A once-modest ski hill reinvents itself as a full-fledged resort

I had heard the hype, I'd read the reviews: Mont Tremblant, best ski resort in eastern North America for 1995, 1996 . . .

I was still skeptical. Could this be the place where I learned to ski in the seventies?The resort about 75 miles north of Montreal in the Laurentian Mountains, with antiquated lifts, shabby buildings, and surly staff?The place that nearly drove me to take up bowling in winter?

Last February I drove up from New York with my wife and our two boys, ages five and three, to find out. I could tell we'd reached Tremblant by the familiar sight of the white-steepled chapel tucked among the evergreens, and by the mont itself— a long, bumpy ridge that rears up in minor majesty above a frozen lake. Other than that, Tremblant had been utterly transformed. In the days that followed, I began to see why the praise is heaped as high as a Laurentian snowbank on this reborn Quebec resort.

Credit goes to Intrawest, which owns Whistler/Blackcomb, north of Vancouver, and other ski resorts throughout North America. Intrawest bought Tremblant in 1991 and, to date, has plowed $320 million into desperately needed improvements. To capitalize on Tremblant's 2,131-foot vertical drop, the company built five high-speed quad chair lifts, widened existing runs, and blazed new routes to bring the total to 77 trails. They installed Canada's most powerful snowmaking system to blanket 500 skiable acres in reliable powder; developed a glade zone called the Edge, where you can ski between the trees on a third mountain face; and added that Gen-X essential, a park for snowboarders and snowbladers.

At the base of the lifts, Intrawest also constructed a pedestrian-only village designed to resemble the historic district of Quebec City: a town square called Plaza St.-Bernard; old-fashioned commercial signs; and cobbled streets flanked by town houses decked out with Quebec's signature dormers, wrought-iron balconies, and tin roofs. Bars, restaurants, and shops are on ground floors; above are privately owned condos that Intrawest manages and rents out through a central reservation system. Other investors have built three hotels, including Canadian Pacific's ski-in/ski-out, 316-room Château Mont Tremblant.

Fortunately, Intrawest recycled some buildings that date from Tremblant's early days. A millionaire gold prospector from Philadelphia named Joe Ryan opened Tremblant in 1939 as the second ski resort on the continent, after Sun Valley, Idaho. Ryan's Quebec farmhouse— style chalets, where Lionel Barrymore, Henry Fonda, the Kennedys, and other celebs bunked in the fifties and early sixties, were moved downslope and grouped into what's called Vieux-Tremblant. The chalets, with their rough wood floors and open rafters, have been given new life as rustic restaurants and bars.

Mont Tremblant attracts stylish— but not fashion-plate— skiers from Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, New York, Boston, and even a few European capitals. Lots of families come here, along with young singles who nightly contribute to Tremblant's reputation as an ongoing house party.

But glitzy it isn't. The last time Tremblant had movie-star cachet, the studio system still ruled Hollywood. High-profile skiers such as Jack Nicholson and Melanie Griffith have yet to discover the ungilded charms of Tremblant, which doesn't take itself too seriously. Whimsical wooden penguins marching along the roofline of the visitor information booth in Plaza St.-Bernard seem to sum up the resort's loose-limbed take on life. In front of a candy shop across the square, skiers get their pictures taken sitting in the lap of a giant stuffed bear wearing a T-shirt that reads: GIVE ME SOME CHOCOLATE AND NO ONE GETS HURT.

The restaurants are for eating, not celebrity-watching. Après-ski hangouts are boisterous, uninhibited, and fun, not excruciatingly hip. Aspen has the Cigar Bar; Tremblant has Beavertails, a shop that sells paddle-shaped whole wheat dough fried in soy oil (think healthy doughnuts) and dusted with sugar and cinnamon.

Unlike their predecessors in the bad old days, the resort staff seems genuinely glad to have your business. On my first day of skiing, I asked a French-Canadian attendant, in English, if I could get to the Edge via his lift. Twenty years ago I would have gotten a drop-dead look. But this time, the attendant— in English— assured me that I could get there from here, recommended a good intermediate run, whopped the snow off the chairlift seat with his broom, and sent me on my way with wishes for a good day's skiing.

As it turned out, I had more than one good downhill day. Heeding a local's advice, I followed the sun, exploring the lightly skied north side in the morning. Intermediate runs here are wide boulevards with moderately steep pitches connecting gently rolling terraces— good warm-up trails.

