Story by Jamie Ross
Somehow a family ski trip has become an annual March Break tradition – not surprising, since my wife is passionate about skiing. I’m okay with that, with the tiny proviso that every year we experience someplace different, a new unique and charming locale.
This year, that would be Quebec, where winter is a season to be celebrated in toques and mitts, whether you are hitting the slopes at Mont Tremblant, cross country skiing in Gatineau Park, dog sledding at Kanatha-Aki, trying your hand (with a broom attached) at curling at the Chateau Montebello, or getting up close and personal with wildlife at Parc Omega in the Outaouais.
So it is a wintry circle trip through the south-western reaches of La Belle Province. Only 130 kilometres north of Montreal, Mont-Tremblant is a beckoning oasis carved out of the Laurentian mountain range. The “trembling mountain”, so named by the indigenous Algonquin, (and not, as my wife might try to have you believe, by the state of my shaking legs as I stand looking down the ultra-steep double black diamond run called The Edge), is the most popular ski hill in eastern Canada. With 662 acres of diverse skiable terrain, 14 lifts and an impressive 96 runs on 4 different faces, you can literally follow the sun around the mountain. Since the first chairlift was installed in 1939, Tremblant has grown into a highly regarded family-friendly ski resort, offering diverse slopes ranging from steep groomed runs to long, winding paths, like the six-kilometre Nansen. Skilled skiers and boarders will be challenged with glades on the north side’s The Edge.
Take advantage of “first tracks” and head up the mountain when the ski lift opens to see the sun rising above the peaks, casting its soft morning glow on the surrounding snow-covered mountains. Then prepare for an amazing run down, carving fresh tracks in the virgin powder. Even if you don’t ski, it’s worth a trip up the gondola to Grand Manitou, the summit lodge, for a spectacular panoramic view of Lake Tremblant and the village below. If you live on the wild side, the hill offers three separate snow parks, including the aptly named Adrenaline Park. My wild side doesn’t tempt me to perform acrobatic tricks in my skis, but rather to head to the village for a lunchtime break at the Microbrasserie La Diable for a flight of beer, chased down by a smoke meat sandwich and the best poutine in the Laurentides. I could have sampled all day, but my family soon had me back on the gondola heading to the summit.
Snuggled into the base of the mountain is the resort’s delightful pedestrian village with its narrow cobblestone streets lined with brightly coloured buildings. The slope-side village mimics an alpine ski town in France or Switzerland, with plenty of cafes, pubs, restaurants and boutique shops to keep visitors entertained. Many of the original chalets that were perched on the mountain before Mont Tremblant’s development into a resort were relocated in the village. These heritage buildings include a wooden church with steeple in the lower village, the religious haven is surrounded by an ice skating rink.
A complimentary cabriolet lift whisks you from the bottom of the village to the top, while giving you a bird’s eye view of the whole area. Vieux Tremblant is one hip, hustling and bustling place; visitors gather around the many wood-burning fire pits, stroll along the brightly lit laneways or sit out on outdoor terraces catching the setting sun’s last rays. There’s nothing more satisfying than March’s warmer days filled with spring skiing and après beverages enjoyed on open-air patios.
Those who don’t want to spend their entire time on the mountain can still be entertained by the resort’s variety of activities, which include spas, pools and family-friendly entertainment. Take a snowshoe and fondue tour, a three kilometre guided twilight trek through the snowy mountain terrain. A hearty fondue and wine dinner is served at a mid-mountain log cabin, the Refuge du Trappeur, followed by an hour-long moonlit snowshoe stagger back down to the village. If you’d prefer an activity off the mountain, Domaine St-Bernard is a pastoral paradise for cross-country skiers, with trails that follow the Rivière du Diable.
After three days of fun in Mont Tremblant, it is time to move on to other adventures on our classic Canadian March Break escape. Kanartha-Aki, meaning “guardian of the boundless earth” in Algonquin, is part nature refuge and part adventure centre, offering ice fishing, snowshoeing and a chance to mush your own team of huskies through the Quebec woods. We meet the friendly and enthusiastic huskies and then are off with an eight-dog team down the narrow winding trails. It is a surprisingly tranquil activity. Once the huskies are running there is silence, save for the creak and crunch of sled runner over the packed trail and the frosted breathing of the dogs. We stop for a break to visit the refuge’s bison herd, and then enjoy lunch at a backcountry cabin.
