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Spring Ski Vacation in Quebec City
By Jim Kenney, DCSki Columnist
November 16, 2008

There are ski trips and then there are ski vacations. During the last week of March 2008 I traveled with my wife and two teenage children to Quebec City in Eastern Canada. We enjoyed a whirlwind weekend tour of Old Quebec City, a charming UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrating its 400th anniversary. Then we spent two days each at a pair of outstanding nearby ski areas, Mont Sainte Anne and Le Massif. The warm culture of the Quebecois (kebe-kwah) and the superb skiing of the Charlevoix (shar-leh-vwah) was a combination that definitely qualified as a ski vacation. That the entire region remained blanketed under an all time record seasonal snowfall added the pièce de résistance to a very successful Easter Week in Quebec.

Skiing La Crete (The Ridge) at Mont Sainte Anne Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

Bienvenue

Entering Quebec City the Saturday before Easter we were greeted with the finest skier’s welcome imaginable. Plowed snow 20 feet high in places saluted us as we crossed the St. Lawrence River on Highway 73. Never in my life had I seen a large urban area buried under so much snow! Quebec City received 5.5 meters (~18 feet) of the white stuff over the winter of 2007-2008, smashing the city’s record by nearly a meter. The two ski areas we planned to visit are more than 2,000 feet higher in elevation than the city. They set seasonal snow records in the Rockies-like range of 30 feet/360 inches.

Joyeuses Paques

It was a very Happy Easter in Quebec City. We started the memorable Sunday with a family stroll outside our accommodations at the Hotel Manoir Victoria. This beautiful hotel is conveniently located near all the attractions and just a few blocks from our first destination, the Basilica of Notre Dame of Quebec. Situated on the site of the first parish church in North America (circa 1664), the Basilica has been rebuilt several times over the centuries. The current structure dates from 1922 and features a magnificent golden altar and sanctuary. The celebrant of the Easter service we attended was Marc Cardinal Ouellet, head of the Catholic Church in the province of Quebec. Elegantly celebrated entirely in French, the Mass was further enhanced by a magnificent children’s choir.

After church we explored a labyrinth of snowy streets in Old Quebec leading to a multitude of shops, museums, restaurants, bistros, pubs, and nightclubs (with a legal drinking age of 18). We stopped only briefly for a brunch of omelets, hearty tourtière meat pie, and strawberry crepes. Although several times larger than Washington DC’s comparable dining and nightlife district known as Georgetown, the historic part of Quebec City is reasonably compact and pedestrian friendly. There are many notable historic, retail, and parliamentary buildings in Quebec City, but the undisputed architectural champ is the 115 year old Chateau Frontenac, a majestic hotel/tourist magnet perched dramatically above the St. Lawrence River.

Meandering beyond the Chateau Frontenac we made our way to the Dufferin Terrace, a promenade/boardwalk with more beautiful views of the river. It is Quebec’s answer to the Washington Mall, a vibrant gathering place of locals and tourists throughout the year. My son and daughter loved the old fashioned toboggan rides offered from the terrace in winter.

Quebec City Toboggan - Video by Jim Kenney.

Late in the day we stumbled on a terrific chocolate shop on Rue Saint Jean called Choco-Musée Érico. Here we rested and nibbled on chocolate candy while sipping high powered hot cocoa. So concentrated was “The Maya” drink that it was served like espresso in a demitasse. My wife, the double black diamond chocolate expert in the family, was most impressed. The delicious choco-buzz put a spring back in my step and while returning the last few blocks to Hotel Manoir Victoria I told my wife, “Aspen, Vail, Park City, and South Lake Tahoe can’t hold a candle to this place as an après ski location.”

Beaucoup de Neige

We found the people of Quebec, the Quebecois, to be very personable and welcoming. On Monday we went skiing at Mont Sainte Anne, an easy 30 minute drive down river from the city. One of the first lift rides my son and I took was a bubble top high speed quad that we shared with a loquacious middle aged lady who confirmed the record breaking snowfall in the region. She was bilingual and laughed with us while translating the operative French phrase of the day: beaucoup de neige - lots of snow.

