Considering that I am the sort of traveller undeterred by the cold – I made my first visit to Sweden in the month of December – when I had the opportunity to journey to Quebec during the waning days of this winter, I was eager to go. I had only been to Montreal in the Province previously, and while I love that city and its at once cosmopolitan and locally distinctive character, I had never experienced the landscape or countryside that has shaped and molded the Francophone domain of our neighbor to the north.
Apropos of a journey designed to take advantage of the activities unique to a northerly region during winter, my trek to Newark airport, where I would begin my trip to the Laurentians and Mont-Tremblant in Southern Quebec, was occasioned by the biggest blizzard of the season. While this welcome snowfall would certainly enhance appreciation of what awaited in Quebec, it did however delay by several hours the arrival of the plane flying in from Canada that would spirit us from New Jersey back across the border. At least the unexpected hours spent waiting were in the cozy confines of the Porter Airlines Lounge, where plenty of Walkers shortbread snacks and Starbucks coffee were available.
Once we were finally able to get underway, the flight was a brisk one, and it’s easy to see why Porter is the carrier of choice for those flying from the US to Canada – and particularly the growing number of people going north to ski at Mont-Tremblant. The operation and service feels more regional than corporate, which seems more suitable for the routes they specialize in, primarily between Toronto, Montreal, New York and Mont-Tremblant International Airport (YTM) in La Macaza. Porter has replaced Continental as the airline servicing YTM, and they have been working with Tourisme Aerien Laurentides (or TAL; in English: Fly Laurentians) to bring significant economic benefits to the region; from the 2007/2008 winter to the 2012 summer their partnership has brought in some 25,000 visitors, accounting for $13 million added to the local Laurentian economy.
As we neared our destination one could see from the plane windows how the prehistoric glacier coverage over the area has conditioned the landscape of Quebec – ultimately blessing it with an plenitude of lakes, mountains and rivers, now so abundantly forested with fir trees that the many are harvested every December for shipment to New York (the Christmas trees you see for sale on Gotham sidewalks are almost exclusively from Quebec) barely effect the arborous density there.
After we deplaned at the boutique-sized La Macaza airport and went through customs, our group was met by our accommodating and gracious hostess and director for the trip, Ghislaine Taurillec, who informed us of a change in immediate plans necessitated by the weather-caused delay in our arrival. The prime casualty was the mode of travel we were to take from the airport to the lodge where we would spend our first night; the original plan calling for an ETA of 12:45 in the afternoon would have afforded us ample daylight to motor overland in snowmobiles the two or so hours it would take to get to the lodge, but since we now arrived amidst darkening skies such a rustic means of transport – possibly challenging even over a short haul in midday for a group of people almost certainly unaccustomed to it – would potentially have been an arduous undertaking through a wooded expanse stretching 45 or so miles at dusk, and so was scrapped in favor of a van ride to the lodge as night drew close. (It’s worth noting that ‘fly-and-ride’ arrangements, from plane to snowmobile, are commonplace for travellers continuing on from La Macaza in winter months, as there are perhaps more backwoods trails than roadways in this part of Canada.)
By the time we got to our lodge, Pourvoirie Mekoos (C. P. 118, Mont-Laurier J9L 3G9, telephone: 819-623-2336; www.mekoos.ca), near Ste-Anne-Du-Lac, it was dark. After the long wait at the airport and a lengthy drive through the woods from La Macaza, it was good to finally arrive at the comfortably-appointed inn, and we enjoyed a welcoming cocktail – most of us opting for a snifter of Sortilege (a blend of Canadian Whisky and pure maple syrup) – while being watched over in the main sitting room by a stuffed bear and the mounted heads of a moose and a deer. There was a boisterous crowd on hand, most of them snowmobiling aficionados from Toronto and Ottawa, and not long after we arrived a woman stopped by vending a selection of furs (mostly hats and hand-warmers) fashioned from pelts of beaver, wolf, lynx and fox. We were told that the prices for these pieces on offer here, ranging from $125 to $200, were a bargain compared to the $300 or so they would fetch in Toronto; the nearer you are to the raw resources, the less costly they are.
