Skiing in Quebec's Eastern Townships

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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).

Ski Bromont

Bromont (tel. 888/866-4270 or 450/534-2200; ski bromont.com) is as close to a party-hearty place as you'll find in tradition-bound L'Estrie. This is a kinder, gentler mountain, perfect for the Montreal yuppies and families who descend in droves to take advantage of package rates (three-day weekday lift passes are $41 as opposed to the daily $24; equipment rental, lift ticket, and a group lesson add up to $24), fun theme evenings, snowboard-free zone, and extensive night skiing (75 percent of the trails are lit).

The chalet-style Hotel le Menhir (tel. 450/534-3790, fax 450/534-1933) is high-end-complete with indoor pool and hot tub - but only a ten-minute walk from the lifts; sizable doubles ($60) in neutral colors include sofa beds (or two double beds) and coffeemakers. Old Bromont village has adequate gites, but the real finds are ten minutes away in Granby. The exquisite Une Fleur au Bord de l'Eau (tel. 888/375-1747, tel. and fax 450/776-1141) charms with maple or white-iron beds, hardwood floors, floral tracery, armoires, and patchwork quilts (two have shared bath for $34; two are private for $44). For $26, the three rooms of Le Voyageur (tel. 450/375-9221) are basic but boldly colored, and all share a bath.

One of Quebec's classic apres-ski spots is the Golden Pub (tel. 450/534-1575), with sensational live entertainment on weekend evenings, diverting decor ranging from a claw-foot tub filled with peanuts to walls and ceilings adorned with ski boots, saws, rakes, old suitcases, and sabers; fab gourmet pizzas and burgers go for $6-$8. Equally whimsical is the Musee au Chocolat (tel. 450/534-3893), with antique chocolate pots and displays on the history and production of chocolate (including a 200-pound chocolate sculpture of West Indian slaves bearing trays of cacao beans); delectable crepes and quiches are on sale for $3.50, velvety chocolate mousse for $2.50.

Mont Orford

Directly east, bordering the arty town of Magog, Mont Orford (tel. 800/567-2772 or 819/843-6548, fax 819/847-2487; mt-orford.com) provides L'Estrie's most diverse, challenging terrain. Its three peaks yield stunning panoramic views, especially south toward Lake Memphremagog and Vermont. The shortest runs, ideal for those looking to improve, are on Mont Giroux, especially in the new glades. Mont Alfred Desrochers is intermediate nirvana; its meticulously groomed, tree-lined avenues are narrow but blessedly sheltered on windy days (a chronic problem here). Mont Orford itself offers the greatest verticals and variety, ranging from cruisers like "Maxi" to the man-size moguls of "Super," steep spirals of "Contour," and precipitous plunge of the "Grand Canyon" through tight glades that would make Grand Prix racers blanch. A ticket to ski the 52 trails is $25.

Magog teems with captivating gOtes. La Maison Campbell (tel. 819/843-9000, fax 819/843-3352) is a 1901 Queen Anne with maple wainscoting, pine stairwells, and six period-style rooms (with private bath $44, shared $37) accented in rich colors like boysenberry and maize. Ethereal murals depicting angels or fanciful fish adorn the five rooms ($47-$54, including breakfast) of La Vieille Chapel Ramsay (tel. 819/847-0120), most overlooking the lake. There are plentiful mom-and-pop establishments like Motel de la Pente Douce (tel./fax 800/567-3530 or 819/843-1234), with cramped but cheery units starting at $34 ($38 with kitchenette), including continental breakfast. For those who want copious bells and whistles (from sauna to squash), well-appointed standard rooms at Auberge Estrimont (tel. 800/567-7320 or 819/843-1616, fax 819/843-4909) are $67-$91.

Magog is renowned for chic lakeside cafes with live jazz, but there are numerous bargains. A la Paimpolaise (tel. 819/843-1502) is a rustic Breton cr^perie; crepes start at $2.75, fondues for two from $15, while the two prix-fixe menus are $10 and $15. Le Villageois (tel. 819/868-9142) brims with familial touches like copper pots and china on the walls and serves appetizing rotisseries and pizzas from $7.

Owl's Head

To the south, Owl's Head (tel. 800/363-3342 or 450/292-3342, owlshead.com) has a wonderful isolated feel; few signs or ski shops advertising sales line the twisting roads to this aerie, which boasts sublime views of Lake Memphremagog from nearly every vantage point, including the aptly named novice run "Panorama" and the silken "Lily's Leap." Even cruisers like "Sugarbush" seem poised to pitch you into the water. But this mellow area also serves up some demanding skiing on steep, tight trails slashing through the evergreen: "Kamikazee" does just that, while "Colorado" is an unrelenting sea of bucking-bronco bumps. You can ski by the hour here, although obviously the regular ticket is a better value ($12 for the first two hours; $20 for a day ticket Monday-Friday; $98.50 for a five-day pass).

