Skiing: Canada is a foreign country; they ski differently there

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The Independent Online
What's a 'tabagie', or, for that matter, a 'sprigne'? Stephen Wood finds out at the ski resort of Mount Tremblant in Canada.

A Canadian youth came to stay with us, many years ago. London was the first stop on his European tour, and we asked him, on the night before he was to move on - to Belgium, Holland, and I can't remember where else - whether he had bought the foreign currencies he would need. A puzzled look spread across his face. What did we mean: surely they didn't have a different currency in each of those tiny countries? How we cosmopolitan Europeans laughed. No wonder Canada, almost as big as Europe itself, was named after an Iroquois word, Kanata, meaning "village, or small community".

Embarrassingly, this memory came back to me at a Gatwick bureau de change before boarding a flight to Boston. It was only while I was buying US dollars that it occurred to me that in Canada - where I had never been - these might be regarded as foreign currency, and that I'd need Canadian dollars, too. I wasn't alone in unconsciously regarding Canada as a sort of northern suburb of the US: my American girlfriend, who drove up to Boston to meet me for a weekend's skiing at Mont Tremblant, near Montreal, hadn't thought to bring her passport from New York. Yet when you cross from Vermont into Quebec, it's like ... well, like entering another country (except that if you claim to be a US citizen, you are, luckily, not asked to produce a passport).

The freeway from Boston is a seamless ribbon of dual carriageway through New England forests, interrupted only by roadside supermarkets, petrol stations and fast-food truck-stops. But across the border it's not just the currency that's different: everything, else is, too.

The road turns into a single carriageway lined with wooden houses, which goes right through the centre of the small towns. The language changes, equally abruptly, into French (the first major town is St Jean sur Richelieu), or at least into heavily accented American (when the border guard asked if we had any alcowol, we had to think about it for a while). And the rolling landscape is suddenly replaced by a huge, flat plain. It is not unfamiliar territory: the surprise is simply that after travelling thousands of miles by plane and then driving for four more hours, you have still got no further than the Pas de Calais.

The flat land goes on for another two hours, until you start climbing away from Montreal. Then, almost immediately, you are in skiing country. Perhaps I missed a few (I was nodding off in the passenger seat), but I counted a dozen floodlit skiing areas, all in use, as we drove up the hill at 9pm on a Friday night. You have to be strong-willed to make it all the 120km to Mont Tremblant: although it is (according to the 1997 readers' poll in US Ski magazine) the best resort on north America's eastern seaboard, fewer skiers go there from Montreal than from Toronto, almost 500km further away - presumably because they get waylaid by the ski areas lower down the hill.

But Mont Tremblant isn't a ski area; it's a ski village - a brand-new one. Created by a Philadelphia businessman in 1938, the resort was in Canadian ownership from 1951 until 1991, by which time it was in seemingly terminal decline. It was saved by Intrawest, the owner of the Whistler resort, which spent C$467m (pounds 200m) on installing Canada's biggest snow- making system and recreating Mont Tremblant to a design by Eldon Beck, the world's leading ski-resort planner.

A Californian architect who believes that (in the words of US Ski magazine) "the future of the ski village lies in the past", Beck has moved some of the original 1938 chalets into the centre of the village, and surrounded them with a higgledy-piggledy arrangement of stepped facades, wild detailing and bright colours - reds, ochres, and an industrial green unaccountably popular in Quebec. "Diversity is strength, uniformity is the death-knell" is another Beck credo, and he reckons that of all his designs Mont Tremblant best expresses it. Maybe, but the designers of Disneyland probably followed the same principle.

Still, nobody who skis on America's eastern seaboard really cares about the resort architecture. What they worry about - assuming they know the area - is the natural environment. The weather can be painfully cold there: the "mountains" can seem disappointingly hill-like; and the skiing can be less than than thrilling.

We were lucky with the weather: we got in and out before the cold snap that brought down Quebec's power lines, and enjoyed beautiful - and gentle - alpine weather. The fact that Intrawest has officially rebranded Mont Tremblant as simply "Tremblant" was worrying, but although its topography is no more alpine than anywhere else in the area, with a summit height of only 914m, the two ski faces are heavily wooded, and at least more rugged than those in New England. The skiing is not challenging - among the black runs, only one steep mogul pitch deserved the rating - but in the Nansen piste, Mont Tremblant has one of the really great green runs, a 6km slide through the woods that would turn any beginner into a convert.

The south face, which drops 650m from the summit down to the resort, has more pistes and more skiers than the north, a half-pipe for snowboarders, a rather pointless "blade zone" for snowbladers and a floodlit "adventure park" where various winter sports equipment can be sampled. Most of the straight-ahead blacks and blues run down a cleared central area; but off to one side is a good black run through the trees, and to the other that superb Nansen piste. The north face is tougher and icier, and has shorter lift queues. There are fast, sweeping blacks and blues, and - at least until another celebrity hits a tree, and Intrawest's insurers demand that they be closed - two "glade runs", where the forest has been thinned so that you can ski off-piste, through the trees, albeit on fairly gentle slopes.

In the evenings, apart from the weekend attraction of a loud rock band in one bar, Mont Tremblant seemed rather dignified. Thanks to all those English-speakers from Toronto, it was also disappointingly monolingual; and having just discovered Canada, I was eager to learn the language. It was French, but only up to a point - have you ever seen a tobacconist's in France with a sign saying Tabagie? And would the French permit the use of such anglicisms as bolter (to bolt), ploguer (to plug) or un sprigne (a spring)? I think not. But then, Canada is another country.

All the main ski-tour operators except Airtours include Mont Tremblant in their brochures: eg with Inghams, a two-room apartment at the brand- new Kandahar costs pounds 528-555 per person per week in February (based on four sharing). The resort lift-pass costs pounds 20 per day; ski and boot hire, pounds 12.

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