Skiing in Quebec's Eastern Townships
Just across the Vermont border, the powder's magnifique and you get beaucoup more downhill for your dollar
I was schussing down a narrow, tree-lined trail with breathtaking views of Lake Memphremagog, at Owl's Head, one of Quebec's "secret" ski areas. It was entre le chien et le loup ("between the dog and the wolf"), what Quebecois call late afternoon, when flat light overtakes the slopes. Suddenly, in a spectacular header, I went down in a spray of snow as burly, bearded lumberjack types emerged from the glade, singing lustily (I kid you not) while tapping the maples for sap. One picked me up like a twig, then with a grin let me sample the wares. Later I sat toasting by a fire in my gOte (the homey local version of a B&B), sherry in one hand, in the other a warm slice of home-baked bread slathered with - what else? - fresh maple syrup. Quebec has long been prized by skiers for its accueil chaleureux (warm welcome), incomparable ambience, and bargain packages, including meals and/or lift tickets. And since the Canadian dollar has, despite occasional upswings, been going downhill faster than Tommy Moe in his prime, you can expect 30 to 40 percent savings on rates well below those in New England (at press time, the exchange rate was US $1.48 for one Canadian dollar; prices here are quoted in U.S. currency). Typical two-day packages (minimum stays are often required, but the longer your trip, the greater your savings) start as low as $55 per person, with gites and motel rooms in neighboring towns as cheap as $30. Restaurants, from humble creperies to gourmet auberges, offer an affordable daily table d'hote or a set three-course menu. Even the province's two "monster" areas, Mont Tremblant (in the Laurentians, a bit north of Montreal) and Mont Ste. Anne (further north still, near Quebec City), rank as affordable.
Off the beaten chemin
But Quebec's pastoral Eastern Townships - L'Estrie in French-and their "Big Four" ski areas (Bromont, Mont Orford, Owl's Head, and Mont Sutton) offer one of skidom's sweetest deals, even without the maple syrup. Located southeast of Montreal (Bromont is 45 minutes away, closer than the more famous Laurentians) right across the Vermont border, they're also a prime driving destination, just 6-7 hours from Boston and New York. The areas are less trendy than the Laurentians, still mostly family-owned and catering to a largely family clientele, all of which keeps prices low. Because each of the Big Four offers something unique and lies within 20-30 minutes' drive of the next in a neat quadrangle, they cooperate on marketing, including special interchangeable lift passes (four days for $84, five for $98.50). Other bonuses: proximity to the border and a long-standing English settlement make the region Quebec's most anglophone outside major cities, while the microclimate and abundant glades ameliorate the Northeast's inevitable damp, cold, and biting wind...somewhat. The areas are reminiscent of New England, with state-of-the-art snowmaking, top-notch ski schools, picture-postcard views of shimmering lakes and snow artfully dripping from gables, and classically narrow trails winding through stands of maple, white birch, and spruce. The vertical drop ranges from 1,329 to 1,772 feet - hardly Killington but comparable to popular Northeast venues like New Hampshire's Attitash and Bretton Woods or Vermont's Ascutney and Bromley (L'Estrie's mountains, called Les Appalaches, are in fact extensions of the Green Mountains and the Alleghenies). A car is advisable, since the comparatively limited slopeside accommodations just exceed our price level (except for Sunday-Thursday or one-week packages), shuttles are nonexistent, and some fantastic deals lurk a few miles further away. Rentals are available from the major companies at Montreal's Dorval Airport, starting at $35 per diem (you may net a significantly favorable exchange rate winging it on-site without reservations).
Driving is recommended anyway, since the Eastern Townships are absurdly picturesque. They out - Yankee New England, with white (mostly Protestant) church spires, round barns, covered bridges, and clapboard or gingerbread houses with shingle roofs. Lovely Victorian towns like North Hatley, Magog, and Knowlton beckon with inexpensive folk art galleries, antique shops, B&Bs, and homespun restaurants serving various cuisines, including the hearty local fare (musts include tourtiere, a savory meat pie, and tarte au sucre, maple pie). Thankfully, the mountain villages aren't sprawling, overdeveloped eyesores like, say, Stowe; their atmospheres haven't changed much in 30 years, and many still have their original wood lockers and picnic tables. You can even get free year-round tastings at wineries (!) and in late February through mid-April tap your own maple sap at a sucrerie (sugar house).