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Snowy Slopes and More Draw Downhill
Skiers to French Canada’s Québec City

Dan Leeth

 

            Outside, the blizzard shrieks, its fury pummeling the glass of our 11th floor window.  Flags whip, snow flies and the mercury cowers well shy of zero.  Factoring in the wind-chill, Antarctica appears balmy in comparison.

            “Tell me again why we chose Québec over Colorado?” Dianne, the woman with whom I share frequent flyer miles, asks.

            “Let me explain,” I begin.

            I remind her that instead of vacationing in the West, we have flown to Québec City for a week of skiing and sightseeing.  Not only will we have slopes to schuss, but in French Canada, we have the opportunity to taste, shop and experience another culture.  Here, our foreign northern neighbor actually seems foreign.

            “Think of it as Europe without the jet lag,” I encourage.  “Franco flair without the haughty air.”

            Founded a dozen years before the Pilgrims hit Plymouth Rock, Québec City sits strategically atop 300-foot palisades overlooking the St. Lawrence River.  Cannons line the ramparts, a citadel guards the channel, and stone walls enclose the historic downtown.  Filled with shops, pubs, restaurants, hostelries and residential row houses, Old Québec feels like the Old World.

            The across-the-pond perception is heightened by the Château Frontenac, a 618-room hotel rising above the bluffs.  Opened by the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1893, this fairytale-style castle with its towers, turrets and patina roof has become the symbol of the city.

            “They built here for three reasons,” explains tour guide Elaine Lemelin.  “The beauty of the site, to provide people from Europe a getaway destination and to receive a 10-year tax exemption.”

            Costumed in a red velvet dress and ostrich-feather hat, Lemelin plays Rose-Aimée de Mantigny, a living-history damsel of the day.  She shares “firsthand” historical anecdotes as she leads us through the sprawling structure where wood panels ceilings, marble covers floors and brass caps banisters.  The fairytale elegance proves enchanting.

            “I invite you to believe in the magic of this place and make a wish when you go down the grand staircase,” the young mademoiselle bids at tour’s end.Québec skyline

            Dianne and I simultaneously ask for better weather.

            Miraculously, the storm departs and morning dawns clear, calm and cold.  We head for Stoneham Mountain Resort.  The area offers 326 skiable acres with 32 runs on three mountains.  Half are illuminated at night for masochists who like it really cold.  Although minuscule by Western standards, the area feels bigger than its size warrants, and the packed powder is perfect.

            “Stoneham has the best conditions,” brags local skier Martin Belleville.  “They don't have icy spots because they groom the trails twice a day.”

            For those craving “big air,” Stoneham offers four terrain parks with a halfpipe.  Its most intriguing feature is a half-buried school bus to slide across.  A Kokanee-brand beer label graces its side.  European French may prefer wine, but French Canadians often opt for hops.

            “Yes, we Québecers drink a lot of beer,” admits Belleville.

            After we, too, have an après ski brew, Dianne and I catch the shuttle back to town.  Two women sit ahead of us.  They tell us they are from Surry, England, and ask where our home is.  When I answer “Colorado,” they look puzzled.  Why, they wonder, would we leave there to come here?

            “Let me explain,” I begin.

            We spend our first non-ski day wandering Old Québec on foot, strolling winter-muffled streets devoid of the summer throngs.  Vendors still sell art in a narrow alleyway, cafés and restaurants line the sidewalks, and even in winter, outside tables invite alfresco-dining.  Our return takes us down Dufferin Terrace, a snow-covered boardwalk beside the bluffs.  Along its course stands an icy toboggan run, down which the guidebook claims riders reach speeds of 60 mph.  We give it a try.

            At the top, an attendant slips our sleds onto individual, ice-hemmed tracks.  A bar holds each stationary as we sit onboard preparing for takeoff.   With no fanfare, he says, “You go.”

            And we do.  Plunging downward, the sled judders and jars.  Its wood-on-ice surface screams with accelerating speed.  I scream, too.

            Seconds later, we hit bottom and skate to a stop.  Sliding from her sled, my competitive cohort beams like a dental-ad actress.

            “Beat you!” she squeals.

            Le Massif, a ski area owned by former Cirque du Soleil president Daniel Gauthier, becomes our next downhill destination.  Located along the St. Lawrence River an hour’s drive east of Québec City, it offers only 302 skiable acres, but its 2,526-foot vertical drop is largest in the area.  Most of Le Massif’s 43 trails are groomed, but there are also a few
Le Massifbump-bashing and branch-whacking alternatives.  Unlike most areas where skiers ride a chairlift from the base, this area offers summit parking so folks can start days on a downer.

            “Le Massif began as a bus skiing area,” explains spokeswoman Suzie Kétené.  “It was like heli-skiing.  People would go up in a bus and ski down with a guide.”

