Quebec offers gems in culture

From The Toronto Sun, by Doug English. August 6, 2011.

Quebec's Outaouais region posed three problems before I'd even arrived - how to spell it, how to pronounce it and how to find it on a map.

The first two were overcome by memorization, the third by learning that Outaouais (pronounced oot-a-way, accent on the first syllable) is French for Ottawa.

So finding Outaouais was as simple as crossing the Alexandra Bridge linking the capital with Gatineau, just over the river from the Parliament Buildings.

You probably know Gatineau better as Hull, once notorious as an after-hours boozing destination for Ontario residents chafing at grimly puritanical liquor laws.

Outaouais covers more than 33,000 square kilometres. I had less than three days, barely time to hit a few high spots.

First up was a guided tour of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, touted as Canada's most popular one.

Thanks to Metis architect Douglas Cardinal, it's all curves. "No corners for evils spirits to hide in," guide Richard Lavergne explained.

There are four main exhibition areas. If you're pressed for time, I'd focus on two - the visually stunning Grand Hall, with its West Coast totems, and Canada Hall, which begins with the arrival of the Vikings in what is now Newfoundland, leaps centuries and distances, and finishes in a replica of the Wildcat Cafe, which still operates in Yellowknife.

Travelling with children? Break up the two with the IMAX movie.

Guided tours cost $3 per person per hall, and I recommend them. Ask at the information desk. Audio guides are also available.

Lodging/dining tips: The Four Points by Sheraton, across from the museum, is comfortable, and its rates are lower most of July and August; www.fourpoints.com/gatineau. Three-course table d'hote suppers at Le Tartuffe, just around the corner, run from the high $30s to the mid $40s. Charming setting and excellent food; www.letartuffe.com.

For a change of pace, check out Les Brasseurs de Temps - BDT, as it's better known. On the site of brewery that opened in 1813, this brew pub also houses a regional brewing heritage museum; www.brasseursdutemps.com.

Guide Marc Godin told us Hull flourished during Prohibition, becoming a portal for the smuggling of alcohol from Montreal to Ontario. Gambling clubs sprang up and the downtown was packed with liquor stores.

Just outside old Hull is Gatineau Park, with a network of parkways, 200 kilometres of maintained trails for cross-country skiing, the summer estate of former prime minister Mackenzie King. and some of the most colourful fall foliage in eastern Canada.

A steam train runs mid-May to mid-October from Gatineau (Hull) to the attractive village of Wakefield. Passengers have two hours free time before returning. Wakefield, population 800, boasts 21 restaurants and lots of boutiques.

Lodging/dining tips: The 27-rooom Wakefield Mill Inn & Spa uses a mill built in 1837. A separate building scheduled to open some time this month will add 13 more guest rooms; www.wakefieldmill.com. The inn's cuisine is matched by the view from the dining room, a waterfall created by the La Peche River. Trois Erables, one of Wakefield's many B&Bs, is in the heart of the village and has a four-star rating; www.lestroiserables.com.

Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello, an hour's drive east of Ottawa, is a destination in its own right. A prestigious private club, the Seigniory Club, until 1970, it was built with 10,000 red cedar logs; www.fairmont.com/montebello.

Nearby is Manoir-Papineau National Historic Site, built in 1850 by politician Louis-Joseph Papineau and lived in by his family for the next 79 years. Many of the sumptuous furnishings belonged to them. Guided tours available May-October; phone Parks Canada, 1-888-773-8888.

Have a sweet tooth? Pop in to Choco Motive, an economuseum that opened last summer in Montebello's old railway station. Owner Gaetan Tessier and his staff attack waistlines with Peruvian fair-trade cocoa beans and Quebec butter, cream and honey; www.chocomotive.ca.

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