Mont Tremblant – Don’t Overlook the Great Cross Country Skiing Here
Usually you don’t leave your home base because the weather’s too good, but that was the case yesterday as we decided to go in search of winter. All of our snow was melted by the torrential rains of the past few days. The temperatures were close to record breaking, but there wasn’t much you could do outside because it was so muddy. For years we have spent a week in Quebec where they always seem to have a real winter and know how to enjoy it. For the first ten years or so we would go downhill skiing, but of late we have switched to the more mundane and less likely to kill yourself, cross-country. So, on a whim we packed our cross-country gear and headed out for the Mont Tremblant area. We had skied the double sided mountain a couple of times, but not any of the many cross-country sites in the area. The first day we had no destination in mind; maybe Quebec City if the driving was good, Riviere du Loup in the worst case scenario. Unfortunately we got stuck in a massive traffic jam in Degelis, just across the Quebec border, and ended up returning to Edmunston for the night.
After spending the night in the Auberge des Jardins (unfortunately now closed permanently) just outside Edmunston I decided to leave early and drive directly to Mont Tremblant. On the road by 7:30 we immediately gained an hour after crossing into Quebec. There was little traffic and we were able to pass the spot where the day before in Degelis there was the monumental traffic jam that we could only escape by going back to New Brunswick. There were no signs of what had caused the tie up, but there was construction in places. It continues to amaze me that the section of Trans-Canada between Riviere du Loup and New Brunswick is still not double laned. When Jean Chretien was Prime Minister he was always looking for a legacy project. Well what could be more obvious than making the Trans-Canada Highway a true national link from coast to coast on a standard at least equal to the U.S. Interstates. I guess thinking this big was too much for ‘da little guy from Shawinigan”.
Despite the highway conditions the scenery in the Lake Temiscuata area is always beautiful as is the stretch through the Kamouraska region where the St. Lawrence s first comes in to view. Today was no exception, with huge chunks of ice being swept out to sea on the one side and the prosperous farms with their huge silos on the other. Every village has the silver spired church that was a symbol of Quebec before the Quiet Revolution turned most Quebecois almost virulently away from the Catholic church. I had to wonder what use they now make of the many seminaries and other religious buildings that dominate many of the towns in the Bas St. Laurent area, especially the huge ones in La Pocatiere.
On the way toward Quebec City we saw Le Massif and Mont St. Anne ski hills across the river and all told that day we passed no less than nine of them, all of which were well populated with little ant like figures heading down the slopes. We didn’t cross the river at Quebec, but continued on Route 20 until Route 55 where we crossed over at Trois Riviere. From here we headed toward Mont Tremblant on Route 40. I had no intention of going anywhere near Montreal with its crumbling highways and resulting congestion. Looking at the map I could see that we could get to Mont Tremblant via a series of back roads and little towns that I had never visited before. We left Route 40 at Louiseville and headed toward St. Gabriel on Route 348.
There were a lot of really old farms in an area of gently rolling hills that were blanketed with clean white snow. Every town we visited seemed to have as many people on snowmobiles and ATVs as regular cars. Unlike Nova Scotia where people who want to cross country or snowshoe have to share the trails with OHVs, in Quebec there a thousands of kilometres of dedicated snowmobile trails, ATV trails and cross-country trails. Everybody gets to do their own thing on their own trail without interference from those interested in another way of enjoying winter. Maybe that’s why Quebecers spend a lot more time outdoors than Nova Scotians and why they seem much fitter as a whole.
Almost every village and town we passed looked very prosperous with signs of recent building. The architectural styles of many were quite modern with lots of glass and wood. Unlike rural Nova Scotia these places were not dying and in fact were vibrant. One of the reasons might be that they all still had many businesses located in the middle of town and people could walk to the stores or services they needed. In other words, WalMart had not gutted them and I pray it does not in the future. The towns of St. Come, where they were hosting a World Cup moguls events that very day and St. Donat were particularly outstanding examples of what a small town can still be.
