Canada: Skiers make tracks for Le Massif
This striking Canadian ski resort has a new train link from Quebec City, bringing the slopes within easy reach, says Stephen Wood.
Le Massif, 73km north-east of Quebec City, is a most unusual ski resort. For a start, it's topsy-turvy: arrive by car at the resort base, and you'll look in vain for the mountain, the lifts and the skiing – because the "base" is the resort's highest point, from which the slopes drop down a steep valley.
Second, this is the only resort at which skiers might be inclined to check whether their winter-sports insurance covers the risk of drowning: the valley slopes down to the St Lawrence River, and towards the bottom all but the most foolhardy skiers put in a couple of extra turns, to ensure the skiing doesn't turn into water-skiing.
Third, only Le Massif can have lengthened a piste by raising the mountain. Its racing slope was not quite steep enough to meet the standards of the international ski-racing federation; so because the river ruled out any extension at the bottom, a small hillock was created at the top, adding 45m to the piste's vertical drop. Even more fanciful ideas have arisen in relation to Quebec City's proposed Winter Olympics bid, for which an even steeper slope would be needed.
And now Le Massif has another distinguishing feature. For this season, the transportation it provides includes not only chair-lifts and a gondola, plus snowmobiles and a car-park shuttle for busy days; there's a railway train, too. Skiers can ride to the slopes from near Quebec City, travelling along the river valley on Le Train du Massif de Charlevoix, which stops directly beneath the bottom of the resort's gondola.
An excellent if small domain, Le Massif has 53 pistes and ski routes dropping 770m to the river, and a large area dedicated to off-piste skiing, through the trees. Though the gradient will not tax good intermediate skiers there is plenty of challenge in the glades and on the race piste, Le Charlevoix. Adding to the enjoyment is the notably good atmosphere on the slopes, this being a ski area largely used by local people.
The train is the brainchild of Daniel Gauthier, the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, who sold his half share in the production company in 2001 for an undisclosed sum which, he once told me, was "more money than I could ever spend, than my children could ever spend, than their children could ever spend". A local man, he skied at Le Massif in his youth, and helped create the forerunner of Cirque du Soleil, a stilt-walking troupe called the Club des Talons Hauts (The High-Heel Club), at the nearest town, Baie-Saint-Paul. He spent some of his fortune on buying Le Massif in the 2002/3 season, and has since embarked on an ambitious plan to turn the Charlevoix area – a small wedge of land at whose apex lies Le Massif – into a four-season holiday destination.
Gauthier's project began with a series of improvements at Le Massif. Then he turned his attention to the railway, an old freight line built to serve the logging and paper business. Much of the track runs alongside the river, and in places threatened to fall into it, as a result of the battering from high tides and storms. The task of restoration was long, laborious and very expensive: 190,000 sleepers had to be replaced, and 800 drains and 25 bridges repaired. The cost of getting the train service running was C$44m (£28m).
Last summer, services started not just to Le Massif but all the way along the 140km track to its northern extreme at La Malbaie, a riverine resort established in the 19th century to cater for passengers on Canada Steamship Lines, which used to operate cruises from the Great Lakes. This winter, the ski train was added to the schedule.
If you know what London's Northern Line Tube is like in the rush hour, imagine the opposite: that's the Le Massif ski-train experience. The carriages are light filled and spacious, with high, almost church-like ceilings – they were once double-deckers, used on Chicago commuter lines. Everybody is happy to be on the train, so the atmosphere is convivial. And instead of just a dark tunnel, the view from the windows is of a spectacular winter landscape, the great river, a handful of local attractions and – amazingly – people smiling and waving at the train as if we had all been transported back to the early 1950s.
The first of the local attractions, right at the beginning of the journey in Quebec City's Montmorency park, is a spectacular waterfall whose 83m drop beats Niagara by 30m. It's a dramatic sight: in winter ice drapes hang down either side, but the fast-flowing water which plunges between them is unstoppable.
