Le Massif: Magnifique - Ski Mag

Le Massif: Magnifique

Travel East
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If on your initial visit to Le Massif it happens to be snowing, as it often does in central Quebec, your first impression will be disconcerting. Park the car, jump out to stretch, and there are no neck-craning views of trails on the mountain above. In fact, there are no trails in sight, nor even any mountain. No sign whatsoever of a 2,526-vertical-foot ski area, save for other skiers clomping through a rapidly filling parking lot toward what certainly looks like a ski lodge. You feel silly, standing there in goggles and ski boots.

Despite being the East's sixth-highest ski area, in terms of vertical, Le Massif isn't really a mountain at all. It's an upside-down ski area, tumbling from the edge of the Canadian Shield into the deep channel cut by the massive St. Lawrence River. Skiers park at the top, which means that within minutes of their arrival, they can be skiing. But if it's snowing and it's your first visit, you'll have to take the trail map's word for it that there are ski trailsdescending into the fog, or that there really is a river down there.

Then, halfway down, the St. Lawrence comes into view, though the eyes need a moment to trust what they're seeing. A crumpled brown-tinged moonscape of broken ice spills across tidal flats to the edge of the water. The far shore, 13 miles away, hides in mist. Midstream, a gargantuan freighter parts the icy water, headed east (right to left) to the Atlantic. At your feet remains another 1,300 feet of winding, forest-lined ski trails. It's big-mountain skiing-with a maritime twist.

Known for most of its short history only to the Quebecois and skiing's Eastern cognoscenti, Le Massif is in many ways an unusual ski area. Its upside-down layout and veritable seaside setting are just the start. There's the overlay of French, for starters. Here in Quebec's Charlevoix region, many people, even in tourism, just don't speak English.

Then there's the complete lack of slopeside lodging. Generating winter business for the region's existing inns and auberges has been the idea of the resort from the beginning, which is why the provincial government approved and even helped fund its creation and expansion. Then there's the omnipresence of competitive racing. On a given day in late February, you might be booting up in the lodge and notice two muscular lads at the next table pulling on U.S. Ski Team speed suits. It's Jake Fiala and Brett Fischer, here to snag some points in a weekend of FIS super G events. Super G? In the East? The government spent millions of dollars (and moved a mountain) to create a world-class racing venue. The downhill, designed by Bernhard Russi, is among the few in the East with enough vertical to meet the FIS minimum. The resort's base elevation? A mere 119 feet above sea level.

Then there's the fact that while the top of the "mountain" enjoys snowfall equal to almost anywhere in the East-260 annual inches-snowmakers can't quite keep the bottom of the hill covered early- and late-season. The river's sultry, salty micro-climate pushes the frost line well up the hill to about 800 feet, where a mid-station on the new Cap Maillard high-speed quad makes it useful long before and after the bottom of the hill is skiable.

But most of all, there's the distinct feeling of "where is everyone?" Following a 10-year march of capital improvements-lifts, trails, a handsome summit lodge, the race venue-Le Massif feels and skis as big as almost anywhere in the East. But while a place this size in southern Vermont would do 600,000 visits, Le Massif set a new record last year: 115,000.

Perhaps that's about to change. As of last summer, Le Massif has a new owner, one who certainly knows show biz and might be ready to nudge the resort into the minds of a broader market. Daniel Gauthier used to live in nearby Baie-Saint-Paul, a well-known artist colony. Then he started a circus and ran away with it. The Cirque du Soleil, that is. The world-renowned multi-media acrobatics troupeof which he was president and co-owner until his departure last year, traces its roots to the Charlevoix.

The energetic and resourceful 40-something takes over Le Massif just as it has acquired the infrastructure to take it to the big-time. But he is no stranger to Le Massif as it was in the old days. Prior to his purchase, the area was owned by a consortium of local business owners who saw skiing as a way to shore up winter business. The first trails were cut in 1975, though in the early years, the only way to the top was by car or bus. (Arriving visitors first had to make the long, tortuous descent to the base area, which added 20 minutes to their commute.) The result was something akin to snowcat skiing for the few people who had heard of the place. The government came on board in the late '80s, and by 1992, buses had been replaced by chairlifts. But the latest round of improvements-the summit parking and lodge, the race venue, the new lift and trails, all totaling the U.S. equivalent of about 16 million taxpayer dollars-has had the biggest impact.

Today's Le Massif breaks into three distinct sections, each with a chairlift. The Baladeuse double area, on the East edge (skier's left), has a quiet, remote feel. The central section is where the action is, as well as the most direct views of the river. Here, the best of the new trailwork is L'Archipel, a gladed section skier's right of the Grand Pointe Express liftline, where islands of trees lend an air of solitude. Most of the new trails are at the western edge, descending from the Cap Diamont summit and serviced by the new Maillard quad and mid-station. La 42, said to be named for its angle of incline (hmm...maybe in places), used to be the only trail on Cap Diamont. Now the race trail (La Charlevoix, which is intermittently open to the public) marks a new western boundary, descending from a 100-foot man-made peak trucked in to satisfy FIS vertical requirements. Next to it, La 42, a steep, natural-snow mogul run that requires deep cover, remains the toughest trail, almost worthy of its double-black designation. Its lower third, to the disgruntlement of some, now serves as a liftline from the mid-station down. (The good news: It can be skied earlier and later than before.)