After the intermediates, I wanted to push the envelope a bit by taking on a few glade runs at the neighboring Edge. A miscue on Réaction, Émotion, or Haute Tension (all aptly named) can turn you into the wrong kind of tree hugger. I managed to slalom through the woodlands without acquiring any bark tattoos, but it wasn't pretty. I didn't see anybody tackle Dynamite, at 42 degrees the steepest trail in eastern North America. I could barely bring myself to peek over the lip of the run where it peeled off the intermediate Fuddle Duddle. (The name refers to then Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau's clarification of an expletive he had appeared to mutter during a heated debate in the House of Commons.)

At lunchtime I ascended to Tremblant's summit, a ghostly white realm where evergreens flagged by the wind wear icy overcoats. A new day lodge at the top of the world, Le Grand Manitou, serves up muffins and croissants in a lower-level snack bar, surprisingly good cafeteria-style food in a huge dining hall, and $12 entrées, accompanied by a fire and live piano music, in La Légende restaurant.That afternoon I switched to the sunny south side, where mogul-dimpled Curé Deslauriers trail proved to be an entertaining intermediate run. Moguls are much tougher on the double-black-diamond Flying Mile, a classic Tremblant trail that's narrow, steep, and tricky.

While I was on the slopes, my wife signed up the boys for a ski lesson at the children's activity center. Despite the instructor's gentle encouragement, the kids found that sliding on one ski, then toppling over, was less fun than tobogganing on slick sheets of plastic and riding back and forth on the Cabriolet, an open gondola that connects the parking lots and the lifts.

But the highlight of the Tremblant experience, as far as my sons are concerned, was a table hockey game in the teen center, where they played happily for hours (Canada vs. the U.S.) to a jukebox blasting Pink Floyd and Steely Dan. Next trip we'll hit the Aqua Club, which opened in November, with indoor and outdoor pools, gym, sauna, and whirlpool. The indoor swimming area is designed to look like a lake in the Laurentians; it has a beach, a waterfall, rocks to dive off, even an island shaded by a weeping willow.

Après-ski at Tremblant is called le cinq À sept (as in happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m.). The center of the action is the Shack, an ersatz cabane À sucre, or sugar shack, at the base of the lifts, where maple-tree trunks sprout from the floor and the bar is made of toboggans.

The resort's most impressive lodging is the Château Mont Tremblant, which had opened just a few months before our visit as the newest member of the venerable Canadian Pacific chain. Steeply pitched roofs, corrugated shingles, and yellow-and-white brick walls give it the look of a sprawling 19th-century seigneurial manor.

The interior, however, has the scale and feel of a country inn, with design that draws from Quebec folklore. In the lobby, there are coffee tables made from antique bellows, lamp bases fashioned from tin milk jugs, and wooden hobbyhorses.

At the hotel's Windigo restaurant, Laurentian rainbow trout, venison, and other traditional Québécois ingredients are transformed into sophisticated fare, a departure from the rib-sticking mainstays of les anciens Canadiens. I especially liked the pork garnished with peppercorns and diced apple, and served with gold-rush zucchini.

Our children considered the pool the hotel's finest amenity. While they splashed in the shallow end, my wife and I could alternately swim laps, supervise, and admire the slopes through picture windows. Unfortunately, the spa hadn't yet opened during our visit and still isn't fully operational. When completed this summer, the 7,000-square-foot facility will repair rickety skiers by means of a health clinic, Jacuzzis, saunas, and a hydrotherapy center.

Despite all the improvements to the resort, some of our best moments at Tremblant were simple pleasures that could have been enjoyed during Joe Ryan's era (which ended when his widow, Mary, sold the property in 1965). One evening we snuggled under thick blankets and went for a jingling sleigh ride through the woods. Another night we stood on the snowbanks surrounding tiny Lac Miroir, in back of Vieux-Tremblant, for an exhibition by a local figure-skating club. Unselfconsciously charming, the young costumed performers presented their spectacle de patinage artistique, pirouetting and leaping to taped music as light snow fluttered down. Joe Ryan would have applauded both the performance and Intrawest's revival of his beloved ski resort.

DAVID DUNBAR is the travel editor of L.A.'s Buzz magazine.

the facts

Mont Tremblant's ski season lasts from early December through May; conditions are best in March and April. The weather during my February visit hovered around — 10 degrees Fahrenheit, which sounds frigid, but winds were light to moderate.

A central reservation system (800/461-8711) books rooms at hotels, inns, condominiums, and chalets in the region. Tremblant's Classic Ski Week package includes five nights' lodging, six days' skiing, a half-day of snowblading, and 14 hours of instruction. Rates range from $440 to $525.

Château Mont Tremblant 1045 Chemin Principal, Mont Tremblant, Quebec; 800/441-1414 or 819/681-7000, fax 819/681-7099; doubles from $150.