared plates of labneh, heated olives, braised lamb and tomato and cumin shrimp.

For the drive

Quebecois culture is rich with great music, so create a playlist featuring some of its most-loved singers from the last 100 years, such as La Bolduc (Mary Travers), Michel Louvain, Robert Charlebois, Pierre Lalonde, Jean Leloup and Celine Dion’s early French-language songs.

Coming up

Next week we continue exploring Montreal followed by the Eastern Townships.

DISCLAIMER: The Toronto Star has partnered with Bonjour Quebec to bring you this road trip series. The writer travelled as a guest of Bonjour Quebec, which did not review or approve this article.




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