Pourvoirie Mekoos, which has won the Grand Prize of Tourism Quebec, can accommodate up to 150 guests at a time, and in addition to rooms for visitors in the main lodge itself there are also separate cottages; one of these more private lodgings was where I was to overnight, and it was appointed with a double and a single bed should I have the opportunity to entertain some company. Walking from the cabin to the lodge I looked up and was struck with a view uncommon to the New York skyline: stars shimmering with brilliance in a clear navy sky – something that the atmospheric haze of a large metropolitan area literally makes you lose sight of.
Once we were settled in it was time for dinner, and it more than made up for the uncertainty that the weather had imposed upon our plans for the day. I had a fine vegetable soup as a first course, with coquilles St. Jacques as an appetizer, and the main course dinner options of chicken with pesto stuffing, roast beef, and salmon all came in the sort of hearty portions that many Americans would appreciate – hunger was not on the menu by the time we were done. Thereafter I explored the downstairs rec room, taking advantage of a chance to play the mini organ as well as shoot some pool (there’s also a foosball table), and regretted that our now-truncated time at the lodge would probably not allow time to use the sauna, which wasn’t in service at this time of night.
After another hearty meal for breakfast on Saturday morning, we gathered to partake in what was for me the highlight of the entire trip: a chance to mush some sled dogs over a wooded course around the main lake (there are 135 lakes on their exclusive territory) that the lodge overlooks. Canada is a nation both more vast and far more sparsely populated than the US, so transportation during its westward expansion and settlement naturally developed differently – particularly for winter travel; while dogsledding may seem peculiar to folks raised in the city, it’s easy to see how it was both efficient and necessary for the wooded reaches of the far north.
The kennels were a short drive beyond the lodge, and meeting the dogs, mainly huskies and malamutes, was quite an experience. Most people interact with dogs that are pets or companion animals only, but these specimens have been bred for generations to be working dogs, running mile after mile pulling heavy sledges through the snow, and the sheer energy and intensity they radiate is phenomenal. They must be chained besides their rows of doghouses, all of which have been chewed on and partially eaten away at the bases to some degree by their rambunctious residents; certainly these were the most wolfen, the most feral in adaptation to their environment and temperament, of any canines I have ever encountered.
One must be both tough and tender to master them, and the fellow who oversees them, and who led us on our dogsledding excursion, Samuel Lucas, was just that. Once the hounds caught sight of him they became very agitated, and in turn he asserted the dominance one must to direct their extreme energies. There were about ten of us in our tour group, so teams of two were paired off in five sleds, with one person driving while standing on the rear runners as their partner sat in the sled, while the dogs pulled it from the front. Samuel suggested that the pairs may wish to switch positions in the midst of our jaunt, so that each person got the chance to both drive and ride, but when I said to the girl I partnered up with that I’d be comfortable driving for the entire distance if she was fine with riding the entire time, she agreed; I proposed this because I know dogs, and have a pretty mean bark that comes in handy to quiet a dog down and get it to take direction when necessary, and seeing the nature of the beasts we were dealing with I felt it imperative to have someone in the back who could assert such control and exercise a command presence.
As it was, on our journey lasting approximately 40 minutes we were behind another, slower-moving team; since this slowed us down, and these dogs will tend to nip at one another when they’re not able to focus on charging forward as they’re trained to do, you need someone driving who’s prepared to shout “Allez! Allez!” at them to get them to pay attention to who’s boss and get them going again. There is also the issue of the only means by which you can regulate the speed of your sled once the dogs get to running: by stomping with your feet on a spiked metal hinge spanning the rear of the craft and driving it into the snow, either all the way down to bring the sled to a complete stop, or partially to slow the dogs down when you need to turn or make other maneuvers; this endeavor too requires force and control from the driver.
Occasionally Samuel had to stop his lead sled to assist some in the group when they had spilled over or had other problems, but I wasn’t surprised when he paid me the complement “you know what you’re doing.” At the end of our circuit, prompted by Samuel to thank our dogs after he re-tied the animals to their shelters, we found they were a good deal calmer now after having gotten their expected morning exercise out of the way, their fur moist from the exertion. For my money, any trip to the Laurentians wouldn’t be complete without this experience, and Samuel Lucas’s dogsled operations can be contacted at www.chiendetraineaux.net firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.facebook.com/SametAnneSo.
