It was a chance meeting: one day last summer while resting along a biking trail in the Berkshires, I first noticed Gary with his strange-looking, makeshift scooter bike. After striking up a conversation, we were joined by my husband, Rob, and our eleven-year-old son, Ben, and soon we were chatting like old friends.
He told us he was a ski instructor at Okemo Mountain in Vermont – which just happened to be the mountain we ski each year – adding, “But my wife and I prefer to ski two hours north at Mont Sutton, Quebec.” He described how there were fewer crowds, no hordes of Americans (though Mont Sutton is bilingual), and the ski resort hadn’t changed much since the 1960s, which everyone seemed to prefer. It sounded like a rather quaint French hamlet with a mountain to rival anything in Vermont. I asked where he stayed and made a mental note of the “Auberge des Appalaches.”
And so it was that I enlisted our friends Rona, Allan, and their son, Jeremy, to drive with us the seven hours from South Orange, N.J., up to Mont Sutton over February break. We would be skiing for six days, staying at the Auberge des Appalaches, with its new owners, Patricia Gérard (from France) and chef-husband John Kostuik (originally from Toronto, but coming off a long stint at Rathsallagh House in Ireland, where the couple met).
It’s my first day on the mountain and yes, it’s beautiful, and yes, there’s noticeably fewer crowds, but I’m nervous. I haven’t skied in a year, and our group right away decides to start off on the blue intermediate trail. I was hoping for something a bit more green and round, with a smiley face and the name Loup de Loup or Yum Yum, but we head over to Mohawk Trail. And sure enough, my nerves get the better of me. I can feel myself regressing. I never did learn to parallel ski during my once-a-year ski trips, but suddenly my stem christie from the 1970s is not holding up so well. By the end of the day, I’m on the easy trail in a tense pizza – or from my day, the snow plow. I’m in need of lessons. I stop at the main lodge and describe my shortcomings to one of the truly friendly staff. She points to a photo wall of ski instructors and to a gray-haired, sixtyish man named Wilder. Tomorrow, it’s me and Wilder.
That evening, sitting at our beautifully set dinner table amid other travelers seated at their separate tables (there are 14 rooms with private baths at the inn), we talk about our day skiing. The lighting is warm and cozy with hanging lamps and lit candles throughout, just steps from a fireplace, which Patricia is careful to attend to. The chatter around us is mostly in French, which is soothing and soft.
Over a delicious locavore salad with crispy carrot shavings, a succulent appetizer of warm smoked salmon with marinated cucumbers and Hollandaise sauce, and some red wine, the tiredness begins to hit me. Choosing from a handwritten blackboard of dinner specials and appetizers (dinner and breakfast each day for the three of us are included in the total cost for the triple-occupancy room: $806 for five nights), I settle on the mushroom and arugula risotto with cashew nuts and shaved parmesan and am not disappointed. After dinner we head over to the couch facing the fireplace and I read while Rona knits and the boys finish up a game of chess.
The next morning Wilder and I are on the beginner’s slope when he asks me to try a 360-turn on one ski. I tell him he must be joking, but it appears he means business. Against all logic I attempt it, and just when I think he’ll now take pity on me and begin the coddling, he asks me to switch to the other ski. But it works. It’s just what I need to free me up a bit, to reduce a bit of the terror by forcing me to face my worst fear, going backward. The rest of our lesson is on intermediate slopes all over the mountain, and with each chairlift ride he morphs more and more into the father confessor/therapist.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he tells me, which normally is so irksome, but coming from Wilder sounds honest and real and, well, who am I kidding, kind of obvious.
Everyone in our group is simultaneously taking ski lessons (except Rona, who simply doesn’t need it) and over lunch we exchange ski instructor stories. Ben’s teacher took him to the expert slopes, where he practiced skiing through the wooded glades that spread from main trails everywhere. Allan, too, was on the expert slopes, practicing turning on moguls, while Rob, like me, was learning to calm down, relax his form, and breathe.
I meet with Nadya Baron, the marketing director at Mont Sutton, and she gives me a bit of the history of the mountain. This is the 51st anniversary of the mountain, and in some ways the ambience of the mountain has not changed so drastically over the years. There are new chairlifts, mini-size state-of-the-art grooming machines for the narrower trails, and constant planting of trees to maintain their “Best Glades in Canada” status.
Ownership is still within the same family and Luc Boulengec, son of the original owner, may make a call at night from his house overlooking the trails to a grooming crew to attend to a certain trail. Nadya tells me that many of the local children have grown up skiing the mountain, often stepping into their skis by age three, and that for five days each school year, students have a class trip to the mountain for a full day of skiing.
Mont Sutton is located in the Eastern Townships ski area, just over an hour from Montreal (and just forty minutes from Jay Peak), and forms the third link of the Jay Peak/Stowe (Vermont) Northern Green Mountain ski chain. It boasts 175 acres of terrain, with an altitude of 3,175 feet, 9 lifts, and 54 trails, of which 60 percent are beginner and intermediate, and more than 20 are black and double-black diamond trails.
Staying true to the vision of Réal Boulanger, the founder of the ski area in 1960, there is a “sous-bois” (pronounced sue-bwa) concept of trail placement, which keeps the mountain as nature intended it and the skier “au naturel”; while other ski areas cut trees, widen runs, and remove obstacles, Sutton’s crews plant trees and redirect traffic flow into the woods. Still, if your desire is for a more open, wider trail, there are plenty of those too. Sutton maintains a large terrain park for the younger set of snowboarders and skiers alike. Speaking of younger set, after a few days skiing here, there’s little fear of being toppled by a barreling snowboarder or cocky skier; people here just seem more experienced and noticeably more gracious than in the States, where my heart forever drops with the close clipping of speed demons.
One late afternoon, Rona and I take a walk through the small town of Mont Sutton and are intrigued by the French shops along the main avenue. We stop at Muriel’s for her homemade chocolates and sample her espresso truffles, which bring hair-raising tingles to the brain. Later we happen upon a small French shop with a Parisian-looking chef in full beret and with a lovely accent. I make a note to buy one of his quiches or just baked brioche or duck pâté for the ride home.
I’m thinking we’ll be back next year. Maybe like Cathy Abbott, whom I chatted it up with at the inn, an original member of the Green Belt Ski Club from Green Belt, Maryland, who began coming here over twenty years ago with seventy members. Now the group is still going strong with twenty friends and family, as the children and grandchildren have fallen in love with the area. Or like Mariette, whom I met on the chairlift, a 79-year-old former Bell Telephone employee from Toronto; she retired to this community and skis each and every day. Needless to say, she looked happy and healthy.