If you’re looking for some low-altitude skiing or snowboarding with a European flair, consider Quebec, Canada. The province has over 40 ski areas, ranging from mom-and-pop resorts with modest terrain to sprawling resorts. Here, we will focus on three resorts: Stoneham, Mont Sainte Anne (MSA), and Le Massif.
None of these resorts are Vail- or Mammoth-sized, but they’re all sufficient for a day or more’s worth of fun. Stoneham is the smallest, at 333 acres, MSA is the largest at 530, and Le Massif is in the middle at 406. Le Massif has two peaks, MSA has three, and Stoneham has four. Both MSA and Stoneham have 19 lit trails, allowing skiers and riders to continue their enjoyment into evening hours.
Stoneham is a 20-minute drive north of the Quebec’s old city. Acre for acre, the most challenging part of it is an area known as the “quarants” (40s), because they’re numbered trails 40 through 49. Of the 10 slopes there, two are rated as a single diamond, while the other 8 are listed as double diamonds. The trails leading from the other two peaks are more diversified in difficulty, so parties with less advanced skiers and riders should spend their time there. If you like tree skiing, Stoneham has plenty of that to offer.
Stoneham will take center stage in the world of freestyle when it hosts two events of Quebec’s Snowboard Jamboree. The 2015 edition (February 19 to 22, 2015) will feature World Cup (FIS) events in slopestyle and halfpipe. Both events will be held at Stoneham, while the FIS event will be held off-site at the Îlot Fleurie park. Stoneham, and its corporate sibling at Mont Sainte Anne, have several terrain parks. You’ll have to pay an extra fee for the XL (as in “extra large”) park at both resorts, as well as their halfpipes. You’ll also need to sign a liability waiver. The company stopped building jumps at Stonehame after the 2006-2007 season, citing safety concerns. But it brought them back starting with the 2013-2014 season.
Sometimes you get bluebird days, and sometimes you don’t. My trip to Le Massif de Charlevoix was in the “you don’t” category, unfortunately. An unusual warm spell meant that we got rain, so much so that we left the mountain by 2 p.m. But that was not before some people in my group took a 7.5km sled ride down the perimeter of the mountain. My ski-writing friend Kristen Lummis, who publishes the Brave Ski Mom, gives some photos and her impressions of this adventure. I didn’t want to take two hours of my day for the sled ride, but that turned out to be a bad decision. It’s on my list for the next visit.
Mont Sainte Anne
Mont Sainte Anne is the most complicated of the three areas, with north-, south- and west-facing faces. The snow was groomed when we visited, but still hard due to the previous day’s rainstorm. The south face features a new (for 2013-2014) high speed lift. Another lift, L’etoile Filante, roughly divides that face into one section for experts and another for everyone else. One handy feature of MSA is that its trail map lists the length and drop of each trail, something I don’t recall seeing at the 40 or so resorts I have visited. Just bring a working knowledge of the metric system; Imperial units are not included.
One novelty of MSA is the sugar shack. It’s far from unique in the province, but I had never encountered one on a mountain before. It sells suckers, taffy, and various other confections made from maple syrup. But you can also buy syrup in a way that does not involve candy factories in some far-off city. Here’s what you (or someone else) need to do.
- Get some maple syrup.
- Fill up a trough with snow, and smooth out the snow with a tool.
- Super-heat the syrup, and then pour it on the snow.
- Let the syrup cool for 90 seconds.
- Take a popsicle stick, and with it, poke the syrup. Flip the stick over and over, like you’re rolling spaghetti onto a fork.
- Eat and enjoy.
Update (February 2015)
I was able to revisit Mont Sainte Anne a few days ago, and get to some places I had not been before.
On the south face, the more difficult slopes are on the left, as you look up the mountain from the base. You’ll find mostly double-diamond trails, though there are a handful of single-diamond trails, including La Crête (“crest”) which is on the perimeter of face, and l’espoir, both of which were groomed the day I visited. If there’s one criticism I would make of the expert section, it’s that getting there is an ordeal for a snowboarder. The ridge leading toward it from the gondola and mountaintop chalet is flat, a fact readily conceded by a key resort employee I talked with at the end of my visit. On my trip to the start of La Crête, I had to unstrap twice, and spend a good deal of the time walking. On my trip to l’espoir, an executive with the provincial ski area association kindly served as my “horse,” pulling my forward with a ski pole, as he engaged in a skate-skiing technique. (Who says skiers and riders can’t be friends?)
Below you’ll find a skier’s video of l’espoir. You can see the St. Lawrence River at the top of the screen.
