Massive Skiing at Le Massif, Quebec, Canada

Author: Kyle McCarthy

Tags : Canada, Christmas Holiday, Eco-Tourism, North America, Snowsports, Spring Break, Winter Getaway
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For die-hard ski and freestyle snowboarding lovers with school-age kids, Canada's friendly and welcoming Le Massif is the place to be.

You can't talk about skiing at Québec's legendary Le Massif mountain without understanding its place in Charlevoix, an eastern community of artists and farmers, ranging from the early French pioneers to young Canadians looking for an alternative lifestyle. In a region of about 9,600- miles-square, scarcely 30,000 hearty inhabitants brave extreme winters to live harmoniously with nature.

During our skiing vacation in 2002's exceptionally warm and dry winter, we were scolded more than once when we complimented the fair weather. "You don't live in Charlevoix unless you've made peace with the snow," we were told by locals. "If not, move to Montréal!" (They would never even dream of moving to Florida!)

Of course, the abundance of natural snow is much of Le Massif's charm. It is the tallest mountain (a 770m/2526 feet vertical drop) with the most annual snowfall (630cm/21 feet) east of the Canadian Rockies. This can be a mixed blessing; at our visit, half the family was blinded by driving snow at the mountain's base, while the others worked on their tans up top.

Le Massif is one of Canada's largest snowsports resorts, boasting 48 trails and glades (60% have snow-making facilities) on 410 acres served by four lifts. Le Massif is also the only snowsports resort within a UNESCO World Biosphere, an honor bestowed on Charlevoix because its unusual geography, abundant wildlife, and sustainable development are deemed worthy of world heritage. What this means for the family visitor is that you'll ski or ride like your grandparents did, surrounded by trees with nary a condo in sight. You'll ascend from a simple base lodge to a simple peak lodge, always with the mighty St. Lawrence River framing the horizon.

Local Knowledge

Le Massif opened in 1970 as a primitive ski mountain where skiers reached the summit by school bus. For many years, it was a dearly beloved and well kept secret.

Development began in 1992 with chairlifts (detachable quad and double fixed chair), a main lodge, and 62 acres of skiable terrain. It took the determined entrepreneurial spirit of many locals to assure the regional government that their recent Cdn $24 million investment in Le Massif would pay off.

Today, tourism is on the rise. A new mountain-top, drive-in entrance was added, enabling first time visitors to traverse the entire face and enjoy breath-taking views of the St. Lawrence before needing a lift ticket. Along with this came another groomed mountain face, le Charlevoix, the National Alpine Ski Training Center, and a collection of double black diamond runs also used by visiting champions, such as the Swedish team who trained there for the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympics.

With the new access came a contemporary style, summit lodge with free lockers and a cafeteria where fried foods have been deemed too unhealthy to serve! There is a top caliber Rossignol Demo and equipment rental shop, which dispenses brand new kids gear and helmets very efficiently.

Starting in the 2010-2011 season, a new 8-passenger gondola will be running, the off-piste area will be expanded, and a beginner's sector will be opened at the summit.

Children's Learning Programs

Across the rubber-matted way from the equipment rental shop are the ski and riding schools, and the daycare center. The garderie is a bright area with big picture windows so toddlers can watch skiers and parents can check on their offspring. Inside, children 2-10 years of age are tended by women trained in 1st Aid and early childhood education and are given one free snack per half day. The facility is available by the hour ($Cdn 15/HR) or from 8:30am to 4:30pm ($Cdn 45/full day.) Since the nursery's cribs, play mats and feeding stands only accommodate a certain amount of children, reservations are recommended.

Le Massif, with 80% intermediate or tougher terrain, usually attracts better skiers and freestyle boarders (there's only one small terrain park.) The new facilities and group ski and snowboard lessons for beginners may change that. Twice daily, a 2 hour private first timer lesson, including both lift tickets and equipment rentals, is available. The price ranges from $Cdn 99 for one person, to $Cdn 79 per person for groups of three people or larger - a nice discount for families. A Kid's Camp Program is also provided for children from age 6-15. Running from 10AM- 3PM, the camp costs $Cdn 269 for three days. Finally, the 8 Weeks Sunday Program is available for local children to enjoy a tutorial on the slopes.

