An hour and a half north of Montreal, the so-called Whistler of the East boasts a skiing experience to back up its talk.
I love the metric system. I love those triple-digit speed limit signs that trick me into believing I'm chewing up highway at a buck ten, impetuously flipping the bird to the highway patrol as I careen around corners, leaving long, arcing strips of spun rubber. I love the Celsius temperature readings that make me feel incredibly rugged and hardy in the face of crippling cold, like an Alaskan bushman. But mostly, I love centimeters, and their ability to turn a modest accumulation into an epic powder day. Think about it: What sounds more impressive -- five measly inches of fresh or 12 and a half centimeters? Friends, that's a powder day!
So I have to admit, I was already feeling a sort of fondness for Mont Tremblant as I set out on an early April day at the tail end of an epic Northeast season. It was a fondness that was not tempered by the flat, frigid landscape that flashed by (at 110!) as Montreal disappeared from my rearview mirror.
Of course, Tremblant's reputation helped allay any worries. Having sunk C$800 mil into the village and mountain infrastructure (lifts, trails, grooming, you name it) since taking over in 1991, Intrawest crows long and loud about the numerous "best-of" awards Tremblant has garnered. The resort is widely trumpeted as "the Whistler of the East." Just home from my first Whistler visit, I was particularly dubious, but I was not about to let this skepticism temper my high hopes.
Early the next morning, I met Jean-Sébastien from the PR department for a crack at the mountain. "Jean-Sébastien?" I asked stupidly. "Is that your first and last name?"
"Non," he said. "Just my first. Is French name, you know?"
"Oui, oui," I said. Actually, I didn't, but I sure as hell wish I'd been so quick on my feet, because next to the fact that they measure their snowfall in centimeters, the unabashed Frenchness of Tremblant is the most charming facet of the resort. Nearly everywhere I went I was greeted with a cheerful "Bonjour!" At the coffee shop, the proprietor did not (cynics might say would not -- but what difference does it make?) speak English, so we made do with body language and a few butchered stabs at French on my part. I suppose I should have been embarrassed. Instead, I felt energized by the exchange, as if I were bargaining over the price of yak fat in some exotic land, and not just buying bagels in Canada.
After a clear, cold night, the morning sun was shining bright, and it was downright balmy -- nearly five degrees Celsius. It was a Monday, and Jean-Sébastien was beside himself with his good luck. "I have the greatest job in the world, to ski on a day like this," he said, smiling hugely and leaning back into his good fortune as if it were a feather bed.
Mont Tremblant is not a huge mountain. Topping out at 3,001 feet, it offers 2,131 feet (68,930 centimeters!) of lift-serviced drop. Still, Tremblant diverts attention from its modest stature with engaging trails that flit across the mountain as they wend their way down. I became particularly attached to Ryan Haut and Ryan Bas, a pair of narrow black-diamond runs on the south side. Tremblant has trails lacing the north and south sides of the mountain. The north side is a bit of a prize in that it doesn't draw as much skier traffic and is home to some fine terrain. It is not, however, home to much sunshine, and the ungroomed terrain I was craving remained a slab of frozen granular during my visit. Frozen granular or not, the diversity and number of trails (92) on what is essentially a small mountain was impressive by any standard.
Jean-Sébastien skied with me until noon before returning to work. Although the sun was shining, the temperature creeping upward, and the corn snow growing creamier by the minute, he was too astounded at the juicy bone life had tossed him that morning to be disappointed. He began to speak as we parted, but I beat him to it: "Merci beaucoup," I said, grabbing his gloved hand and shaking it, repressing the urge to say "eh."
That afternoon, I amused myself on the south side, bouncing off the silky-soft bumps of Grand Prix and Zig-Zag. Not once did I wait in a lift line. Later, I hopped on a chair with Max, a barrel-chested real estate developer from Toronto. We chatted about skierly things: the fine weather (I had long before shed my jacket and swapped goggles for sunglasses), the great snow, and the fantastic year we'd had.
"Ahh, Tremblant," Max said, as we neared the top. Though he is from Ontario, he managed to convey that wonderfully reflective French tone. I waited for him to continue, but apparently he felt those three syllables sufficiently made his point. And he was right.
That evening, I went in search of Tremblant's famed nightlife, which is rumored to be rather rollicking, aided, perhaps, by the generous alcohol content of Canadian beer. Alas, it was Monday, late in the season, so I would have to make do with a couple of beers and a burger in a quiet pub. Afterward, I stepped back into the clear, cold night and began walking up the cobbled main drag of the village to my hotel. I was alone, just like I had been alone on many of the trails that day, skiing in that carefree, impulsive way that's only possible when you own the slopes. This, in and of itself, was enough to convince me that Tremblant is not "the Whistler of the East." And I saw no reason to be anything but comforted by that fact.
Mont Tremblant, Quebec
Getting there: By car, Tremblant is 1.5 hours from Montreal, 7 hours from Boston, and 7.5 hours from New York.
Lodging Reservations: 800-461-8711; www.tremblant.com