Skier's Delight

Quebec's Mont Tremblant offers a quality skiing experience in a decidedly French setting.

Cover Story

December 05, 2004|By Randall Weissman | Randall Weissman,Chicago Tribune

Bienvenue a Tremblant, monsieur."

The phrase hung in the March air while I tried to conjure up my long-lost French skills to reply, but the hotel receptionist at the Mont Tremblant ski resort in Quebec quickly filled the awkward silence by welcoming me in English.

The French flavors -- both cultural and gastronomic -- made Mont Tremblant a delightfully challenging and joyful collection of surprises. Those surprises became the theme for my visit to this resort, which has been voted the "Best in the East" five consecutive years in Ski magazine.

The first surprise was the prevalence of the French language. It is, as you would expect, far more dominant than at Whistler Blackcomb, the highly rated ski resort in British Columbia, where I had skied recently.

But here, even though Canada's courts struck down the "French-only" law for commercial signage in 1988, Quebec remains a bastion of French ambience. Fortunately, all the restaurateurs and shopkeepers also speak English.

Walking through the narrow, cobblestone walkways of the pedestrian-only base village, I realized that the lilting French conversations far outnumbered their English counterparts. In the small section called Vieux Tremblant, the cottagelike buildings housed charming shops and enticing restaurants. If Montreal is Paris without the attitude, then Mont Tremblant is a mini-Chamonix without the Alps.

Even the newest and fanciest hotels such as the Westin and the Fairmont have been designed to mesh with the European-influenced architecture of the rest of the resort, which was launched in 1939 when an American named Joseph Ryan opened the original Mont Tremblant Lodge.

Credit for modernizing the resort while maintaining its charm goes to Intrawest, one of the world's largest resort owners and operators, which rescued Mont Tremblant from the precipice of bankruptcy in 1991. Among Intrawest's other holdings are Whistler Blackcomb, and Copper Mountain and Winter Park in Colorado.

The second surprise was the mountain itself. Mont Tremblant's elevation is 2,871 feet, with a maximum vertical drop of a bit over 2,100 feet, roughly the same vertical as Aspen's Buttermilk Mountain in Colorado. Tremblant packs 94 trails onto 610 acres of skiable terrain, compared with Buttermilk's 43 trails and 420 acres of terrain.

Then there was the quality of the skiing. A major storm had dropped more than a foot of snow two days before I arrived at the end of March. A second storm blew through my first day on the mountain, leaving behind a bounty of great skiing options.

Mountain weather

As I stepped out of the gondola, the wind slashed across the peak, pushing the snow horizontally and biting into any exposed skin. The storm didn't seem too beneficial just then as all my bad memories of skiing in the Midwest came flooding back. Skiers were rushing to step into their ski bindings and get away from the wind. A quick check of the trail map, and I headed toward a blue intermediate trail to get off the exposed mountaintop.

With the mountain blocking the wind, skiing became a delight. After my warm-up run, I started looking for Tremblant's treasures. I found one in a glade run called Windigo. The silence among the trees was remarkable. The fresh snow was both a blessing and a challenge: It covered the path most traveled, but it also hid the obstacles that could lead to an abrupt tumble.

A bit more than five minutes and two near-collisions with large trees later, I popped out of the glade onto the bottom portion of Fuddle Duddle, a run to the base of the mountain where two chair lifts whisk skiers back up the slopes. One of the lifts takes you to the top of the mountain; the other, to the mid-point, providing skiers with a choice of how much challenge they want on the next run.

The opportunity to polish my technique for both powder and glade skiing was one more addition to the list of surprises. But don't count on fresh powder as normal in the spring. Tremblant's low altitude makes it susceptible to rapid weather changes.

On the last day of my visit, the temperature hit 50 degrees and the precipitation was rain, not snow. The melting snow base formed small rivers as it ran off the mountain and through the village.

Put in study time

Another caveat: Study the trail map thoroughly. The mountain's staff members are friendly and very helpful, but sometimes they forget that many of the skiers are monolingual Americans. A French-challenged skier could end up looking for "Bo-Vy-Yawn Oh" instead of Beauvallon Haut. And they really should look for it, because Beauvallon Haut and Beauvallon Bas combine for one of the most rollicking cruise runs from top to bottom.

Breakfast is a good study time. You can linger over one of the dozens of crepe choices at Creperie Catherine or join the locals savoring the strong French-roast coffee and croissants at the Brulerie Saint Denis.

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