North America's first ski lift was built in the Laurentians in 1931, and by the late 1930s "snow trains" had brought tens of thousands of Montreal skiers to the slopes. Ever since, the Laurentians have been Montreal's four-season playground. The Quebec landscape ranges from rounded mountaintops to soft, rolling hills generously sprinkled with more than 9,000 freshwater lakes and a host of Swiss-like, small towns. There's skiing, snowboarding, dogsledding, ice climbing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling in winter at Mont-Tremblant; and rafting, kayaking, hiking, camping, and golf throughout the region in spring, summer, and fall.
And while the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) no longer connects Montreal to the Laurentians, the former railway bed is now the longest linear park in Canada. Le P'tit Train du Nord runs 143 miles from Saint-Jerome north to Mont-Laurier. Depending on the season you can bike, skate, ski, or snowmobile along the park's recreational path. Pick a section, park your car, and get out and play.
"It's a unique area," says Montreal Magazine editor Lora Perrone, who has visited the Laurentians since childhood, including a six-year stint working in Mont-Tremblant. "The mountains are not very big and the valleys are not very low, but because of its proximity to the big city there is still something quite pristine and special about it."
When to Go: December to March for winter sports; in March and April cabanes à sucre (sugar shacks) seem to pop up everywhere for the maple harvest, or sugar season; late June through August for summer activities; and late September for fall foliage.
Where to Stay: Just an hour north of Montreal, the area boasts the largest concentration of resorts in Eastern Canada, as well as many B&Bs, inns, and cottages. Reserve a suite with a wood-burning fireplace and private balcony at Hotel Quintessence Mont-Tremblant, an elegant boutique hotel perched on the edge of Lake Tremblant. Prefer the call of the wild to luxury? Campsites, yurts, huttopia tents, and igloos make a rustic Laurentian getaway. The reasonably priced and dog-friendly Domaine Summum, ten minutes from Mont-Tremblant, has two rustic cottages, a few open-floorplan suites, a private lake, and 200 acres of pine forest.
How to Get Around: Rent a vehicle from Discount Car Rentals at Mont-Tremblant International Airport or Saint-Sauveur. The whole region has been retrofitted for guests and brims with land (alpine and downhill skiing, hiking, road biking, golf) and water (canoeing, sailing) activities. Stop to wander the galleries, have a bite, stay overnight, or take a bike-trip break at one of many small towns in the region, such as Val-David and Saint-Sauveur. Perrone recommends exploring with an open mind. "Just last weekend I got lost at one point and found myself in little towns that I have never seen before," she says. Mountain and road bikes can be rented from Mont-Tremblant's Jo Velo.
What to Eat or Drink: Restaurant L'Ambiance at Manoir Saint-Sauveur features sophisticated epicurean treats such as Quebec prime rib of veal, Boileau deer, piglet from the Gaspor farm, and grilled Marieville duck breast; Sunday brunch featuring Bellevue salmon and maple butter pancakes is a weekend ritual. Diners at airy, modern Maestro in Saint-Sauveur tend to be locals and the menu is eclectic, from pork belly and lobster sandwiches for lunch to duck confit and barbecue chicken for dinner. If you've never tried tire sur la neige, a taffy formed by pouring still hot, boiled maple sap onto fresh snow, head to La P'tite Cabane d'la côte. The rustic Quebec sugar shack is typically open from late February through April. Spago in Sainte-Adele has an excellent 49$C dinner-and-a-movie-for-two deal (the theater is across the street). "The food is gorgeous," says Carolyne Lemieux, a concierge at the Manoir Saint-Sauveur.
What to Buy: Browse the art galleries in Sainte-Adele, including Galerie Anthracite, showcasing works by Quebec artists. In Saint-Sauveur, stop at Chez Bernard for local cheeses, wines, prepared foods, and decadent treats like specialty chocolates made by hometown chocolatier Catherine et chocolat. Val-David is the go-to place for unique keepsakes such as Chaudron pewter vases and oil lamps and handcrafted Quebec ceramics. Connoisseurs of fresh produce, cheese, and jams will enjoy Le Chemin du Terroir, a year-round tour of Laurentian countryside in search of tasty local treats. Maps and coolers are available from Tourist Information Offices in Saint-André-d'Argenteuil and La Porte du Nord.
What to Read Before You Go: Monique Proulx's Wildlives (Douglas & Mcintyre, 2009) is a fantasy novel set in the Laurentians wilderness.
Helpful Link: The Laurentians Official Tourism Site
Fun Fact: The Laurentian Mountains consist of Precambrian rocks over 540 million years old, making its soft peaks among the oldest in the world.
Jackie Middleton is an award-winning freelance writer based in Toronto.