It’s a ski secret I’ve been clutching close to my chest for years, “my precious” as Gollum might screech in The Lord of The Rings if he was obsessed with snow instead of that infernal gold ring.
Among my close friends (fellow Quebecois or ex-pats like myself living outside La Belle Province) it’s known as “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” for skiers. A window of heavenly ski conditions that rolls around every April just before winter goes to sleep at Mont Tremblant, the pearl of Quebec’s lush Laurentian mountain range.
There is no doubt Tremblant is a spectacular ski and golf resort 12 months a year – but for perfect spring snow, uncrowded slopes, sunshine, and mild temperatures, the last week or two of ski season in April can’t be beat.
As a journalist traveling on the World Cup tour, I’ve become acquainted with two of Tremblant’s most famous ski racing locals over the years. One is Canada’s most decorated World Cup skier, Erik Guay. The other is the hardest working man on skis, Rossignol ski technician Shawn Gaisford. I’ve interviewed them both a million times over the last decade or so, and even been stuck in a bus with them in a snow storm on the way to Portillo, Chile! When race season is on it’s all business with these two. That’s why I love to hit Tremblant in the spring, you never know whose path you’ll cross on the slopes!
“Skiing at Tremblant in April is amazing,” Erik Guay told me when I bumped into him on a particularly gorgeous spring day at the resort this past spring. “Blue skies, corn snow, moguls and BBQ, what’s not to love? It’s also a rare chance for me to ski with my little girls.”
Amazing is definitely the right way to describe this mountain in April. My best day ever on snow happened at Tremblant about ten years ago. I still dream about it today. Perfect winter corduroy on a quiet midweek day, temperatures hovering just below freezing, blazing sunshine and blue skies on one peak, and fluffy clouds and snowflakes floating down on the next peak over…and best of all no lift lines!
After years of hearing me trumpet about that spectacular spring day at Tremblant, my lifelong friend and ski buddy Theo Moudakis (who is the editorial cartoonist for The Toronto Star when he’s not skiing) asked to tag along on my next epic April Tremblant trip…which was this past April.
Having left Quebec in the early 1990s before resort giant Intrawest worked its magic and transformed Tremblant from a popular local ski area into a booming global ski destination, Theo had never seen the “new” version of the mountain he’d known from the old days when he lived in Quebec.
“I purposely didn’t Google Tremblant because I want to experience it with fresh eyes,” Moudakis confessed as we hit the road from Toronto on a chilly Monday morning last April.
As we approached the resort I could see he was blown away as soon as he saw the colorful vintage “Vieux Quebec” buildings that stand guard over the grand plaza at the foot of the lifts and gondola that service the south side of Tremblant. “Wow, it’s like a full-scale Santa’s village in technicolor at the foot of a ski hill,” he exclaimed, “I love it!”
After checking into a palatial two-bedroom Homewood Suites by Hilton condo unit at Place St. Bernard, right in the heart of Tremblant’s ski-in/ski-out village, I took Theo out for a little tour to show him how unbelievably close we were to the lifts. Five seconds later we found ourselves in front of the Flying Mile, a high-speed quad and L’Express, a six-person gondola. After a few high fives and a giant Porterhouse at The Bullseye, a great steakhouse a stone’s throw from the lifts, we popped in the SAQ (the main chain of liquor stores in Quebec) for a bottle of a delicious pear-infused Cognac called Belle de Brillet to enjoy as a digestif/nightcap.
The next morning we awoke to blazing sunshine, blue skies and very comfortable 25 degree temps. After a hot breakfast of pancakes and bacon and eggs at the condo, we zipped up to Tremblant’s peak and laid down first tracks on McCulloch, my favorite Tremblant black diamond slope. The track was superb – midwinter snow on a spring morning and a giant carpet of white corduroy just begging to be carved up. After a few more runs on McCulloch and it’s equally inviting neighbor Kandahar, we attacked Erik Guay! OK to be clear, this was not a physical assault on the skier, it was the piste named after him we were clobbering. It happens to be one of Tremblant’s most exhilarating and scenic black runs with incredible views of the surrounding valley and Lac Tremblant all the way down the track.
