Canada: "Le Shack"

Adrian Mourby visits Mont Tremblant, the ski resort that was once a millionaire's playground

In 1938 a millionaire from Philadelphia was holidaying in the Laurentian mountains in Quebec when he saw Mont Tremblant and declared his intention to buy it. Looking round this National Park today, you can understand why. It's green and serene. Sure, we'd all like a piece of Tremblant. Joe Ryan, however, had the advantage of having been born into the kind of family that could buy up large tracts of a neighbouring country and still have change. By the winter of 1939, Ryan had built a hostelry for his friends called Le Chalet des Voyageurs at the foot of Mont Tremblant, and had started constructing holiday homes.

In 1938 a millionaire from Philadelphia was holidaying in the Laurentian mountains in Quebec when he saw Mont Tremblant and declared his intention to buy it. Looking round this National Park today, you can understand why. It's green and serene. Sure, we'd all like a piece of Tremblant. Joe Ryan, however, had the advantage of having been born into the kind of family that could buy up large tracts of a neighbouring country and still have change. By the winter of 1939, Ryan had built a hostelry for his friends called Le Chalet des Voyageurs at the foot of Mont Tremblant, and had started constructing holiday homes.

Le Chalet des Voyageurs isn't there any more. Today its position at the top of Tremblant village is occupied by "Joe Ryan's Sugar Shack", an almost circular theme-park-style building full of artificial maple trees with a bar whose awning is topped with fake snow. "Le Shack" is pure Uncle Walt, about as far from the functional Québécois sugar shacks as only Disney can get, but it's handy for the slopes and last year my children could eat as much as they wanted from the buffet for C$11.45 (£5) plus tax.

Joe Ryan and his wife Mary never intended to build a modern ski resort at Mont Tremblant. Their original chalets were simple buildings painted in a variety of bright colours because Mrs Ryan thought they would show up nicely against the snow. Every winter Joe and Mary would invite their East Coast friends to join them in Tremblant. This was a private party. Henry Fonda came on one of his many honeymoons; Jackie Kennedy visited the year after the president was shot; and at the end of each season Mary produced a newsletter with photographs of those who had been seen on the slopes that year.

North American skiing was in its infancy when the Ryans held their winter chalet parties during the Forties and Fifties. There was only one purpose-built resort in North America at the time - Sun Valley in Idaho - and that was thousands of miles away. As far as the fashion-setters of Boston, Philadelphia and Manhattan were concerned, Mont Tremblant was only just across the border, it was accessible by overnight train, and it also had the Ryans, which meant some social cachet.

The cachet is somewhat lacking today, which is why I didn't feel too bad lugging my children in their hand-me-down ski suits round town. Once upon a time, Tremblant attracted money. Now it just makes it. Nevertheless, the sense of Mont Tremblant as a village rather than a resort remains. Anyone can come who is willing to pay as little as C$100 (£45) for two nights in a dormitory or C$3,000 (£1,350) for a week in a one-bedroom slope-side apartment.

After her husband's death, Mary kept Tremblant going for years as a hobby. The Ryan family did not expect an income from their property. Unfortunately, the syndicates that bought in after Mary bowed out did. Tremblant was bought and sold frequently. At one point, Joe Ryan's mountain was even the property of a Québécois pension fund. Finally in the 1990s Intrawest, a company which had already appropriated Mount Blackcomb in Vancouver, took over the site.

Intrawest wanted to expand Mary Ryan's idea of a village of colourful chalets at the foot of the mountain, so they appointed the San Francisco village designer, Eldon Beck, to rethink Mont Tremblant. Beck was given carte blanche and claimed he would create not a resort but "a pedestrian village you will just flow through". With a team of designers, he set off to visit 20 European towns in 11 days.

The result of that marathon is what sits at the foot of Mont Tremblant today, a surprisingly convincing little community that has somehow taken an eclectic mix of European features - German ironwork, Italian archways, Swiss porches - and given them a distinctly French-Canadian polish. Roofs in the town are in the tall "château" style of Quebec City, while apartments further out are faced in "shingle" wood panelling like Québécois houses of the early 20th century. It is gaudy: a riot of pinks, reds, greens and ochre. It shouldn't work but it does. My children loved it. They soon found the main cobblestone thoroughfare with its pizza parlour, a shop where you can paint your own teapot, a cinema, a patisserie and a toy boutique.

We might have been in a European village sandwiched somewhere on a putative border between Germany, France and Italy. "Many of the tourists who come here are Americans who haven't been to the real Europe," said one woman whose shop sold fur coats recycled into teddy bears. "We give them a sense of the exotic. They can feel they've been abroad but they can still use their dollars."

Of course it is artificial, but it doesn't feel artificial - that's the triumph of Tremblant - which was more than could be said for the snow last year. As with so many ski resorts in Canada, the main problem in Tremblant has been a palpable lack of the white stuff, so the slopes were littered with snow machines.

Travelling up by ski lift, we could see trees whose branches were romantically caked in snow - but only from below. To guarantee snow, some of Tremblant's slopes have as many as 75 Flowtronex snow-guns drawing water from more than 2,000ft of piping.

Impressive as this feat of engineering might be, it makes skiing difficult when the machines are blowing ice into your face. Several times we had to stop, unable to see through a vicious hail-storm.

For aprÿs-ski, Mont Tremblant boasts nightlife that is vibrantly French. However, the fact that the clubs were open until 3am wasn't much use for a nine and a 12-year-old. Fortunately the swimming-pool - La Source - came to the rescue. Built to resemble a Laurentian lake, La Source owes rather more to the jungle and has a Tarzan-style rope which children can use to swing out into the middle of the pool and then drop 10 feet, disappearing underwater. I half expected them to emerge wrestling crocodiles.

Here we were back to shades of Uncle Walt, an environment about as authentic as Joe Ryan's Sugar Shack, but it was refreshing and I forgave Mont Tremblant this minor incursion into theme-parkery - as I hope Joe Ryan himself would, were he to return to Tremblant today.

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