This is not a puddle.
I’m behind the wheel of a Land Rover Discovery, staring ahead and considering the water obstacle in front of me.
It’s certainly not a lake. In fact, it probably barely qualifies as a pond. But it’s deep – how deep, I don’t know exactly – and like it or not, I’m about to drive through it.
“Lower your front bumper in slowly,” comes the instruction from the passenger seat. “You’ll probably hear a tssssss as the hot components hit it. Then, hit the throttle hard to form a wave, and stay steady on it to follow it through.”
I ease forward. We never hear the hiss; either the Discovery’s interior is too quiet, or I haven’t been pushing this thing nearly as hard as it can handle.
On my instructor’s signal, I thump on the go pedal. The wave forms. I feel the tires hesitate against my urging through the soft mud.
Stay in it … stay in it …
And we make it through to the other side.
After some light encouragement, the not-puddle is quickly left behind and we’re moving on to the next challenge.
Set just north of Montebello, Quebec, on the north side of the Ottawa River halfway between Ottawa and Montreal, this location of the Land Rover Experience is the only one to be found anywhere in Canada.
It’s an unending sequence of these sorts of trials, each requiring its own approach – and its own type of bravery. Inevitably, each driver will find some more intimidating than others. My bugbear is the side tilt – I find it incredibly unnerving to be at the wheel of a truck that’s tilted at a 25-degree angle, which feels more like 45 degrees from inside the cabin despite it being well within the Landy’s capabilities – but others will panic at having two wheels hanging in mid-air through the moguls, or the extremely precise approach angle needed to retain traction on a rock climb.
Fortunately, the professional instructor ensures that you’re never making decisions alone.
My accompaniment, Dominique, continually walks me through how the Discovery’s two self-locking differentials and traction control system are working together with my control of the pedals to get us through each obstacle, both on the introductory course and out on the more rugged trails that the Land Rover Experience maintains among its 2,200 designated acres of Kenauk Nature Reserve.
He also continually gets out of the Discovery to walk around and assess each situation so that he can provide more in-depth analysis – which is especially brave, seeing as the blackflies are so thick that whenever we step outside we’re covered in them within seconds and continually breathe them in by accident. (Mid-May, it turns out, isn’t the ideal time for this visit. Blackfly season is only about two weeks long here, and we hit it at its peak.)
But what the instructor provides most of all is confidence. Whether the student has never so much as driven on a dirt road or has been getting dirty on trails for decades, the instructor can assess each driver’s ability, choose obstacles that are at the right skill level, and deliver instructions that get both car and pilot through to the other side safely.
With each defeated challenge comes a new sense of conquering, a new wave of belief that the next task can be overcome, too.
And in between deep concentration on keeping your eyes up, modulating the throttle and brake just so, and analyzing each rut and every stone to approach it with the most amount of control, it dawns on you.
This is an insane amount of fun.
Tailor Your Land Rover Experience
Montebello’s location allows the Canadian Land Rover Experience to offer both summer and winter programs, and to double as a wildlife exploration tour – we saw birds and turtles, but the deer, moose, and bears that sometimes come by for a visit must have been trying just as hard as us to avoid the blackflies.
Guests who stay at the Fairmont Chateau Montebello can sample short 30-minute test drives as part of the resort fee; and one-hour, two-hour, half-day, and full-day experiences are available for booking through the Experience. This test drive was a half-day program, which includes three hours of off-roading time (transit time from and to the hotel is not counted). We spent roughly two hours going through training obstacles and simpler, shorter trails, and one hour out on the longer trail loop.
Pricing starts at $225 per vehicle for one hour and goes up to $1,000 per vehicle for the six-hour full-day program. Specialized winching training is also offered for an additional $400 fee.
To learn how to register, visit landrover.ca/experiencecentre.
