Nouveau Tremblant

In a village dense with fun, skiing isn't always the primary attraction.
East, Feb 2005

Editor's Note, October 2009: The following story first appeared in February, 2005. Since then, the construction of the Versant Soleil village is well under way, anchored by Loto-Quebec's new Casino de Mont-Tremblant. Also, the commuter trail mentioned in the opening paragraphs does indeed  have a name: Voyageur.

My favorite trail at Tremblant, Que., is pitched at perhaps seven degrees. Not only is it nearly flat, it's narrow. And it's frequently crowded-with other skiers, but also with people strolling right down the middle, chatting, walking dogs, toting shopping bags. It doesn't even appear to have a name, which is silly, because in my opinion it's one of the best designed runs in North America. It deserves a name.

As you may have guessed, it's not exactly a ski trail-or at least not just a ski trail. It's the ribbon of skiable, walkable snow that winds down through pedestrian-only Tremblant Village. It starts where the ski slopes end, at the top of the village. It ends a quarter-mile below, where arriving skiers leave their cars behind. No matter where you stay in the village, you can ski from the slopes to within steps of your lodging-at day's end, or for lunch, or just because your 10-year-old "really has to go." Getting back up is similarly easy. From the base of the village, an open-air gondola soars above the rooftops, transporting its occupants back to the ski trails.

The convenience of ski-in/ski-out accommodations is nothing new, but it's safe to say that Tremblant does it better than most resorts, clearly having thought things through before undertaking the transformation of this once dog-eared Quebec day-area 90 minutes north of Montreal. At so many resorts, "slopeside" means quiet, lifeless condos strung scattershot alongside the trails, attempting to offer seclusion and serenity but rarely succeeding. Tremblant says the hell with serenity and gives you action-a virtual city neighborhood, festive, crowded and satisfyingly dense with activity. The fact that it's all authentically French seals the deal. The skiing isn't what you'd find in the Alps, but as has been said and written many times, a trip to Tremblant is the next best thing to a trip to France.

[NEXT ""]From my home in Burlington, Vt., it's about three hours to Tremblant-across the border, through flat farmlands along the Richelieu River, through Montreal and then back into the mountains. My wife and I listen to CBC on the radio and torture our daughter Lilly, 10, with road-sign French lessons. A record-setting high is stalled over the East as we roll north through the Laurentians. For days the skies will be cloudless and the temperatures will be cold, as they often are at Tremblant, but not unmanageably so.

The Laurentians are similar to the Greens of Vermont: a little smaller, but tightly packed and rugged. Tremblant itself rises up from a good-size lake, one of several that add visual interest to the region. Across the lake is a scattering of the restaurants and inns of the "old" Tremblant, before its acquisition by mighty Intrawest Corp. Nearby is the downtown of Ste.-Jovite, where you can shop for groceries or hardware or have lunch among the locals.

When we arrive at Tremblant Village, there is only momentary confusion about how to access our hotel when we can't actually drive to it. (The garage entrance is around back.) We check in and quickly head back out, eager to explore the village. It's our first trip here, and we've heard so much about it, even among folks who have their pick of Vermont resorts.

Tremblant is frequently described as "Disney-esque." By that people mean fake. But as we explore the narrow lanes lined with shops and streaming with people, I'm inclined to disagree. Yes, there's a cohesive architectural style to the new construction: stuccoed facades, iron railings, colorful metal roofs. But the effect is pleasing, and it is no less "real" than a mishmash of styles. Much more important, Intrawest hasn't forced out the independent restaurants, bars and shops, which lends an authentic vitality and gives the resort an eclectic appeal that's missing at other planned resort villages-and certainly at Disney World.

