by Edward Wilkinson Latham

Porter Airlines & Winkreative

re:porter Magazine-Issue 12

View PDF

With their pristine slopes, bijou boutiques, hearty bistros and pamper parlours, the Laurentians are a magnet for thrill-seekers, urban escapists and spa junkies alike.

There is a romantic joie de vivre about flying upcoun- try to rural Québec during the winter months.You can leave the concrete urban maze of the city for the white alpine vistas, chalets, ski slopes, spas and some après-ski time with that special some- one beside a roaring fire. Just over an hour’s flight with Porter from Toronto, Québec’s stunning alpine region, the Laurentians, is the perfect winter geta- way. For an amorous and adventurous weekend fla- voured with French-Canadian Nordic chic, don your fur-trimmed overcoat and snow boots and head to the mountains to practice your French. Named after the chain of mountains that runs along this northern ledge of the Canadian Shield, the Laurentians are over 20,000 square kilometres of rugged, stunning and largely forested terrain, dotted with resorts, small towns and a selection of charm- ing villages. Long regarded as the finest ski location in eastern North America, it has been the adventure playground for Montréalers for decades, as well as for US outdoor enthusiasts from neighbouring Maine, New York and Vermont. International visitors from as far away as Asia and Australia arrive clad in fleece and duck down at La Macaza International Airport; a large, log-framed chalet construction with wood fires that quickly get any winter skeptic in the mood. From there it’s a short 15-minute drive to Mont Tremblant, comprising two mountains and three villages, each with a unique appeal.

The Resort Village sits on the banks of Lac Trem- blant Nord, and, from a distance, the dense collec- tion of Québécois-style rooftops and the backdrop of white mountains gives the complex the appearance of an alpine kingdom. Up close, the pedestrian vil- lage at the base of the slopes houses hotel chains, condos and an abundance of boutiques, bars and eateries, supplying visitors with everything they could desire and plenty of what they don’t need but jolly well fancy. Imagine a miniature candied Switzerland offer- ing play, pleasure and pampering. Simply step out of your bindings and head into the nearest restaurant or bistro. For the heartier appetite, the bar and grill menus advertise “bigger, thicker and steakier” offer- ings, while chocolate shops, crêperies, pizza and poutine shacks abound for between-meal grazing. One need only shuffle back to one’s hotel for a much- needed spa treatment, or perhaps visit the Aquaclub La Source in the centre of the pedestrian village, where you can swap your ski suit for your birthday suit to enjoy a steaming outdoor whirlpool. For log-cabin-style grandeur and convenience the Fairmont Hotel couldn’t be closer to the slopes. Taste- fully decorated rooms are furnished with four-poster beds and Hudson Bay blankets, while customers on the Fairmont Gold floor get a private concierge and no doubt plenty of chocolates on the pillow before bedtime. Together with the restaurant, lounge, café- bistro, spa and health club, an argument could be made for not ever leaving the Fairmont at all.

For true powderhounds, the resort’s slopes offer some serious gradient, rising to an elevation of 875 metres with 654 acres of skiable terrain, maintained by more than 1.000 snow canons and 14 express ski lifts able to handle a frightening 27,000 skiers per hour. If that’s not quite the scene for you, then simply rent a car and in no time you’ll discover the quieter side of Laurentian slopes and an abundance of local culture. A short distance away is Mont Trem- blant village, located alongside Lake Mercier. Pic- turesque and popular with wealthy powder-loving baby boomers and well-to-do outdoor lifestylers, the winding road through the village is lined with B&Bs, inns, smart boutiques, galleries and fine restaurants. The retail store that started this transformation, over 30 years ago, is Boutique Daniel Lachance. It has a reputation for being one of the premier winter outfit- ters in North America, stocking the finest ski equip- ment, gizmos and clothing brands that money can buy. Customers can have their skis tuned while they wait, and in the boot department they have equip- ment that stretches boots and custom fits inserts with heating devices to ensure comfort and warmth. Employees are all ski experts and impart their sport- ing passions to customers along with advice on the area’s local attractions and must-see events, one of which is surprisingly the Circuit Mont Tremblant, a Formula 1 racetrack very close to the shop. If you’re up for it, come back anytime from April to October and sign up at the Jim Russell Racing School. Jim Russell will help you test your mettle on a course that has been driven by the likes of Mario Andretti, Michael Schumacher and Jack Villeneuve.

