Firsthand Report: Mont Tremblant
By Lou Botta, DCSki Columnist
January 26, 2013 — From January 9-15, 2013, we enjoyed a superb vacation in Mont Tremblant, Quebec, Canada. Having visited Mont Tremblant way back in my college days in Burlington VT, a scant three hours away, I had always wanted to return to this legendary place, especially following the massive billion-dollar infrastructure improvements and the construction of the new Mont Tremblant Village under Intrawest ownership. We were all pleasantly surprised. As ski magazines continually name Mont Tremblant as the best ski destination in Eastern North America, we were able to validate it firsthand. Not only in the amount and quality of skiing, but also in the tremendous infrastructure and skier support present at the resort.
As my family needed to stop by State College to pick up my partner’s college kids and then drive up to Tremblant, a twelve-hour trip, I decided to fly to Tremblant. I don’t like driving anyway and the flight goes directly from Newark (EWR) directly to Tremblant three days a week. On other days, there are flights from Newark to Montreal and one can catch a bus to the resort. By the way, having been to this Queen of Cities in North America, exploring Montreal is a wonderful experience. Newark Airport is served both by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains.
I parked at the Hamilton Train Station just North of Trenton where parking fees are much less than at Newark, besides being safer and much less of a hassle. The NJ transit trains arrive every 15 to 20 minutes, and they’re as timely as European trains. On arrival at Newark Airport Train Station if you travel on New Jersey Transit, keep your train ticket stub handy. It is accepted as payment onboard the Newark Airport Light Rail.
The Airport Link light rail system is efficient and just a short tram away between the rail station, parking areas, and the three terminals. Porter Airlines flies out of Terminal B, so I headed that way. Going through security was a breeze, then headed to the Porter Airlines lounge. The Porter Airlines Lounge is better, more supplied and way more comfortable than even some US flag carrier first class lounges. Complimentary coffees, refreshments, cappuccino and WiFi are available in a separated lounge by their gates. And unlike many other airport waiting areas, there was no shortage of wall plugs for the high-tech gadgets. Impressive.
Boarding and departure for Mont Tremblant was uneventful and timely. En route, the day was clear and on the left one could see the slopes of Whiteface, New York, and on the right on the distance one could see the slopes of several of the Vermont ski areas. We landed In Mont Tremblant ahead of schedule, on a runway and taxiway covered with packed snow, and proceeded for the customs formalities, which were a breeze. The complimentary airport shuttles to the hotel were waiting for us and we were whisked away to our several hotels on the resort, a 20 minute ride.
As a Marriott aficionado, I had made reservations at the Marriott Residence Inn which is approximately halfway along the hilly pedestrian village. This is a wonderful facility, a block away from the Cabriolet gondola for the morning ride, and it had its own ski run leading up to the front door for the afternoon apre ski. Every morning, we were treated to a full complimentary breakfast buffet prior to leaving for the slopes. The management and staff at the hotel were absolutely superior. We had a two bedroom and loft bilevel suite on the top floor with wonderful views of the village and ski slopes above. While we were here, our refrigerator broke, and upon being advised, we had a new one by our door in less than 10 minutes along with complimentary water and refreshments. In another case, they went well above their responsibilities to ensure we got to our restaurant reservations on time. Flawless.
The hotel lends ski locks to its guests to ensure the security of the ski gear. The entire ski lock system in Mont Tremblant has been upgraded to the new type seen in many resorts with a bar that fits into a small hole into which one places a lock assembly. In addition, there are ample ski racks in the parking level of the hotel. Two underground parking levels compliment the hotel features.
There are several things to consider about Mont Tremblant, its location and its cultural placement in North America, which tourists, especially Americans, should heed. First, Mont Tremblant is in Quebec. And with it, comes a typical Franco-Canadian attitude about being attentive to the obvious. Read the ski report in the morning. If it says in the report that a ski lift is closed, and you go there, expect to be treated as if you didn’t know the obvious, especially if there is a huge sign reading “Fermé”.
Second: The official language in Quebec is French. Yes, French. Not English. Although official documents have to be bilingual according to the Canadian Constitution Act, French is the sole official language of the province. And the struggle for their cultural integrity has been a hundreds-of-years-old historical issue between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Like it or not, it is. For many if not most locals, English is a second language that may even denote historical oppression. Learn at least a few words to show the locals that you care. They’ll go to the end of the world for you. A “Bon Jour”, ça vas, Merci Beacoups, De rien, etc, will work wonders.
