Less than an hour's drive northwest of Ottawa lies a land of enchantment. Known as "Pontiac County," this little-known region of West Québec offers nature and Ottawa Valley heritage at its best.
Whether it's the call of a loon enjoyed while canoeing on a serene lake, or enjoying a four-star meal at Spruceholme, former home of lumber baron George Bryson in Fort Coulonge, the Pontiac region offers a colourful palette of compelling destinations from which to choose.
And the Pontiac is close to Ottawa: If you're coming from the city, cross at the Champlain Bridge, turn left on the lower or upper Aylmer roads, drive through Aylmer and turn right onto Eardley Road. It soon becomes Highway 148 west. Now, keep on driving! Soon you'll leave Aylmer and glimpse the most beautiful view of the Ottawa River on your left, stretching upstream toward Quyon.
On your right, paralleling the Ottawa, is the sinuous ridge of the Eardley Escarpment, the southernmost ridge of Gatineau Park. Highway 148 wends through Luskville, Quyon, Shawville, Campbell's Bay and Fort Coulonge, ending at Fort William. Other highways transect route 148: Highway 366 heads north of Shawville to connect with Ladysmith, for example, whereas Highway 301 goes north from Campbell's Bay to Otter Lake.
Actually, getting to the Pontiac allows you to don the cloak of adventurers: you can cross to Québec via the Quyon ferry at Fitzroy Harbour, for instance, or drive with the kids past Storyland, visit it and then cross to Portage du Fort over the Chenaux Dam.
Whichever way you choose, consider exploring the Pontiac to sample its spectacular scenery of woodlands, lakes, rivers and picturesque, undulating countryside.
Here's a sampling of things to do while you're there.
There are two excellent B&Bs here, one on the river called Wanaki (455-9295), another called Au Charme de la Montagne (455-9158) that hugs the "mountain" as locals call the Eardley Escarpment.
Wanaki is operated by Ken Fisher, the former president of the Pontiac Tourism Association. Ken "knows everyone" here in the Pontiac, so is a good source of information regarding what to see, where to go. And his B&B is superb: overlooking the Ottawa River, it's a peaceful spot with a sandspit thrusting into the river. Here's where you can chill out, relax, and enjoy a bonfire.
Au Charme de la Montagne's proprietors are Therese and Armand Ducharme. Armand is a local historian and talespinner, who will regale you with songs, stories and legends of the natives, explorers, and loggers. Truly, he's a local treasure whose knowledge of the old traditions such as making voyageur canoes is profound.
Nearby attractions include Luskville Falls in Gatineau Park, which not only offers a heart-thrilling ascent of the Eardley Escarpment (with superb lookouts) but also has a beautiful picnic grounds. At the base of the falls is the Luskville Riding Stable (455-2290) that offers trail rides.
This is where you'll find the Quyon Ferry to Ontario, and, on the corner of Chemin Lac des Loups (Wolf Lake Road) and Highway 148 is Stanton's Restaurant. This popular local hangout serves tasty home-cooked fare such as club house sandwiches and even California wraps. While you munch, you'll meet up with many local residents (including the local mayors) who come here regularly to have lunch and chat.
The recently refurbished wharf here makes a great spot to dock your motorboat. However, its downriver side has two sheltered swimming "pools" cordoned off. Here older kids can do some serious swimming, while the gently-sloping shallows of the bay itself allow safe splashing and play areas for tots. A lazy summer's walk from the pier takes you to Hendersons Groceries at 28 Chemin Wharf (647-5309) for drinks, popsicles or other summertime necessities!
And if you desire accommodation and a meal here, try newly remodelled Riverview Inn and Restaurant (647-3340). Chef Ruth Hahn's delectable homemade soups through to salmon filets will tempt you (she excels at desserts so save room for a delicious chocolate hazelnut truffle, crème caramel… or other goodie from the dessert trolley). New owners Kelly and Garry McLean have renovated the nearby inn (once known as Scobie House) where you can choose from 11 rooms. July 28 is their lobster party: 1-1/2 lb rock lobster will be flown in from the East Coast. Tickets cost $45 each and there will be live music to round out the evening. Why not make it a date?
Tucked into the pines find the 1930s family retreat, Pine Lodge run by the Thompson family, who prepare all the meals that you'll enjoy. Cabins are available as well as lodge rooms. Don't forget to bring your golf clubs: there's a nine-hole course here that will give you some practice. Afterwards, cool off at the sandy beach and shallow waters of the Ottawa where you can splash about with your kids or grandchildren then return to reading your summer novel.
Passing through Shawville, head north on highway 366 to Ladysmith, a tiny hamlet where you'll find the Ladysmith Hotel (647-6797). Operated by Kathy and Ernie Pasch, this is another spot to enjoy a cool beer and a tasty homecooked meal.
Turn right here and follow the signs to Cushing Nature Retreat (647-3226) for a true oasis. Situated on its own private lake, you can sit in a hot tub beneath the canopy of stars… Can life get any better? Owners Geoffrey and Jo-Ellen Cushing (and their four kids) operate this lodge where you can learn about raptors (birds of prey) while visiting Jo-Ellen's Cushing Mews raptor centre. Many kilometres of hiking trails make this a bird-watcher's haven.
Further west along Highway 148, find Fort Coulonge and Spruceholme (683-5635), a four-star dining room and inn. Built by lumber baron George Bryson Sr. for his son, this elegant home offers heritage lodging in the heart of the Pontiac.
Owners Glenn and Marlene Scullion have managed a truly must-see transformation of private home to country inn. They'll be able to point you the way back to Highway 148 so that you drive across the old kissing bridge… as covered bridges were known, because no-one could see you if you caught a kiss from your loved one while crossing…
Once you rejoin highway 148, turn west to pass George Bryson Sr.'s own home, then drive up to view the Coulonge Chutes where this famous lumberman built an immense chute, down which his logs joined the Ottawa River, the start of their trip downstream to Montreal. There is an excellent albeit tiny museum here (make sure you watch the old-time logging video) plus a self-guided walk explaining the logging industry on the Coulonge River.
And, want to actually get onto the river? Call Esprit Rafting at Davidson (683-3241) or Ottawa Adventures (648-5200) to find out about rafting this world-class river. Both offer trips for all ages and all levels of confidence.
There's much more than this to keep you coming back again and again to the Pontiac. Whatever the season, there's a reason to be here!
Katharine and Eric Fletcher are freelance writers who telecommute from Quyon, Québec. Their books include Québec Off the Beaten Path, Capital Walks: Walking Tours of Ottawa, and Historical Walks: The Gatineau Park Story.