Beaucoup de neige in Quebec City. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

Mont Sainte Anne is one heck of a backyard hill for Quebec City. Big, brawny and with 465 skiable acres spread across a nearly 360 degree trail layout, the mountain offers something for everyone from its 2,625-foot summit. The front face features a serious batch of bump runs, glades, and steep groomers all sharing a 2,050-foot vertical drop. There are also a large variety of longer, easier trails on both flanks and down the backside of the mountain. During our late season visit the snow pack was so deep that not only were all 66 trails open, but I saw ski tracks virtually everywhere in between them.

I spent the first day at Mont Sainte Anne with my hard charging 17 year old son Vince. Sometimes we’d split and rejoin. He covered many of the toughest bump runs such as Le Canyon and La Saint Laurent, while I’d blitz trails like the groomed, but equally steep Beaupre and La Super “S”. We both enjoyed the great selection of glades referred to as sous-bois (sue-bwah) in French Quebec. The southwest part of the mountain features an especially large sous-bois called The Black Forest with varying degrees of steepness and tree density. Formally ascribed to 20 acres, under max snow conditions it has almost no practical boundary. Mont Sainte Anne boasts some of the best glade skiing I’ve seen in the East.

Entering the Black Forest. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

La Familiale

On day two at Mont Sainte Anne my wife and daughter joined Vince and I for a morning of fun family skiing. The front of Mont Sainte Anne faces south and there are primo three-mile groomers often bathed in sunshine on the southeast flank of the mountain. Together we followed a mellow trail here called La Pichard until it intersected with another called La Familiale beside a small cabin marked on the trail map as Cabane a Sucre. We couldn’t resist bellying up to the long wooden trough at “The Sugar Shack” and sampling a blob of molten maple sugar poured by a friendly server over a bed of snow. We rolled the goo onto a popsicle stick for easy licking. It was milder than I expected, tasting like honey flavored taffy.

Mont Sainte Anne Sugar Shack - Video by Jim Kenney.

Not far from the Sugar Shack we saw a lady skier on La Familiale that caught the attention of the whole family as she gracefully swept by. Hands clasped behind her back with poles dangling like matched pony tails; she was bent at the waist and made long, fast S turns in a tight parallel. Swooshing within 20 feet of me, the serene smile on her face was framed by deep wrinkles. She was age 70 if she was a day, yet moved like an ageless Hans Christian Anderson character out for a three-mile skate on the canals of Holland. The skiers of Quebec start early and quit late.

Le Charlevoix

During the ski portion of our week in Quebec we relocated our accommodations to Auberge La Camarine. This stylish little country inn and restaurant (delicious gourmet food) is located about 25 miles from the city in the riverside town of Beaupre, just five minutes from Mont Sainte Anne and also about half way to Le Massif. On Thursday morning we headed out from Auberge La Camarine to visit Le Massif ski area for the first time. Somewhere during the 30 minute drive along well maintained Highway 138 we crossed a physical and psychological boundary into the land of Le Charelevoix. Leaving any influence of Quebec City we seemed to enter the great Canadian North Country that extends all the way to the Arctic Wilderness. The moose warning signs come equipped with flashing yellow lights in this neck of the woods.

Le Massif, where the Mountains Meet the Sea. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

The snow pack was so deep around Le Massif that it felt like the North Pole as we traveled the last mile of the summit access road to the elegantly understated ski lodge complex. Upon arrival a friendly ski ambassador named Louise offered to give Vince and me a morning tour of the slopes. On our first run she led us to the rather pedestrian start of La Petite Riviere, then the trail suddenly dipped away revealing a mind blowing mountain-maritime vista unlike anything I’d seen before. Le Massif proved to be one of the most magical places I have ever skied with long, varied runs and glades, a big 2,526-foot vertical drop, Lord of the Rings views, empty high speed quads, and the most snow yet.