I came over to the customer service center the first day I got here right when they were closing, and as I saw other Americans being turned away, I spoke to them in French. I got my tickets and rental skis on the spot - and a complimentary upgrade for both my family and I for first tracks so we could ski a full hour before the rest of the customers. Respect for their culture works plenty and gets results and the Québécois have a colorful and interesting history. As a matter of fact, towards the end of my stay, I shared the 10+ minute gondola ride to the top with a stately Québécois gentleman with whom I struck a lively conversation, and upon hearing that I was a retired US military officer, he told me pridefully that just two weeks earlier, he had been at a commemoration of the first defeat of the American Army at the Battle of Quebec, him being a direct descendant of one of the Québécois fighters that routed General Montgomery and Arnold and the Continental Army from Canada.
On the resort side. Two entire towns, the New Intrawest pedestrian village and the old Mont Tremblant Village by Saint Jovite, with hundreds of shops and restaurants, from the budget-geared Columbia outlets to the uber glitzy Prada and Bogner boutiques. Dozens of upscale restaurants and perhaps even more budget-conscious typical eateries, such as a Pita Palace, a Poutinerie (a typical Québécois cholesterol bomb made with lard-fried French Fries, pork gravy and cheese - delicious but bring the Tums…), several pâtisseries, a Microbrew serving their own Belgian-style “Devil’s Brew” and a host of Quebec-infused hamburgers. Bistros, coffee shops, Beaver Tails shop (Quebec’s answer to the Beignet), pizza shops, a Brûlerie, dozens of souvenir shops and enough ski shops to outfit lower Manhattan. A casino. And a large convention center. And close to 70 lodges and hotels in addition to thousands of homes in the resort, including Hilton, Marriott and Fairmont hotels. For transportation, here is a taxi service, two bus lines that include a free resort shuttle and a bus service to Ville Mont Tremblant, this one a paid service.
Weather at Mont Tremblant: Dress warmly. Winter-time temperatures in the -20F are the rule rather than the exception. And remember you’re over 100 nautical miles to the North of the point halfway between the Equator and the North Pole, so in the dead of Winter, dawn will be after 7 a.m. and sunset will be around 4 p.m. And should there be sunspots happening, the events of Aurora Borealis are an incredible sight. Amazingly so, the week we were there we literally had a heat wave. From deep powder and unbelievable conditions, the third day the temperature rose to 37 degrees Fahrenheit with an inch and a half of rain, making the slopes slushy and wet, which then turned to sheer ice when the weather turned windy and the temperature dropped to 8 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ski operation statistics are amazing for the East. Two gondolas, one open-air Village Cabriolet (mini-gondola), five detachable quad lifts, one regular quad, two triple chairlifts, and a magic carpet. Together, they can move over 27,000 skiers per hour among four mountain faces.. Not bad. As a matter of fact, quite good. There are 95 trails, with a maximum vertical drop off 2m116 feet, for a total of 49 miles of trails. Indeed a large area.
The skiing: Intrawest’s business model is to provide for the best groomers possible. Their customer base wants that. So most of the runs will be groomed to perfection. Still, the resort is also geared to provide some amazing mogul runs and steeps. The “bunny slopes” are conspicuously segregated in one side of the mountain, allowing for intermediate and expert skiers to be able to ski at speed in over 80% of the terrain. Quality of snow is usually awesome. Much of the resort gets enough snow that snowmaking is reserved for the lower elevations, but when needed, almost 1,100 snow guns can blanket the area with snow. Four mountain faces with enough Black Diamonds to suit any expert skier.
After arrival and settling down at the Marriott Residence Inn, I ran down (it was closing time) a little over a block to the Chalet de Voyageurs where the customer service counter is located, retrieved my five-day ski pass, got the reservation tickets for the high-performance rental skis, and was issued the first tracks courtesy passes. Then I took the Cabriolet village gondola to the top to the Centre Aventure to retrieve my rental skis, after which I walked down to the hotel to drop the equipment and get ready for dinner. Some of my guests had just arrived so we had a great dinner at an Asian restaurant before walking the village, returning home, lighting the fireplace and taking a nap until the rest of my family showed up at 2:00 a.m. Then it was a short night sleep until it was time to wake up.
Morning came way too quickly. After an ample breakfast in the dining room solarium, we got our equipment and headed to the Cabriolet gondola for the lift up to the top of the village where we boarded the Express Gondola. Absolutely no line for first tracks for the 2,100-foot ascent to the top of the mountain, where we promptly got lost. The top of Mont Tremblant is perhaps not as well signed as it should be… Actually, the signing of where to go is, in my opinion, quite poor. Recognizing that, at least six well-recognizable resort guides were stationed at the exit point of the gondola next to a huge map directing traffic. Which is an absolute necessity because at first track time, not all the lifts are operating and one can get stuck somewhere on the mountain base with no way to return to the top.
On an absolutely bluebird day, we decided to first try one of the long green runs to familiarize ourselves with the terrain and snow conditions, stretch our legs and finish waking up. We took an exquisitely groomed run, Nansen Haut (Upper Hansen) and Nansen Bas (Lower Hansen) back to the Express Gondola. Back to the top, we then descended down a network of intermediate trails back to the Express, and once on top, the rest of the resort was then open. We headed down a wonderfully prepared but steep black diamond run, Grand Prix, down to the high-speed TGV quad for a trip back to the top.
