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Great white north

Quebec village is the perfect place for a winter getaway

Email|Print| Text size + By Beth D'Addono
Globe Correspondent / December 15, 2004

MONT-TREMBLANT, Quebec -- In a perfect world, a weekend getaway to the French Alps for a dose of winter sports, French food and wine, and European culture would be an easy and affordable alternative to fighting the crowds at local ski resorts.

While crossing the pond for three days can be both impractical and cost prohibitive, there is a solution. It's called Tremblant, a quaint French skiing resort nestled into a dramatic mountain range 90 minutes north of Montreal. Shops, charcuteries, bistros, and bars compete for a visitor's attention. From the base of the mountain, skiers, most of them speaking French, travel in heated, high-speed gondolas to the top of the 3,001-foot-high summit, from which they can choose any one of 94 groomed trails -- including several long and scenic beginner runs.

Voted the number one ski resort in eastern North America by Ski magazine for eight years running, Tremblant offers incredible skiing for nervous beginners, confident intermediates, and rabid black diamond experts. And best of all, from Boston, an early morning departure by car or plane can have you on the slopes in time for lunch.

Tremblant was founded in 1939 by Philadelphia millionaire Joe Ryan. Ryan, a world-traveling adventurer, climbed Mont-Tremblant on a trek through the Laurentians, and had a vision. With his drive and, more importantly, his money, he saw the mountain being made accessible to the skiing public -- quite a revolutionary idea back then. Ryan installed the first ski lift in Canada at Tremblant in 1939.

This year, the company unveiled a five-year, $1 billion Tremblant expansion plan that includes building two more villages on the mountain, hotels, spas, condos, and the like. For die-hard skiers here, it's all about the mountain. And Mont-Tremblant, the trembling mountain, is a beauty. The highest in the Laurentian chain, it offers breathtaking vistas of the valley below, with its frozen lake, pine forests, and picturesque fairytale village. A gondola zips to the top of the mountain in seven minutes, but depending on your moves, it can take a lot longer to get down the mountain's lengthiest run, Nansen, a 3.75-mile green and blue beauty.

Tremblant's expert runs are exceptional, an ideal combination of hard-packed base with natural and man-made powder. Best of all, the mountain is typically not as icy as most East Coast ski experiences.

While the majority of visitors come to Tremblant for the alpine skiing, there are other options. Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing, dog sledding, ice skating, snowmobiling, and ice walking are a few of the other frosty activities that await. The best cross-country skiing is in the nearby Parc National du Mont-Tremblant, with its 40-mile network of trails geared to all skill levels. Admission to the park is about $3 per person, or $6 for a family. A three-hour guided trip runs about $58 per person, including rental equipment. Winter horseback riding ($49 per hour), ice climbing ($66 per person, including equipment) and guided snowmobile tours ($49 per person) are more options to consider. A one-hour horse-drawn sleigh ride ($27 adults, $13 children) may be the best way to see this winter wonderland.

After the slopes close, or your legs give out, there are more than 75 shops, bars, and restaurants to keep you occupied. Shoppers can while away hours browsing for art, clothing, sporting goods, artisan jewelry, chocolate, and accessories. Give your muscles a rest by soaking in a steamy outdoor Jacuzzi or taking a swim at the Aquaclub, a heated indoor and outdoor swimming complex in the village. Then, it's time for refreshments. The Quebecois may have invented happy hour, or at least perfected it. You haven't really watched football until you've shared the experience with a bar full of Canadians, who rival US fans for enthusiasm and colorful commentary.

When it comes to dining, there's everything from beer and pizza at Ya'ooo to breakfast crepes at Crperie Catherine, and raclette, a gooey Swiss specialty of melted cheese served with potatoes, at La Savoie. One of the latest additions to the mountain menu is Soto Restaurant Sushi Bar in the Westin Resort & Spa, a sleek Japanese eatery featuring excellent sushi and sashimi, along with grilled teriyaki and noodle dishes.

The overall quality of the food in the village is very good, pretty much what you might expect from a European experience. The mountain's four-star eatery, Aux Truffes, is a charming French restaurant with an award-winning wine list that serves three marvelous courses for about $50 per person.

Amid all Mont-Tremblant's allures, you won't want to miss sampling beaver tails, the Quebecois version of a doughnut. Fried whole-wheat dough in the appropriate shape is sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and served piping hot, or with chocolate or maple icing.

Tremblant draws a young crowd, which means the bars and pubs are busy into the wee hours. Check out the sports bar scene at Bullseye, live jazz at La Forge, and rock bands from the area at Octobar Rock.

Most of the accommodations on the mountain are equipped with a full kitchen (including dishwasher and microwave), and you can pick up groceries in the nearby town of Saint-Jovite, or even pack staples in your bags. There are several small convenience stores in the village as well.

Tremblant, with its colorful gingerbread buildings, diverse dining and entertainment options, and gorgeous mountain setting, is a perfect winter weekend getaway. This is a year-round destination, with summer activities such as fishing, mountain biking, and hiking every bit as appealing as the cold weather sports. But if it's a winter wonderland you seek, Tremblant is the real deal.

Beth D'Addono is a freelance writer in Belmont Hills, Pa.

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