I recently spent a week touring Eastern Canada's ski vacation resorts, and optimism is flowing like maple syrup.
After flying to Montreal, I drove some 500 miles, first visiting major ski centers tying into Autoroute 15 in the Laurentian Mountains, a few hours northwest of Montreal. Next came a circuit of resorts in the Eastern Townships -- also known as "Ski East" -- readily reached from Autoroute 10 in an hour to an hour-and-a-half drive east of Montreal, some 45 miles from the Vermont border.
Economic problems here and abroad, which have sparked rising costs for transportation, lodging, restaurant meals and recreation fees, apparently are not hurting Canada's reservations this season.
"We're way ahead with bookings this year compared with 1980," reported Real Charette, manager of the Gray Rocks Inn near Saint-Jovite. A ski week in the Laurentians, which can run between five and seven days, costs from $205 to $425 per person and includes breakfast and dinner, ski lessons, unlimited lift tickets, and the comforts of apre s ski.
Over the past five years -- and especially in the last two years -- a combination of rain and thaw spelled bad business for those areas without snowmaking equipment. Certainly economic concerns affecting the discretionary vacation dollar have also played a role.
"We're really a good buy for the Americans," explained David Smith of Far Hills Inn in Val Morin. "We're just a couple of hours from New York, Washington or Chicago, and the American dollar is worth close to 20 percent more than the Canadian."
Smith recently invested $500,000 in the development of an extensive cross-country skiing network for his resort. He notes that most of his clientele are between 25 and 50 years of age, and usually have two incomes.
Confidence in the future is just as evident elsewhere. In the ski area surrounding the Hotel Le Chantecler at Sainte-Adele, artificial snowmaking facilities have been expanded to serve the second of that resort's four mountains. "Le Chantecler has been booked almost solidly since last Christmas, and there's been a long waiting list," said Charles Lambert, the general manager. Bookings are good elsewhere, but many innkeepers report availability of rooms during the last three weeks of January, the "dead season" here.
It would be hard not to sense the excitement over the Nov. 1 opening of the new $10-million ski center at Morin Heights. Heralded as the "Total Ski Experience," the complex offers a huge new pavilion with restaurants, shopping facilities and ski rental and repair services. An intricate computer system is designed to ensure that adequate staff is available to prevent long lines from forming at ticket windows and at shopping counters.
A modern weather station determines when and where the resort's five miles of underground snowmaking equipment must supply the special type of artificial snow needed to supplement nature on any of the different slopes. An estimated 200,000 ski enthusiasts are expected to arrive during the first season at Morin Heights.
The Laurentians' ski season usually runs from late November to early or mid-April. While officials are convinced that the coming winter will bring an abundance of snow, their confidence is bolstered wherever snowmaking equipment is available.
"We had made so much snow that we weren't disturbed by last year's period of thaw and rain late in February. People came by charter plane from Houston and from places in Colorado, because we had the artificial snow," recalled Charette of Gray Rocks Inn.
At the neighboring resort of Station Touristique du Mont Tremblant, $26 million is being spent for new trails, the construction of additional lifts, and general improvements of the cafeteria and other facilities in anticipation of large crowds.
"Ski East," which encompasses five ski centers -- Bromont (boasting the world's largest night-skiing trail), Mont Sutton, Mont Glen, Owl's Head, and Mont Orford, got its start in the mid-'60s.
Less well known and less frequented than the Laurentians, this area enjoys an average annual snowfall of around 230 inches as against 140-160 inches in the Laurentians, and in some places the season lasts into May. As in the Laurentians, Americans average about 30 percent of all visitors. "It's not too late to make reservations, even for Christmastime booking," said Pierrette Rivest of the Mont Orford Ski Center.
A ski week package at Ski East runs from about $175 to $250 per person for five to seven nights, and includes breakfast and dinner, ski lessons and unlimited lift tickets. In addition, a ski week is interchangeable at the five ski centers. If one area lacks snow, guests may go to Bromont, which has invested $1 million in snowmaking equipment. A 24-hour reservations and snow report service (514-843-3272) in Montreal can always locate accommodations in the Eastern Townships for anyone who wants to ski, according to officials.
Montreal's Dorval International Airport offers bus service to the Laurentians and the Eastern Townships. Resort hotels provide pickup service from points in Montreal or from public transportation facilities in communities nearest them. Prior arrangement is necessary.
A final note. Most favorable currency exchange is usually obtained by purchasing Canadian travelers checks before leaving home.
For further information and snow reports, contact:
Canadian Government Office of Tourism, 1771 N St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036; (202) 785-1400
Quebec Tourism, Suite 402, 2033 M St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036; (202) 659-8990
Association Touristique des Laurentides, 1000, rue Labelle, Suite 200, Saint-Jerome, J7Z 5N6, Province de Quebec, Canada; (514) 436-8532