We were an hour into our road trip, driving through the lavishly green countryside of western Québec, and the silence in the car was as thick as the post-rain fog coming off the hills. My 14-year-old son Quinn and I were barely talking. My earlier attempts at chatting had been met with teenage shrugs and monosyllables. I wondered what we’d discuss during this weekend journey.
Luckily, we’d rented a cool car: a convertible Ford Mustang. Quinn, being a car geek, was excited about that. When we drove up to the entrance to check into the Fairmont Le Château Montebello – a luxurious 1930s stately resort on the banks of the Ottawa River known as the ‘world’s largest log cabin’ – he suddenly blurted out: ‘Hey, this is the first time we’ve ever come to a place like this not in a 10-year-old car!’
He was right. Cars aren’t that important to me or my husband. But road trips are. On this one, we’d be travelling east from our home in Ottawa, as far as Montréal, with a detour south through patchwork valleys of tiny farming towns.
‘That fireplace is the size of a castle,’ said Quinn when we walked into Montebello’s lobby. We spent the next two hours roaming the resort’s immaculately landscaped grounds, swimming in the indoor pool with its high-beamed ceilings and racing like 12-year-olds down the maze-like hallways and tunnels. At breakfast the next morning, I sensed Quinn felt he should make conversation, so he said, ‘Let’s have a contest to see who can drink this water the most like they would on Downton Abbey.’ He placed two fingers elegantly beneath the bowl of the wine glass, rose the glass to his lips, and never lost eye contact with me as he drank. ‘I win.’
Instead of taking the faster Highway 50 to Montréal, we followed a meandering slower-paced route along the Ottawa River, stopping in various villages – some French-speaking, some English-speaking. Under the emerald of swaying maples, Quinn seemed bored with my soundtrack of mostly 1970s and early ’80s music, but when Fast Car by Tracy Chapman came on, he turned up the volume. In the town of Grenville, Quinn leapt around parkour-style beside an old-fashioned lighthouse overlooking the river.
The pace changed once we hit Montréal. We found the city’s hip and colourful Plateau neighbourhood, which is the Greenwich Village of Montréal. At a lunch counter called Hào we ate delicious vegan bao stuffed with tofu, mushrooms and peppers sautéed in hoisin sauce and sesame oil. We’d had the same dish once in Toronto and had been searching for it ever since. Back on the road, Quinn spied a pile of unwanted stuff from a garage sale. He began stuffing the car boot with wall hangings, old photos and someone’s art school portfolio, laughing in a new way I’d never heard before.
Since we’re both chocoholics, our next stop was Juliette et Chocolat, a local Montréal restaurant devoted solely to chocolate. I ordered Mangaro hot chocolate, which the menu says is grown on a former mango plantation and carries ‘a mango aftertaste, along with hints of gingerbread and citrus’. Quinn had the white chocolate raspberry smoothie. We split a caramel fleur de sel brownie. We were chocolated-out.
Next stop was a Montréal Impact game. I’d never been to a Major League Soccer game before and the talent of the athletes – including several European, African and South American stars – gave me an unexpected thrill. The home team beat the New York Red Bulls and the crowd cheered wildly.
The best part was driving back to our downtown hotel. We were stuck in post-game traffic and, in a summer that never seemed to arrive, we were finally experiencing a warm night. I reached for the button that moves the car’s top down. With the open sky, stars and the city suddenly enveloping us, Quinn decided to blare Gregorian chant music from his iPod, followed by Il Mondo, an Italian operatic pop song. Montréalers out for the evening stared as we cruised along and the music climaxed. I couldn’t stop laughing. The music was oddly fitting.
The next morning we walked up Montréal’s famous mountain to Mont Royal Park to watch the Tam-Tams, the onomatopoeic name of the Sunday drum circle that attracts a vivacious crowd of drummers, dancers and picnickers. Lunch was at Salon de thé Cardinal, a tearoom in another funky neighbourhood called Mile End. It was filled with eclectic antiques, but our favourite feature was the piano man playing old-timey music as we ate cucumber and dill sandwiches and drank earl grey tea. There was more than a little Downton Abbey to this trip.
The next day I wanted to drive through the Châteauguay Valley to Ormstown, where my great-great-great grandmother, born in Scotland in 1785, was supposedly buried. Ormstown is a village of redbrick farmhouses, back lanes, paint-chipped barns and brooks running through the centre of town.
Almost the first thing we saw when we reached the tiny farming village was a cemetery beside a church. We parked across the street. It was raining. Quinn said, ‘Let’s have a race to be the first one to find her gravestone.’ I looked at the rainwater pummelling the windshield. I looked at my son. I grinned. ‘Sure, let’s do it.’
Janet Selkirk Cross spawned a lot of unconventional Scottish offspring. And in this cemetery in tiny Ormstown, two of them were laughing in the rain.
Four driving highlights
1) Most memorable moment: Lost somewhere in the Châteauguay Valley, we pulled over at a roadside stand to ask directions and eat freshly cut chips in the car when a sudden rainstorm crashed through and left a rainbow in its wake over a field
2) Best song: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
3) Best game: An invigorating game of tennis at the Fairmont Le Château Montebello
4) Best quote: On emptying the car at the end of the trip, Quinn: ‘How did all this junk end up in the car boot? Oh, right’
Need to know
Fairmont Le Château Montebello, Montebello, Québec. fairmont.com/montebello
Sofitel Montréal Golden Mile. sofitel.com
Juliette et Chocolat has five locations in Montréal. julietteetchocolat.com
Salon de thé Cardinal tearoom. thecardinaltea.com
Cathay Pacific flies codeshare to Montréal from Hong Kong