Around noon we parked our skis back at the condo and slipped into some walking shoes for a lunchtime beer tasting adventure at Microbrasserie La Diable, the microbrewery in the center of Tremblant I call my “office” whenever I’m there. I’d been hyping La Diable, and it’s tasty craft beer for months, now it was time to put them to the test. I ordered 7e Ciel (7th Heaven in French) while Theo ordered a tasting tray with six small samples of the craft beer brewed right on site. His two favorites were Blizzard, a non-filtered light Belgian style wheat beer with faint echoes of orange, ginger and coriander, and Double Noir, a dark stout made with roasted barley with a distinct chocolatey/coffee flavour…if you love Guinness, you’ll this beer!
My lunch selection was my favorite burger at Tremblant, La Diable’s Buffalo Burger, a classic made from freshly ground bison with a hint of sage. Theo’s interest was peaked by a Croque Monsieur – ham and Swiss cheese baked on fresh French Bread, a sandwich that is extremely popular in France. Our choices were perfect – so perfect that they were gone before any photos could be taken for social media purposes.
We spent the rest of the afternoon carving up any corduroy we could find and even after lunch there was still plenty to be had. Tremblant didn’t let us down on our first day and Theo could see why I was so stoked about hitting the mountain when everyone else was switching over to golf mode (it was Masters week in Augusta while we were there) and he couldn’t believe the quality of the snow at the bottom of the mountain at 4pm…no slush, the snow under our skis was still squeaking and scrunching. With tired legs and big smiles we returned to the condo and chilled out in the sauna and whirlpool before a few laps in the Homewood Suites’ outdoor heated pool…it was perfection!
Talk of skiing-induced spaghetti legs during our afternoon spa session put us in the mood for Italian food so we walked over to Coco Pazzo, Tremblant’s most elegant Italian restaurant. I try to make it to Coco Pazzo every time I’m in the area for their famed Linguine Pescatore a dish that is thankfully never off Chef Luigi’s menu. Primi piatti for me was the chef’s super creamy Maccheroni Gorgonzola; a homemade Durham wheat semolina pasta with gorgonzola cream sauce and spinach. Theo opted for Carpaccio – spice rubbed, seared filet mignon, micro greens with a Dijon vinaigrette, extra virgin truffle olive oil and shaved Reggiano cheese.
Secondi piatti for me was…you guessed it, Linguine Pescatore (spelt grain linguini, shrimps, scallops, baby clams and mussels in a white wine reduction with anchovy, garlic and clam broth) paired with a Serralunga d’Alba Langhe Doc Chardonnay. If you are a seafood pasta aficionado, Chef Luigi’s interpretation is one of the best you’ll ever have. I’ve been all over Italy and I can truly say this dish is as good or better than any I’ve every had in Venice, Rome, Florence or Naples.
Theo’s secondi was the ultimate Italian classic – Osso Bucco. Thankfully he wasn’t greedy and let me have a taste of the delicious Quebec veal shank, braised in veal broth and tomato sauce. It was served with polenta and wilted spinach. This hearty dish is exactly the kind of thing you love to eat but don’t have the patience or talent to make at home. “Molto squisito!” were the words Theo chose to describe his main course selection, which I believe is Italian for “Exsqisite…now stop pestering me with questions for your story and let me eat!”
Ski day No. 2 was not the bluebird affair we had on Tuesday. With news of an approaching blizzard there was a definite buzz amongst skiers and staff at Tremblant about the coming storm and the prospect of a foot of powder in the forecast for that night. Again temperatures were in the high 20s, not too cold but cold enough to keep the mountain in perfect winter shape. After destroying large swaths of super grippy corduroy on the Versant Soleil (which means “sunny slope” in French) and a coffee and muffin at Le Refuge, the ancient trapper’s log cabin tucked away amongst the pines on this side of the mountain, we met up with Tremblant local Shawn Gaisford and his feisty 5-year-old nephew Austin for the ultimate insider’s tour of the mountain’s best slopes.
The friendliest tall drink of water on the World Cup tour, Gaisford has been a Rossignol “serviceman” (ski tech) preparing skis for the some of the world’s best downhillers for the last dozen years. Having spent the bulk of his career with the Canadian Alpine Ski Team, Gaisford has also had stints on the US and Swiss national teams. Springtime for Gaisford is a time to rip up Tremblant with his nephew, and when he’s not doing that, you can usually find him climbing the mountain on skins “earning his turns” before skiing down to the village for a few après-ski beers with the buddies he hasn’t seen all year.
