The snow is piled high along the roads, boots squeak along sidewalks. The shops glitter in the twilight, pedestrians in their puffy winter raiments hurry by with their packages. Menus in the bistro windows are obscured by ice, diners inside are sipping white wine and dipping into their tartare de saumon. The smell of croissants is in the air and—miracle étonnant!—there is snow in the air as well. Here every element—every scene, every smell, every feel—screams: ski town.

Except for one thing: The population of this particular ski town is 1,762,949.

So it’s not Grenoble, Innsbruck, Chamonix or Interlaken. It’s not even Bozeman. It’s Montreal, and there’s a poetry to the fact that in its official spelling—Montréal—the city has a French accent in the center of its name. Travel to the province of Quebec to ski—take advantage of that marvelous snow (82.5 inches a year on average) and that remarkable exchange rate (for the American dollar, multiply every price by about .75, and you may feel that Montreal is Bargain City)—and conjure with this radical notion: Use an urban entrepôt for your holiday while enjoying a sport that is indisputably rural.

Because there really is no ski town like Montreal, which may boast that it is Canada’s second-largest city but which also may be first in the hearts of North American skiers. It’s a city where the art of skiing actually is practiced within its borders, and where the artistry of the winter sport has been celebrated since the twins Rhoda and Rhona Wurtele—downhill pioneers who together comprised the entire Canadian Alpine Team for the 1948 Olympics—practiced their stem christies in the late 1920s on Westmount Hill, a ski landmark a short walk from where, a century later, amid honking traffic and crowded buses, I am writing these words.

Skiing in Quebec has its own special allure, which may be why Bryan Rempel titled his biography of the Wurteles No Limits. It’s partially the number of ski resorts—81 of them, about one for every day of winter, ranging from the minuscule (Val-d’Or, with a single lift and a vertical drop of 59 feet) to the mighty (Tremblant, with 14 lifts and a vertical drop of 2,116 feet). And it’s the vast expanse of the skiing experience within the province—666 miles of slopes serviced by 271 lifts.

But, really, at the center of the allure is the esprit of the place: Its language is French, its mood warm, its people friendly, its essence a little on the wild side of life, much like the country-music classic that bears that title—for Montreal is, as Hank Thompson crooned in 1952, one of “the places where the wine and liquor flow.”

This is, after all, a country (“This Land of Snow,” in the words of the title of a 2020 Anders Morley ski-adventuring book) that has participated in Winter Olympics since 1936. This is a province about which the Quebecker Gilles Vigneault once wrote, “Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver”. “My country is not a country, it’s winter”.

If, as the great Canadian historian Pierre Berton once said, a Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe, then a Canadian skier is someone who is moved to smooch on a chairlift.

No need to rush here this very week. Take your time, as if you were sitting in one of Montreal’s alluring coffee shops, sipping a cortado and wondering how the baker was able to produce such an artful nutty pistachio-and-almond pavé with cherries. No hurry: there was skiing at the Sommet SaintSauveur, just an hour north of the city, on June 8, 2019. April will be quite terrific in these hills.

I’ve been skiing for more than half a century—and have been a devotee of Quebec skiing for about as long. I have a picture of my grandmother skiing in the Laurentians, as the far Canadian reaches of the Appalachians are called, in 1931. My daughters are fourth-generation skiers on Hill 70, named for a First World War battle fought in the Pas-de-Calais region of France. I am friends with the granddaughter of Herman Smith-Johannsen, the Norwegian emigré to Canada known as Jackrabbit Johannsen, who skied for 104 years (he died at age 110) and who is known as the pioneer of cross-country skiing in North America.

I took a walk with Karin Austin on a wintry day last year when skaters were doing their turns and snowshoers were tromping through Mont Royal Park, where renowned 19th century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed a retreat at Montreal’s highest point. “My grandfather came here because the terrain—the rolling hills and lots of lakes—suited him,” she told me. “He lived for years in Montreal and liked the endless exploring and loved it here.”

