ST.-SAUVEUR, QUE.–It's hard to know if it's the biting cold or the surrounding scene that has stopped me in my snow boots.
The landscape before me is so consummately Quebecois – the iconic church perched on a snow-covered hilltop, the clapboard homes converted to shops and restaurants, the busy boulangerie, the Laurentian mountains on the horizon – that it seems I've stepped out of my car and into a postcard.
But it's the sounds, more than the sights, that send a smile across my face as a horse-drawn wagon, packed with giddy school kids, manoeuvres its way onto the main street.
And, incredibly, the best is yet to come.
In just a few hours the sun will dip behind the mountains and a delightful collection of villages spread at the foot of this horseshoe-shaped ridge of Laurentians will do their small part to turn this into The Valley of the Stars.
The soft orange glow of the house and street lights will blanket this valley 60 kilometres north of Montreal, and lines of white lights will wend their way up some 140 downhill ski runs, powering this area's reputation as the biggest night skiing operation in the world.
But that's not the only way that enterprising Quebecois have found to turn the tables on whatever Mother Nature has to throw at them each winter.
This charming corner of Quebec also boasts an eclectic collection of Nordic spas – where frigid rivers double as cool-down pools – more than 150 kilometres of cross-country trails, year-round log cabins and, in St.-Sauveur alone (pop. 9,000), phenomenal outlet shopping and almost 100 restaurants, some with their own, quaint little wine cellars.
"We have many stars, but no Starbucks," says long-time local and Chamber of Commerce general manager Pierre Urquhart, who points out that maintaining the authenticity of this historic village was a personal mission for its long-time mayor, Georges Filion, who died last year.
"He never wanted to have neon. And McDonalds wasn't allowed in the centre of the village. That's why it's all authentic. It's all real. Nothing here is artificial."
St.-Sauveur village is the heart of this winter wonderland, located just off Highway 15 halfway between Montreal and Mont Tremblant.
Some 90 per cent of the locals are French and many trace their roots back to Montrealers who headed north more than 150 years ago in search of farm land. Instead they found rocks, lots of them, and turned to logging the Laurentians.
As they cut down swaths of trees on the surrounding peaks of St.-Sauveur, Morin Heights, Avila, Gabriel and Olympia – all of them now owned by Mont Saint-Sauveur International – they created the first family ski runs. Horses hauled locals to the top.
By the 1920s a ski train would start running between Montreal and St.-Sauveur, and the first skiers – mainly students from Montreal – would rent rooms in locals' houses. By 1934, the first ski lift was installed on Mont St.-Sauveur, earning it the reputation as Quebec's "cradle of skiing."
Today, however, it is so much more.
ST.-SAUVEUR VILLAGE: Art galleries, artisan shops and cosy boutiques line the main street and it's easy to scout out all this town has to offer, from freshly baked bread at the Boulangerie Pagé to paper-thin crepes at local cafés, on a leisurely stroll.
"We're a metropolitan village when it comes to restaurants," says long-time local and area promoter Rick Strubbe of the village's 98 restaurants, everything from Moroccan to Mexican and Italian to Asian. What local favourites such as French restaurant Le Sauvignon may lack in sophistication, they make up for in charm, including waiters who kindly steer you away from the house wine and into the tiny wine cellar with its wide selection of affordable vintages.
"But if you want a Guinness and fish and chips, you go to Morin Heights," adds Strubbe, the English-speaking enclave just 10 kilometres up the road which has become a mecca for cross-country skiing and Nordic spas.
NORDIC SPAS: They've grown in number – and elegance – since the first one opened in the unlikely rural area of Morin Heights 27 years ago after a local doctor used the concept of alternating hot-water treatments followed by dips in the frigid local river to help ease his wife's back pain.
While the Polar Bear's Club remains the granddaddy of them all here, at least four others are setting the relaxation bar so much higher, from the Ofuro Spa – an Asian oasis on a babbling river – to the recently opened Spa Le Baltique, a Zen zone of saunas, outdoor steam baths, hot tubs and Nordic waterfalls surrounded by lush forest and sunsets. See spaofuro.com, spalebaltique.com and polarbearsclub.ca
CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING: The lone traffic light on the shoulder of Highway 329 just outside Morin Heights is curious and, it turns out, clever. It's for cross-country skiers who've just left point zero of the Corridor Aerobique, a 58-kilometre cycling and cross-country trail on an old railway bed, and have to cross the busy road. That corridor is the hub of some 152 kilometres of interconnecting trails that make Morin Heights Quebec's cross-country ski capital. For a complete experience, you can rent log cabins that sleep up to five people and just step out your door onto the trails. See www.mssi.ca for details.
DOWNHILL SKIING: "Night skiing is really different. You'll find an ambiance, an atmosphere that you don't find on other mountains," says Frederic Belval, a spokesperson for Mont Saint-Sauveur International. Each of the valley's five mountains (see Just the Facts for more details) offer their own experience, but the local favourite is Mont St.-Sauveur, with its adjoining Mont Avila. Together they have 49 runs and 11 lifts on about 200 metres of vertical that's somewhat more challenging than Collingwood's Blue Mountain, and one of the biggest terrain parks in Quebec. The real fun starts, however, when the sun sets and lights cast a warm glow over the trails. On weekends, the switch is flipped on all five mountains (during the week only St.-Sauveur has night skiing), and the view alone makes it worth the chilly lift ride to the top. Unfortunately, the whole after dark thing is a real magnet for young snowboarders, which can make the slopes a bit unruly at times, but still an experience not to be missed.
SHOPPING: When you need a break from the cold – and it can get bitter here – while away the hours rushing between outlet stores in St.-Sauveur's quaint and colourful "village" of outlet shops, ranging from Jones New York to Rockport, Nike, Stokes and, of course, ski and boarding shops. Developers were keen to slap up a conventional mega-mall but, thankfully, town councillors stopped them in their tracks, insisting that any shopping stay true to the village's Quebecois village feel and Laurentian heritage.
SUMMER: Winter is one thing, but the best time to come to St.-Sauveur valley is summer, when biking and hiking is at its best and there are more than 20 golf courses within a half-hour drive.
Mont St.-Sauveur becomes a wet-and-wild water park with some 20 ways to soak up the fun, from the lazy river that meanders just outside the base lodge to giant water slides and the rushing Colorado River ride which are tucked so neatly into the mountain's lush trees they're almost impossible to see – even in the Valley of the Stars.