Having worked up an appetite, lunch was next on the itinerary, and once again it was a filling repast. I started with the cream of vegetable soup, with a main dish of battered white fish, served with julienned vegetables and cole slaw that was pleasantly not too sugary (as is too often the case); other options included spaghetti with three cheeses, and a chicken sandwich with peas. We were joined by Christine Labrecque of CLD D’Antoine-Labelle, the developmental organization for the region coordinating trade, business and tourism, and she provided us with brochures detailing a wide variety of activities taking place year-round in the Laurentians.
Though winter is certainly a special time there, outdoors attractions are manifold all seasons; when there’s no snow cover, other means of travelling through the trails of the countryside include cycling (see www.velo-hautes-laurentides.qc.ca) and four-wheel drive ATVs (see www.quad-aventure.ca and www.atvriding.ca), and the abundant waterways can be traversed via canoeing and kayaking – while fishing them is a year-round sport, done over ice in the winter (general information about all activities in the area is at www.laurentides.com). From there we assembled to have the experience we missed out on the previous day – a snowmobile ride, now over the same route we’d been on with the dogsleds.
Ever since the first modern track-driven personal snow scooter was invented by Valcourt, Quebec-born Joseph-Armand Bombardier in the late 1950s, snowmobiling has been truly as much of a Canadian (and Quebecois) pastime as ice hockey and curling. Racing tournaments and snowmobile clubs are common in these parts, and a few lunch tables in the dining room had been crammed with riders, most still wearing their coveralls indoors. Though the top speed these machines can attain is 120 miles per hour, the speed limit is held to 70 in ‘open’ areas – where there is unlikely to be other traffic – and 30 miles per hour when there are other snowmobiles and other forms of traffic. As I do not have a current driver’s license, I rode as a passenger while others in the group piloted rental snowmobiles.
Though I enjoyed racing through the snow on such a conveyance, you nevertheless cannot escape the smell of the petrol that powers it throughout the ride, as the gas tank and engine are very near your seat, and for me this odor made the trek through the wild a less satisfying experience than the dogsledding. You definitely can move a lot faster powered by gasoline rather than paws, but the environmental trade-offs necessary for such speed, as made olfactorily unavoidable throughout the ride, made the dogsledding a more enjoyable way to navigate the pristine and elemental back country for my taste. (For what it’s worth, battery-powered and zero-emission technology for snowmobiles is just beginning to take off, and beyond developmental programs at a number of universities, there are also commercially available models today.) Details about trails, rentals and groups for snowmobiling in the Laurentians can be found at www.oureurdesbois.ca and www.woodrunnertrail.ca.
From the lodge we then traveled to the resort of Mont-Tremblant, the number one ski destination in eastern North America. We were billeted at the Marriott Residence Inn Tremblant (www.marriott-tremblant.com), which provided the home-away-from-home ambience the brand is famous for – and at a ski resort that means there is an extra amenity afforded guests, with lockers and other storage options in the basement for ski-related gear. (Another plus is a whirlpool in the outdoor courtyard, which unfortunately the tight succession of activities did not allow me time to partake of.) Once settled, our group convened to be led on an expedition of the ski village of Mont-Tremblant, which lies just below the mountaintop, by our very gregarious tourist guide, dinner companion, and fount of historical and contemporary information about the area, Paul St. Georges. (Bus and walking tours of the resort, the National Park, and the wider region of Tremblant and the Laurentians can be arranged through email@example.com; telephone: 819-687-9390; cell: 819-425-0447.)
Paul explained that at approximately 2800 feet Tremblant is the highest peak in the Laurentians, and got its name from the Algonquin lore that it trembled due to disturbances of nature; in their native tongue it is called Manitonga-Soutana, the Francophone translation being Mont-Tremblant. While there had been skiing at the site as early as 1894, and in fact the peak hosted the first downhill ski competition in North America in 1932, this had been a laborious pursuit – wherein skiers had to reach the summit by hiking up with the gear on foot – until a Philadelphia businessman named Joe Ryan began development of the resort in 1938. By the following year he built both the first lift to the mountaintop and the ski lodge there, and in 1946 he broadened the operation by adding a secondary ski run on the north side of the mountain. Once Ryan got on in years and he could no longer maintain his level of involvement, he sold the operation to Canadian interests in 1965.