[NEXT ""]We'll see little of Lilly when we're not skiing. Two of her buddies are here, o, by prearrangement, and the three 10-year-olds are just old enough to cruise the village by themselves with the consent of their ever-cautious mothers. They've smuggled their own U.S. currency into the country, which they add to what they can wheedle out of their parents-all the more to immediately and indiscriminately squander in the gift and candy shops. Lilly, the animal lover, comes back with a purchase we're not sure she's thought all the way through-a strip of animal pelt dyed vivid blue and fashioned into a stole. It looks like fox. There's a paw at one end. Do we declare this at customs? Otherwise, the exotic candy is fascinating to the kids, and the whole experience is a treat for them. They gain confidence making their way in an environment that's distinctly foreign, but where everyone's nice and there's always English to fall back on.

It's the same for me: Words learned in high school French classes start to come back. Especially the menu-French. With kids in tow, we end up at La Pizzatéria two of our four nights, but the pizza is terrific, and we can linger over our coffees while the kids roam the vicinity. And if you expect the quality of the restaurants to be superior because you're immersed in French culture, you won't be disappointed. Even the lodge food is good.

We spend another of our four evenings having dinner with friends from Burlington at Le Sommet de Neige, at the top of the village near the lifts. Real estate values appear to increase as you ascend the hill, and Le Sommet, a recent addition, is quiet and luxurious, with big, richly appointed suites overlooking the village.

Our fourth evening is spent with another Burlington couple, Michel, a Montreal native who plays hockey with me, and his wife, Diane. They own a condo here-one of the hundreds within walking distance of the village-so Michel picks the restaurant, La Savoie, a warm, rustic fondue/raclette house near the base of the village. It's excellent, and when the check comes, I begin calculating the tip as one would in America. Then Michel, with mild French-Canadian indignation, takes it from me and strips out all the taxes before figuring a considerably lower tip. He assures us it's customary, but I still have a hard time making eye contact with the waitress.

[NEXT ""]After dinner, we trudge with Michel and Diane back to their condo, 10 minutes' walk along a groomed nordic trail. The night is cold and clear, and the snow squeaks in rhythm to our hurried steps. Their condo, a spacious, multistory contemporary affair with fireplaced living room and views of the slopes, has been a pleasure to own, says Michel, and a good investment.

As for the skiing at Tremblant, it's good. It's not why you drive this far north, passing Stowe and Jay Peak, but its 2,116 vertical feet are steep enough in places, and there's ample snowmaking (natural snowfall is only 150 annual inches) to make it enjoyable. Crowding can be an issue, especially at day's end, when everyone funnels down to the village. But its multiple peaks and ridges are fun to explore, and the views are beautiful.

Tremblant has a frontside, called Versant Sud, with wide, well-groomed cruisers terminating at the village; a backside, Versant Nord, with more adventurous terrain; and Versant Soleil, a collection of gently pitched runs winding through hardwood forests to a secluded base area. We love the latter for its undeveloped feel and the way its trails descend through relative wilderness to a base area that's nothing but a lift corral for the ride back up. Only later do we learn it's ground zero for the next phase of development at Tremblant, which will be nothing short of massive.

After 13 years in Intrawest's hands, the existing village is complete, and Tremblant is poised to expand aggressively. Buttressed by the kind of government boosterism that's unimaginable in the U.S., there are plans to invest Can $1 billion, with $95 million of it coming from the taxpayers. That will create two new villages. The first, at Versant Soleil, will be oriented toward convention business, with 1,500 condo-hotel units. Construction began in August. The second, at Versant Nord, will have a more rustic, family-oriented feel, with 1,000 condo-hotel units and 500 residential units, scheduled for completion in 2015. Skiable terrain will go from 480 to 1,000 acres-roughly the size of Killington. The resort's capacity will leap from 12,000 skiers per day to 20,000, and its year-round visitor total is expected to rise to 4.5 million, more than 10 times the number of visitors in 1991, when Intrawest acquired Tremblant.

It's a far cry from the Tremblant of old, and some fans worry that it's too much. The trick will be to re-create, in Tremblant's new villages, the charisma and diversity of its original. But if track record is any indication, there's reason to believe that Intrawest can pull it off.