The key to using Montreal as your holiday base—to go all Jackrabbit, you might say—is to appreciate the beauty of mixing tastes—city and country—the way the city’s Pâtisserie Rhubarbe mixes the sweet and the tart in its fabled tarte au citron. And the beauty is that you don’t have to pack separate sets of clothes. Slopewear and citywear are interchangeable, not only along uber-trendy rue Sainte-Catherine but also in most restaurants, including Au Pied de Cochon, the classic venue for tarragon pickled deer tongue and other favorites of Quebec cuisine. (You can order foie gras poutine there, to be sure, but you might do better to order the two essential elements separately—your foie gras at Foiegwa and your poutine at Montréal Poutine on rue Saint-Paul Est. Those restaurants are named that way for a reason.)

Now for the skiing. You’ll need a car, and if you travel to Montreal by auto, remember that snow tires, required for residents, are recommended for visitors. The rationale: You can’t ski on natural snow unless snow falls naturally, and it does—plentifully—in the city. The closest area is Saint-Bruno, with 18 slopes a mere 12 miles from downtown. But you’ll also want to venture farther, where the pistes are more varied and more challenging.

The key to Montreal skiing is accessibility. Mont Tremblant is 89 miles from the city—less than the distance from Denver to Vail. You’ll see several ski areas out your (inevitably frosty) windshield along Autoroute 15, and you might be tempted to stop at Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts, about an hour north of the city and full of ski areas (six, depending on how you count); engaging restaurants (my favorite is Lezvos); and one of the best boulangeries in Quebec, Boulangerie Pagé, right across the street from the church at rue de l’Église. Buy a baguette there and life will seem parfaite.

The reigning regent of Quebec skiing, of course, is Mont Tremblant. Forgotten today is that there was an interregnum— bankruptcy and an abrupt fall from elegance—to the regency, a great fallow period between the era when Lowell Thomas celebrated Tremblant and now, when the resort is justly regarded as one of North America’s finest. It is the home of Erik Guay, the World Cup champ who has more than two-dozen podium appearances and is one of Canada’s greatest competitive skiers ever. All’s well in those precincts today—I remember those awful years, heartbreaking vacancies everywhere in the village—and the skiing is, if anything, better than ever. Its 14 lifts include two gondolas, and the only downside to slopeside Tremblant is the temperature, which can drop as low as minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Drive in the other direction and there’s a surfeit of slopes in an area known as the Eastern Townships (the signs say: Cantonsde-L’Est), where the cheese is pungent and the ice cream is sweet (don’t miss the maple-taffy flavor produced locally by the Laiterie de Coaticook). The highest resort there is Mont Orford, with its three mountains and four hillsides providing 61 trails, including 17 glades. But if it’s glades that attract you, head to Mont Sutton, where about half the ski terrain is in the woods—and there are glades for every level of skier. I’m partial to Bromont, an hour south of town, in part because it has trails named for two of my favorite cities, Pittsburgh and Toronto. There’s no more beautiful ski experience than the one offered at Owl’s Head, with its breathtaking view of Lake Memphremagog.

Lodging is plentiful, but here’s my one-paragraph guide. In Montreal, stay at the Hotel Nelligan, dripping with francophone charm in Old Montreal. In the Eastern Townships, there’s Ripplecove, a lovely lakeside retreat and venue for perhaps the best breakfast in Quebec (don’t pass up the eggs Benedict). For a splurge, head to the Manoir Hovey, the presiding dowager of the region. And in the Laurentians, the Fairmont Tremblant has the soaring lobby and polished wood ceiling that whisper casual elegance in the mountains.

In this essay I come back to—and on your trip you’ll come back to—Montreal, to its easy urbanity, its alluring restaurants, its bustling downtown, its ski-town ambience, all the elements that prompted Samuel Butler to write in his much-loved 1890 Psalm of Montreal, “O God! O Montreal!”

O Montreal. A world apart that is base camp to the ski world.