The Joys of Winter at Mont Tremblant, Quebec
The snow started slowly, almost hesitant, as if uncertain about its form. For ten minutes or twenty, it looked as if we would get icy rain - and then, miraculously, the snow commenced: big fluffy fat flakes that clustered on our lashes and clung to our scarves and gloves. Unbeknownst to those of us already atop the summit of Mont Tremblant in Quebec, the entire region was about to be slammed with the year's first major snowstorm - but all we knew was that the snow was now falling fast all over the mountain.
For those of us who live for winter and snow, few natural sights are more numinous than the sky opening up and shaking down buckets of white confetti. As Dylan Thomas wrote so eloquently of snow in his masterwork "A Child's Christmas in Wales," "Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely-ivied the walls and settled..."
And that's how it was atop Mont Tremblant, the highest peak in the Quebec Laurentians. Originally called the "mountain of the great Manitou" (or Great Spirit) by the Algonquin, Mont Tremblant is, as the civic boosters declare, "a mountain of possibilities."
A year-round resort with lakes and golf courses, Mont Tremblant resort is best known as a ski destination with 700 acres of ski terrain on slopes with inclines as steep as 42 degrees. First opened as an alpine village in 1939 (the original lodge remains a part of the current pedestrian village), Mont Tremblant was purchased in 1991 by Intrawest, at which point the resort began its ascent to the peak of North American ski resorts. For the past fourteen years, from 1998-2010, SKI Magazine has voted Mont Tremblant the "Top Ski Resort in Eastern North America." Conde Nast Traveller named Mont Tremblant the number one resort for activities, while Tourisme Quebec gave the resort a five-star rating.
Soaring to nearly 3,000 feet at the summit, Mont Tremblant includes 14 lifts on four mountain faces with 95 downhill trails evocatively (and somewhat alarmingly) named Devil’s River, Dynamite, Boiling Kettle, Flying Mile, High Tension, and - our favorite, of course - Sissy Schuss. Best of all? Mont Tremblant’s annual snowfall is more than thirteen feet.
By noon, the coniferous trees at the summit resembled sketches from Tim Burton’s notebook: wedding cake pines, laden with meringue. The powder on the trails kept accumulating and due to the highway conditions on the roads from Montreal, the slopes remained uncrowded - so much so that we could have been 17th-century "coureur des bois," voyaging deep into the snow-swept wilderness.
Fortunately, a week (or a weekend) spent at Mont Tremblant in the 21st century is marked by a level of pampering and coddling unbeknownst to those 17th-century woodsmen. At the base of the mountain is a charming European-style pedestrian village that recalls Dylan Thomas’s depiction of his own childhood home. With 75 boutiques and restaurants, you can warm yourself with such regional specialties as a brown sugar pudding, made of maple syrup, sugar, butter, and eggs - and enough calories to fortify you for a day on the slopes.
A member of Sustainable Slopes for environmentally-friendly operations, Mont Tremblant makes skiing as easy as putting on your shoes. A ski valet at the base of the mountain secures your equipment by day or overnight. If you’re an early snowbird, you can board the express gondola at 7:45 in the morning and ride to the summit to be the first on the groomed trails.
Lodging options at Mont Tremblant include outposts of Hilton, Marriott, Westin, and, our favorite, the Fairmont Tremblant, where your room overlooks the slopes and where you can ski off the mountain and right into a sanctuary of warmth at one of their après-ski lounges. The Fairmont Tremblant retains a fur-trapping aesthetic with fieldstone walls hung with kayaks and canoes - and where everything that is done for you is done "avec plaisir."
Built as a four-season resort, Mont Tremblant offers championship golf courses, biking, hiking, cycling, tennis, river rafting, alpine and cross-country skiing, ice climbing, ice skating, snowshoeing, snowboarding, dogsledding, tubing, sleigh rides, Scandinavian baths - and the Casino Mont-Tremblant atop the mountain. For those who visit the mountain resort during winter - and particularly during a fresh snowfall - few activities are more romantic than a sleigh ride across a snowy field. And for those more adventurous, mushing your own dog sled over the hills and through the woods of the Laurentians will make you proud of your fortitude - and grateful for interior heat.