From that point the resort went into something of a decline, until the 1991 purchase of it by Intrawest, whose subsequent infusion of $1 billion into Mont-Tremblant has transformed the resort into the place it assumes today as a prime ski and vacation destination. Though one experienced wintertime traveller in our group expressed dissatisfaction at what she feels is the Disneyfication and touristy character that Intrawest creates in the properties it acquires, that opinion is one you’d be hard-pressed to find shared by anyone who lives and works in the area – Paul told us the involvement of Intrawest has rescued skiing, commerce and the economy of the region by bringing in the visitors, money and interest leading to the jobs and lifestyles that locals dedicated to both winter and year-round enjoyment of their home environs are grateful to have the opportunity for.
Currently the development includes some 35 shops and 32 restaurants within the resort area (a number in my group were determined to sample poutine, which suggested they’d never been to Quebec before), more than 1800 lodging units of all kinds (hotel rooms, studios, condos and chalets), 13 hotels and much residential construction for both those who live there year-round and those who maintain part-time abodes there (including, as was noted by Paul, an increasing number of celebrities and hockey stars, like Michael Douglas and Mario Lemieux, each of whom have built multi-million dollar abodes there); among residents, it was explained that 80% are Canadian, 15% Americans, and the remaining 5% other nationals.
The changes have been a boon to skiers and other visitors alike. For the former, there are now 95 pistes from the mountaintop, arrayed for utility to skiers of all skill levels, ranging from “easy trails” to “extremely difficult trails for experts”. If you prefer an earthier experience there are plenty of other mountains with ski runs in this part of the Laurentians, which you can see from the Tremblant summit in all directions, and while Tremblant itself has had an enclosed gondola to take you to the top since 1998 (a 9-minute journey), the others generally still have chairlifts to get from bottom to top. The ski pistes originating at the Tremblant summit are actually within the frontiers of the National Park named for the mountain – for which there is a $6 entry fee for those not skiing, whereas ski-related fees cover that cost for those there to schuss.
It’s also noteworthy that while the resort has been cultivated to welcome skiers and those enjoying other winter sports, the 1.2 million annual visitors to Mont-Tremblant during the Spring and Fall seasons actually outnumber the 1 million annual guests they receive during wintertime. The focal point within the village of Place Saint-Bernard was buzzing with activity every time I walked through it, even when there were none of the free musical performances that take place there to entertain visitors. Additionally there are annual cultural festivals at the site, such as a 10-day blues fest, which draws an average of 100,000 people a day (a full list of activities and sights are available at www.tremblant.ca and www.tremblantactivities.ca, and a calendar of upcoming events can be found at www.tremblantexpress.com).
No resort in 2013 would be complete without a place to gamble – after all, people on holiday are planning to spend money in ways they normally wouldn’t in a variety of ways, so why not provide a venue dedicated entirely to the disposability of cash? – and the Casino Mont-Tremblant (www.casinosduquebec.com/mont-tremblant/en) ably fills the bill. For Saturday dinner we boarded a shuttle bus taking us to the casino, and though no one in our group was inclined to do any wagering after being shown the gaming area, we all did enjoy our repast at their first-rate seafood & grill restaurant, Altitude. The restaurant area includes a music stage for nightly entertainment, and this evening it was a very talented local jazz guitar combo. The specialty menu included appetizer options of a salad of baby greens with a honey and cider vinaigrette, a soup of the day and the Entrée du moment (in English, the ‘Chef’s inspiration’) which happened to be a gourmet poutine this evening; main courses ranged from grilled chicken breast from Saveurs des Monts Farm with whole grain mustard chutney, a prime rib of Angus beef ‘Altitude style’, a seafood catch of the day, and the grill chef’s specialty; for dessert there was a table of sweets from which we could select a variety of pastries and chocolates.
The following morning after breakfast at the hotel, it was time for more outdoor activities, and fortunately the weather was clear. Snowshoeing was to have been one of our options, and I was keen to try it, but since no one else was signed up for it made more sense to try my hand – or legs – at skiing. You either have parents or other relatives who ski or you don’t, and regrettably I lacked for that experience growing up, so this would be my first time on skis. I was not the only first-timer in my group, so the two of us repaired to the ski shop to rent our equipment and then to the “Bell” in the village, where the ski instructors are based (details on rentals and instruction are available at www.tremblant.ca).
