55km-129km (34-80 miles) N of Montréal
Don't expect spiked peaks or high, ragged ridges. The Laurentian Shield's rolling hills and rounded mountains are among the world's oldest, worn down by wind and water over eons. They average between 300m and 520m (984 ft.-1,706 ft.) in height, with the highest being Mont-Tremblant, at 875m (2,871 ft.). In the lower area, closer to Montréal, the terrain resembles a rumpled quilt, its folds and hollows cupping a multitude of lakes, large and small. Farther north, the summits are higher and craggier, with patches of snow persisting well into spring. These are not the Alps or the Rockies, but they're welcoming and embracing.
Half a century ago, the first ski schools, rope tows, and trails began to appear. Today, there are 13 ski centers within a 64km (40-mile) radius, and cross-country skiing has as enthusiastic a following as downhill. Sprawling resorts and modest lodges and inns are packed in winter with skiers, some of them through April. Trails for those with advanced skills typically have short pitches and challenging moguls, with broad, hard-packed avenues for beginners and the less experienced. Skiers can usually expect reliable snow from early December to late March.
But skiing is only half the story. As transportation improved, people took advantage of the obvious warm-weather opportunities for watersports, golf (courses in the area now total nearly 30), mountain biking, and hiking. Bird-watchers of both intense and casual bent can be fully occupied. Loon lovers, in particular, know that the lakes of the province of Québec's mountains are home to the native waterfowl that gives its name to the dollar coin. Excellent divers and swimmers, the birds' ability to walk on land is limited, which makes nesting a trial. They're identified by a distinctive call that might be described as an extended, mournful giggle.
At any time of year, a visit to any of the villages or resorts in the Laurentians is likely to yield pleasant memories. The busiest times are February and March for skiing, July and August for summer vacation, and during the Christmas-to-New Year's holiday period. In March and April, the maple trees are tapped, and cabanes à sucre (sugar shacks) open up everywhere, some selling just maple syrup and candies, others serving full meals and even staging entertainment. May is often characterized by warm days, cool nights, and just enough people that the streets don't seem deserted. September is the same way, and in the last 2 weeks of that month, the leaves put on a stunning show of autumnal color. In May and June, it must be said, the indigenous black flies and mosquitoes can seem as big and as ill-tempered as buzzards, so be prepared. And some of the resorts, inns, and lodges close down for a couple of weeks in spring and fall, so be sure to check ahead if you're traveling during that time.
Prices can be difficult to pin down. Prices listed for hotels are the rack rate for double occupancy during the busy skiing and summer-vacation months, unless otherwise noted. At other times of the year, reservations are easier to get and prices for virtually everything are lower. Most hotels offer package deals with meals or activities, so consult their websites for options. Many also offer discounts to AAA members.
Remember that Montréalers fill the highways when they "go up north" on weekends, particularly during the top skiing months, so make reservations early if that's when you'll be traveling, and try to avoid driving on Friday afternoons.