The skiers at left, swinging upward past the icicle-hung rocks on the south side of Mont Tremblant, are on their way to a kind of ski vacation that is unique in North America. For at Tremblant and dozens of other resorts spotted through Canada's Laurentian Mountains, skiers get their sport served up with a French-Canadian flair that has all the charm and pleasure of a holiday in the Vosges. The first signs the skiers read as they pile out of their cars and planes and head for the slopes are written in French. And the accents of the cab drivers, farmers and especially of the Laurentian waiters are authentically and fetchingly French. Naturally, the owners of the 45 major inns strung along the stretch of Quebec's Route 11 that winds through the mountains between Montreal and Mont Tremblant do nothing to disturb this Continental flavor, which has meant a low-budget change of atmosphere for American skiers and a sky-high boom in business for the resorts.
Last season an estimated 100,000 skiers, half of them Americans, traveled to southern Quebec, and this year, the Tremblant Lodge, biggest ski hotel in the area, already has bookings well into spring, with a total of advance reservations double that of last year's.
The Laurentians offer the vacationer a wide variety of trails, entertainment or accommodations. For the sophisticated skier, the most challenging downhill runs and swankiest hotels are at Mont Tremblant, 90 miles north of Montreal. The mountain itself is 3,150 feet high, tallest in the area, providing 45 miles of trails and open slopes. It has two chair lifts and two T bars feeding upward toward the Rendez-Vous hut at the summit where the expert can have a try at the Upper Nansen, Tascherau, Kandahar or Ryan's Run. For the novice, there are eight rope tows servicing practice runs on the lower slopes. Altogether, these uphill facilities can handle 5,000 skiers an hour, enough for the biggest holiday crowd.
Dominating this complex of lifts and trails is the 178-room Mont Tremblant Lodge, operated by Mrs. Mary Ryan, widow of the late Joe Ryan, the hotel's founder. Up to 70% of Mrs. Ryan's guests are well-heeled Americans who wear chic, tailored ski clothes, put on coats and ties for dinner, and happily shell out $10 to $20 a day for a room with bath. For guests who have come strictly to learn skiing, the Lodge offers special Ski Weeks that provide rooms, meals, lessons and use of tows for $85 to $121.
The Lodge, like many of the smaller hotels in the area, also takes care of the less avid skiers with pleasant diversions like ice skating and sleigh rides.
Four miles from the Lodge, and four degrees less formal, is Harry Wheeler's Grey Rocks Inn, a rambling frame building with attractive annex cottages and a reputation for hospitality. Grey Rocks, besides being within a short auto ride from the lifts at Mont Tremblant, has a T bar of its own for guests who want to start with an easy day on the inn's private practice hill before they challenge the big mountain. Catering to a clientele that is 50% American, Grey Rocks has rooms from $8 to $12, and ski weeks from $62 to $95.
The three other best-known inns around the mountain are the Tremblant Club, which is a log cabin set across Lac Tremblant from the Lodge; Tom Wheeler's Lac Ouimet Club, whose guests can, on request, be met at the airport in Montreal by Wheeler's own private air service; and the Manoir Pinoteau. All three are the smaller, more family kind of ski place where you feel you have been before and are likely to run into somebody you know.
Stretching out toward Montreal from the foot of Mont Tremblant is the whole rolling expanse of the Laurentians. Toward the south the hills become lower, and so do the prices. College students flock there to stay at pensions for $4.50 a night, including supper and breakfast. For these fast-moving youngsters, lunch is a hamburger gulped at the top of the mountain, and a ski day begins at 6:00 a.m. so you can pile into your car early and drive, sometimes all the way to Tremblant, to be first in line for the lift. A number of students and post-collegians have gone one better on the pension arrangement, and have rounded up some skiing friends to chip in three or four hundred dollars for a private ski shack for the entire season, usually a converted farm building.
The shack owners are likely to be perennials, dedicated weekend skiers who began in pensions or learned to ski at Mont Tremblant and have come to prefer a place of their own. For them, a hard day of slalom practice on a hill like the one at Jasper-in- Quebec is likely to be as satisfying as a day of slamming down Ryan's Run. And occasionally they take a day off from downhill skiing to try the quiet beauty of the famous cross-country runs, like the Maple Leaf or the Maribou, trails that are as much a part of Laurentian skiing as French accents or fresh powder on the big mountain.