OBESE people not being much in evidence on the ski slopes, it’s surprising to find a mountain restaurant advertising that it doesn’t serve fried food. At Le Massif’s Chalet du Sommet, you might get a feuilleté of seafood or sautéed vegetables with taboulet – but no chips.
It is only one of a succession of eye openers for the first-time visitor to Canada’s Quebec province, however. No amount of pre-trip research will prepare you for the Frenchness of it, though it’s French with a difference and a North American flavour. Even a fluent speaker of the language may struggle with the dialect. And while menus include the likes of moules frites and confit de canard, the bavette I ordered at one restaurant – a staple plat du jour in France – was elk rather than beef.
There are sharp differences of behaviour and landscape, too. While lift queues may not be quite as obsessively orderly as they are south of the border in the United States, even on busy Saturdays, their calm is far from the anarchy often endured in France. As for the mountains, the Laurentian Shield are mere pimples compared with the soaring peaks of the Alps. If they lack visual drama, the views from their summits fire the imagination. Forests and frozen lakes stretch to the horizon, recalling a time, not so very long ago, when the only realistic transport across this vast land was the birch bark canoe.
The best known of Quebec’s resorts, outside Canada at least, is Mont Tremblant. It is, in consequence, the most international. It has shops selling famous brands of outdoor gear. There’s a choice of Italian, Mexican, Cajun, Asian and standard North American cooking. But while there is a small eaterie serving that Quebec curiosity poutine (basically chips, cheese and sauce) and a pricey French restaurant where a single dish of red deer loin with vegetables and a cake of goat’s cheese and basil was on offer last season for a shade more than £30, there’s a shortage of the kind of bistro we found elsewhere in the province.
Mont Tremblant, now only about 90 minutes by road from Montreal, was first developed as a ski resort in the late 1930s. Just over two decades ago it was bought by the major Canadian developer Intrawest, which incorporated some of its original buildings in a new ‘village’. Only a churl would deny it works. With its steep Rue des Remparts, generally low-profile buildings and sparkling tree lights, it is as pretty as most European resorts – and a good bit more photogenic than some.
The terrain is pitched at those of all abilities. There is designated tree skiing for those with uncomplaining knees, but it is also ideal for the intermediate to advanced, with lovely long, unthreatening black runs on the north side of the mountain. Skiing in Quebec can be cold – it was minus 14C on my first day there – and, while most pistes are immaculately groomed, they are more prone to ice than those of the American west.
Skiing the resorts around Quebec City proved a markedly different experience. Stay in the old town and you can pick from a huge range of excellent restaurants. I ate wonderful tarte Alsacienne at Le Moine Echanson on the Rue St Jean and excellent fish soup, followed by boudin noir (black pudding) and baked apple, at the Café St Malo down near the river front. You may even be tempted from the slopes by a little sightseeing. Take the funicular to the ramparts and the battlefield on the Plains of Abraham where General Wolfe defeated Montcalm in 1759, after his troops surprised the French by scaling the steep cliff from the St Lawrence. Start early and it’s possible to do that and still take in a few hours at the delightful little resort of Stoneham, a half hour away. Driving in and out of the city presents no problems – and Stoneham has extensive night skiing, so the lifts stay open late.
A little further away, past the impressive Montmorency Falls – which are three metres higher than Niagara – is Mont Ste Anne. Under the same ownership as Stoneham, it has more extensive terrain, with pleasant cruising runs and a largely separate expert zone. High on its slopes you can look across the St Lawrence and the Ile d’Orleans, which splits the river into two.
Le Massif is a half hour or so further east and while it is in reach of the city, I stayed in Baie St Paul, an attractive small town full of galleries, where local resistance saved many old houses from redevelopment. The area has attracted many landscape painters, including AY Young and members of Canada’s Group of Seven. In my view, the skiing at Le Massif is the most interesting at any of the resorts I visited this time. You can park at the main base at the top and ski straight down, with the river so close on some pistes you feel you are plunging towards its ice-strewn surface. These are among the finest views from any resort, particularly when, under a clear sky, the water turns aquamarine.
The resort may be unique in pushing the idea of sensible mountain eating – Le Massif, like Baie St Paul, is in Charlevoix county, which heavily promotes the use of local produce in its restaurants – but it isn’t the only resort where a stop by the piste may enhance your health. Maple syrup, scientists now believe, contains all manner of beneficial compounds. Back at Mont Ste Anne, about a third of the way down the Pichard piste, I had stopped for some at a cabane à sucre, a sugar shack, where the sap was boiled. In spring, traditionally, the resulting syrup is dropped on the snow, where it solidifies. Here, cheating the seasons, they drop it on a snow-covered bench – and you spool it up on a lolly stick. It’s not just kids who ski away wreathed in smiles.
Edinburgh-based Ski Independence (0131-243 8097 www.ski-i.com) can arrange a 14-night itinerary broadly similar for £1,599 per person, including Air Canada flights to Montreal from Edinburgh, a compact hire car, a week at the Westin in Mont Tremblant and a week at the Manoir Victoria in Quebec City.