On the western edge of Gatineau Park 4-star Moulin Wakefield Mill Inn & Spa in the Outaouais region of Quebec combines both rustic luxury and a fascinating history in a spectacular setting.
Perched next to La Pêrche River and its 28-foot waterfall, the original grist mill for grinding oats and flour was built in 1838 by a Scottish immigrant.. After a storied 100 year history, the impressive stone and timbered building had been abandoned and was in serious disrepair. That is, until visionaries Robert Milling and Lynn Berthiaume came along and created a lavish inn, spa, and restaurant complex that honors the building’s rich past
We have met innkeeper Robert Milling in the bar lounge area next to a massive stone fireplace whose hearth was created from huge timbers that held up giant axels in the mill’s machinery. A wood fire blazes in the two-way fireplace as we sip drinks in comfortable and clubby leather couches and chairs. The original wide-plank wooden floors, still held in place with square pegs, show the scuffs, gouges, and wear of 100 years of industrial use and the stone walls, three-feet thick, sport images and documents that tell the history of this place. On Saturday nights, the space features free jazz by local musicians.
A Dream in the Making
“I never intended to be an innkeeper,” Robert quips, his wool tweed coat making him look the part of manor house lord. He’s tall with short, salt-and-pepper hair, a ready smile and a soft, twinkly manner that makes you feel like he’s including you in some secret merriment . “I didn’t know anything about running a hotel and, after 10 years, I’m still learning.”
Robert’s professional background was in developing green energy sources. It was the waterfall’s potential for energy production that originally drew him just as it had the original builder. When his wife, Lynn, saw the old mill and the brick Victorian MacLaren House built by one of the early owners, she had other ideas.
In 2002, they bought the property, including the MacLaren mansion on the hill. That decision began a four-year, $10 million journey of renovation that now includes an expanded Wakefield Mill Inn, two restaurants, two spas, meeting space in the MacLaren House, and a new soon-to-be LEED-certified , 10,000-square-foot River Lodge built in a Swedish modernist style.
The snow has begun to fall softly and we watch the flakes drift through wooden, multi-paned windows that have been carved into the thick walls. On the other side of the stone fireplace is Heron at the Mill, a bar and casual bistro where guests can enjoy light meals next to the fire or in the solarium-like space that overlooks the falls. It’s mid-February and the top of the falls are frozen over, creating craggy junks of ice in fantastical shapes. The water tumbles down under the ice and we can hear continuous roar.
“The falls are different every day,” one of the waiters tells me. “Every time I look out there, whether it’s winter or summer, the falls are changing. It’s so beautiful.”
It is beautiful with the river carving through the landscape, trees in their wintery silhouette lining its snowy banks. In summer, guests can have a massage in the woods next to the river and take a dip in the river’s pools. There are also two outdoor seasonal pools (one salt) and a year-round hot tub.
We move downstairs into Penstock, the more formal restaurant that features an intimate dining room dominated by stone walls and another stone and glass space that’s even closer to the waterfalls. This space was a tunnel (penstock) where the water rushed in from the river to turn the massive turbines that powered the mill. Throughout the inn, they’ve accentuated the history of the place. Leather door numbers have been crafted from leather belts that ran the mill’s machinery. The property’s landscape is dotted with wheels, gears, and other metal parts that were part of the millworks.
The inn serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner featuring seasonal products from local producers and most of the room packages include one or more meals in a per person price. Tonight’s menu includes appetizers like seared trout, lamb tartar, foie gras, and Price Edward Island (PEI) oysters. I opt for the oysters, but it’s the incredibly creamy, house-made foie gras with local ESB 1821 beer, apple butter, roasted sesame crisps, and local honey, that makes me swoon. Entrée choices include local favorites such as duck, guinea fowl, and red deer osso bucco, and desserts feature cheesecake with poached pear, crème caramel, freshly made apple donuts with vanilla ice cream, and, our group’s favorite, chocolate fondant with black confiture and honey ice cream.
After dinner, I retire to my room overlooking the falls. It’s spacious with wooden floors, a gas fireplace, and king sized bed. The bathroom, which features soft, oversized towels and Gilchrist and Soames toiletries, has both a shower and a big jetted tub. The feeling of luxury is rounded out by fluffy robes, an I-pod dock station, and single-cup coffee service.
There’s also s a rubber mat in my room where I can place my snow boots. Many visitors come to Wakefield Mill Inn & Spa to enjoy the many sporting opportunities offered by Gatineau Park. During the winter, guests can literally ski or snowshoe the park’s many trails just steps from the inn. The park offers extensive cross-country trails and some downhill skiing opportunities. During the summer, they can enjoy the complimentary use of canoes or kayaks. They can also hike, bike or cycle, fish in the park’s two lakes, ride horses, or golf the area’s four golf courses.
To ease sore muscles from all that activity, Wakefield Inn guests can take advantage of spa treatments that include everything from massages to manicures and pedicures. The new Eco Lodge Spa offers a place for groups to enjoy a spa day and it’s become a favorite for women’s spa days. Next door is the sleek, 13-room River Lodge, the property’s newest renovation.
The River Lodge is an eco-friendly, green building that brings innkeeper Robert full circle back to his professional roots and his original interest in the mill property. The building, which overlooks the outdoor salt pool and quiet part of the river above the falls, is as modern and sleek as the original mill part of the inn complex is historic. It’s also incredibly energy efficient, something Robert is justifiably proud of.
“Our energy bill for River Lodge is almost nil,” he says. “In fact, my brother-in-law’s home consumes more energy than this 10,000 square foot building.”
Whether you want the ultimate in modern amenities or the comfort of a historic inn, Wakefield Mill Inn & Spa has it all. — BH