You think you know Tremblant? You may know its 875 metres of vertical and 95 trails, and that it's Eastern Canada's hottest party spot (sort of a Vegas-north with a 'what-happens-in-Tremblant-stays-in-Tremblant' attitude) attracting Hollywood talent, NHL players, brides-to-be and their rocking girlfriends.
But there's so much more to Tremblant. As I discovered last weekend, you don't have to be a downhill wizard to fit into this panoramic pedestrian village: It lacks the scare factor of the big Western hills, but offers more thrill than the Ontario slopes. Hardly mediocre, Tremblant offers the middle. It's an urban-dweller's escape that's brimming with fun-seeking families, decked-out skiers and couples in all stages of romance.
Within 40 hours, I repented my holiday sins on the slopes, on cross-country ski trails, on skates on a frozen pond, on a slippy inner-tube run, and in the snowy woods with a Kerouac descendant who knew a thing or two about mushrooms and attracting wildlife. All that, plus stretches, deep sleeps and two gourmet dinners, too.
FRIDAY NIGHT FEAST
I arrive via Porter mere steps from the front door of what just might be the world's quaintest airport – it looks more like a ski lodge. Shuttle buses are at the ready to ferry passengers into the village, where we drop our suitcases at the Westin before wandering down to L'Avalanche. Owner Cedric Damani welcomes us, and we opt for protein-packed tapas to fuel us through the next day. We indulge in filet mignon in a sake and soy sauce marinade, a fabulous beef tartare, duck confit, rack of lamb, ostrich and a chef's risotto with truffle-oil dusted mushrooms. The ostrich and mushroom dishes, in particular, send me to my happy place. It's girls' night out at a nearby bar and we hear the music thumping as we walk by, happily stuffed, but it's time to rest up for the big day ahead.
I feel somewhat unCanadian admitting I'm not a solid downhill skier. I just learned last year (at Kicking Horse near Golden, B.C.), and was feeling apprehensive. So I decide on a refresher lesson: My office-mode legs need to relearn how to distribute my body weight without pitching forward, how to carve into the turns and how to find my ideal speed.
I'm not alone. Skiers, boarders, old, young, male, female, of all backgrounds – the beginner hill is hopping with enthusiastic wannabes. After an hour of relearning and practising the basics, we take to the chairlift. The top half of the mountain is shrouded in fog, the trees caked in a glistening snowy ice, and I'm as taken with the Ansel Adams photographic possibilities as I am with the prospect of being set loose to put my relearned skills to the test. I'm ready: The bottom half of the mountain is a piece of cake, but I'm hungry and eager to get on classic cross-country skis.
By afternoon, the fog has cleared and it's a bluebird day. Outfitted with cross-country boots and skis, at the picturesque Ski de fond Mont-Tremblant I pick a simple looking route that takes skiers along River La Diablo. Naively, I think this will be an easy echo of cross-country skiing at Vanderwater Conservation Area along the river I grew up on. Gentle inclines and flat stretches pull us deeper into the woods. And then we turn a curve and I'm wiping out on a steep downhill stretch. I've got my downhill-ski legs on, and the skinny skis and groomed tracks – a first for me – have thrown me for a loop.
It's been 20-some years since I last skied cross-country trails, and the scene has changed as much as on the slopes. While downhill skiers have become accustomed to snowboarders, cross-country skiers now share the trails with, and may even be outnumbered by, speedy skate-skiers. I assume the rules of the road apply on the trail (they do: the faster skiers go around the plodders), though some of the skiers (classic and skate) are quick to bark orders and cast disapproving looks if you slow their progress. My pride is a little bruised, but the sun is sparkling as the river burbles through the ice; my skis are shush-shushing as I glide. The most scenic moment comes at the end as we enter a long, arched corridor of evergreens so captivating even the diehards stop to snap a shot.
Back in the village, the outdoor skating rink beckons. My legs are a bit wobbly and I'm not sure they'll take the switch from downhill to cross-country to hockey skates. But, when in Tremblant! I join the kids and canoodling couples and make my way around the chopped-up ice a number of times, gaining speed but knowing to stop before I get cocky. Besides, the tubing run is about to open. …
Remember when you were a kid and tubing meant an actual inner tube, gently rocking on the waves at a provincial park or lake? Then it graduated to specialized tubes with handles and hooks for ropes for speeding behind boats. Now tubing is a downhill ski park staple. After a day on skis, getting the rush without using a single muscle – except maybe to raise your legs as you careen close to the snowbanks – is a simple thrill. And I indulge, more than once.
