Photos by Andre Gagne and provided by Les Refuges Perchés, Scandinave Spa and Casino Mont-Tremblant
When I was ten I wanted a tree house. I mean, hey, who didn’t when they were ten? The idea was a simple one. I’d build it atop the old tree in our backyard, the one with three splintering branches and that irate squirrel. Seemed like a perfect spot! It would be my private hideaway, an escape from the natural drudgery all ten-year-olds face; you know, cooties and homework. In my treehouse sanctuary I wouldn’t need school or proper nourishment; all I’d need was a box of comic books and a couple Hershey bars to survive. Well, that, a little imagination and a way to tame an angry squirrel.
To accomplish this task I’d need to recruit my brother. Together we’d roam the neighbourhood rummaging for any discarded pieces of wood we could find. Boards from an old fence near the church up the street, remnants of an abandoned shed, those shipping planks outside of the supermarket, all of them were loaded into a shopping cart and trekked back to the yard for the construction of our treetop mansion.
Of course, the best laid plans of squirrels and ten-year-olds don’t always turn out as planned. Sure, we hammered, we nailed and without any actual design technique created something that was passable for a crooked bench between the branches. Yeah, not even close to a house –I guess you need walls for that or possibly a roof– but it was our tree floor anyway and it lasted until the first heavy rain. We discovered the pieces in the morning, two sad little architects. I can still hear the squirrel laughing. The only silver lining to the debacle we’d never speak of again was that we at least had the foresight to keep the comics and chocolate in our bedroom.
Now, thirty years later, I stand in front of a glorious wooden creation that my near forty-year-old self, let alone that ambitious kid, could never fathom constructing. The house sits between two large rocks and it’s seemingly floating if viewed at the right angle. Though quite new, there is a sense to the structure that makes it feel like everything around it should be cast in sepia tones. Let’s call it nostalgic warmth.
Surrounding me are the barren trees of a Quebec winter emerging out of their white blanket and reaching for the sun. In some of them are treehouses. Like the Rock House, these gloriously unique camping facilities at Les Refuges Perché are part of where nature awaits the adventurous any season of the year in Mont-Tremblant’s 2,000 acre protected regional park on the shores of Lac Du Cordon. For two days it will be home.
On this March weekend the lake is frozen, the snow fresh and glistening marked only by the prints of what appears to be a red fox or one of the lodgers dogs. Somewhere a fire crackles. I can almost smell the burning embers. I have a few seconds to milk in the much needed morning rays slicing through the trees when I hear the first crunch. It’s coming from the snow underneath where the black sled containing my firewood, a bag of food and camera now sits. As the walk through the woods to the treehouses range between ten to twenty minutes, such luggage totters are needed if you don’t have the strength of an ox or a couple extra appendages.
Again, coming from where the sled remains near where I’ve stopped after my exercise filled jaunt to take in the view, catch my breath and get lost in daydreams of childhood. My now disturbed reverie of youth lasts for a heartbeat longer before the sled rushes down the hill next to the Rock House and careens off the side of a small cliff. Ack!
I have a brief, but humorous, vision of the sled sliding rapidly through the woods and coming to rest at a cave where a small bear cub emerges, discovers my camera and decides to take up photography. Well, I may have lost my equipment but at least I edged along evolution, I think before the sled thankfully slams into one of those wonderful trees and comes to a stop, everything still safe and sound inside.
Clearly, I’m not a camper, I reflect to myself not for the last time today and it’s not just because of my inability to make adequate backyard shelter. This deficiency was accentuated a few moments after rescuing my sled when, inside the thankfully already built Rock House, my attempts at building a roaring fire to melt away the -25 degree weather are met with equal defeat. Sure, I have the wood, the newspaper, matches and even what they call a fire starter provided by the reception but even with the point form instructions on the wall near the doorway this is like handing me a chunk of granite, a hammer and chisel and asking me to carve The Winged Victory of Samothrace.
Clearly, I’m not a camper.
Thankfully, there’s Leislies Farran, one of the helpful Les Refuges Perché staff. Seeing the lack of smoke that should have been puffing out of the chimney, he figured correctly that I was in trouble. Walking in sheathed in a black, face-hugging outfit, he was either exceptionally prepared for the cold or practicing for his next career as Batman. To the one in need of fire, he just looked like the world’s friendliness ninja, clutching not a katana but an eco-log.
