Text & photosâ€”Catherine Bernier
In my humble opinion, the discovery of an area happens first through the senses and the encounters we have there. Nothing beats exchanges with the people who live with the land, cultivate it, transform it, and move through it â€” by bicycle, on foot, or in the water.
I grew up in the eastern part of QuĂ©bec and now live in the Maritimes, so I never really had the opportunity to visit Outaouais. Lately, Iâ€™ve been exploring its riches through the savoir-faire and savoir-ĂŞtre of entrepreneurs in Chelsea, Gatineau, and Wakefield.
– Chelsea –
A barista, a wilderness guide, an innkeeper, and an artisanal ice cream maker.
Bordered by the Gatineau River, the municipality of Chelsea is the site of the entrance to Gatineau Park and includes a few small businesses catering to tourists, including CafĂ© Palmier, located right across from the park entrance.
To mark my first visit, Emmett Pavey, co-owner of the cafĂ© and snack bar, offers me an irresistible flat white that he redoes twice, unsatisfied with his lattĂ© art. The head barista makes no compromises when it comes to coffee, and you can taste his dedication!
Emmett had to undertake an extensive trip through eastern Canada to find coffee roasters he can trust. His associate Lauren Power offers the same quality in terms of brunch, dinette, and provisions. (She is also the owner of Red Door Provisions, a cafĂ©-bakery in Ottawa.)
The building, which is inspired by the principles of passive construction, lets in a generous amount of morning light. Cyclists eat breakfast on the large patio surrounded by trees, while remote workers sip a beverage on the second floor. Others stop to buy a bottle or two of natural wine.
On the menu, breakfast sandwiches and challah toast piled with vegetables from local farms catch my eye; I finally choose the yogurt with caramelized bananas, homemade granola, and seasonal berry jam. I take a seat outside to eat my meal, map of the Gatineau Park trails in hand.
Lost in the array of possibilities for my route, I head to the Nomades Du Parc stand where I meet the dynamic Jacob Saumur-Gouin and Vincent Bergeron, co-owners of the outdoor equipment rental centre. The mission behind this project is to create a space for members of the growing community of outdoor enthusiasts to meet.
â€śEvery time I would visit a vacation area in QuĂ©bec, there was always a regional office where you could get information, supplies, and meet other people. But in Outaouais we didnâ€™t have one! And yet Chelsea is only 15 minutes from downtown Gatineau, near a river and several lakes, and beside a conservation area of over 361 km2,â€ť says Jacob.
Since the centre opened three years ago, the pair has created different events to respond to the needs of the community, including the popular AprĂ¨s-Parc. Every Thursday at 5:30 p.m., an inclusive group outing is organized â€” a ride on mountain, road, or gravel bikes; a trail run; or a swim â€” followed by drinks with hyperlocal products from microbrewery Chelsea & Co.
Jacob recommends several routes, but with the time I have left, we decide that a swim in Meech Lake at Oâ€™Brien Beach and a stop at the Champlain Lookout will be the best bet for me to see certain key points of the park. He strongly encourages me to come back for a group outing so that I can meet the community. Invitation accepted!
At rush hour, I sit down to enjoy a wood-fired pizza at Biscotti & Cie. Apparently Iâ€™m not the only one with this idea: on the second floor, a young couple play Scrabble while they wait for their meal, and on the main floor, another pair discuss their next hike over a map. Itâ€™s summer vacation!
I take the opportunity to meet Manuela Teixeira, owner of this establishment as well as the Lofts du Village, La Maison Bleue, Chelsea Pub, and soon a distillery. In 2001, when Old Chelsea was all but abandoned, her vision was clear: she wanted to restore these heritage buildings to make a gathering place in the centre of the village, as well as a springboard to other attractions in the area. She succeeded brilliantly â€” though not without challenges.
â€śFor the cafĂ© bistro, I decided to renovate the century-old chalet that had only three walls holding it up instead of demolishing it, even if it was more costly and labour-intensive. For the construction of the lofts, I fought to preserve the trees on site, and I planted the entire inventory of a tree nursery that was closing down. The little patch of woods out back is a good reflection of my entrepreneurial style: a very diversified ecosystem which functions above all in synergy!â€ť says Manuela.
Next I head to La Cigale ice cream shop, another pioneer business of Old Chelsea, to meet its founder. After a trip to Senegal, Christine Kaarsberg, who is originally from Toronto, went to learn the art of frozen desserts in the United States. Twenty-three years later, La Cigale is the perfect spot to taste ice cream and ice cream sandwiches, popsicles, sorbets, and milkshakes of all flavours. I choose two: mango and strawberry-basil, which I take out to the back garden to eat.
