This article, and distribution, was paid for by the Canadian Ski Council and produced in conjunction with POWDER.
Words by Joe Cutts
Best news ever: My Verizon cell service now works just fine, with no rip-off roaming fees, when I head north into Canada. Gone is the major annoyance of flying blind, without GPS, through rush-hour Montreal.
Still, it's always nice to have the big city in the rearview mirror. The traffic eases, and I can relax and look forward to the fun of a return visit to the ski slopes of the Laurentian Mountains.
American skiers might wonder why it's worth the extra drive time to do their skiing north of the border. When people ask me how the skiing is up there, I tell them it's pretty much like the skiing in Vermont: similar geography, equally pretty views. Sometimes there's better snow. Sometimes the exchange rate makes everything seem like a great deal. And sometimes you can escape the mobs of U.S. vacation weeks like President's Day and the MLK holiday.
But the real reason you come here is for something different. People who've been to the Laurentians often describe it as feeling like a trip to Europe without the jetlag, and it's true. I don't entirely agree when people say it's like France. It's Québec. But yes, you'll need all the high-school French you've got up here, and unlike a trip to, say, British Columbia or Alberta, a trip to Québec feels very much like going to a different and exotic country.
About a half hour north of Montreal, Autoroute 15 leaves the St. Lawrence River valley and begins its ascent into the rolling Laurentians (or Laurentides, as the Québecois call them). There are a dozen or so ski areas along the way, ranging in size from small to midsized, and at night their illuminated slopes line the highway like a string of holiday lights leading up to the big one, Tremblant.
One of the oldest Laurentian ski areas—and still one of the most beloved by Montreal skiers—is Sommet Saint-Sauveur, which was actually founded by a well-known American. Saint-Sauveur was the very first ski venture of Fred Pabst, the Milwaukee beer baron, who would go on to build North America's first ski-area conglomerate way back in the 1930s, with Vermont's Bromley as its flagship. Today Saint-Sauveur is known for its skiing nightlife, with miles of lighted trails and plenty of convivial action in its base-area bars.
Another notable destination is lively Mont-Blanc. Though its 688 feet of vert may not rival that of its Chamonix namesake, Mont-Blanc's extensive and imaginative terrain parks are highly regarded among Laurentian freestylers. Freestyle is big up here, and like Mont-Blanc, most Laurentian resorts have top-notch pipes and parks, many of which well-lit for nighttime action.
Of course, most Americans who come this far north are headed to Tremblant, the Laurentians' biggest resort. And they come as much for the famous Tremblant village as they do the skiing.
Developed at huge expense during Intrawest's tenure here, Tremblant's base village, with its unmistakable sense of place, is still regarded in the ski industry as an exemplary model of slopeside development. Visually, it's emphatically Québecois, reminiscent of one of the historic neighborhoods of Montreal or Québec City. Its red- and green-roofed buildings are closely clustered, crowding narrow pedestrian-only alleys that open onto broad plazas—shops, cafes, and restaurants at street level, residences above. From the windows of your fireplaced condo, the nighttime view of a warmly lit streetscape bustling with happy skiers rivals the summit's daytime view of Lac Tremblant and the surrounding mountains.
The village garners a lot of attention, but the quality of Tremblant's skiing is also paramount. If you want to relax and cruise, zoomy corduroy groomers abound. If you want to get after it, head for the back side, or Versant Nord, for bumps or glades.
But trust anyone who's ever been the to the Laurentians: Where you really want to get at after it is at the table. Even in the summit lodges, cafeterias, casual bars and cafes, Quebec's love affair with good food is on display. And in the candlelit dining rooms of the Laurentians' many fine restaurants and boutique inns, the culinary experience typically rises to the sublime.
So remember to bring your passport, leave your diet at home, and consider bringing a European approach to your ski vacation here. Ski a little, eat a little, relax, repeat. No one ever died of too much poutine. Or if they did, they died happy.