No, it’s not over! Not by a long shot!
This is the best time of the year to be out on the slopes. The base depths are fine. The crowds are lighter. And best of all, the weather is often kinder … plenty of snow, fewer people, and warmer days. It doesn’t get better than that.
Close to home is always good. But how about some adventure before the skis go back on the rack for the summer? You could get on a plane. There are deals everywhere, and when you get to the Rockies or farther west, the elevation and low humidity combine to offer some great skiing well into spring. But then you have to deal with airports and luggage fees, TSA lines and shuttle buses in order to find something different.
So how about rubber-tire tourism? There are some great choices where a tank of gas is what it takes to get there. Personal favorites that often don’t come up on the regular radar, week after week, are Saddleback in Maine, where the variety of terrain is exceptional, and Mt. Sutton in Quebec, just across the Vermont border from Jay Peak, where glade skiing is everywhere.
But if you want to combine elegance with challenge, set a course to LeMassif in the Charlevoix region just east of Quebec City. Plan on a day to get there and a day coming back, but in between, the skiing is exceptional and the ambiance is unlike anything closer to home.
For years, LeMassif was a skiing backwater, hard to get to and primitive conditions when you did. Until the early 1990s, there were no ski lifts. You rode to the top in old school buses and at the bottom, you got back on a bus and did it again.
Although we are talking an area with some 2,000 feet of vertical, and lots of snow created by winter winds coming off the St Lawrence River at the base of the slopes, if nature took a break at the time of your travels, there was no snowmaking to rescue a holiday. Then, attracting 80,000 skiers in a season was a challenging goal, and most of those who did come were from the surrounding area.
A lot has happened since the turn of the century. First, and most important, the area was purchased by in 2002 by Charlevoix native Daniel Gauthier, who ran away from the circus — his circus, Cirque de Soleil — and bought the ski area. It has been a pretty nice ride for LeMassif ever since. With investment money flowing, the area now has new modern lifts, including a gondola, highway access direct from Quebec Rt. 138, saving drivers at least 15 minutes travel on a very winding road, and a new “base lodge,” although in this case, it is located at the top of the ski area, where the new access road comes in.
Hungry when you get there? The food is excellent. But don’t look for a quick burger with fries. They don’t serve fried food in the lodge.
But a ski trip is about skiing, and for that only, Le Massif is worth the trip.
From the main lodge at the top, you look down the mountain at the St. Lawrence River, the water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the port of Quebec City and east. I can’t think of another place where ocean-going tankers sometimes share the view with nearby hill tops.
Most skiers will start the day on LaPetitte-Riviere, a wide, gentle trail right down the middle of the area. It is an easy warm-up, top to bottom. One of the first things most will notice is what you don’t notice. Le Massif does have snowmaking now, but with a normally abundant natural snowfall, the crunch is missing. What you hear underfoot is, well, nothing at all! Quiet skiing!
This accomplishes two things. Natural snow without hard pack is easier on your legs and knees, and it is a lot softer if you take a fall. Why is this important? Because there are lots of trails at LeMassif that are marked black diamond but are manageable by lots of skiers because of the quality of the snow. There are plenty of options off this main boulevard to give you a different look at the mountain and variety of ski experiences. There are mogul trails and groomers, and plenty of glades to keep the area fresh and exciting every time down the hill.
When you want to go farther afield, there are lots of options from the top of the mountain, including LaCharlevoix, a triple black diamond run at the east end of the area layout. Now, a “triple black diamond” designation may seem like something that would disqualify you from getting life insurance. But it is really not that bad, especially with good natural snow cover. It is a racing trail, so it has steep pitches. It is also very wide and manageable, especially if you are not trying to beat a clock.
Once you have skied the “triple black diamond,” is there anything more the ego requires?
Well, there are some humility-restoring bump trails and glades, and there is off piste skiing for those willing to hike a bit. But with natural snow, side to side and front of bump to back of bump, just about everywhere here is worth a try.
LeMassif would be worth the trip if it were skiing only. But let’s admit it; a ski adventure is more than that.
Charlevoix is squarely in the French-speaking area of Quebec. This is nowhere near the issue it once was. Not everyone in the area speaks perfect English, but all seem willing to try. It is a tourist area, and people are routinely helpful.
LeMassif is located in the town of Petite-Riviere-Saint-Francois. But because the access road now comes in from the highway above, most travelers arrive in the very attractive village of Baie-Saint-Paul, a quaint artists’ community on the St. Lawrence about 15 minutes from the ski area. With a great variety of galleries and small restaurants, it has been attracting summer visitors for years.
Its newest attraction is Hotel LaFerme, a part of the LeMassif grand plan. Opened just last summer, this one-time location of a farm managed by the Little Franciscans of Mary order of nuns is four buildings designed to blend with the local environment. It does this magnificently. Think I exaggerate? Well LaFarme just won first prize in an international design competition, beating out places like the Hotel Armani in Dubai and The Landsbury in London. Not bad for a re-imagined farm in rural Quebec.
There is more. Driving to the ski area is usually the most convenient travel. But if you would like to shed some time on the road, take the train that LeMassif now runs Friday through Sunday from Montmorency Falls outside of Quebec City to the front door of the hotel … literally. After a two-hour ride, which includes food and beverage service, you get off the train and walk into the lobby of LaFerme. Like the Saratoga Springs-to-North Creek train in our area, this is a very civilized way of arriving for your ski experience. When you finish skiing and it is time to head home, the Le Massif train stops at the gondola station at the ski area. Walking distance from the lift is about 100 feet.
And LeMassif is not done. There is area to expand the ski terrain, and currently there is discussion to build a 300-room Club Med on site.
Quebec can be a cold place in mid-winter. The people at LeMassif have done their best to deal with that with a gondola at the ski area and a welcoming lodge at the top. Then there is the train and shuttle service to move you to and around the area.
But this isn’t winter. It is adventure time. Storms from the Atlantic can drop a lot of snow here in a hurry, and the ski season at LeMassif normally run until at least mid-April. It is just a car ride away.
While the larger areas in our region gear up for spring, the small areas are staring to shut down. Maple Ridge closed in early March and Oak Mountain in Speculator will close this Sunday.
Hickory Mountain in Warrensburg is still hoping to open. Despite some teasing forecasts this winter, it has not had enough snow to operate in 2013. But hope springs eternal. According to a spokesman, if a substantial storm does come between now and mid-April, Hickory will turn on the lifts.
RAILS AT ROYAL
March is a big month for freestyle competitions, and Royal Mountain in Caroga Lake will be hosting “The Fool’s Gold Rail Jam” on Saturday. There will be six categories of competition: boys and girls, 15 and under, over 16, and open to all comers, boarders and skiers.
The event will be on the beginner slope next to the lodge with elements brought specifically for the competition. Signup will be at the mountain before 9:30 a.m. The competition starts at noon.
The sponsors are Line skis, Full Tilt boards and Alpin Haus.
DEAL OF THE WEEK
Bromley Mountain, just east of Manchester, Vt., is offering its “Spring-Loaded” four-pack picture ID for $99. The card is equal to four daily lift tickets, no exclusions, and is valid not only this spring, but through Dec. 20 next season.
The card is per person and valid only once per day.