Intermediate terrain on the south face, including le gros vallon (big valley), is served by the gondola as well as a chairlift.
On the north face, we made some laps on L’express du Nord, a quad chair that serves most of the face. Close to that lift is a surface lift that is open during peak periods. A small section of the north face will be off-limits to some snowboarders, since it is served by another surface lift, called La Corde Raide. (If you don’t have strong arms, don’t worry; it serves only three trails.)
We found the snow on the north slope to be a bit softer than elsewhere. I was hoping to do some riding in the glades (La Vital Roy), but after seeing it bumped up, opted for an adjacent trail that was long, flatter, and unbumped.
La Paradeuse is a wide-open blue trail with multiple fall lines. The snow there was chopped up a fair amount (and not fluffy), so it was fairly boring when compared with nearby trails that were more narrow and smoother. Next to La Paradeuse is L’archipel, a black diamond that has one steeper section on top before mellowing out and then joining La Paradeuse. At the bottom of the face, you’ll find Refuge du Versant Nord, where you can take a restroom break and get some food. The knock I would have on this chalet is that it’s fairly simple and more importantly, dark.
You’ll get a much more enjoyable visual experience taking your lunch at the Chalet du Sommet, at the summit. You can brown-bag it, or head upstairs to the Cafe Bergar (outside food not allowed), which overlooks the south slopes.
A cultural delight
While there’s plenty to like about the mountains, what makes a trip to Quebec resorts different is that they’re in Quebec, a city that is old enough to be in Europe, without requiring you to cross an ocean to get there. (Alas, we can no longer say, “without a passport.” Make sure you allot enough time in your planning to obtain one, if you don’t have one.)
The most obvious fact that you’re not in the U.S. anymore is that French is the native tongue of almost every local you’ll meet. On the other hand, the people you will encounter as a tourist will likely know English, and probably speak it better than you’ll be able to recall your high school French. But don’t worry; if you wish to attempt to speak Français, your hosts will, if my experience is any guide, patiently listen.
The trail maps and brochures are bilingual. The most important French word to know is “la neige,” or “snow.” So a “parc à neige” is, as you might guess, a “snow park,” or as we’d call it in English, a terrain park. A snowboard is a “planche à neige” (board on the snow) to which you’ll need to attach a “fixation,” or set of findings. That sounds appropriate: You want something to affix your feet to the board. If you want to head for the trees, you’ll go riding “sous bois,” which literally means “under woods,” which makes a lot of sense. A gondola is a “télécabine,” which makes sense if you break it down into “tele” (“at a distance,” from the Greek) and “cabin” (a small, enclosed space). A gondola car is a small enclosed space that takes you to or from a distance.
What about the clunky term “ski/snowboard” or “skiing/snowboarding?” The trail map for one of the resorts invites guests to take lessons to “améliorer votre glisse,” or “improve your glide/slide,” which is a way of referring to what we do on the mountain without tying the activity to any specific piece of equipment. That sounds smart to me. While in the U.S., the “Skier Responsibility” code has been clipped to “responsibility code,” the French equivalent retains an emphasis on mountain (if not snow-on-mountain) activity: “code de conduite en montagne.” The word “code” needs no translation, “conduite” is “conduct,” and “montange” is “mountain.”
In case you doubt that Quebeckers are tough, consider this sign. If you’re looking for the easiest way down the mountain, you actually want, in French the “moins difficile,” or “least difficult” path. Notice that this sign, from Mont Sainte Anne, takes you to a slope with snowmaking equipment. If you’ve ridden on a slope when snow is being made, you know that it can be anything but easy.
For a change of pace
If you’re willing, you can also find a different pace of the alpine life in Quebec. When I visited Stoneham, our lunch featured fondue Chinoise: cheese and thinly sliced beef, put on sticks, and soaked in a pot with broth for about a minute. I’m not much into communal food, so it was a bit unusual and slightly out of my comfort zone. Take one of sticks (everyone at our table had a different color), attach some meat and cheese on it, dip it into the communal pot, wait, and then pull it all out for a wonderful treat. And that bit about communal food? Well, just about the time I wondered if I would take someone else’s stick by mistake … I did. Oh well. Happily, I have no tales of food poisoning to tell!
While I wasn’t surprised that the food was good, I was surprised that I was so laid back about it all. Usually when I’m on a mountain, I pack a sandwich and energy bar in my coat so that I don’t have to spend a lot of time on lunch. Why eat when you can ride or ski? Well, the day, a leisurely lunch seemed entirely appropriate en la belle province.
A votre santé!