The rest of the day was a mixture of blue runs and steep black diamonds, including a spectacularly beautiful connection to a mogul-filled glade via what appeared to be a snow tunnel. The Northern part of Mont Tremblant is doted with spectacular views of the Laurentian Mountains. We took the glades down a beautiful blue run on the Northern face leading to a long ride on the Duncan Express high-speed quad back to the top, then back down a quad-bursting top-to-bottom Geant run, a Black Diamond. Up again and then back halfway down to the Lowell Thomas triple chair via the terrain park, then back down for well-deserved hot chocolate at the La Fourchette Du Diable cafeteria. It is worth noting that the Northern side of Tremblant hosts the parking lots for the daily skiers coming from Montreal, so there was a good amount of skier traffic. Still, the two high-speed quads made the wait minimal.
One of the nice features about skier logistics in Tremblant is that although families with lunch coolers are allowed, they are segregated to specific areas in the lodges, frequently in the lower floor of the lodges, allowing plenty of seating space for everyone else and there are plenty of cubicles and shelf space for the boxes. I had to reminisce about the mayhem of some of the Poconos ski areas where literally every bench and table on the lodge is taken over by backpacks, coolers and clothing with people who “reserve” their benches and tables, go skiing for the day and allow for no seating for anyone else during lunch. Tremblant has an optimum business model…
After our chocolate break, we continued back on the Duncan Express to the top, and with our legs warmed up, continued down the black diamonds on the North side; Superieur, leading back to Geant, Devil’s River, and the double-black diamond Boiling Kettle. Then back to the massive Le Grand Manitou cafeteria on top of the mountain. This cafeteria has it all. A ski accessories shop, an Asian bistro, a Quebecois bistro, an “American line”with hamburgers, hot dogs and french fries, an Italian section, and moreover, a separate Expresso bar and Creperie. Despite not being cheap, it was an awesome place to take lunch. All in the midst of incredible vistas of the Laurentian Mountains and nearby ski areas. Done with lunch, we decided to once again try the mogul-filled glades leading to the Expo Express quad on the North side, then back to the “hard blue” Duncan Bas to the Duncan Express up to the top, after which we crossed over to the South side. We then ended our day with a very leisurely five-mile stretch down the Nansen Haut and Nansen Bas.
Considering this was still early January and given that Mont Tremblant is way North of the halfway point between the Equator and the North Pole, sunset comes way early. The slopes at Tremblant close at 3:30 PM and by 4:30 it is just about dark outside. We walked the village and shopped away, later settling down for a homecooked dinner in the hotel. Celebrating Quebec, I made chicken blanquettes with fresh herbs and a wine infused roux, accompanied by scalloped potatoes and haricots verts, which we washed down with a wonderful bottle of British Columbia Herder Estate Pinot Noir from Similkameen Valley.
Next morning started in the single digits and warmed up quickly. We ate our breakfast leisurely quickly and proceeded to ensure we got on one of the initial First Tracks gondola cars. We were successful, and were treated to some amazingly well groomed runs. Our first run was a spotless Beauvallon Haut trail continued onto Beauvallon Bas to the Flying Mile Express, remaining in this spectacular terrain until close to lunch time. Several blues and black diamonds radiate from the top of the Flying Mile to make these runs all expeditious, enjoyable, and almost totally devoid of crowds. On the subject of crowds, we noticed the amazing discipline and skier/boarder courtesy prevalent in the guests. Skiing is as much a part of the culture in the Laurentians as Poutine, Raclette, or Beaver Tails. There were no attendants directing the skier flow, yet there was no one cutting in line. Amazing courtesy among all. And of course, every time we boarded the gondola, we struck up a conversation with Quebecois people who were asking about the weather in Florida… Oh well…
Following a hearty lunch of ham and cheese crepes and hot chocolate, we turned our attention back to the Northern side of the resort, this time on another side we had not skied before. The high-speed quad Edge covers advanced terrain and the skier can either enjoy double-diamond glades or a death-wish lift line run. We stayed on the single black diamond Action run for a couple of times, before transitioning to the Lowell Thomas triple back to the top of the main mountain. From there, we took several advanced runs to the Le Soleil high-speed quad through some challenging single black diamonds: Tobogan, Tiguidou, and Laurentienne.