“I used to have a lot of stressful jobs but then I came here and I got very lucky,” says Farran in English, one of the six languages he speaks. He’s just effortlessly made a fire and talks like a young man who’s seen much of the world in a very short time, happy to have found another beautiful slice of it here in the forest of Les Refuges Perché.
“This is an experience people should not miss. You don’t come here to play on your laptop or cell phone. You come here to appreciate nature. You just can’t be upset in this environment.”
I agree and this coming from an inept fire builder who just nearly lost his livelihood to the wildlife. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to be angry anywhere that makes you feel so much like a kid again but on a much grander scale and that’s exactly what one of the visionaries behind the treehouses, Nancy Houston, was hoping for.
“The getaway we offer is a mini adventure; the excitement of feeling like a kid! We all have dreamed of having a treehouse getaway in our backyards, a place to escape and call your own,” she says, going on to tell me how they created “a hideaway up in the trees where stories and secrets are shared with friends and families” where “you are off the ground, at eye level with the birds, and you feel as if you are part of nature.”
Houston was inspired by books she read showcasing a similar retreat in Europe. After two years of planning, she hired a construction company and set to work. The hardest part, she says, was choosing the perfect sites, places that would capture the beauty she was seeing inside her head.
“The second hardest part was trying to convince banks to invest in a project whose buildings are hung up in trees,” she adds, stating that her goal was to become the premier alternative-lodging experience in one of Canada’s most successful tourist regions.
“We wanted the experience to be comfortable without taking the adventure out of it. We wanted to provide the spaces and landscapes that camping offers like the beauty of nature, the sun rising over a lake, the sounds of nearby wildlife, but without some of the challenges that go along with camping like sleeping on the ground or buying and transporting all your own gear.”
Though living inside some luxurious lodgings, make no mistake about it, this is still camping. Like Farran says, you’re going to want to leave behind those electronics because out here you’re really roughing it. Some of that aforementioned woods walk pulling the sled is uphill so it’s best to travel light, anyway. You’ll probably do it a few times over the course of your stay and, though mildly laborious, you’ll appreciate the exercise and the crisp air. In the summer you can even use a canoe. You’ll get a 60 L cooler to keep your food on ice and it’s recommended you use lake water to do up your dishes. Dry toilets are located close by with full bathrooms and hot showers at the reception. If you really need it, you can rent a power pack for smaller gadgets or pick up water purifying pens to cleanse what you get from the lake.
Multiple types of homes await you, not just the Rock House though that’s the only one that has a wooden bridge attached to it. There’s the circular hideaway they call the Yurt, for example, or the aptly titled hive shaped The Bee. Each of the 10 houses have terraces to welcome the sun, fire pits to welcome the S’mores and contain comfy beds, a wood burning oven, some lanterns, a two burner propane portable stove, and everything you need to cook except the food. There’s a grocery store in town if you need more provisions and staff like Leislies and Nancy are there to offer any help and give tips on what you can do in the area.
You’ve got a lot of choice. If being surrounded by four shimmering lakes, lush forest with 36km of walking trails and, you know, living in a tree isn’t adventurous enough for you, the Mont-Tremblant Activity Centre provides you with many ways to keep busy throughout the year with selections that cater to everyone from families, the casual camper or those who can complete the Marathon des Sables.
You’ve seen the beauty from the ground; why not take to the air?
Panoramic helicopters tours fly you over the mountain where you’ll get an eagle’s eye view of the Diable River, Tremblant Village and Lake Tremblant. From my vantage point, the winter skiers whoosh down the slopes resembling colorfully bundled up ants.
The helicopter may be small –it’s actually pulled out of the garage for take-off by the pilot– but it cosily seats four which is one seat more then you’ll need for the optional more romantic tour.
Here, you can fly towards an amber sunset where you’ll touch down with enough time to explore the Village shops and galleries before dinner for two at the Altitude Restaurant.
Offering another stunning view of the mountain, this grill is known for its seafood.