All through the afternoon, the snow kept on falling. The conditions were exemplary: fresh powder and unsullied trails. Snowboarders were delirious - and everyone you met on the gondola was smiling uncontrollably at their good fortune at being on this mountain in the midst of this historic snowfall.
On our last run of the day, we took the longest trail down the mountain, nearly four miles long. This was winter heaven! This was snow nirvana! This was the joy of winter - and we felt as giddy as a kid, as free as a bird, and as happy as anyone who’s ever skied Mont Tremblant. Bliss achieved.
(Travel feature continues on next pages: Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat, Getting There...)
Where to Stay:
Fairmont Tremblant: If you’ve ever fantasized about living in an alpine chalet nestled at the foot of a mountain above a European village, then Fairmont Tremblant will feel exactly like home. There’s even a canine ambassador named Gracie to welcome you once you come in from the snow and sink down in a leather chair in front of a fieldstone fireplace, whereupon you’ll soon find yourself with cognac in hand. What could be more relaxing after a day on the slopes?
Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, the Fairmont Tremblant was opened in November 1996 as a four-season resort, with rustic and contemporary decor that evokes an elegant lodge influenced by the Algonquin heritage in Quebec. The nearly 400 guest rooms and suites have panoramic views of Mont Tremblant. Skiers schuss by your windows, tempting you away from your capacious suite. High-end toiletries by Le Labo and Miller & Harris will thrill fragrance aficionados, while the sumptuous beds feature no less than four pillows each. In short, fans of the Adirondacks (and Bruce Weber fantasies) will have a field day at the Fairmont Tremblant.
The Fairmont Gold floor has a private concierge, but the truth is, the entire staff at Fairmont Tremblant is at your service for nearly any request. The property includes all-season indoor and outdoor salt water pools, with four hot tubs, steam, and sauna, thereby insuring that your muscles are as relaxed as your state of mind.
We overheard one guest from Vancouver say to a young server, "This is the best service I’ve ever had anywhere. I’m going to have to take you home," which caused the young man to blush and clutch his tie before responding, "C’est mon plaisir, monsieur."
Gracie, the canine ambassador, is a golden lab who was formally schooled at the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind in Ottawa. In residence since 2009, Gracie is available for walks and hikes - before or after you hit the slopes.
As for the skiing, Fairmont Tremblant makes it as easy as putting on your boots. An in-house ski valet insures that all your equipment is well cared for and at your ready, whereupon you ski right over to the gondola that carries you to Mont Tremblant’s summit. Should you find yourself in need of a restorative cocktail halfway through the day, you can slalom down Nansen Trail, right into the Fairmont’s Nansen Lounge.
With WiFi Internet access throughout the hotel and in all rooms, you’ll be downloading photos of your snow bunny outfits to every friend back home - and making plans for your return.
LINK: Fairmont Tremblant
What to Do:
Sleigh ride: "Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh, O’er the fields we go, laughing all the way..." Did you ever imagine that you would embody the lyrics to "Jingle Bells"? But then, whenever have those words been more appropriate than in a winter wonderland in Quebec?
The horse-drawn red sleigh awaits you in an open field, whereupon you climb aboard and wrap yourself in lap blankets as a pair of Belgian horses (with the size and power of a Range Rover) pulls you into the deep and snowy woods.
A local flaneur and raconteur who entertains his guests with Algonquin legends of Mont Tremblant, complete with tribal masks, harmonica, and ukulele is the host for the hour-long ride. Hot chocolate is served, bien sûr, before instruments are handed out to all guests for a rousing sing-a-long that is supposed to provoke the horses into action. Sing for your supper - or you’ll be stuck in the woods.
And if at gloaming you find yourself singing, "Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go," you won’t be faulted. Few experiences are as romantically nostalgic as a sleigh ride through the Laurentian fields.
LINK: Tremblant Activities
Dogsledding w/Expedition Wolf: You probably haven’t ever seen yourself as a musher. Not to worry; neither did we. But now we have a diploma that certifies that we "led a dogsled team through the open paths of nature in the heart of the Laurentians." Of course, what that diploma doesn’t mention is that it was nearly twenty below zero. Still, we survived - and what an incredible journey it was.