If there's a knock against the place, it's the sameness of pitch from trail to trail. With the notable exceptions of 42 and the race trail, the area inclines at an angle any solid intermediate will find manageable. Experts might yearn for more steeps; beginners will be intimidated, though a new J-bar-served learning slope gives them a home. Tree-skiing is forbidden, out of respect for the environment-always a part of Le Massif's mission. You won't be the only one breaking rules if you slip into the woods, but the rewards are limited, owing to the density of the vegetation.

For the most part, though, the trails are uncrowded. Doglegs left and right give them character and visual interest, and there's enough terrain to keep explorers happy for a week.

If you're not staying nearby, the drive back to Quebec City is a great time to take a nap. That way you'll miss the repugnant array of power lines along the St. Lawrence. Quebec itself is eminently charming and human-scaled. Like any tourist town, it offers every level of accommodation, inside its famous walls (Vieux Quebec) or out. And in winter, there's little difficulty finding rooms at reasonable rates. Doing it right, though, requires checking in to Le Chateau Frontenac, the monumental brick pile capped with green-copper spires looming castle-like over Vieux Quebec at the edge of a high precipice. It doesn't matter which way your windows face-south across the river, or north to the city-the views are splendid.

Just outside is a broad boardwalk along the precipice, with views across the busy river. At the eastern end are the Chateau, an adjacent skating rink and the Funiculaire, which descends 280 feet to the original settlement, Quartier Champlain. At the west end, stairs mount to the Citadel and the Plains of Abraham, where Generals Wolfe (British) and Montcalm (French) both fell in the 1759 British victory that ensured Canada's allegiance to the crown. Peer down the slopes from the Citadel, and be thankful you're not a British Grenadier attempting to scale them in the face of enemy fire. The screams you hear are those of the toboggan passengers on La Glissade, a trio of ice chutes that've thrilled winter visitors for a century. It doesn't seem quite safe, but that's the beauty of it, and if you're traveling with 8-year-olds, La Glissade will instantly become the Quebec City landmark around which all other activities orbit.

Vieux Quebec reveals fresh curiosities around every corner: statues, stonework, vintage armaments, garrisons, fortifications, cafes, handsome cabs and narrow cobbled alleys. In short: Old World charm and cultural richness, minus the jet lag. The city can't help being a little touristy, but snow mutes the kitsch and thins the crowds. In front of the Chateau,it drapes the statue of Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who founded Quebec City some 350 years ago (and was the first white person to see Whiteface, Mansfield and Killington peaks when he later explored Lake Champlain).

But while the colonial and military stuff will fascinate amateur historians, it's the gourmands who will flip: The restaurants here are fantastic. Not inexpensive, mind you-you're in the city, after all. But the strength of the dollar does instill the courage to pick something a little nearer the top of the wine list. Yes, some restaurants scream "tourist trap." (As always, avoid places with pictures of the food for non-French speakers.) But if you survey a half-dozen of Quebec City's most famous chefs on where the best places to eat are, they'll steer you to Vieux Quebec establishments that clearly are comfortable catering to visitors but are none the worse for it. In the end, making a bad choice is difficult.

It's an easy rhythm to fall into: wining, dining and sightseeing in a glittering city on the banks of the massive St. Lawrence by night; skiing on forested slopes in full view of it by day. Long before the end of your visit, you'll decide that an upside-down, French-speaking ski-area-by-the-sea seems quite natural indeed. The lack of crowds still takes some getting used to. But that may change at Le Massif, and all too soon. hamplain. At the west end, stairs mount to the Citadel and the Plains of Abraham, where Generals Wolfe (British) and Montcalm (French) both fell in the 1759 British victory that ensured Canada's allegiance to the crown. Peer down the slopes from the Citadel, and be thankful you're not a British Grenadier attempting to scale them in the face of enemy fire. The screams you hear are those of the toboggan passengers on La Glissade, a trio of ice chutes that've thrilled winter visitors for a century. It doesn't seem quite safe, but that's the beauty of it, and if you're traveling with 8-year-olds, La Glissade will instantly become the Quebec City landmark around which all other activities orbit.

Vieux Quebec reveals fresh curiosities around every corner: statues, stonework, vintage armaments, garrisons, fortifications, cafes, handsome cabs and narrow cobbled alleys. In short: Old World charm and cultural richness, minus the jet lag. The city can't help being a little touristy, but snow mutes the kitsch and thins the crowds. In front of the Chateau,it drapes the statue of Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who founded Quebec City some 350 years ago (and was the first white person to see Whiteface, Mansfield and Killington peaks when he later explored Lake Champlain).

But while the colonial and military stuff will fascinate amateur historians, it's the gourmands who will flip: The restaurants here are fantastic. Not inexpensive, mind you-you're in the city, after all. But the strength of the dollar does instill the courage to pick something a little nearer the top of the wine list. Yes, some restaurants scream "tourist trap." (As always, avoid places with pictures of the food for non-French speakers.) But if you survey a half-dozen of Quebec City's most famous chefs on where the best places to eat are, they'll steer you to Vieux Quebec establishments that clearly are comfortable catering to visitors but are none the worse for it. In the end, making a bad choice is difficult.

It's an easy rhythm to fall into: wining, dining and sightseeing in a glittering city on the banks of the massive St. Lawrence by night; skiing on forested slopes in full view of it by day. Long before the end of your visit, you'll decide that an upside-down, French-speaking ski-area-by-the-sea seems quite natural indeed. The lack of crowds still takes some getting used to. But that may change at Le Massif, and all too soon.

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