Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017
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Canada's Regal Retreats

Experience Relais & Châteaux's world of elegance at one or all 12 of its Canadian properties

The elite fellowship of small hotels and country inns known as Relais & Châteaux began with a handful of hostelries on the highway from Paris to Nice in 1954. So much for humble beginnings: in 2000, its Paris headquarters is a tower of prestige representing 427 hotels and restaurants in 43 countries. The chain evokes a marriage of genteel surroundings and exceptional comforts embodied in five enshrined "Cs:" character, calm, courtesy, comfort and cuisine. If you qualify for Relais & Châteaux, you're one of the best in the world, it's that simple.

You may be surprised to learn that Relais & Châteaux has been a presence in Canada for 29 years: hotelier Jean-Louis Dufresne brought Quebec's La Sapiniere into the fold in 1971. Sapiniere is no longer a Relais, but Canada's membership has jumped to a dozen properties that span the country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And the name is clearly no stranger to DOCTOR'S REVIEW readers since the response to our Relais & Châteaux contest was overwhelming. With this in mind, we present an overview of the 12 remarkable Canadian properties.

KINGSBRAE ARMS
St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, NB
The setting is the old Loyalist town and tourism juggernaut on the Bay of Fundy, whose tides are the highest in the world. The gabled cedar manse was built in 1897 for Thomas Wheelock, a china trader and owner of a cargo fleet. Immaculately landscaped grounds bolster first impressions, and the interior follows through with guest rooms and suites with king-size canopied beds, two-metre whirlpool baths, thermostat-controlled fireplaces and fresh flowers everywhere.

The dining-room table seats 16 guests, and guests only, because of local licensing regulations. Dinner should be a rollicking affair, but who wants to dine elbow-to-elbow with people they barely know? "By the time they've had two meals together," confided innkeeper Harry Chancey Jr., "our guests have bonded."

Food acts as a social glue, and the menu changes nightly: the gastronomic fusillade might include prosciutto paired with crushed-olive tapenade, scallops in hazelnut crusts, lamb with rosemary and chocolate tart with brandied cherries. Breakfast is no slouch either: Eggs Loyalist (poached eggs on a croissant, capped with smoked salmon and drizzled with a gossamer hollandaise) prove to be a stylish start to the day. (Tel: 506-529-1897; fax: 506-529-1197; kingsbrae@nb.aibn.com; www.kingsbrae.com.)

LA PINSONNIÈRE
Cap-â-l'Aigle, QC
La Pinsonnière is a white-frame country house that overlooks the St. Lawrence River from the cliffs of Charlevoix. Four-poster beds, whirlpool baths and fireplaces up the luxury quotient in its best rooms. A mini-spa rounds out the pampering with innovative treatments, such as the rain-bed massage (like a tropical monsoon) and four-hand massage, in which two therapists go to work on you. Charlevoix is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and in late summer, whale-watching on the Saguenay River is spectacular.

Cuisine has always been a priority, with the menu rhyming off such gastro-highs as quail with hazelnuts and rhubarb or Quebec lamb in a pastry and scallops in "virgin" sauce. The pride of the house remains its 10,000-bottle wine cellar, and the resident sommelier keeps you right on top of it. (Tel: 800-387-4431; fax: 418-665-7156; pinsonniere@relaischateaux.fr; www.lapinsonniere.com.)

HOSTELLERIE LES TROIS TILLEULS
St-Marc-sur-Richelieu, QC
A longtime favourite with business travellers, Trois Tilleuls sits like a green and gold summer postcard, complete with gazebo and pleasure boats on Quebec's Richelieu River, only 30 kilometres from Montreal. Boating, swimming and fishing built an appetite for chef Jean-Franìois Methot's unusual cuisine: he revels in salads of quail livers -- teeny, tiny bites no larger than punctuation marks -- and duck gizzards. He shows a fondness for pairings such as Atlantic salmon and shrimp tempura or Quebec foie gras with juicy magret, or duck breast for a double whammy. In autumn, the chef takes guests hunting for pheasant or wild boar and then prepares wild-game dinners. (Tel: 800-263-2230; fax: 450-584-3146)

AUBERGE HATLEY
North Hatley, QC
Covered bridges, round barns (no corners for the Devil to hide) and shimmering lakes define Quebec's Eastern Townships. This is where Robert and Liliane Gagnon operate their ultra-gracious inn, a great clapboard cake of a house with tiled swimming pool, canopied beds, whirlpool baths and in-room fireplaces.

Hatley's restaurant is one of Quebec's superstars, routinely hosting Canadian prime ministers, American presidents, film directors and movie stars. Its kitchen brigade includes a lawyer, journalist and philosopher, all of whom turned to cuisine. Marvellous salad greens -- chef Alain Labrie's Quebec goat-cheese and tomato salad is something of a legend -- come straight from the Gagnons' tremendously successful hydroponic greenhouse. Sink your teeth into the basil or bunch of arugula, and the flavour practically knocks your knees out from under you.