            The area stands near the edge of the St. Lawrence River, and heading down, it appears as if we’re going to descend straight into a blue-gray sea covered with chopped ice.  The sight is grippingly beautiful.

            “This is as close to nature as you can get,” local skier Denis Allard remarks as we share a lift.

            Allard is heading over to La Charlevoix, a triple-black-diamond run built for downhill competitions.  He asks if we would like to join him.  The racing course is typically closed to the public, but our new friend has connections.

            Descending the plummeting slope, Dianne and I quickly get an appreciation of how fearless the pros have to be.  While they aim straight down to gain momentum, we carve wide zigzags to scrub off speed.

            Allard stops for a midway break.  Crossing the slope to join him, I misjudge the angle and simultaneously lose both momentum and balance.  Down I go.

            My nylon ski pants and jacket display the stopping power of a skittering hockey puck.  I try to self arrest, but on the glazed surface, neither boots nor poles dig in.           

            That’s when I remember the warning sign at the top.  “Danger,” it said.  “Falling on this slope may cause serious injuries or even death.”  Only a flexible fence separates me from a forest of limb-breaking limbs.

            Before I reach it, the surface softens, the slant subsides, and finally I stop.  I’m physically fine, but my ego is badly bruised.

            “I won’t tell anyone,” my life insurance beneficiary promises.

            Dianne wants to see Québec’s famed Ice Hotel, which sits in the countryside 40 minutes away from town.  We book a tour.

            If Conrad Hilton had been an Eskimo, this is what his igloo might have looked like.  The horseshoe-shaped structure features gothic-arched walls molded from artificial snow, and its 32 rooms hold slab-ice beds upon which overnight guests slumber in sleeping bags.  While basic quarters are plain, the hotel offers a dozen upscale theme rooms.  We visit an Egyptian suite that would freeze a pharaoh, a shaman suite complete with soul-chilling voodoo, a French suite bearing an icy Eiffel Tower and a James Bond suite for guests licensed to chill.

            The tour ends at the hotel’s pub sponsored by Absolut Vodka.  Bartender Isabelle Drolet, clad in a Russian-style fur hat, pours samples of the Swedish beverage into glasses hollowed from Canadian ice.Ice Hotel bar

            “This is the coolest job in the coolest bar ever,” she says with stone-cold accuracy.
Our final downhill day comes at Mont-Sainte-Anne, which offers 64 trails on 450 skiable acres.  A gondola whisks us up to a day lodge where a pair of St. Bernards pose for pictures.  None carry brandy flasks.

            “Sometimes, on special days they do,” says volunteer guide André Nobert.

            A retired high school English teacher, Nobert shows visiting skiers around the mountain.  Following his lead, we link turns down the mostly groomed slopes, stopping periodically to ogle views of the St. Lawrence River below and Québec City in the distance.

            “Sometimes when it's cloudy, we seem to be in a plane,” sighs Nobert.  “We don't see anything down there.  We remain in sunshine, floating above the clouds.”

            Dianne and I finish the day trying to cover as many trails as possible.  I once feared that we might get bored skiing resorts whose total acreages are smaller than a decent Western bunny hill, but such is not the case.  All three areas offer enough drops and diversity to fill days with snow-sliding excitement.

            Back in town that evening, we take the 20-minute scenic ferry cruise across the St. Lawrence.  The river ice growls, grumbles and groans as the wide vessel churns through.  Some of these blocks, which look to be several feet thick, hit the hull with resounding thuds.  I try to get Dianne to join me on the bow, but she insists this is not the time to think about the Titanic.

            On our return voyage, we face the lights of Old Québec.  Floodlights shower the Château Frontenac and bathe the cliff-hugging parapets.  Flashes of red from the ramparts simulate defensive cannons firing on our “invading” ferry, but we reach home without taking a hit.  I wish my waist and wallet could say the same thing.

Between the river and the rock lies Lower Town, a section of Old Québec that resembles a Christmas village.  I follow the keeper of the credit cards down La Rue Champlain, a narrow pedestrian way where she visits shops vending cookies, chocolates and maple candies.  At least we earn our calories by forgoing the funicular and scaling 300 vertical-feet of stairs back to the hotel.

            Before leaving Québec City, Dianne wants a lunch of poutine.  While common in Canada, this combination of French fries smothered with gravy and cheese curds is seldom seen in the American West. 

            While we eat, a man and his teenage son take seats at an adjacent table.  They are on a ski vacation from Ottawa and ask where we’re from.  When I tell him, a befuddled look sweeps his face.  I know what the next question will be.

            “You wonder why we chose Québec over Colorado?  Let me explain.”

* * *
Contact Quebec City Tourism to learn more about skiing in Quebec.

 

Article ran in six newspapers across the U.S. and Canada including the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Dallas Morning News and Toronto Star.