As I pushed off the ski run at the summit of Quebec's Tremblant, I suddenly could not see. I chalked it up to a common skiers' predicament -- goggle fog. But easy-to-swipe mist was not the problem: The air was so cold that my breath had frozen on contact, transforming into ice crystals that adhered to my goggles as stubbornly as any ice I've hacked off a car windshield. As I struggled down the mountain, I started to regret my brave stab at skiing in conditions that had kept nearly everyone else sleeping in or sipping a cafe latte back at the village bakery.
The ski report that morning had not lied. "Good day," the chipper voice had said, before going on to give a 20 kilometer-per-hour wind speed and minus-29-degree temperature. But that's Celsius, I thought, hopeful that the conversion to Fahrenheit would make it much warmer.
Nope. Minus-29 is the equivalent of our minus-20; 20 kph is about 12 mph. Combined, that's a minus-43 Fahrenheit wind chill.
I'd heard a few horror stories about frigid temps here in January, when the average high is 23 and the low 6, and I'd deliberately put off my ski vacation until mid-March. So much for that strategy.
But I was not going to wimp out. Layers were the answer: long underwear, heat warmers in gloves and boots, ski mask, ear muffs, three-layer coat. When I finally pushed open the hotel door, I inhaled air so cold that it felt as if someone had punched me in the chest, hard.
After a two-minute ride on the open-air gondola called Le Cabriolet that transports skiers from parking lots and hotels to the base of the mountain, I tranferred to the eight-person Express Gondola (which I had to myself). Nine minutes later, I was at the 2,871-foot summit.
The upside of skiing when the temperature is minus-20? No lift lines.
Situated in the Laurentian Mountains about 90 minutes north of Montreal, Tremblant boasts the highest summit in Quebec. It's also the largest ski resort in Quebec, with 94 trails and 13 lifts. While there are some who come just for the skiing, the resort and surrounding villages draw those who want to experience a more European style of winter recreation. The French influence is felt not just in the accents of the locals, but also in the fine French restaurants and tempting bakeries. The skiing is good, but the ambiance is a big part of the appeal.
After my first ill-fated run, I took the high-speed quad chair back to the summit -- but this time I snapped off my skis and entered the Grand Manitou shopping and restaurant complex. I lingered over a cup of java, hoping that the rising sun would warm the slopes. Then, screwing up my courage, I headed for an easy green trail called Le Crete before veering onto the Beauvallon Haut intermediate cruiser. But I was still icing up.
On the chairlift back to the summit, two grizzled French Canadians advised me to move to the mountain's North Side, which actually faces more east and gets the morning sun. I was willing to try anything.
I started with the green P'Tit Bonheur run, then got a little more aggressive on the blue Beauchemin Haut blue. So far, so good. The runs were empty, the lift lines nonexistent, the snow conditions fine, and my goggles had not iced up. Grooming was not as extensive as I'd expected, but perhaps this was to insure that the few-inches-deep layer of snow was not scraped off to expose the underlying ice.
For a couple of hours, I stuck to the North Side, content to explore the easy greens that meander through the trees and the forgiving wide blue cruisers that made me feel as if I can ski fairly well. Looking down from the lifts, I was entertained by the handful of hot-dogging snowboarders in the terrain park and the few experts carving up the mogul-filled double-black-diamond Dynamite trail. Both the north and south sides of the mountain are laid out intuitively, with green easy trails on one side, blue intermediates in the middle and black advanced on the other side, which made it easy to decide which way to head.
Curious about the long blue runs that edge the glade skiing in the Soleil area, I eyed the trail map. During a quick chairlift discussion, two teenage snowboarders assured me I'd have no trouble with Soleil's Franc Sud, Toboggan and Tapecul cruisers. "Follow us," they yelled. A cautious skier in the best of conditions, I quickly lost them, but the kids were right. The blue runs of Soleil were just my speed: no moguls, with the right amount of curves and turns.
The next morning I awakened early, eager to try out a strategy mapped out for me by the servers at one of the village restaurants the night before. Hearing that I am not an accomplished skier, they had instructed me to take the TGV lift, look to the left at the black-diamond Grand Prix run and, if it was groomed, to go for it. I discussed that approach with one of the mountain guides. He confirmed that the run had been groomed, so I made the leap, discovering that even an intermediate skier can handle at least one black-diamond run at Tremblant.
With no lift lines, I covered lots of ground in a few hours. Little things, such as chairlift shelves where you can place your goggles or gloves, and the helpful guides, who shift so effortlessly from French to English, helped civilize the extreme cold.
As the temperature rose to 23 degrees and people began getting off work, short lift lines began to form. Time to do a little shopping.
One of the raps against Tremblant, which is owned by ski resort giant Intrawest, is that its several-block-long pedestrian village, while designed to look like a town in France, is a Disneyesque tourist trap.