A Weekend Away in Montebello
Between the Fairmont Chateau Montebello’s many facilities and the picturesque village of Montebello itself, it’s easy to turn a weekend at the Land Rover Experience into a family affair. If you have loved ones who want to tag around but aren’t necessarily interested in driving around in the woods, here are just a few of the many ways to keep them busy.
Sending the little lady to be pampered in the spa while you head off to drive trucks must be the most stereotypical concept of all time. The Fairmont’s spa is absolutely top-notch, though, so whoever is staying will likely not care. On top of some treatment rooms that have windows to let the sunlight stream through, there’s a couple’s suite with a fireplace and, weather permitting, an outdoor gazebo for pampering surrounded by the forest.
On the other hand, if your partner prefers something requiring more hand-eye coordination, consider…
Kenauk Nature Resort offers a clay shooting program with supplied shotguns and shells, a practice area, and a nine-section course with different launch patterns like following or doubles – like golf, but with guns. Organized fishing and hiking excursions can be planned through Kenauk Nature as well.
Other Resort Amenities
Of course, there’s an actual 18-hole golf course at the Fairmont, as well as indoor and outdoor pools, hiking trails with bicycles also available on loan, mini-golf, a children’s playground, and an arcade. During our stay, there was a communal puzzle table set up on the second floor, which quickly became my favourite activity. (I must be getting old.)
It’s not necessary to stay at the resort to book the Experience, though, so if you’d rather go your own way with your food choices and skip the resort fee, there are plenty of smaller independent inns in town and rustic, remote cabins available for rent through Kenauk Nature.
A Mini Foodie Tour
Montebello has a brewery, a cheesemaker, and a chocolate shop – the Quebec trifecta for food and drink lovers.
Les Brasseurs de Montebello has an on-site brewery and a pub. (Its hours change seasonally, so be sure to check them before you go.) I’m not a beer drinker myself, but my husband enjoyed the Kenauk Ale enough to seek some out to bring home, something he rarely does, so take that for what you will.
The Fromagerie Montebello only makes a handful of cheeses on-site, but the ones they do make are fabulous, and they offer products from other Quebec cheesemakers as well. If you appreciate a good fresh curd, they’re available on-site year-round on Wednesdays and Fridays as well as on Mondays through the height of the summer.
Chocomotive is cleverly named, given that it’s set in the historic former railway station on the west end of town. All manner of creative chocolate combinations can be found here, from sea salt to açai berry, dried cherries and strawberries, candied citrus peel, and much more, all while watching the skilled chocolatiers ply their craft through large-pane interior windows.
Manoir-Papineau National Historic Site
The one-time manor home of Louis-Joseph Papineau, now a National Historic Site maintained by Parks Canada, is set directly on the grounds of the Fairmont Chateau Montebello overlooking the Ottawa River. Hotel guests can visit the site, which is open between the Victoria Day and Thanksgiving long weekends, and take a tour as part of the resort fee; visitors from elsewhere will pay a nominal fee.
Papineau was the seigneur of La Petite Nation region in the early 1800s, which spanned much of the area between Ottawa and Mont-Tremblant. He was a lawyer and was very active in politics, being among those who spearheaded the rebellion in Lower Canada in the late 1830s. After spending seven years in exile for his involvement, he returned to the Province of Canada in 1845 and shortly afterward began construction on his riverside manor, which was completed in 1850, and established the village of Montebello.
The house and surrounding grounds provide a unique glimpse into what life was like for the wealthy families of the time. Roughly 80 percent of the furnishings inside the house are original, including the very chair that Papineau was sitting in when he passed away at the age of 84. (No ghost sightings have yet been reported, but you never know….)
This National Historic Site is part of Parks Canada’s Xplorers program, and it’s a great one for people who are on the fence about whether their kids will take to its format. Simply wander over from the resort, ask for the activity book at reception, and see how they do – it’s maybe a two-minute walk from the main lodge, and you can enjoy everything, including a tour, in about 90 minutes. My daughter thoroughly enjoyed the challenges and left with her 16th Xplorers tag, which put a fantastic cap on our weekend.