Hannah Stephenson and her teenage daughter take to the Canadian slopes and shops on a two-centre ski and city break to Mont Tremblant and Montreal.
IT’S an apt question. “Will we need to speak French?” my 14-year-old daughter Grace asks on the journey to Mont Tremblant, Quebec’s top ski resort. Well, you don’t have to parlez Francais in this neck of the woods, but it certainly helps.
On the itinerary is a girls’ week of skiing, shopping and spas at ‘Trembling Mountain’, one of the most family-friendly Canadian ski resorts, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The French influence is everywhere in this pretty, twinkling town, whose brightly painted Disney-like buildings form the base to 49 miles of runs.
Only a day’s drive north from New York, Tremblant attracts Americans because, to them, it feels like France, like going to Europe without the long, expensive flight. For us, it’s a six-and-a-half hour flight from London and 90 minutes by car.
In the pretty cobbled streets, we find après-ski shacks serving not only poutine – a Canadian staple of French fries topped with gravy and curd cheese – but also real French onion soup and Savoyard fare, including raclette and fondue, crème brûlée and other Gallic delicacies.
But for now, we’re here for the slopes; the cool cruisers, the gentle blues, the tree-lined runs and the black double diamonds for adrenaline junkies, Mont Tremblant has them all.
First, though, be aware that this is a truly cold spot. On our first brilliantly sunny day on the slopes, the temperature is a teeth-chattering -18C and our eyelashes freeze while we’re waiting for our instructor.
In February, you don’t want any flesh showing at all. Everyone wears full-face ski masks or balaclavas under their helmets and goggles. The temperatures here in the east fluctuate massively, dipping to below -30C in the winter and soaring to 30-plus in the summer
Having said that, once the thermals are on and the sun is shining, Mont Tremblant is a blessing for intermediates like us. Half of the runs are deemed advanced, but many of the blacks are so well groomed, they’re more like European reds.
The beauty of skiing in Mont Tremblant is that it’s pretty difficult to get lost. There’s only one mountain, with four faces. The south side, facing the village, is sunny and leads right back into town – which is ski-in, ski-out – while the north side gets the sun in the morning and takes you back up to the top of the mountain, with access to the south side and back to base.
We practise our techniques on the Nansen, the longest run in Tremblant at 6km and green all the way.
The other faces are the Versant Soleil (sunny side), which is home to the casino and more lodging, and the Edge, which is good for powder.
Back in the village, we watch little ones try their first “pizza” slices on the slopes – they used to be called snow ploughs – in the learning zones, which are well equipped with a magic carpet and plenty of patient instructors.
Meanwhile, older kids looking for excitement can buy an Adrenaline Park Pass to access the 50 rails and jump modules in three parks – helmets are obligatory.
In the evening, there are snowmobile rides for juniors and tubing nearby. There’s also 80km of cross country trails, dog sledding and snow shoeing.
To avoid the crowds, we’re at the gondola at 7.45am for “first tracks”, a service which allows skiers who want space to jump the crowds and hit the slopes first. We catch the early morning sun on the north side and ski down perfectly groomed “corduroy” snow on empty pistes.
After a few days, our aching muscles are a timely reminder of the need for chill-out time, so we head to Montreal for the second leg of our trip. I’m given a much-needed signature massage at the spa of the five-star Hotel Le Crystal, in the downtown district where the shopping can commence. Who cares about the cold now?
Grace and I head for Rue Sainte Catherine, shopping hub and home of Canada’s famous department stores Ogilvy, Simons and La Baie. “Instead of going to church and praying, we go shopping,” Celine, our guide, reflects of the city she says was once so religious. “Some people just don’t go outside in the winter.”
We venture into Montreal’s famous underground city from Rue Ste Catherine and find ourselves in a vast 30km network of shops, restaurants, cinemas and businesses. Unsurprisingly, it’s easy to get lost, but we endeavour to bag some bargains en route.
The exchange rate makes that easy. Grace buys a Michael Kors bag and saves herself a cool £45 on London prices, even with 15 per cent tax added on at point of sale, not on the ticket.
When it all starts to become a bit claustrophobic, we head for the old town and Marche Bonsecours, an indoor market selling more native-inspired goods.
Shopped out and exhausted, we make our way back through the vast underground maze to the hotel, for a swim in the spa pool, before reviewing our purchases. With the great exchange rate, retail therapy never felt so good.
• Hannah Stephenson was a guest of Quebec Tourism (0800 051 7055, email@example.com; www.QuebecOriginal.com).
For more information on Tremblant, visit www.tremblant.com
Air Canada offers return economy flights from London Heathrow to Montreal/Mont-Tremblant (via Montreal) from £522.16/£617.16, including taxes (www.aircanada.com, 0871 220 1111).