As I wanted to do some more sourvenir shopping, I split from the rest of the family bit early and took the other gondola, the Casino Express. The base of Le Soleil and the top of the Casino Express Gondola are about 150 feet from each other and walking distance from the Mont Tremblant Casino, which we would visit during our trip. Boarding the Casino Express Gondola affords amazing views of the old Mont Tremblant Village, the new Intrawest Village, and the lake below surrounded by snow-covered mountains. It ends right by the top of the Cabriolet Gondola where I skied to the front door of our hotel. After sourvenir shopping, I stopped at the expansive grocery store for supplies. Well, I first took a small detour by the Diable Microbrew at Mont Tremblant, featuring La Bière du Diable (The Devil’s Beer) and enjoyed an exquisite stout.
Dinner this time was Italian, pasta, free-range beef and tomato sauce, vegetables and a Mission Hill Okanagan Valley Cabernet that was superb. And local pastries from the patisserie.
Our third day at Mont Tremblant started with a virtual heat wave at the resort. Temperature went up to well over 30, virtually unheard of in the Laurentians during Winter, when sub-zero weather is the rule. The visibility plunged to near zero as clouds engulfed the entire mountain early in the morning, which dissipated at the lower altitudes as the day went on. We still headed over as early as possible as the forecast seemed ominous with wind, rain and fog. After getting our ski legs back for the morning on a corduroy blue run back to the gondola, we concentrated on the challenging terrain surrounding the Le Soleil quad as it was more protected against the wind. We spent much of the day there, and took a respite in the beautiful refuge, a quaint log cabin nestled by the black diamond run Tiguidou. This locale is off the beaten path and a welcome break off the black diamonds and double blacks on that side of the mountain. Amazingly so, we were the only people there and had the full run of the place. We did notice that as the day got warmer and rainier and the temperature hit 35 degrees, the crowds disappeared. For us it was just like a nice day in the Poconos, for the locals it was probably pure hell.
After several more runs down Le Soleil side, we called it a day and headed home for a stroll down the Village, a couple of servings of the Devil’s Beer with some superb hors d’oeuvres, and to get ready for dinner. We visited one boutique with some of the most amazing and colorful Bogner ski outfits and I’ll confess I was absolutely tempted to splurge on one of these amazing designer ski suits. But reason and my family dragging me out of the store prevailed. We also visited the Whistler Signature store, but we were disappointed at the selection of sourvenirs. However, I did splurge at the Smith Optical Store with new OTG goggles that have a battery operated fan to prevent fogging.
Our dinner that night was at the Altitude Restaurant atop the Mont Tremblant Casino. To get there, a complimentary shuttle leaves the Mont Temblant Village at predetermined times and returns in kind. This is an upscale venue with a terrific menu and outstanding service. Succulent Prime Rib, washed down by another Okanagan Valley wine. The avant-garde decor of the Altitude Restaurants complimented their epicurean delights. We then followed down the stairs.
The next day I was left alone with two other friends as the rest of the family had to depart on the way to their college destinations. Not only did we get a later than usual start, but the “heat wave” of the previous day turned into a deep freeze and virtually the entire resort’s 95 trails were sheets of ice. Upon leaving the gondola on top, we were informed that there were only about five trails open. The groomers were meticulously breaking the ice and turning the crud into beautifully groomed corn. This continued until way past closing time. Not wasting time, we started down the interminably long green run of Nansen Haut, which had undergone a thorough grooming. After about two runs down the Nansen Haut and Bas to the gondola, we transitioned to the Flying Mile Express to enjoy the freshly groomed runs and from the top of the Flying Mile lift, we could see the grooming progress. Slowly but inexorably, the groomers kept on going up and down the entire resort, including the steep slopes of Kandahar and McCulloch to render the slopes skiable for the rest of the day. Every time we went to the Le Grand Manitou, we could see more open indicator lights on the slope electrical board.
As the North side opened up, we transitioned to the Duncan Express to enjoy the newly groomed slopes leading to the Duncan and Expo Express lifts, then having lunch at the La Fourchette du Diable on the North side base. Then a ski patroller told us they were about to open up the Kandahar and McCulloch steeps, so we immediately went there. The two very steep runs, totally groomed, made for stupendous skiing. And we were about the only people on those slopes. We skied those until our legs could barely hold us and then headed back home to eat our homecooked leftovers and pack for the trip back home.
Despite the inclemently warm weather we experienced on one of our days on the mountain, Mont Tremblant is definitely worth the visit. It is even more so if one combines it with a couple of days stay in Montreal, perhaps vying with Buenos Aires for the title of the most European city in North America. We will return.
About the Author
While actually born in the tropics (Cuba), Lou grew up in New England and went to College in Vermont, where he initially took up skiing. He then embarked on a twenty-two year Air Force piloting career that took him to over 50 countries. He has skied in Europe and America (both North and South). His second career as a senior officer with the Federal Government spanned thirteen years and in 2010, Lou retired to pursue a more leisurely life style. To read other articles by Lou, click here.
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Bravo - posted by JimK
January 28 at 10:14 am
Outstanding report Lou. Very informative attention to detail on many of the subtle logistical and ancillary things that make a fine ski trip come together.