After a long hot shower (under the double showerhead) and a brief rest by the fireplace, it's time for dinner at the elegant Martin Faucher's Aux Truffes. Pan-seared Quebec duck foie gras is a must to start, and I can't resist the Quebec deer with julienned Brussels sprouts, gratin of yellow beet, and basil bread. Mr. Faucher's creations are a delight (how can I resist the impossibly tempting walnut stew with maple ice cream? damn this no-sugar diet!) and he may be the friendliest chef in Canada. A consummate host, he answered patrons' questions about the menu, his philosophy and the source of his ingredients. Do ask to meet him when you visit.
Sunday dawns sunny, crisp and cold – it's a good 10 degrees colder than the day before. But temperature is no obstacle to this runaway weekend. We rush to meet guide Yves Kirouac, a local legend who says he is a descendant of beat poet Jack Kerouac (born Jean Louis Kirouac to French-Canadian parents in the U.S.). He helps us strap on our snowshoes and gives us the basic tips (short steps uphill, digging in with the balls of your feet; fast baby steps downhill, lowering your body weight).
For Mr. Kirouac , though, it's soon clear it's about so much more than the mechanics. Being in the woods, exploring the flora and fauna, is a way of life – and he shares his insights as we leave the village behind, trekking past cedars (something in the bark is good for the prostate – long life, happy wife), by Douglas fir (the sap, mixed with boiling water, is a speedily effective laxative), around a solid tree growing on a large rock, its thick roots wrapping serpentine-like around the stone. As we make tracks, Mr. Kirouac points out the other prints in the snow (moles, fox, deer, squirrel). He shows us the chaga mushroom growing on a tree, and then makes a fire with only flint, a chip of chaga, and rolled-up birch bark stuffed with cedar bark he stripped from a tree. We're wowed, and a deer ambles within five metres of us to witness Mr. Kirouac's creation. It's a magical moment.
While it feeds the yearning for downhill skiers who return year after year, Mont Tremblant is also a smorgasbord of opportunity for beginners. It's been a whirl of a weekend, and though I am amazed to find I have the energy, I just don't have time to try my hands (and legs) at ice climbing and dogsledding – they will have to go on the list for next time.
Back home, it feels like anything is possible. I'm mentally and physically revived, and my chiropractor says I've never felt more flexible – you can't argue with that. Some people go to Tremblant to get in the groove, some go to get their groove back.
1-888-738-1777; tremblant.ca. Lift tickets cost $75.
Porter Airlines flies nearly every day to and from Mont-Tremblant International Airport. flyporter.com.
Courtesy shuttle to hotels in the pedestrian village is part of the airport service, which is covered in the airport fee (most all-inclusive packages include the airport fee). Make a reservation through Mont-Tremblant International Airport ( mtia.ca/en) to make sure you have a seat on the shuttle.
WHAT TO DO
Cross-country skiing :Ski de fond Mont-Tremblant: For classic and skate-skiing, snowshoeing, winter hiking and trotinette des neiges (kicksledding) on more than 25 square kilometres of forest, meadow, lakes, streams and the River La Diable. 539 Chemin Saint-Bernard, Mont-Tremblant; 1-819-425-5588; skidefondmont-tremblant.com. Adult rate: $17 to ski, $9 to snowshoe. Rental for classic skis, boots and poles is $23.50.
Snowshoeing: To book a guided experience with Yves Kirouac, go to tremblantactivities.com, select winter, and then choose the Fireman Snowshoe Tour. Or call 1-819-681-4848. $53.
Downhill skiing: For information on runs and mountain conditions, go to tremblant.ca or call 1-888-738-1777. Lift tickets cost $75.
WHERE TO STAY
There's a range of accommodations in the pedestrian village, including the Westin, Fairmont Tremblant and the Quintessence. Visit the Tremblant website to compare rates and amenities.
WHERE TO EAT
Aux Truffes Restaurant: Place Saint-Bernard, 3035 Chemin de la Chapelle; 1-819-681-4544; auxtruffes.com.
L'Avalanche Bistro Lounge: 127 Chemin Kandahar; 1-819-681-4727; avalanchebistro.com.