By now we were well into the Laurentians and the Canadian Shield. After St. Donat the signs pointed to Mont Tremblant about fifty kilometres away. This was a breathtaking drive with virtually no traffic – all of the trees were covered in a silvery rime that glistened in the mid-afternoon sun. The hills were gently rounded and completely covered with hardwoods and conifers – not a clearcut to be seen. There were a number of places where cars were parked as people took advantage of cross-country or snowshoeing opportunities on a near perfect winter day – minus one, no wind and fresh snow. Now this was winter the way it is supposed to be.
Mont Tremblant Village
I had skied at Mont Tremblant many years before the place underwent the gigantic facelift by IntraWest and did not have particularly fond memories of the place. The hill itself was pretty good, but certainly not as good as others in the east; Sugarloaf, Stowe and Le Massif right in Quebec are better. What I cannot recall some twenty-five years later is anything that stood out at all about the place. Not where we stayed, where we ate or where we partied – that’s a pretty grim assessment.
However, I had skied Whistler/Blackcomb a number of times and with each visit was more and more impressed with the village that had sprung up at the base of the two mountains. Whistler/Blackcomb has consistently rated as the number one or two ski resort in North America for at least twenty years and I am convinced that the village has a lot to do with it. There are a lot of bad skiing days there because of rain or fog so it must be the myriad of things to do in and around the village that keeps the place so popular. That is why I wanted to give Mont Tremblant a second chance. My understanding was that IntraWest, with a hell of a lot of government funding, had created a Whistler of the east out of what was a moribund resort living off faded glory days.
I have been fortunate enough to ski at many places around the world and my favourite experiences were almost always at those places where your skiing starts out within walking distance of where you are staying. Ski in – ski out has it all over those places where you have to find a place to park your car and take a shuttle or walk for ages to get to the lifts. I’m talking about places like Zermatt, Switzerland, Courmayeur, Italy, Park City, Utah and of course Whistler. It’s all about the ambiance.
Most of my skiing has been done in the east and I knew that no such place existed here. Yes Stowe is a beautiful New England town, but it’s seven miles from the hill. Sugarloaf has great skiing and a so-called village, but it’s pretty lame compared to the real deal. Likewise, of the many fine hills in the Mount Washington area of New Hampshire, none of them starts out in a real village. So I was anxious to see if IntraWest had created a real ski village at the base of Mont Tremblant. In a word the answer is yes, in spades.
The village immediately struck me as a really good attempt to recreate the ambiance of old Quebec and in particular the Petit Champlain area. It is designed in such a way that the main street Rue des Remparts is completely pedestrian. The lifts start out directly from the mountain base which is the top of the village and only a few minutes walk from the Fairmont, Westin, Homewood Suites or Residence Inn and a number of condo complexes. There is every type of restaurant you could want in the village as well as specialty shops for just about every outdoor equipment supplier you can name. Le cabriolet carries pedestrians rapidly from the bottom of the village to the top.
So what about the Disneyland effect – is it obviously fake? That was what I was most worried about, but the Mont Tremblant village is, I think, a successful attempt to recreate the feel of Quebec City and not a European ski town or a Whistler clone. I will definitely be back to play the famous golf courses that help make this a four seasons resort.
I had deliberately not booked a room because I wanted to do a reconnoiter first before booking on line. I wanted to make sure we stayed in Mont Tremblant village proper rather than some place that we needed to use the car to get anywhere. I had checked Trip Advisor to the extent to confirm there were places in the village available. We did a cruise of the village which was absolutely packed as hundreds of skiers were just coming off the hill.
After identifying several places in the village I drove up to the Casino so we could use the wifi and book a spot. The casino is architecturally interesting and completely separate from the village, which I think was a good idea. People were pouring in by way of shuttle buses. I expect it would be really hopping in the evening. After logging on to Trip Advisor and zeroing in on the places in the village I almost gagged on the prices. The Residence Inn and Homewood Suites, both of which are among my favourite chains, were both over $400 a night and the Fairmont just a bit cheaper. However, for reasons that elude me I was able to book three nights at the Westin for less than $200 a night. I knew we would not be getting accommodations anywhere near the size of what the Residence or Homewood would offer, but at half the price I didn’t care.