Starting with 30 husky dogs, Expedition Wolf has grown to include 30 guides and 250 canines. The dogs - evocatively named Kina, Laska, Outack, Balto, Weeja, Snoopy, Nikita, Mouska, Ice, Fluffy, among others - are beautiful creatures: groomed and well-trained, as well as superb athletes. Lest you worry about the canines’ welfare, Expedition Wolf is a member of SPCA and Anima Quebec - and it’s clear that all of these dogs are as well loved as family members (or better).
The guided dogsled ride takes you through the Canadian forest, but first you participate in the harnessing of the dogs, bringing them to your own dogsled. The guides instruct you on how to steer (and brake) the sled - and then you’re off through the snowy woods: one passenger swaddled in blankets, the other mushing. The setting is awe-inspiring, with a snow-capped Mont Tremblant in the near distance and nothing but snowy fields and forests surrounding you as you traverse the snowy trails.
The 10-kilometer run (roughly 6 miles) is punctuated with a pause for hot chocolate and maple cookies, which provide just enough heat and energy to carry you back to home base where you feed the dogs their treats before returning them to their individual dog condos.
Even those who are canine-averse or more feline-friendly will succumb to the charms of these splendid creatures - and chances are you’ll find yourself enchanted by life in the Laurentians.
LINK: Expedition Wolf
Scandinave Spa: Let’s face it, one of the best parts of a ski weekend is après-ski. And one of the best après-ski traditions is relaxing your muscles (and mind) in a spa.
Located on the pristine shores of the Diable River amidst a coniferous forest, Scandinave Spa focuses on the hydrotherapeutic practices associated with Finnish saunas or hamman.
Guests move through a cycle of hot baths, rinses, and saunas that alternate hot and cold water in order to facilitate the removal of toxins from the body. Of course, there’s also the mind-numbing relaxation of being in a hot tub of water in the middle of a freezing forest. The juxtaposition of heat and cold is as stimulating to your imagination as it is to your body.
No matter how hard you skied in the morning, an afternoon at Scandinave Spa insures that you’re ready for the slopes again the next day.
LINK: Scandinave Spa
(Travel feature continues on next page: Where to Eat, Getting There, Add’l Info...)
Where to Eat:
Coco Pazzo: Opened in 1995 by two Italian brothers from the Molise region on the Adriatic, Coco Pazzo has become the benchmark for exceptional Italian cuisine in the village of Mont Tremblant. Chef-owner Luigi serves as the consummate host, creating a convivial atmosphere with his younger brother for a loyal crowd of locals and knowing tourists. On weekends, a jazz trio provides live music as an accompaniment to the homemade pastas and truffle-rich risottos.
Coco Pazzo relies upon local Laurentian farmers for organic produce. Partnerships with Morgan Farms in Weir and Les Fermes du Nordest in Mont Laurier insure that the salads, antipasti, and contorni at Coco Pazzo are exemplars of sustainable development as well as the slow food movement.
Winner of "Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence" for three consecutive years, from 2009-2011, Coco Pazzo’s wine list is deep and diverse, with an emphasis on Italy and France.
A ricotta and mascarpone cheesecake served with caramel sauce was as light and airy as freshly-fallen snow - and a befitting ending to an evening that brings a taste of "la dolce vita" to the Laurentians.
LINK: Coco Pazzo
Windigo: It’s all about that fireplace: a massive fieldstone fireplace that rises to the dining room ceiling and amplifies the warm atmosphere of Windigo, the Fairmont Tremblant’s fine dining restaurant.
In the mornings, at breakfast, you might request a table by the windows that flank the fireplace. Here you are afforded a bird’s eye view of the slopes and skiers, which is why you’re fortifying yourself with berry smoothies, maple crêpes and chocolate croissants.
For dinner, you’ll want a table within view of the fireplace’s glowing embers. A festive atmosphere encompasses Windigo in the evenings, with groups of celebutantes dressed like characters from "Sex and the City" and "Entourage" - and everyone glowing after a day on the slopes.