It would be easy to side with the purists. The pleasing architecture is reminiscent of a European village, but turn even a slightly critical eye, and it's only a pretty copy, not an original. Prices are high, which was surprising considering the U.S. dollar's strength against the Canadian dollar. Food is good, but dinner entrees at many of the resort's 17 restaurants start at $20 U.S. At one upscale restaurant, the cheapest glass of wine was $10. A few souvenir shops offer the usual T-shirts and tchotchkes, but most of the shopping is high end, featuring pricey Inuit art, Canadian furs and top-shelf ski equipment.
And yet, the spotless village is inviting. At night, white Christmasy lights strung across the cobblestoned main street glimmer as the snow swirls. Music from the clubs and restaurants, and snatches of French and English conversations, create welcoming background noise. Sociable groups warm themselves around the village square's outdoor fire pit. Red-cheeked children screech happily as they take turns on a slide carved from solid ice.
Food and drink offerings, while pricey, are several quality levels above the typical ski resort fare. Regional snacks -- maple taffy on snow, whole-wheat pastries called beaver tails -- are welcome rewards after a hard day on the snow. The village boasts several comfy bars, such as the Microbrasserie La Diable with its dozens of tasty microbrews. The few reasonably priced restaurants are a good value: Creperie Catherine, for example, has a long list of authentic Brittany-style crepes bretonnes stuffed with everything from seafood to chocolate. Nightlife is lively: Le P'tit Caribou, reeking of smoke and beer and heaving with girls and guys gone wild, is known as one of North America's best ski resort party venues.
The corporatization of family-owned ski areas is a hot-button topic in the skiing community, but in Tremblant's case, its very survival was not secure when Intrawest purchased it in 1991. The fraying resort was strapped for cash -- the electricity had been turned off for nonpayment -- and was attracting only about 750,000 visitors a year. Intrawest, helped with the equivalent of about $111 million from the Canadian government, infused about $860 million of its own money into the pedestrian village and the ski infrastructure. Now the resort gets more than 2.3 million visits each year, and Tremblant has been named the No. 1 ski resort in the East by Ski Magazine for the ninth year straight. And Intrawest is not finished. It's building new bases on the east and north sides of the mountains that will cost nearly $1 billion, and hopes to triple the number of visitors to 7 million by 2012.
While ski resorts across North America struggle to make a profit as the number of skier visits has basically stayed flat over the past 15 years, Intrawest has kept Tremblant, and its other resorts, profitable by focusing much of its energy on real estate development. There are currently 11 "hotels," which are actually 1,400 individually owned condo units, in the pedestrian village, and 20 single-family and condo developments with about 825 units in the surrounding area; eventually, the resort plans to add another 2,500 condos and 1,000 townhomes and single-family homes. While there are name-brand hotels, such as Westin, Fairmont and Marriott, none is the traditional corporately owned affair; all hotel room units are sold individually and then rented to overnight guests. My unit, at La Tour des Voyageurs II, was a basic studio, with a small kitchen area equipped with a fridge, sink, microwave and a bit of kitchenware; it sells for about $125,000, one of the most inexpensive offerings. Upscale ski in/out condos and single-family homes can go for $1 million and up.
To bolster real estate sales, Tremblant has pushed the resort as a four-season destination and now offers a lot more than just skiing and snowboarding. Winter activities such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sleigh rides, tubing, dog sledding, snowmobiling and even ice climbing are heavily publicized. The resort also offers a deep lineup of summer activities, including alpine luge, golf, mountain biking and "acrobranche," a sport that involves suspended zip wires.
For those who don't have deep pockets or who prefer spending time with the townies, there are several small villages just outside Tremblant that offer less touristy restaurants, shopping, lodging and bars.
On my third day at Tremblant, I stopped for an early lunch and struck up a conversation with Sanne de Groot, a 20-year-old ski instructor from The Hague in Holland. "I'll show you around," she said. "You will like St.-Jovite."
We had just missed the hourly shuttle bus, which for about 85 cents takes you to the nearby villages of Mont Tremblant (not to be confused with Tremblant resort) and St.-Jovite. Instead, we drove three miles through the small village of Mont Tremblant and then backtracked and headed about seven miles in the other direction to St.-Jovite.
During a half-hour stroll through the town, we passed several restaurants where three-course dinners were priced a good $10 less than similar offerings in Tremblant. I heard only French as we meandered past a library, hardware store, church and various small shops. "I like Tremblant," said de Groot, who was also working part time in a ski shop to make ends meet. "But I can afford more in St.-Jovite."
That evening at the bar at Le Shack, a popular apres-ski spot in Tremblant's pedestrian village, conversation turned to the weather. Maurice Wolpert, 64, of Hamilton, Ontario, listened to my story about ice forming in my goggles and started to laugh. "You do know you need a ski mask that has a nose guard," he explained. "That directs your breath down and away from your mask so it doesn't freeze up." Now they tell me.
The next day, the ski conditions were perfect: a high of 28 degrees with light snow. Unfortunately, I had a plane to catch.
On the way out, I grabbed a summer brochure. The average July/August temperature in Tremblant is a very comfortable 72 degrees. I read more about acrobranche, which sounded intriguing. Perhaps I'll give it a try when I visit next -- sometime in July.