After tearing up Tremblant’s north face, which according to the Gaisfords is where you’ll find the best snow on the mountain, and being dragged away from uber-groomers Beauchemin Haut and Beauchemin Bas where I often pretend I’m Bode Miller crushing it at Kitzbuhel’s famed Hahnenkamm race course, we made tracks for young Austin’s favorite run Erik Guay. Clearly unable to keep up with the little speedster I spent most of the afternoon cleaning the snow spray from his tracks off my goggles. By 3:30 we were ready to call it a day and again we let young Austin pick the best trail down the mountain. Much to my surprise – NOT – he chose a run called Bière-en-Bas (French for “beer at the bottom”) with the promise of a root beer at La Diable with his uncle.
“Did you try the ribs at La Diable?” Shawn asked me once we finally reached the bottom of the hill. When I said I didn’t he instructed me to not leave Tremblant before consuming what he described as “The best ribs and BBQ sauce you’ll ever lick off your fingers.”
Fifteen minutes later Theo and I strolled into La Diable and found Gaisford the elder and his young protege at the bar elbow deep in rib sauce…it wasn’t long before our faces were slathered with BBQ sauce too. Simply put, the ribs were incredible, 1 1/2 pounds of Baby back pork heaven in a tangy BBQ sauce with hints of orange zest served up with a large plate of French fries and Caesar salad…and more craft beer, did I mention they had craft beer at La Diable?!
Once our early dinner was over we thanked the Gaisford boys for our mountain tour and agreed to meet Shawn the next morning for what we hoped would be a powder-fest. But our evening was far from over as tonight’s plan was a visit to one of Canada’s most beautiful spas, the luxurious Scandinave complex, nestled in an evergreen forest on the banks of the Diable river about a 5 minute drive from Tremblant village.
Just as we arrived, as if on cue, big fluffy snowflakes began to fall from the dark grey sky above. Walking into the Scandinave is itself a magical feast for the senses. After crossing a tiny rustic bridge over a little stream in the woods, we entered a beautiful log building with the scent of essential oils in the air and the most relaxing music you’ll ever hear gently playing in the background.
Once we’d changed into our cushy white terry robes, we shut off our cell phones (a requirement at Scandinave) and left them in our lockers. With the modern world finally shut off, we walked outside and chose a beautiful large stone hot pool with its own waterfall to begin enjoying what Scandinavians have been doing for a thousand years – relaxing and energizing their bodies and souls with the repetition of hot, cold and rest.
The Spa cycle at Scandinave is pretty simple. You spend about 10-15 minutes heating up in one of the dry or wet saunas or outdoor hot baths to open the pores, stimulate blood circulation and release toxins. Once you’re warmed up, you subject your body to about 10 seconds of cold in one of the cold pools or showers to close the pores and strengthen your immune system. After this sudden shock of cold, you enter one of several heated cabins to sit or lay down in silence for about 10-15 minutes. My favorite cabin is one of Scandinave’s newer buildings with a bunch of giant round lounging beds covered in pillows in front of a 20-foot floor-to-ceiling postcard window overlooking the woods. Believe me, the old Seinfeld line “serenity now” will have a new and entirely personal meaning for you once you’ve spend 15 minutes in this place.
You can also get an assortment of massages at Scandinave (Swedish, hot stone, Thai, deep tissue) but we didn’t indulge as we were entirely focussed on the otherworldly vibe you get when you complete the hot/cold/rest cycle 4-5 times. When we finally left around 9pm, we felt like we were floating!
The sensation of floating continued right into Thursday morning, our third and final day at Tremblant, as about a foot of fresh snow had fallen on the mountain over night, and it was still snowing. Knowing the forecast early on I had packed a pair of chubby Rossignol Experience 88s in case the forecasters were right…thankfully they were. We met up with Shawn at the bottom of Tremblant’s north side and spent the next couple of hours laying down early morning first tracks on fluffy spring powder. By midday the freshly dusted slopes had become skied out by the hoards of locals playing hooky to rip up the mountain on one of the season’s last winter blasts. Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we decided to leave whatever fresh stuff was left to the wonderful people who live and work at Tremblant…so we thanked Shawn for his hospitality, packed up our gear and hit the road back to Toronto.
Sleep well Mont Tremblant…and see you next spring…that is unless I come back to golf this summer…but that’s a story for another day!