Christine has set up different play areas for families, and itâ€™s a lovely spot to linger. â€śLife is so full and stressful, I wanted to create a place where people could have fun and relax,â€ť she says. At a pause in our conversation, she gets an update from a friend and regular customer: her grandson, seated on her lap, is tasting ice cream for the first time in his life. The cold makes him grimace, but the joy he gets is palpable, as his sticky little hands testify. A new fanatic has just been born.
I end my day at Nordik Spa-Nature, the biggest spa in North America. The thermal areas, pools, and pavilions are surrounded by nature which immediately calms the mind.
The centre is mainly focused on thermotherapy and relaxation techniques but also offers a multi-sensorial experience through the rituals of Aufguss â€” an ancestral German practice during which a rituals artisan accentuates the gusts of steam using choreographed movements. Each Aufguss is unique. The scents, atmosphere, time, intensity, music, and choreography vary greatly.
Bike route suggested by les Nomades du Parc
Adventure in the Lac Philippe sector
Description: Leave from the Nomades du Parc rental centre (10 chemin Scott, Chelsea) for a 57 km route that follows the Voie Verte from Chelsea along the Gatineau River. Take beautiful trail #50 that leads to Lac Philippe, where we strongly recommend a swim, and then follow panoramic trail #53 toward Wakefield. Return to Chelsea along the Voie Verte.
BESIDE Habitat Outaouais
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– Gatineau –
A brewer, a sommelier, a chef, and a mixologist.
Chelsea is just 15 minutes from downtown Gatineau, where I continue on my epicurean path. Located on the northern bank of the Ottawa River across from the national capital, the city surprises me with its array of gourmet businesses, all of them close to a river access or an entrance to Gatineau Park.
On the terrasse of Ă€ La DĂ©rive pub, which overlooks the river in the Pointe-Gatineau area, I sit down for a glass of Saison Lila, a honeyed beer, with SĂ©bastien Gandy, co-owner and head of communications â€” and a true community leader. His humour puts me instantly at ease. You know, the kind of person youâ€™d pick first to be part of your improv team!
After a pandemic and several floods, the pub and the new brewery are still standing to welcome the folks of Gatineau. â€śWe wanted to create an inclusive space to boost community morale, with a program of cultural events: evenings of poetry, literature, new music, and art.â€ť
SĂ©bastien, who has a degree in visual art, chose pastel colours for the pubâ€™s graphic identity and non-gendered illustrations for their beers, a way of dissociating from the masculine universe of traditional microbreweries.
â€śDoing things differently isnâ€™t easy, but it ends up working out,â€ť says the entrepreneur, who is also a father.
I leave with my assortment of beers reflecting the diversity of QuĂ©bec flora, including a brown ale made with oak collected on land belonging to one of SĂ©bastienâ€™s friends, and which his team of brewers roast to give it an earthy, tannic taste. They were delicious.
In the heart of her native Gatineau, I meet up with world-renowned sommelier VĂ©ronique Rivest at Soif, her wine bar. She is unpretentious, determined, and generous with her knowledge, far from the stereotype of the snobbish sommelier.
â€śWhat lights me up are wines that taste like the area they came from, and that is only possible when they come from healthy agriculture.â€ť
Every wine she chooses meets this criterion: the winemakers who produce them try to employ the best practices, in particular by returning to ancestral models of polyculture, where the vines grow beside fruit trees, grains, or a market garden in a biodynamic model.
â€śQuĂ©bec is a good example. In spite of its very marginal climate for viticulture, a decent number of winemakers choose regenerative organic agriculture and help one another to make it happen. Itâ€™s super exciting to see,â€ť says VĂ©ronique.
Her choice of career is helping VĂ©ronique fulfill her dream of being a student her whole life. â€śI study agriculture, geography, geology, chemistry, economics, marketing, and history, and I also get to meet exceptional people across the world.â€ť
VĂ©roniqueâ€™s thirst for learning and her determination have pushed her to win many prestigious titles, including second-best sommelier in the world, in Tokyo in 2013. It was the first time a woman stood at the podium. Since then, others have followed in her footsteps. This makes her proud and encourages her to support sommelier education in QuĂ©bec.
A young sommelier from the Soif team serves me a glass of orange wine from Saint-Germain-de-Kamouraska, an organic maceration from Le Raku farm, accompanied by sourdough bread aged for six years with marinated jalapeĂ±o butter. An impeccable combination.
My pilgrimage continues at CamĂ©line, a new neighbourhood restaurant that, inspired by the purism of Italian cuisine, places products from QuĂ©becâ€™s terroir in the spotlight.
Inside the modest building, which resembles the surrounding apartments, I discover a large, bright space with thoughtful decor. This is the work of Audrey Labelle, co-owner and interior designer by profession. Wildflowers adorn the pretty tables with their cream-coloured tiles, where cocktails by mixologist Alexandre RĂ©gimbal pair perfectly with meals by chef Simon Laroche.
