Discovering Old World charm and timeless beauty Getaway: Visiting Canada's Laurentian Mountain region can make you feel as if you've traveled all the way to Europe.

August 18, 1996|By Philip Hosmer | Philip Hosmer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Roasting on a beach is not my idea of summertime nirvana. I would rather escape the heat and humanity by fleeing to the green coolness of the mountains.

Near Baltimore, there are Western Maryland and the Poconos in Pennsylvania, but those areas are so close and familiar a trip there doesn't always satisfy my need to really get way.

Within a day's drive of Baltimore, there is a little-known mountainous area sprinkled with charming French-Canadian villages and stunning lake vistas. Combine a wealth of recreation with the charm of an Old World village, and you have Canada's Laurentian Mountain region. No matter what your interests, you can find something to do here, from boating and golf to the longest bike trail in North America. Even my wife, who's not exactly the outdoors type, was able to pursue her favorite indoor sport -- shopping.

The Laurentian Mountains are north of Montreal, about a 12-hour drive from Baltimore. The Laurentians, in the center of French-speaking Quebec, have the European flavor and pristine cleanliness of the Alps presented on the moderate, manageable scale of the Appalachians.

The area is known primarily for its 22 excellent ski resorts, including the world-class Mont Tremblant, a ritzy, four-star playground that was rated the top ski resort in Eastern North America in a 1995 Ski Magazine reader survey. But there's plenty more to do in the Laurentians besides ski.

The area blossoms in the summer, for example, coming to life with an array of outdoor sports, recreation, art and music. There's also a variety of accommodations ranging from simple campgrounds to posh hotels. The bonus is that with the strength of the American dollar (the exchange rate is about $1.37 Canadian to $1 U.S.), a vacation in the Great White North is affordable.

The Laurentians are a favorite destination for Montrealers, who are attracted by the natural beauty of the area. Most of the towns are located near Highway 15 North, the main route from Montreal. One of the joys of touring this region, however, is to get off the highway and drive along the meandering mountain roads.

The overall impression is much like Europe. From the tiny cars to the quaint shops, right down to the street signs and gas prices, you'll find yourself amazed that you actually got to this very foreign-feeling place in your own car.

Be sure to walk the streets of the villages that dot the mountains. St. Jovite was our favorite. It's home to a candy shop with chocolates in all varieties, and a French-style bistro offering delicious sandwiches and salads. It's also a great town for walking and mingling. The people are friendly and most speak at least some English.

The charm of the area has attracted artists, writers and musicians, and in the summer works are presented at art galleries, craft fairs, folk festivals and summer theaters. The Summer Festival in St. Jerome features open-air concerts and exhibitions on the river promenade.

The longest linear park in North America, Le P'tit Train du Nord, follows the former railroad tracks from St. Jerome to Mont-Laurier. The 140-mile trail journeys along rivers, lakes and waterfalls, villages and forests. There are hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants and shops all within easy access of the trail.

Three rivers run through the area: the Lievre, the Rouge and the Riviere du Nord, and canoeing, kayaking and rafting are popular on all three. There are also hundreds of ponds and lakes where you can wind-surf, swim, boat and fish. An ideal family canoe excursion is to take a three-hour trip down the Riviere du Nord, from Val-David to Val Morin. The trip finishes at Val Morin municipal beach, so bring your bathing suit and a picnic. A shuttle takes you back to Val David, or you can rent a bike and come back on the Le P'tit Train du Nord.

There are also 29 public golf courses in the Laurentians, and greens fees vary from $21 to $42 per day. If you're not much for outdoor sports, there's plenty of shopping. Most villages have a town center with boutiques. Some shops are pricey, but thanks to the exchange rate, there are lots of bargains. Use your credit card for the best exchange rate.

In St. Jovite, St. Agathe and St. Jerome you'll find restaurants ranging from French-inspired sidewalk cafes and coffeehouses to U.S. imports like Pizza Hut. Keep receipts -- some of the taxes may be refundable when you pass through customs at the border.

For children, the Mont St.-Saveur Water Park features eight water slides, river-rafting and a slide for inflated tubes. The Super Aqua Slide in Pointe-Calumet has 45 slides, a wave pool, a waterfall and a Tarzan cable.

For those interested in a more rustic, unspoiled experience, there is the Mont Tremblant Park, with its massive peaks, deep valleys, waterfalls, 500 lakes and seven rivers.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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