Completely renovated in 2009, Windigo is helmed by Chef Daniel Tobien, a native of Alsace, who was previously Executive Chef at Persil Fou in Montreal. Tobien’s signature dishes are inspired by the bounty of the Laurentians, with a focus on seasonal and regional cuisine.
On Friday and Saturday evenings, Windigo features a "Surf, Turf, and Sushi Buffet" with an extensive gastronomic display that rivals anything on a five-star cruise ship. The entire dining room becomes something of a culinary arts festival, with people promenading back and forth from the buffet to their tables - and by night’s end, Windigo is nothing less than a celebratory party.
All Fairmont restaurants also offer a "Lifestyle" cuisine, with a menu that offers options, including vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic, raw, and gluten-free choices.
At Windigo, however, the temptations are such that diets might well be compromised in the name of epicurean delight. Besides, you can always work it off tomorrow - on the slopes!
La Forge: What better place to keep warm in the midst of a Laurentians winter than a forge? According to local history, the forges were not only smithies but also the first ski shops where skiers had their equipment repaired and waxed. Of course, once inside such a warm and pleasing environment, it might be easy to linger over hot toddies and tall tales - and such is the same hospitable ambience that La Forge offers its guests today.
Located at the base of Mont Tremblant, at the crest of the pedestrian village, La Forge provides skiers and shoppers with a perfect rendezvous point. La Forge Bistro-Bar teems with après-ski style, while upstairs, La Forge Grill serves maple wood-grilled meats in a classic steakhouse setting. Furnished with enough leather, wood, and wrought iron to make Teddy Roosevelt comfortable, La Forge Grill evokes the world of a fur-trapping empire and its succulent bounty.
Steaks range in size from an 8-ounce filet mignon to a 50-ounce porterhouse. Caveat emptor: wheelchair not provided. Sides are equally ample and delicious, particularly sautéed local mushrooms. A regional specialty, hot maple cake is exactly as it sounds - and delicious enough to provide sweet dreams all night long.
LINK: La Forge Tremblant
Le Grand Manitou: Located at the summit of Mont Tremblant, this cafeteria is primarily noteworthy for its 360-degree view of the region - but for those who live for French fries, the ones served at le Grand Manitou are killer delicious - and particularly after skiing all morning. Hot and salty and perhaps double-fried, the fries are precisely what you want to accompany a hot bowl of chili as you sit at a table alongside a window overlooking the slopes on the north side of the mountain. With a bird’s-eye view onto all the black diamond trails, you can feel the exhilaration of expert skiers without worrying about breaking all your limbs. You’ll get such an adrenaline rush that you’ll need a second basket of those fries.
LINK: Le Grand Manitou
Mont Tremblant is but 90 minutes from Montreal - and a 90-minute flight from NYC.
Porter Airlines: Just when you’re about to lose all hope for the glamour of flying, you find yourself boarding Porter Airlines - and suddenly, you feel as if you’ve stepped into a time warp where service and professionalism is paramount and flying is fun again.
"Flying refined" is the tagline for Porter Airlines, which is rapidly becoming the airline of choice for the discerning short-haul traveler. As soon as you enter one of Porter’s Canadian-built Bombardier turboprop aircraft, you’re greeted by uniformed staff that look as comely as the fabled Pan Am staff from yesteryear. Impeccably coiffed and perfectly suited, Porter’s staff is there to serve - and they serve it up!
Founded in 2006 and based in Toronto, Porter Airlines’ headquarters is Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, the island airport terminal in Toronto Harbour that was originally opened in 1939 - and which is connected to the mainland by the world’s shortest scheduled ferry run. With 26 planes serving 19 destinations (including direct flights to Mont Tremblant from both Newark and Toronto), Porter is the only four-star Canadian airline, as ranked by Skytrax.
The two-by-two seating configuration (no middle seats!) allows more legroom than typical economy class seating - and the leather seating is downright deluxe. Snack and beverage service is included, with complimentary soft drinks, wine, and beer. The aircraft also features a noise suppression system, which makes the flight one of the most relaxing you’re likely to take.
Imagine arriving at your destination completely relaxed and happy. It doesn’t sound like flying in the 21st-century, does it? Not unless you flying Porter Airlines. "Flying refined" - at long last.
LINK: Porter Airlines