Other signatures are scallops and lobster dressed with watercress vinaigrette and ginger jus, duck breast sauced in rhubarb, a dazzling checkerboard layout of marinated and smoked rainbow trout and a dessert of Earl Grey chocolate mousse. The wine cellar is one of 12 in Canada to garner the Wine Spectator's top honours. Innkeeper Gagnon, by the way, is a Relais & Châteaux Vice President, the only non-French citizen ever to hold the post. (Tel: 819-842-2451; fax: 819-842-2907; hatley@relais chateaux.fr.)

HÔTEL L'EAU " LA BOUCHE
Saint-Adèle, QC
Set among maple, fir and birch in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains, the cozy L'Eau " La Bouche translates to "mouthwatering," which would be odd if its heart and soul weren't chef Anne Desjardins' dedication to fresh regional cuisine.

With the diminutive Desjardins in the kitchen and husband Pierre Audette managing the restaurant and wine cellar, mouthwatering is the word for perfectly pink Quebec foie gras -- arguably finer than its competitors from the Hudson Valley and Sonoma Country -- scallops sauced with smoked lobster, caribou from remote Nunavik and quails drizzled with maple vinaigrette. Maple vinaigrette? How Canadian can you get? (Tel: 888-828-2991; fax: 450-229-7573; eaubouche@sympatico.ca.)

 

LANGDON HALL
Cambridge, ON
Strangely, Ontario has just two Relais. One is the country manor built in 1898 for Eugene Wilks, great-grandson of American tycoon John Jacob Astor. Surrounding towns are up to the pedigree: "Where else," quips innkeeper Bill Bennett, "can you be within an hour's drive of London and Paris?" Tourist attractions are also close by: the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Royal Botanical Gardens.

The balustraded verandah, lofty portico, ionic columns and formal gardens are designed to impress, and do. Cozy bedrooms with fireplaces and the full spa deliver myriad creature comforts. The restaurant, a glassed-in terrace, is the theatre for chef James Saunders' flamboyant cuisine. Gastronomes can look forward to warm salad of foie gras and shrimp, Marseilles-style bouillabaisse and maple-glazed duck breast, and even the normally hapless vegetarian can dine merrily on Champagne risotto capped with a tangle of crispy leeks and with a side of red pepper and brie strudel. (Tel: 800-268-1898; fax: 519-740-8161; langdon@golden.net; www.country inns.org.)

THE INN AT MANITOU
McKellar, ON
Back in the days when Relais & Châteaux designated the best of the best with a special gold shield, the Inn at Manitou was awarded the only one in Canada and one of less than 30 in the world. The gold is no longer around, but if Manitou's standards have changed at all, it's for the better.

This is amazing when you consider the inn is located on the shores of Lake Manitouwabing, 250 kilometres north of Toronto. Guests from as far off as Texas and California are whisked northward from Pearson International in chauffeured limos. The inn's open from May through October. Embracing the notion that "small is beautiful," intrepid innkeepers Ben and Sheila Wise, accommodate just 64 guests and pamper them to the threshold of delirium.

The inn may be Canada's most sumptuous country retreat since its supplementary facilities include a spa with 25 treatments (from hydrotherapy to wraps with kelp and world-class mud), tennis on 12 clay courts and most recently, golf. A learning centre comes complete with performance analysis and a practice fairway with sand traps and bunkers carved out of the formidable Canadian Shield.

Accommodations are lovely: junior suites with sunken living rooms, marble fireplaces, private saunas, skylit whirlpool baths and sundecks overlooking the lake. Public areas are gorgeous: the tea room with its picture window facing the sunset, cathedral ceiling and fantastical appointments from Morocco, India and China, demonstrate just how adroitly the Wises have gilded their wilderness lily.

The event of the day unfolds in a dining room outfitted with Irish linens, Limoges china, servers recruited in Paris and a view out of Last of the Mohicans. The style is unmistakably French, but the ingredients -- PEI oysters, Atlantic salmon, Quebec foie gras, Alberta beef -- salute the Canadian bounty. Gourmet and bistro menus alternate, the latter offers tuna loin carpaccio with reggiano spears and grilled veal-tenderloin medallions with sweetbread and red-onion tart; the former shoots for the roof with loin of caribou with a side of chestnut mousseline and corn pancakes. Ooh la la. (Tel: 800-571-8818; fax: 705-389-3818; inn@manitou-online.com; www.manitou-online.com.)

Wickaninnish Inn
Vancouver Island, BC

Set on a promontory in BC's stunningly beautiful Pacific Rim National Park, the "Wick" seems a retreat in perfect harmony with its surroundings: a great escape overlooking the ocean, the islands and the golden sweep of Chesterman Beach. Innkeeper Charles McDiarmid promotes the winter months as storm-watching season, and it delivers with monumental eight-metre-high rollers washing in from Japan. He's even installed microphones outside the restaurant so diners can hear the ferocity after dark.

The three-storey-high cedar structure is a beaut: its lobby and restaurant greet you with hand-carved pillars of red cedar, six-metre-high ceilings and glass everywhere inhales the view. It has 46 guest rooms, many with balconies facing the ocean and all with soaker tubs and working fireplaces. A recent development is the Ancient Cedars Spa, its treatments ranging from "Sacred Sea" exfoliation with marine products to customized body masques.