If a true wilderness experience is what you seek, you can’t beat Mont Tremblant National Park, Québec’s largest protected area. Accessible all year round, it beguiles visitors with lofty mountain peaks, waterfalls, lakes and the picturesque winding Diable River. Home to scores of wolves, moose and deer, the park rewards nature lovers with something very special, particularly those who take a day or two to explore and utilize one of the overnight winterized cabins to truly appreciate the grand, crisp silence. Back in civilization, a mere 20-minute drive south on Highway 15, is Val David, a village of roughly 5,000 people that attracts both artists and adven- ture-sports enthusiasts. In the summer months it hosts a number of festivals including 1001 Pots, exhibiting the creative work of ceramicists from across North America, while the Parc Dufresne is the most popular rock-climbing destination in east- ern Canada. Bikers, hikers and cross-country skiers flock through the area via Le P’tit Train du Nord, a multi-use recreational former rail trail that runs for 200 kilometres between Saint-Jérôme and Mont- Laurier. A number of excellent eateries dot this pretty village, from the vegan Kirlian Café and popular bistro Mouton Noir, to the sophisticated and attrac- tive evening spot Les Zèbres. Found at the entrance of the village, Les Zèbres’ modern cabin building and Zen-like rock garden opened in 2006 to serve a weekly menu of local meats and seafood from renewable and controlled resources. A great selec- tion of appetizing tapas and the eclectic wine menu consisting mostly of organic private imports comple- ment all courses from savoury to sweet.

Apart from the pleasures gastronomiques, another treat to be fully taken advantage of in the area is the abundance of spas, especially gratifying in the frosty winter months. The Polar Bear Club in Piedmont is an award-winning Nordic spa and the first of its type in the Laurentians. Open for pampering 365 days a year, you can lose yourself in the pleasures of the riv- erside cabin complex with saunas, an array of health and beauty treatments, massage therapies and out- door bathing. If you like your accommodation, dining, and spa to be under one roof, the Auberge et Spa Beaux Rêves in Sainte-Adèle combines all comforts and the means to rid yourself of stress and toxins.

Should you thrive on the more indulgent gastro- nomic things in life, however, the great Laurentian food trail extends south to Saint-Sauveur-des- Monts, a popular and well-to-do village much loved by weekend Montréalers. This picturesque village bustling with bistros, bars and boutiques also boasts excellent ski slopes and is the ultimate destination for night skiing. The main action hap- pens along Principale Street, where restaurants in all manner of flavours can be found, from Montréal smoked meat to British fish and chips. There seems to be something for everyone here, but highlights include La Bohème’s warm intimate atmosphere and French-inspired fare made with local ingredi- ents, as well as 40˚ Northh Steakhouse and Bar, a sophisticated carnivore’s pleasure palace where meat is air-dried for three to four weeks to achieve ultimate flavour and tenderness.

Back on the Principale strip, the selection of stores ranges from high-end kitchen shops, stationers and boutiques to others that stock cheap crystal unicorns and novelty hats. For quiet winter reflection, a coffee and a cake fix is ideal at master baristas Brûlerie des Monts, who stock a wide range of house-roasted beans, including Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee that goes for $10 an espresso. The selection of cakes – chocolate marble cheesecake, suprême de noisettes – are so good they could be eaten for after- noon tea and perhaps again on the sly for breakfast. After all, at this time of year winter outdoor experts regularly recommend consuming more calories, and one should never argue with the experts. Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts is B&B country, that genre of accommodation wherein many distinctive surprises await. Le Petit Clocher is a five-star B&B that overlooks the village and is happily free of pot- pourri. A former monastery, it now has seven rooms each decorated with regency-style wallpaper and poufy pillows, while the main floor has a piano and constant roaring fire plus an abundance of antiques and collectibles. The Chapel Room is especially pleas- urable, with a four-poster bed that requires a running leap to mount and a bathroom, once the monastery’s confessional, now fully outfitted to cleanse the body and likely the spirit too. An ideal overnight stay and a fitting end to a weekend’s adventure in the Lauren- tians; the perfect year-round alpine pleasure garden for bon viveurs and thrill-seekers alike.