It was one of those moments. Call it fate, good karma, or dumb luck. Perhaps, in this case, all three. For how else could I explain the confluence of pleasures that greeted me in a small clearing known as Robin Hood, just off a run called Le Gros Vallon, on the flanks of Mont-Sainte-Anne?
There was the foie gras, in all its delicate muskiness. There were no fewer than six varieties of cheese, some earthy, some ethereal, all laid out across a bale of hay. There was a crusty baguette. There was the merlot. ("But you must have wine with your cheese," said Ysabel, and of course, she was right.) There was the apricot-pear chutney, the cold can of beer Pierre had pressed into my palm. ("If I have one beer, I keep it. If I have two, you have one.") And there was the weather, which we greeted with T-shirts and our darkest shades.
Of course, this is why I had come to Mont-Sainte-Anne. There are dozens of worthy mountains scattered about the Eastern Townships, but Mont-Sainte-Anne, with its proximity to Quebec City, is the choice for those looking for relief from the often staid attitude that prevails at many Northeastern resorts. A half-hour by car (about 30 miles) is all that separates the slopes from the cobbled streets of Old Quebec, which feels more European than many French towns I've visited. And Mont-Sainte-Anne's skiing ain't bad, either. A few runs meander down the mountain, but most take full advantage of the pitch, plunging straight down the fall line like arrows returning from flight.
By the time I poled out of Robin Hood, taste buds ringing and head buzzing, I'd gotten over my state of dumbfounded exuberance and had settled into the comfortable knowledge that I'd been transformed by people and experience. It was as if I'd traveled to an exotic land thousands of miles away. But I was barely 200 miles from my front door.
As I drove in the day before, I wasn't quite so giddy. Mont-Sainte-Anne is not a particularly appealing mountain to look at. Viewed from Route 138, which runs northeast from Quebec City along the banks of the St. Laurence, it looks a bit dowdy. There are no dramatic cliff bands to catch the eye, and the mountaintop is more plateau than peak. Although it serves up a respectable 2,050 vertical feet, its flattop formation makes it look shorter. Mont-Sainte-Anne is like a fat person who dresses in wide, horizontal stripes.
Being one of those people who's always been perfectly happy to judge books by their covers, I was dubious and remained so for the duration of my first ride up the tram. This, despite the enthusiasm of a 25-year-old named Jean-François Beaulieu, who worked at the ski school and had offered to show me the lay of the land. Crisply dressed in his Mont-Sainte-Anne blues, with his hair neatly coiffed and a pair of impenetrably mirrored sunglasses stretched across his face, Jean-François exuded energy and contentment. "I've met the girl of my dreams," he told me only minutes after our meeting. "And...ahh. There is nothing better." He relaxed into the seat of the tram, as if to ruminate on his good fortune, but quickly leaned forward again. "This mountain, I would tell you that it's still a secret." He gestured to the slope beneath us, La Gondoleuse, which I had to admit looked pretty damn appealing. The upper portion of the trail was precipitously steep and littered with fat, sunbaked moguls. And, Jean-François's point was clear: Despite the storybook weather and first corn snow of the season, La Gondoleuse was nearly devoid of skiers. Behind us, the waters of the St. Lawrence glittered in the sun. I could feel myself beginning to warm to the place.
At the top, skating out to La Crete, a sweetly twisting trail that forms a sort of natural super G at far skier's right, we happened upon Pierre, an ebullient 46-year-old wearing a Homer Simpson hat. "Oh, no, it's Pierre," said Jean-François. "He's here to give you trouble." Pierre looked at me, smirked, and toouched a finger to his hat. "Yes," he said, "if you want some trouble, speak to me."
For the next few hours, we skied fast and loose, letting our boards run wild-finding their own lines in the thickening corn snow. We rode the triple that serves La Crete, the perfectly spaced glades of La Brunelle, and the spring-softened bumps of La Beauregard. "Usually in the winter you have panties hanging in the trees," explained Pierre, during one of our lift rides. "It's a contest." He craned his neck left and right, seeking remnants of silk and lace. Jean-François leaned toward me. "That's why he's always riding this lift," he whispered. Panties in the trees. I pictured a young Quebecois damsel shucking her undies on the lift and tried to imagine my female skiing companions from Vermont doing the same. Just as they would be content to snack on PowerBars and Gatorade rather than foie gras and wine, they would never consider flicking their panties off a chairlift. And that, I realized, was their loss.
The next day, with the sun again turning crust to corn, I ranged a bit farther. Mont-Sainte-Anne has skiing on both her southern and northern flanks. The south side has the greater variety of terrain and is neatly sectioned. The most difficult trails here are at skier's right; then comes a shift to wider, slightly lower-angle slopes, until the pitch fades into green-circle cruisers at skier's left. The north side comprises primarily intermediate runs, with a vertical drop about half that of the southern face. I imagine it'd be a great place to rip fast, careless laps when the front side becomes clogged. Assuming the front side ever becomes clogged, for even on this stunning Saturday, there were no lift lines to speak of, and I was able to ski as fast and carelessly as I dared, wherever I wanted.
Even though Jean-François had warned me, I was still surprised that Mont-Sainte-Anne wasn't more crowded. Either Quebec's residents haven't caught on to skiing, or they're too busy lounging at sidewalk cafes, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and drinking pints of eight-percent ale. At least, those seemed to be the activities of choice when I had ventured the day before into the twisting circuit of narrow lanes that make up Old Quebec. Everyone speaks French (though, contrary to popular belief, they're happy to converse in fluent English, too), the buildings are stony and squat, and there's a communal feel American cities lack.
Driving back to my room at the Chateau Mont-Sainte-Anne, bone-weary from a day of skiing, sun, and wine, I thought of something Pierre had said earlier in the afternoon, as we were sitting on hay bales, our fingers sticky with foie gras, cheese, and chutney. He'd caught my eye and grinned hugely. "It's hard life, eh?" Then, he seemed to reconsider. "It is life, I think."
Vertical Drop: 2,050 feet
Snowfall: 160 inches
Terrain: 23% easy
Info: 888-827-4579, Mont-Sainte-Anne.com
Lodging: Chateau Mont-Sainte-Anne, 800-463-4467