Our family signed up for two-hour private lessons with all equipment and lift tickets for under Cdn$80 each. The wonderful teachers were bilingual, friendly and well trained to handle preteen boys and an old lady with diplomacy. In fact, my teacher, the introspective Martin, who appeared to be 25 but said he's been skiing for 23 years (perhaps?), charmed me with his obvious affection for this mountain and the region's unique inhabitants.

Rural Charms & Traditional Lodges

Charlevoix's smaller hills are punctuated by family businesses, working farms, art galleries, B&Bs, and several crafts workshops. The region's noted économusées, such as the Charlevoix Cheese Factory producing wheels of cheddar cheese and the Fleurmier, a soft cheese with a flowery crust, or the paper mill spewing smoke, welcome visitors and provide an interesting family outing on non-ski days. Other snowy pleasures include cross country skiing or snowshoeing in several of the regional parks, and snow tubing and snowpark fun on the huge slides at the Village Vacances Valcartier.

Small white clapboard B&Bs dot the hills around Baie-Saint Paul. We stayed in one such house, the Auberge la Corbière (418/435-2533, 800/471-2533) where smiling host Jean-Rock Provencher, his spaniel Nanook, Daisy and the other friendly staff made us feel right at home. Within the original 250-year-old farmhouse, Jean created a four-room, three double-bedded, two bathroom suite comfortable for a family of six. Stretched out on floral print duvets, watching a TV propped up on an old trunk, we knew that the couples in the B&B's newer wing were blissfully unaware of our presence.

That is, until breakfast or dinner, which we ordered from Jean's chef in the large country kitchen which linked the two wings. Meals were served so graciously in the romantic dining room (also a popular local restaurant) that the kids sat up in their chairs and ate like gentlemen. La Corbière's specialties include roast caribou and the mini-vegetables and mini-fruits that Charlevoix is known for, as well as children's choices like delicate doigts de poulet.

A taste of Charlevoix' French ancestry and its frontier spirit is available at other B&Bs; la Corbière was especially nice because of its hillside location overlooking the St. Lawrence (about 30 minutes from Le Massif), spacious accommodations and backyard hot tub. Most B&B rates range from Cdn $125/N per double room in winter to Cdn $100/N in summer.

[Editor's Note: Auberge la Corbière was purchased in April 2005 by Linda Manseau and Michael Barrel. After nearly a year and half of renonvation, the B&B reopened on August 1, 2006 as L'auberge L’Estampilles. It now features a newly constructed building with eleven guest rooms, an outdoor hot tub and a bar, as well as two dining rooms where guests can eat breakfast (included) and dinner.]

Details, Details

The closest lodgings to the mountain with any charm are near the original Le Massif base in the riverfront town of Petite-Rivière-Saint-Francois. It is Charlevoix' oldest inhabited village, dating from 1675 and still home to writers such as Gabrielle Roy and many visual artists. Petite- Rivière-Saint-Francois has B&Bs and cafes to accommodate the winter and summer crowds. Besides snowsports, boating, and fishing, the village's small chapels with their historic murals and traditional architecture have had enduring tourist appeal.

Although it was a little bit further, we loved our B&B auberge in Baie-Saint-Paul, one of the approximately 30 inns comprising 1,000 rooms which have created 'stay and ski' packages. The Tourist Office of Charlevoix (418/665-4454, 800/667-2276) and the Municipality of Petite-Rivière-Saint-Francois (418/632-5831) can provide package information, lodging suggestions and other necessities.

Le Massif is located 73 kms/45 mi northeast of Québec City, which is served by non-stop flights on Air Canada from Toronto, Boston, New York and Fort Lauderdale. It's also only 4 hours by car from Montréal, near Baie-Saint-Paul, along the well maintained route 138.

Skiers sampling Mont-Sainte-Anne, the region's better known resort are only 33 kms/20 mi to the west. These two resorts, plus the smaller Stoneham, have many lift ticket packages, which can be accessed by calling 888/FUN-2-SKI or visiting www.fun2ski.com. For Le Massif information and current rates on their family lift tickets (the resort is open December to April each year; kids 6 years and younger ski free), call 877/LEMASSIF or 418/632-5876 or visit www.lemassif.com