The Fairmont Le Château Montebello is the largest log cabin in the world , a former grand wilderness estate designed to replicate a chateau in the Swiss Alps. The massive four-sided rock fireplace in the towering lobby invites me to chill out and take a break, with its cozy armchairs, comfy couches and lobby bar serving local beer or single-malt scotches, but on a family get-away, I’ve discovered, relaxing is not an option. We are off for a lesson with the curling pro at the Montebello’s magnificent log rink. After an hour of sliding granite stones and sweeping energetically while being yelled at to “hurry-hard”- I feel like I’m ready for the Briar, or at least better equipped to clean the kitchen floor at home. We also take time to cross-country ski on the chateau’s 24 kilometre groomed trail system and to swim in the resort’s stunning pool, the largest hotel pool in North America.
No more than five minutes from the Montebello is Parc Omega , a wild animal park, where you don’t have to go searching for the wildlife, the wildlife comes looking for you. Elk peer into our vehicle’s windows asking for a tasty handout – one of the carrots that we had stocked up on at the Park House near the entry. Wolves, moose, bison, coyote, fox, deer, mountain goats and muskox are just some of the animals you will see. Originally used as a private hunting reserve, the 2,200 acre park “allows everyone the opportunity to connect with wildlife in their natural habitat,” says Park Zoologist and Director Serge Lussier. Take your time and take your camera.
Located just across the Ottawa River minutes from downtown Ottawa, Gatineau Park has one of the largest networks of cross-country ski trails in North America with over 200 kilometres of groomed runs and 45 kilometres of back-country trails. There are day shelters with wood-burning stoves, and cabins and yurts for overnight stays. This will be our final stop on our spring break road trip before crossing the Ottawa River and heading for home. So, we fuel up at the Chelsea Pub in the heart of Old Chelsea Square on delectable tasters and artisan beers, and then head out for just one more afternoon of exercise on the trails.
Quebec – where there’s nothing like a good winter adventure. I found the best beer when I made a deal with the devil in Mont Tremblant and a sweet heavenly treat when hot maple taffy was ladled onto the snow at Parc Omega’s Sugar Shack. Our accommodations included a ski-in ski-out hotel at Mont Tremblant, the grand log Chateau Montebello, and an old mill that was transformed into a charming boutique hotel, the Wakefield Mill Inn and Spa in Gatineau. The skiing was fantastic, the food exquisite, the activities exhilarating and the landscape magical. Now I need a post March Break break!
MORE ABOUT MONT-TREMBLANT
Getting There: You can fly into Mont Tremblant International Airport (a former US-Canadian Forces air base that was created in 2001 with its charming log-cabin terminal) from Montreal and both Toronto’s downtown Billy Bishop and Pearson Airports. A shuttle service connects with lodging properties in the Mont-Tremblant area – www.mtia.ca. Or you can be like me and pile your family into your SUV for an intimate, relaxing, fun-filled 500 kilometre road trip: Ottawa – Montreal – Mont Tremblant – Gatineau – Ottawa.
Accommodation: The Laurentians – The Fairmont Tremblant, at the top of the village has a great ski in, ski out location and nightly room rates during March Break start at $249 CDN. The Hotel and Spa Mont-Gabriel, nestled at the top of the Laurentian Mountains offers amazing views, with March nightly room rates starting at $140 CDN.
The Outaouais – The Chateau Montebello appears exclusive but it is very welcoming, with March nightly rates starting at $229. The Wakefield Mill Inn and Spa specializes in fine cuisine from Chef Patrick Marion. March room rates start at $180 CDN.
Planning a Trip: Visit these websites to plan your own March Break family road trip:
Tremblant Resort: tremblant.ca
Mont-Tremblant Tourism: mont-tremblant.ca