For someone who walks most everywhere I can, as much out of a sense of self-sufficiency as for exercise and health, it is quite disorienting to be on skis for the first time – the runners simply want to slide you whichever way you don’t want to go, and you’re not prepared or experienced enough to correct your direction. But that ‘s what instructors are for, and our teacher, Joan Mathieu (firstname.lastname@example.org) was friendly, patient, and expert – which you must be to have the job, including the ability to ski backwards while you guide a novice such as myself down the slope. Of course, even though I was on what would be regarded by real skiers as a ‘bunny’ hill (located on a low elbow of the mountain), and was never moving very fast, it’s important to remember that even experts make mistakes, and that with the greatest oversight of all often being one of hubris, it’s wise to take precautions – it was on this very same hill after all that Natasha Richardson, while taking beginner lessons, suffered the accident which led to her death; she wasn’t wearing any headgear, an option I wouldn’t choose even had it been permitted.
After our morning activities the original plan had been to have the group lunch at the mountaintop lodge bistro, but this was changed prior to our visit, and with sagacious foresight – the itinerary noted “it would be too crowded” there, and indeed when I toured the facilities atop the summit I saw it was absolutely packed with skiers chowing down everywhere you looked. Hence we went to an Italian restaurant in the village, Spag & Co (telephone: 819-681-4444; http://www.spagandco.com), where our host Josee had a special menu of selections ready for us. Specialties here include Salade Spag & Co with pistachios, prosciutto, cheese and eggs; escargots with a garlic & leek gratin; home smoked salmon; fried calamari; and fettuccine with shrimp & lobster. During our meal a couple at another table that were eating with a toddler got an unexpected visit from a clown, who positively captivated the youth.
At this point we began our journey back to the airport, though it would feature two more stops on the way. First there was a visit to Le Spa Scandinave Mont-Tremblant (telephone: 819-425-9595; www.scandinave.com), an ideal post-prandial destination located a ten-minute drive away from the village. A major local attraction since being created in 1999 by cofounders Pierre Brisson and Benoît Berthiaume, this Nordic spa is open 365 days a year (including Christmas), and features a variety of baths and relaxation areas nestled into an attractive slope beside the Diable River. Given the emphasis in Mont-Tremblant on both the outdoors and climatic variation, it’s no wonder Le Spa Scandinave is a hit. There’s a path which takes you from alternating hot and cold baths and solaria, starting with a hot whirlpool bath with thermal waterfall, and progressing through cold Nordic baths and waterfalls, a Finnish sauna, Norwegian steam bath, and climaxing – for the very brave – in a dip in the Diable River itself. While a Canadian couple lounged on the pier over the river I dunked myself in whole, and it was absolutely frigid – and refreshing. Definitely a place I wish we had more time to lounge at.
Thusly renewed after our previous meal had been sweated out of us, we were ready for one more final meal, and this we took at the Resto-Pub Au Coin (telephone: 819-717-1410; www.hotel-monttremblant.com/resto-pub), located in the Hotel Mont-Tremblant, in the old village overlooking Lac Mercier. ‘Hearty’ was here too the apropos adjective to describe the fare, and I opted for a 6 oz. Angus beef steak with frites, while also sampling some fine salads, such as one with the beets and goat cheese, and another with smoked Norwegian salmon, and washing it all down with their specialty beer. Unintended entertainment was provided by two of the older women in our group, who proceeded to squabble over the seating arrangements (though I can’t recall if the issue of contention was the prime window seat or end-of-the-table seat, I’m sure the two combatants will never forget it the rest of their lives).
Once we got back to La Macaza airport there was opportunity before our return flight to inspect a place there had been no time to get any sense of when we arrived two days earlier. The main building seems to be itself a lodge of sorts – with architectural elements seemingly more predominantly made of wood than steel, it feels more like a place you would while away time playing cards or spinning yarns than the depersonalized no-man’s-land atmosphere of most airports. It thus underscored the overall impression I got of Mont Tremblant and the Laurentians – that above all a human-scale and hominess aptly reflected the warm personal touch pervading the fundamental hospitality of the region, and would make any return visit a pleasurable respite.