The Westin has a great location mid way up the village. It is a short walk to the lifts and pretty well anywhere else in the village. On checking in I did what I always do at a Marriott property and that is ask for an upgrade. As a long time Marriott member with lots of points this often works and it did in this case. Although the place was completely booked this night, we would be upgraded to a bigger room for the next two. Bingo!
The room we were assigned surprised me with the amenities it had. Besides the expected king bed there was a mini kitchen with a sink, small fridge, microwave, coffee maker with coffee and tea and dishes and cutlery. This would allow us to prepare our own breakfasts which is always expensive at resorts like Mont Tremblant. There was also a gas fireplace with faux logs. Obviously the competition from the all suites chains is making the traditional hotels with smaller rooms, up their game. Goodbye ripoff mini bar, hello useful mini fridge.
After settling in I took a stroll around to pick up some supplies for the fridge – milk, yogurt and wine. All were easily procured – there is actually an SAQ attached to the Westin. The village really is impressive. We have skied at most of the large resorts in the east and nothing approaches the ambiance of the village. Yes it is all artificial, and that usually turns me off, but it works at Mont Tremblant. Looking down from the top of Rue de Remparts, the principal street in the village you could easily think you were looking down Petit Champlain in Quebec. The fact there are no motor vehicles is probably the major reason it has the attraction it does.
For dinner we walked the very short distance to Pizzateria and had a good meal for less than sixty dollars. I had the Mexican pizza which I loved. It was big enough that I ate only half and took the rest back to store in the converted mini bar.
The day ended on a perfect note when the Leafs beat the Canadiens 5-3. Looks like coming to Mont Tremblant is turning out to be a great decision. Tomorrow we’ll get to the actual skiing.
Domain St. Bernard
Mont Tremblant resort is far more than just about downhill skiing. The resort has facilities for just about every type of winter activity that you can imagine. One of these is cross-country skiing. Quebec is a cross-country skier’s paradise with dozens of venues offering thousands of kilometres of groomed and ungroomed trails in settings that are often the epitome of winter. Our purpose in coming to Mont Tremblant was principally to cross-country and today we started with Domain St. Bernard the number one spot in the area.
Unfortunately it was a gray morning and none too warm. The temperature was not a surprise as statistically January 19 is the coldest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. However, we have skied in very cold temperatures many times before and if you are dressed properly it’s usually not a problem. Besides, in Quebec there are almost always warming huts along the trails at junctions where they are most welcome.
Getting to Domain St. Bernard was a little trickier than expected – the entire area is a rabbit warren of roads going everywhere, but with the help of a vastly out of scale map I eventually found Rue St. Bernard and the ski centre a further three kilometres down a very narrow and icy road. Despite being there at the opening hour of 9:00 AM there were already a considerable number of cars in the parking lot. We found a spot, walked the short distance to the lodge, bought tickets, some hand warmers and were all set.
As is usually the case at Quebec cross-country ski domains there were a lot of very fit looking people dressed in the colours of various ski clubs. They love to ski in big groups and there was a sense of excitement in the air and they were off in a flash of scissoring skis as they almost always like to skate ski. We encountered a steady stream of these very skilled athletes throughout the day. We also encountered a lot of people our age or older who were also very proficient in both styles of skiing.
For us choosing a route was not that simple – the trail map was not the easiest to comprehend and I gathered from the information I gleaned in the lodge that a number of trails were closed. What I was looking for was a series of loops that would give us the option of deciding how far we wanted to go. This is the common practice at most of the larger domains. This did not appear to be the case at Domain St. Bernard so I chose the A1 route that was mostly a green route with some blue sections that appeared to do a circuit around Mount St. Bernard. That shouldn’t be a problem.