There’s also the welcoming warm atmosphere –provided first by the enormous fireplace by the steps– and an endless desert table that may very well be bigger than the helicopter that brought you there. Different musicians play there every Friday and Saturday night and in the summer you can sit out on the terrace to be even closer to the scenery.
Oh yeah, the restaurant rests directly above the Mont-Tremblant Casino so save some of your cash and make a few bets.
You never know when it could be your lucky night.
If sticking close to nature is more your style, the Activity Centre can set you up with snowshoes, kayaks, ice fishing gear, water skies, a dune buggy and even your own team of sled pulling dogs!
“Our winter classic is dogsledding. It’s an activity that took off in Mont-Tremblant in the nineties when it was virtually impossible to try it anywhere else except maybe Alaska,” says Tremblant Activity Centre’s Chris Winlo. “We've been getting better and better at it. The sliding part of it is exciting but the real draw is the dogs. They are so friendly and enthusiastic that it just sweeps everyone up in it.”
Expedition Wolf is just one of the dogsledding companies in the area and that draw Winlo speaks of is heard long before seen as the excited canine cacophony perks up to greet when you walk through the gate.
What started with founder Abitibian Gaëtan Lambert and 14 dogs has grown to nearly 250 huskies, most born on site and others rescued from having been abandoned. The staff provide a lot of love for the animals and they work seven days a week, only pausing three days this season because of inclement weather.
Don’t think because there’s an abundance of trained staffers about that you won’t be doing any work. You’ll get to lead each member of your team to the sled and take turns racing them along the trails yourself. It takes a bit of practice –knowing when to lean into turns, duck under incoming tree branches and to slow down the sled so to not overtire the dogs– but soon you’ll be zipping through the snow with your life goal now firmly set on the Iditarod. Okay, maybe wishful thinking but it’s an experience you’ll not soon forget. Remember to repay your hardworking team with a few treats at the end of the day and I don’t think I have to recommend staying for the optional tour of the puppy pen.
In the summer, Winlo recommends a paddling trip. The Centre can set you up for a day on the river, an activity that is one of the area’s more popular excursions.
“Our rivers just have so much to offer from virgin beaches and great swimming, to thrilling rapids and interesting wildlife. The best way to explore them is with a raft, a canoe, a kayak or paddle board,” Wino explains, mentioning that you are not going to want to miss the newest Tremblant attraction. He calls it a “Mega-zipline” and it’s not hard to see why. Running thousands of feet long above the treetops from peak to peak where you’ll take in spectacular views of the Laurentians, the Mega-zipline is a mega-adrenalin rush. Book early as this one fills up fast.
With so many ways to work out your body, Tremblant’s Scandinave Spa is the more soothing reward you’ve been waiting for.
Situated just a few minutes from the Tremblant resort and nestled in the Laurentian forest, the spa’s setting alone is enough to relax you but it’s the continuation of a thousand-years of Scandinavian bath tradition that you’ve really come for. The practice of hydrotherapy uses both cold and hot water to refresh and revitalize, though you don’t need to read about the science behind it to know it feels amazing.
After one eucalyptus steam bath, a dip in the hot tub and a swaddle sojourn in one of the solariums, I felt as calm as a convent.
Still in this euphoric state, the walk back to my weekend home in the middle of two boulders was done in the glow of moonlight. You’d think that every star in the universe was in view above you, pinpoints in a dark velvety coat cradled by infinity. Inside, the last of the day’s energy allows me the ability to light the room’s two lanterns. I lie back on the bed, pull a sleeping bag up to my chin and remember my childhood treehouse once again as I watch the lantern flames flicker patterns on the wall. It looks like a waltz. I can still smell the eucalyptus.
I’ve never been so relaxed.
Eat your heart out angry squirrel, wherever you are.
The room is toasty warm as the good ninja Leislies kept the fire going in my absence. Perfect, absolutely perfect, because even if my mind wasn’t in this tranquil state of feathery fluff I doubt I could have started it back up again. Heck, who am I kidding? I was fortunate enough to have figured out how to unzip the sleeping bag.
As I said, I’m not a camper but even so this was the best experience I’ve ever had being stuck between a rock and a hard place.