The least scenic part of the ride follows, during which the train runs alongside a main road rather than the river, and the second attraction is more bizarre than beautiful. The Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré is a massive, neo-Norman-Gothic structure, 100m long with two 90m spires, completed in 1946. There was already a shrine here to Saint Anne before 1658, when the first basilica was constructed. Among the workmen was a cripple, who was miraculously cured, and pilgrims started coming to the site. They now number half a million each year, and the main wall of the basilica is covered with discarded crutches.
Further on, inland, is the characteristic picture of a ski area on North America's Atlantic seaboard: a big rounded hill covered with broad white stripes. This is Mont-Sainte-Anne, one of the three ski destinations in this part of Quebec province (the third being Stoneham). It looks bigger than Le Massif, and it is, but its vertical drop is considerably shorter.
From this point on, the railway line clings to the bank of the river, running along a ledge between the water and steep rock face. On the landside was a winter wonderland of snow-laden trees, thanks to the 32cm that had fallen during the night; on the other side was a wildlife-documentary setting, with gently moving ice floes. You only had to screw up your eyes to see the polar bears that weren't there.
After one and three-quarter hours, we all piled out of the train, skiwear on and equipment to hand, and boarded the gondola for a day's skiing, having eaten a fancy cooked breakfast onboard. Six hours later – pleasantly exhausted by the choppy, fresh-snow conditions – we were back for a considerably fancier meal on the return journey, with darkness falling outside and subtle coloured lights conjuring a nightlife atmosphere on board.
Described as a "rail cruise", the train ride is clearly a pleasure trip rather than a commute, but the link between Le Massif and Quebec City is a useful one. The smallish ski area – just 5 per cent of the size of Whistler – couldn't justify a long-haul trip alone, but combined with the city it makes a great short break. One of North America's most beautiful cities, Quebec packs most of its best features – the restored port area, restaurants and walks, and a remarkable collection of large and fanciful late-Victorian buildings – into the small area of the Old Town.
Its architectural showpiece, the soaring 618-room Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac hotel (in which I stayed) seems designed to withstand attack, and is just the sort of place in which one imagines Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria would have liked to spend his holidays. But my favourite Quebec building is the Gare du Palais railway station, which was built in 1916 and looks like a cross between a baronial cottage and a French chateau. It was to have been the terminus for the Le Massif train, but speed restrictions on the tracks within Quebec City made the whole journey unacceptably long. That's a pity: it would have been convenient, and would have doubled the number of destinations served by this wonderful little station. Currently, trains run only to Montreal.
I did venture up to Malbaie, by car, to get a broader sense of Daniel Gauthier's project. His new 150-room hotel, in the artsy town of Baie-Saint-Paul, is nearing completion, and looks good: great setting, interesting architecture, and it will have a rail shuttle to Le Massif. The local food producers, nurtured by Gauthier, seem to be flourishing. One of them, the cheesemaker Laiterie Charlevoix in Baie-Saint-Paul, is a must-visit for its extraordinary ecological commitment and its dairy museum, as well as the cheese. Even the grand Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu hotel, in La Malbaie, is part of the project: its kitchens supply the food for the train, whose terminus (currently just a platform with a shelter) lies below the hotel on the riverfront.
It's still early days for the very ambitious Charlevoix project. But so far, so good.
Travel essentials: Le Massif
* Stephen Wood travelled to Quebec with Frontier Travel (020-8776 8709; frontier- travel.co.uk), which offers Air Canada flights from Heathrow to Quebec City via Montreal and four nights at the Auberge Saint-Antoine from £809 per person (based on two sharing).
Staying & visiting there
* Double rooms at the Fairmont hotels (0845 071 0153; fairmont.com) cost from C$224 (£142) at Le Chateau Frontenac and from C$169 (£107) at Le Manoir Richelieu.
* The Le Massif Ski Train (001 877 536 2774; lemassif.com/en/train) operates on Saturdays in March and also on 6/7 April; return tickets cost C$229 (£146), and include meals both ways and a one-day lift pass.
* Laiterie Charlevoix (001 418 435 2184; fromagescharlevoix.com).
* Tourisme Quebec (0800 051 7055; bonjourquebec.co.uk).
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