Things started off well. We are classic skiers and like the fact the in Quebec almost all of the trails have tracks laid out which makes the exercise easier, safer and a lot more fun. The green trail, Grand Allee, passed though a lovely pine plantation for the first little while until we came to a junction where the A1 became a blue trail. I knew from the map that this would be a descent to the La Diable river valley below. No big deal as we could keep one foot in the track and use the other as a brake if things got too hairy.
The only problem was that there were no tracks – why I have no idea. It was groomed for skate skiers so it was very fast. After a few attempts I realized there was no way I could ski this long descent with quite a few turns without picking up so much speed I would eventually go into the woods. Discretion is the better part of valour so somewhat sheepishly I took off the skis and walked down the hill. Great start. If this was their idea of a blue trail what the hell would a black be! Alison to her credit snowplowed most of the way.
Things improved at the river where we had a choice of continuing on the A1 as planned or take a diversion up the river to a bridge we could cross and make a good loop on the other side before returning to this point. Since the A1 was only 7.5 kms. in total, we opted to to take the diversion. A16 was a lovely trail with gentle up and downs that followed the course of the river for several kilometres to a warming hut beside the bridge crossing the river. As we were still getting warmed up we didn’t stop and crossed the bridge to start a loop that was green on three sides connected by a blue. Worst case scenario was that if this blue was like the first we encountered we could walk it.
The trail continued along the other side of the river and then turned inland. When we reached the blue connector it was closed. No choice but to back track to the bridge. Arriving there I definitely noticed that my groin was aching more than a bit, but surprisingly the wonky left knee was fine. We did stop at the warming hut this time for a quick snack and while there a huge group of little skiers all dressed the same arrived with their teachers/chaperones. Some seemed to be as young as three or four. Not one was complaining or seemed ready to quit. This was amazing considering that the only way to get to this point was either go down the steep trail that had humiliated us or come around the long way which was probably eight or nine kms.
You would never see this in Nova Scotia. Parents there would think it was criminal to expose a young child to hours of sub-zero temperatures in the name of communing with nature. Much better to play it safe and let them commune with the XBox while noshing on soda and potato chips – what harm could come from that?
By now I was starting to get a little worried. As we made our way back along A16 to where we had first joined it the groin ache was intensifying. From the map I knew that almost all the rest of the way was going to be on blue trails and they would be uphill. I prayed (metaphorically at least) that these upcoming blues would not be like the first one – please have tracks. Thank God, they did and were much closer to my idea of a blue trail. It was mostly uphill, but quite gently. By now the snow flurries that had been in the air all day had turned into an outright heavy snowfall, but with no wind.
When we finally arrived at the top of the ridge and the Grand Allee we stopped for photos. There was a man with a young son who was laying on the snow feeding the chickadees which were landing right on his jacket.
It wasn’t far back to the lodge. We had been out almost four hours and my body knew it. I expect to pay tomorrow.
Overall our experience at Domain St. Bernard was good, but not up to the best of other Quebec domains. For one thing there were virtually no signs of wildlife (other than the chickadees). One of the reasons we like Quebec is that you usually get to see things like grosbeaks, crossbills, redpolls and other finches that are rare back home. Another reason is that while the scenery was nice, especially along the river, it was not outstanding. Maybe my thoughts are coloured by the weather, but there are many other places I would return to before Domain St. Bernard.
OK, by now you might be thinking “Why does the title of this post refer to great cross-country skiing at Mont Tremblant?” You’ll find out in the next post when we ski the legendary Petit Train du Nord.
Back at the hotel I took the opportunity to treat my aches and pains by going to the very large outdoor hot tub I noticed on a reconnaissance of the hotel the day before. There was only one other couple and the jets were great. The only problem was that it was still snowing and although it was pretty, the snowflakes instantly evaporated on hitting the skin. It felt like a thousand tiny pin pricks. Getting out was no delight. I just don’t know how polar bear swimmers can go into freezing waters in these temperatures.
We had a very forgettable dinner that night at the loud and overpriced Le Shack which I thought was Le SH*t, but hey, everything about this place can’t be great. See you tomorrow.