Under chef Jim Garraway, the Pointe restaurant has a ball with the bounty from the sea. An amuse-bouche is a gooseneck barnacle, a surprisingly plump and juicy critter harvested by fishermen who pluck the mollusks from rocks amid ocean storms. Daily chowder comes piled high with crabmeat, scallops, salmon, potatoes and sea asparagus.

Among main dishes, Dungeness crab is transformed to a crisp crabcake ribboned with garlic cream and fresh chili-spiced fennel. Alberta lamb is a complete rack (a portion fit for Goliath) in a morel and Cabernet sauce. For dessert, try the double-chocolate mashed potato brioche. This is the wilderness? It's doubtful travellers are faring better anywhere in the world, even on that venerable route from Paris to Nice. (Tel: 250-725-3100; fax: 250-725-3110; info@wickinn.com; www.wickinn.com.)

The Aerie
Vancouver Island BC

One might blink at this conspicuously Mediterranean manse, half an hour from Victoria, in the mountains of southern Vancouver Island. Rooms come festooned with Persian and Chinese silk carpets, down comforters, Jacuzzis, gas fireplaces and private decks. Public pleasures include a spa, indoor and outdoor hot tubs and even a helicopter pad for guests in a whirl. Condé Nast Traveler named Aerie as 2nd "Top North American Small Hotel" in 1999.

If Pacific Northwest is the most recent of the regional cuisines to storm this continent, Aerie chef Christophe Letard (formerly of the Inn at Manitou) melds it seamlessly with French technique and superlative BC ingredients, from fresh morels to seafood and game. Signatures include smoked-citrus chinook salmon, free-range pheasant confit with pheasant jus and truffle oil, seared Pacific halibut and veal striploin with morels. The wine cellar trumpets a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence and the selection of wines from BC's flourishing Okanagan Valley excites. (Tel: 250-743-7115; fax: 250-743-4766; aerie@relaischateaux.fr; www.aerie.bc.ca.)

POST HOTEL
Lake Louise, AB
Smack in Banff National Park, in the vicinity of Lake Louise, the Post boasts a setting of turquoise lakes, mountain slopes punctuated with pines and the incredible spectacle of the Rockies. Hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, whitewater rafting and photography are the things to do.

Fastidiously overseen by innkeepers AndrÄ and George Schwarz, the Post is all rustic elegance -- a timber palace, really. Its luxuries including goose-down duvets, heated slate floors, fireplaces and oversized Jacuzzis. Restaurant expectations run high: blackened tuna, pheasant spring rolls, seared foie gras, Chilean sea bass sauced in vermouth and fallow deer with Arctic cranberries and wild-mushroom risotto measure up. Or how about Northwest Territories caribou striploin on pear Armagnac sauce? The wine cellar contains 25,000 bottles with 1000 different labels, so plan to spend a week or so perusing the list. Then opt for a modest little Chateau Petrus 1990 at a mere $2500. (Tel: 403-522-3989; fax: 403-522-3966; info@posthotel.com; www.posthotel.com.)

HASTINGS HOUSE
Salt Spring Island, BC
A balmy ferryboat ride from Vancouver delivers guests to the good cheer and style of this faux Sussex manor house on Salt Spring Island, largest of the 200-odd islands between the mainland and Van Isle. Travellers are warmly invited to snuggle under a down-filled quilt and purr the night away in a startling variety of luxury accommodations: in the Manor House, recently constructed hillsides suites, a reconstructed barn, a former Hudson's Bay trading post or oceanfront suites inside a century-old farmhouse.

Gastronomy is West Coast cuisine in the order of local goat-cheese and roast-pepper terrine, peppered sockeye salmon, seared Pacific halibut with purple potato purée, junipered venison loin and signature Salt Spring Island lamb. Build your appetite with saltwater fishing, kayaking, hiking and exploring the island. (Tel: 800-661-9255; fax: 250-537-5333; hastings@saltspring.com;.)

LITTLE BEAVER CREEK RANCH
Glimpse Lake, BC
A former stagecoach station and working ranch, complete with bunkhouse and roaming elk, seems an unlikely candidate for Relais & Châteaux. But this one, built at the beginning of the 20th century, goes the distance. The landscape, halfway between the Rockies and the Pacific, treats the eye. Activities include trail riding -- sometimes guests partake in a real cattle drive (head 'em up and move 'em out) -- fishing, boating, mountain biking and wildlife-spotting for beaver, bear and puma. Under the direction of Swiss cowpokes Alex Schutz and Nathalie Meissner, accommodations are designer log cabins with fireplaces and Jacuzzis nestled by the lake -- not exactly roughing it. As far as the grub goes, pardner, forget the baked beans because Italian goes west with risotto, homemade pasta, grilled foie gras with aged balsamic vinegar, swordfish carpaccio, roast saddle (not that kind of saddle) of lamb and tart tatin sauced in blueberries. (Tel: 250-371-7664; fax: 250-372-4893, littlebeaver@glimpselake.com; www.glimpselake.com.)

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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