The only lodging (outside a few basic motels 20 minutes away) is slopeside, and the ski-in/ski-out Apartment Hotel is vastly preferable to the old, dilapidated Auberge (call numbers above for both). The former's hotel rooms start at $86 for two-day packages including lift tickets ($72 per night during the week or low periods); units with kitchen are $83 per person based on quad occupancy. Auberge doubles, in garage-sale '50s colors like burnt orange and burgundy, are $101 per night, including lift tickets and two meals daily for two people.

Mont Sutton

Directly west, Mont Sutton (tel. 450/538-2545, fax 450/538-0080; montsutton.com) boasts the most tree-skiing in the East; fully 40 percent of its trails are through glades, forming natural slalom courses (one area isn't even on the map: "Fantaisie" is true "out-of-bounds" tree-skiing, where you must be accompanied by at least two other skiers). The trails are naturally contoured to the terrain, with humps, rolls, and pitches galore to keep you adjusting. Chairs 1 and 2 service sinuous cruisers like "Alouette," "Mohawk," and "Capucine," surrounded on three sides by expansive novice slopes. Advanced skiers should head left and down from the detachable quad to reach Chairs 4, 4W, 5, and 7 (which has the meanest pitches, like "Intrepide" and "Emotion"). Reflecting its reputation, tickets are the region's priciest at $27, dropping to $23 a day for three-day passes. Half-day tickets are $19.

Slopeside lodging is rare and cher, but the Auberge Agnes Horth and Bakery (tel. 450/538-7417) is an 1844 log cabin only five minutes' walk from the slopes and replete with classic wood-burning stove and crooked, creaking floorboards - along with a bar and TV room. There are 14 rooms, beautifully decorated with touches liked dried flowers and tapestries; only one has private bath, for $51 (otherwise, doubles start at $27). Tariff includes a full breakfast showcasing Carla Green's scrumptious breads. The restaurant is also a phenomenal value, serving table d'hotes between $6.75 and $13 (from Wiener schnitzel to chicken potpie) in a room filled with antique butter churns and wagon wheels.

Horizon Hotel (tel. 877/538-3212 or 450/538-3212, fax 450/538-6669) is sterile (except for its appealing restaurant/bar/nightclub and huge indoor pool and hot tub) but has comfortable, fully outfitted rooms in earth colors; the cheapest run just $112 daily with half board and lift tickets for two, based on a three-day package. Auberge des Appalaches (tel. 877/533-5799 or 450/538-5799, fax 450/538-0510) is infinitely warmer (the owners ply you with hot chocolate when you return); the rooms are dormlike but serviceable, in edible hues like apricot and raspberry ($50 per room with breakfast for two, based on a two-night stay). You can also join the "inn" crowd at Auberge West Brome (tel. 888/902-7663 or 450/266-7552, fax 450/266-2040), ideally situated halfway between Sutton and Bromont; stylish rooms are $64 weekends, $58 weekdays (another $19 or so buys a luxurious studio with kitchen, fireplace, and balcony).

Les Alleghanys (tel. 450/538-3802) is an 1870s Victorian bistro whose tiny rooms improbably juxtapose jade ceilings, wood-plank walls, track lights, and travel and skiing mementos like African masks and ski boots. The menu is similarly all over the place but delicious, with table d'hotes running $6-$11.50. The larger-than-life owner and lively crowd epitomize the joie de vivre found skiing the Eastern Townships.

More information

Air Canada (800/776-3000) has nonstops from several major U.S. cities to Montreal's Dorval Airport. Sample round-trip midweek fares for February include $253 from New York City, $384 from Miami, $373 from Chicago, $481 from Los Angeles, and $570 from Dallas/Ft. Worth. Most major U.S. airlines have comparable fares. Shop around: depending on your dates and special deals, rates may drop $100 or more. Once on the ground, rent a car, as bus/shuttle service is limited and erratic to L'Estrie (and nonexistent within).

For area information, contact Tourisme Quebec (514/873-7977; tourisme.gouv.qc.ca) or Tourisme Cantons de l'Est (800/355-5755, 819/820-2020; tourisme-cantons.qc.ca). A spectacular view of Lake Memphremagog from Owl's Head resort, a well-kept secret in Quebec's Eastern Townships. Fred McKinney

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