â€śThe idea behind CamĂ©line is to change peopleâ€™s perception about products from QuĂ©bec, which are ignored or misunderstood â€” and yet so accessible â€” by teaching them about their true value and by following whatâ€™s in season,â€ť says Alexandre.
I take a seat on the outside patio to catch the last rays of sun. Simon comes out of the kitchen to tell me about his menu, the fruits of his 15 years of experience, and his curiosity for products from here. â€śI collaborate with different farms in the area, which pushes me to step off the beaten path. For example, CinquiĂ¨me Saison farm supplies edible and medicinal flowers, and the hunter-gatherers from ArĂ´me du Nord provide boreal ingredients.â€ť
I choose rosemary focaccia as an appetizer, with Anicet honey and whipped butter, as well as an ephemeral pastry dish with grilled pattypan squash and zucchini, fresh peas, pine nuts, and stracciatella. Next comes fresh pasta with squid ink: a chitarra alle vongole spaghetti with clams, lovage, and pangrattato.
Iâ€™m full, but when they offer me a dessert with cherries and agastache, a flower with an anise flavour, I canâ€™t refuse. I roll myself to the door, telling myself that next time, Iâ€™ll come with a friend so Iâ€™ll have someone to share the generous portions at CamĂ©line.
Bike route suggested by les Nomades du Parc
Â The famous Gatineau Park parkway loop
Type: Road biking
Description: Leave from the Nomades du Parc rental centre for a route of about 30 km, prized by cyclists looking for a climbing challenge â€” elevation gain of almost 500 m â€” and a spectacular view. From the Champlain Lookout, youâ€™ll be able to see the boundary between the Canadian Shield and the St. Lawrence lowlands. Note that access to the Gatineau Park parkways is restricted for cars nearly every day during the summer, except Wednesdays and weekends after 12 p.m.
– Wakefield –
In the area of La PĂŞche, in the Collines-de-l’Outaouais, the village of Wakefield has a small downtown area with its own plethora of gourmet shops and restaurants. These face the Voie Verte, a gravel path for cyclists and pedestrians, which used to be the tracks for a steam train.
Before heading into the rolling landscape of the countryside around Wakefield, I stop at Bluebarn Coffee Roasters, founded by a group of friends with a passion for specialty fair-trade coffee. I leave with one of the best iced coffees I’ve had in ages.
I continue on toward Ferme Thuya, located in the village of Low. When I get there â€” after 20 minutes spent contemplating the Ottawa River â€” I hear a vehicle rumble: itâ€™s Anne-Marie Laplante, coming to meet me on an ATV between chores in the field. She takes care of her market garden, poultry, and livestock on her own, and there is no lack of vitality in this young farm owner!
Anne-Marie relies on the principles and techniques of regenerative agriculture to make Ferme Thuya thrive. With so much abundance, she’s able to supply her local community with healthy produce and support her neighbours through culinary initiatives.
She goes from farmersâ€™ market to farmersâ€™ market, summer events, and music festivals in the area with her products and her pizza oven â€” her specialty!
This fall, with a little help, sheâ€™ll be able to welcome visitors to the farm for country dinners. With great enthusiasm she shows me the barn sheâ€™ll be setting up for the occasion. The potential is, indeed, enormous.
Bike route suggested by les Nomades du Parc
Round-trip Chelsea-Wakefield via Chelseaâ€™s Voie Verte
Type: Road and gravel
Description: Leave from the Nomades du Parc rental centre for a route of about 50 km along a very well-maintained stone dust path that runs along the Gatineau River. When you arrive in the bucolic town of Wakefield, we suggest a break on the public wharf on Chemin Riverside. And donâ€™t forget to stop on Wakefieldâ€™s famous red covered bridge. Return to Chelsea along the Voie Verte.
I depart Outaouais inspired by its human and natural riches, each of which feeds the other. And Iâ€™ve only skimmed the surface. Iâ€™m leaving with a list of recommendations as long as the one I arrived with.
Apparently, I must visit the Centre de villĂ©giature du Lac de l’Argile in Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette, the RĂ©serve faunique de Papineau-Labelle, the Parc rĂ©gional du Poisson Blanc, the award-winning restaurant Les FougĂ¨res in Chelsea, the new mountain bike trails at the Centre Vorlage in Wakefield, the Camp Fortune ski resort in Chelsea, and the rivers during the spring flood for freshwater surfing.
I promise myself Iâ€™ll come back with more days to spend â€” and a group of friends with whom to share all these experiences.
Catherine Bernier is a creative director, a freelance writer and photographer, and co-founder of The Parcelles, a seaside retreat for artists in residence in Nova Scotia. The influence of nature and culture on human choices and stories remains one of her core interests.