Despite six new inches of spring snow Louise moved fast and showed us a good sampling of Le Massif’s approximately 50 trails and 400 skiable acres. Although relatively compact, the mountain offers great terrain with surprising diversity, from three-mile long groomers to double black diamonds with 2,000 vertical feet of continuous moguls. In between are many glades waiting to be discovered including the memorable L’ Archipel. With a mix of groomed and ungroomed sections, widely spaced trees, and a falsely modest blue square rating, it was one of my favorites at Le Massif. Best of all, when you rejoined the trail network after dodging through L’Archipel you still had one mile and more than 1,000 vertical feet ahead to the base of the ski lifts!

The Slopes of Le Massif. Photo courtesy of Le Massif.

Au Revoir

For our last ski day in Quebec my family again banded together for a morning cruising session, this time in the mostly mellow Camp Boule trail pod. Just three modern high speed quad chair lifts link the essential ski network at Le Massif. But like the mountain itself, they represent quality over quantity and each serves a distinct chunk of mountainside in a minimally invasive way. Two of the chairs exceed 8,000 feet in length and climb approximately 2,200 vertical feet.

One of the gorgeous groomers my wife and I took covered three miles and featured a secluded mid-mountain rest stop/bench with views to die for. Set dramatically close to the St. Lawrence Seaway at a point where the mountains tumble to the shoreline in an almost fiord-like geography, Le Massif will turn the most jaded ski traveler into a scenery gaper. Sitting arm in arm at the bench we could spy chunks of ice the size of 18-wheelers as they lay stranded in the mudflats along the river’s edge just beyond the base of the lifts.

My son Vince had skied every thing he could find over our two days at Le Massif, including premiere double black mogul runs like La 42 and L’Artimon. During our last couple of hours at the ski area he kindly offered to lead me down a trio of less punishing black diamond bumpers: La Couillon, L’Ecore, and La Fenomene. The soft spring snow, beautiful vistas, and inspirational ski buddies had me feeling 25 years younger. Together we made a thrilling mad dash down the last run of the week, a combination of La Petite Riviere to La Gagnon to L’Anguille. Unlike the finish of some ski vacations, this black diamond and blue square blitz of more than 2,200 vertical feet left me with no melancholy, just a feeling of elation - until we meet again.

Supplementary Information

  • Quebec City is about 750 miles/12 hours from Washington DC by automobile. Only my wife had a current passport, the rest of us crossed the border with a birth certificate and a picture ID. We brought $50 dollars in Canadian money and never acquired more because our credit cards were accepted everywhere all week.
  • Lift tickets are reasonable compared to major US resorts. Mont Sainte Anne had a spring package deal of 191$ (Canadian) person/dbl occupancy for 3 nights/3 lifts. Single day lift tickets were 57$ regular season, 59$ high adults, teens 44$, age 7-12 31$ Le Massif’s late spring lift promotion was buy first day full price (55$) get next visit half price, regular season lift price was 43$ for age 18-28 (students), 31$ for age 6-17.
  • Hotel Manoir Victoria had ski packages all winter for one night and one day of skiing for two for about 200$, good at either ski area.
  • Crowds were moderate on the Monday after Easter at Mont Sainte Anne. It was a local holiday. Crowds were light for the rest of the week with no lift lines.
  • The sting of the soft dollar was really only felt at restaurants where Quebec City meals went for Georgetown prices rather than Western Pennsylvania prices. The dollar is about 20% stronger now than in March 2008.
  • The price of gas in Quebec was 117.4$ per liter or about $4.44 per gallon. It too is currently selling for about 20% less than this.
  • Our best meal of the week was a romantic gourmet dinner that my wife and I enjoyed one evening at the award winning Auberge La Camarine. Our entrees were roast duck and tender beef in a pastry shell. Meanwhile, the kids happily ate pizza in our hotel room right next door. Our next best meals came in the family friendly cafeteria at Le Massif. The servings there, such as baked fish in crème sauce, fresh pastas and regional desserts like the sugar tart with a hint of maple flavor, were far above the average ski lodge fare.

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