Snowpocalypse Never: In Quebec, Winter’s Just An Excuse To Kick It Up a Notch

February 10, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Posted in Canada, Quebec, skiing/snow sports | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

ice slide at Quebec Winter CarnivalFolks in large swaths of the USA’s Northeast have been shellshocked by the so-called “snowpocalypse” these past several days, but meanwhile, up here in southern Quebec, I’ve been witnessing firsthand how little the locals let a little weather slow them down. In fact, they take it up a notch. Even with average annual snowfalls of 14 feet (4 meters) and subfreezing temperatures, for the past 55 years Quebeckers have thrown their own pre-Lenten Carnaval d’Hiver, falling around the same time as Mardi Gras, the big blowout in Rio de Janeiro, and other such overheated frolics (this year, the dates are February 29 to January 14; next year January 28-February 13).

Most Winter Carnival action takes place on a few dozen acres of the Plains of Abraham in Old Quebec City just below the National Assembly building. As I walked through the gates, to my left kids whooshed down a long, slick chute of ice and to my right, a couple of others brandished from long, blue and red plastic horns, bleating the likes of which you’d expect from a flatulent moose. Farther up to the left, I spotted somebody careening down a zipline across the way from the “Arctic Spas” area, which sported not just a dry sauna but a bunch of bubbling hot tubs, several filled with folks in bathing suits (managing to be at once sedate and at least a bit extreme).

Snow bath at Quebec Winter CarnivalAnd so it went. I checked out some ingenious snow sculptures, and careened downhill on a whitewater raft; made maple-syrup pops in the snow at a “sugar shack” and that night boogied to earsplitting techno and hip-hop in front of a glowing ice-brick castle. I’m sorry to miss this Saturday’s “snow bath,” though, in which a few dozen guys and gals strip down to beachwear and roll around in the white stuff. Frozen cheesecake, indeed.

The festivities get spread out a bit to outlying areas, too. I spent part of one afternoon down at the port watching teams of men and women charging through the ice-clogged St. Lawrence River in fiberglass canoes. It looked incredibly cold and incredibly dangerous; at dinner that night at the grandest hotel in town, the Château Frontenac, my friends and I ran into the captain of the winning team (which was, as it happens, for the 18th time in a row none other than…the Château Frontenac team), who burbled on so enthuastically about the experience and the rigorous training that goes into it. Then suddenly he stopped himself, then added with a smile, “I must sound like a freak.” No, no, we assured him — just incredibly committed (we didn’t specify whether we meant “committed” in a good way or the mental-institution way). A little less chilly and daredevilish was the Mardi-Gras-style night parade in the suburb of Charlesbourg, with some pretty snazzy floats and moves, presided over by Bonhomme, a chap in a jolly, red-capped snowman suit — the symbol of Carnival.

Clearly, a lot of locals spend a lot of the year putting this extravaganza together. Savoring a steaming hot caribou (red wine octaned-up with brandy) at a table with a couple of Quebeckers in one of the food-and-drink tents, I took my French out for a spin, marveling at the 17-day event’s quality, organization, and enthusiasm. One middle-aged gent shrugged and said, “well, everybody has their way of getting through the winter. This is ours.”

But this embrace of winter doesn’t start or stop with Carnival — far from it. I also got to pop out of town, a half hour up to a bucolic resort called Station Touristique Duchesnay, where I found locals and tourists alike snowshoeing, snowmobiling, dogsledding, cross-country skiing, and ice-fishing their hearts out. As my little group snowstomped along a ridge, we passed a yellowish frozen waterfall, and our twentysomething guide Yannick blurted — “oh, now ice-climbing — that’s my favorite thing to do in the world!” Whatever you say, dude. Afterward, with only the most minimal of preliminary instructions, Nicolas at Aventure Inukshuk let me drive a dogsled, even though eyeing that jumping, yipping team of huskies was turning me to nervous mush (get it, mush?). It was a workout, for sure, but I’m pleased to report that no humans or canines were harmed in the making of this anecdote (hey, it’s all in the brake); the team behind us, though, did at one point veer off into the woods and ended up with their mush puppies snarled up.

At Quebec's Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel)The highlight out at Duchesnay, though, had to be my night at the famous Hôtel de Glace (Ice Hotel), one of only two in the world, now in its tenth season. Running this year January 4 to April 4, it’s a work of art with the feel of a crystalline fairyland, including a nightclub, a chapel, and museum, an indoor ice slide, a hot-tub/sauna courtyard, and 36 rooms housing 88 people (some are plain cells, others artistically carved; rates start at CA$189*). Virtually everyone, myself formerly included, is simultaneously tickled and nervous about being unconscious for six-plus hours in an icebox. So they give you a thorough orientation on how to deal with your sleeping bag and store your stuff, dressing and undressing, getting up to go to the bathroom, and so forth. After an exceptional dinner in the main — and conventional — Auberge Duchesnay a couple hundred feet up the hill, that night’s guests hit the ice bar, which serves a range of soft drinks and tipples (try the Sortilège maple whiskey) in square tumblers of ice. Amid colored lights and disco music, an animatrice (kind of a social director) kept everybody busy — and warm –with activities like a scavenger hunt and ice sculpting. At midnight, c’est fini and it’s off to dreamland. Some people find the experience — mostly due to the sleeping bag — claustrophic, but for me it was fine. I woke up a couple of times, but not because of the cold; I did pass on my habitual 3am bathroom run, though. Folks generally spend only one night on ice and the rest up in the conventional lodge, but still, as unusual experiences go, this one’s definitely a keeper.

Leave it to the Quebeckers — they can teach us all a thing or two about making friends with winter.

*US$178; £114; €130; AU$203, NZ$257, R1378

photos: 1/3 David Paul Appell, 2 Quebec Winter Carnival

Olympics Aside, There’s Lots of Cool Stuff To Do in Whistler This Winter

February 1, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Posted in British Columbia, Canada, skiing/snow sports | 1 Comment
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by Karen Kefauver

Whether or not you scored primo — or for that matter, any — tickets to the Winter Olympic Games or Paralympics (for last minute Olympics tickets, check out CoSport and Vancouver 2010 Games Tickets), the Whistler resort area is one of the world’s premier snow playgrounds. On my recent  week up here, I didn’t even miss downhill skiing or snowboarding with attractions like these:

Before getting started, I should mention that if you happen to be heading over this week, that this Friday, February 5, the Olympic Torch Relay comes to town — and you can catch the ceremony at 5:30 in front of the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, built jointly by the two local Native Canadian tribes. Which brings me to the…

Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre The Squamish and Lil’wat nations  have peacefully coexisted hereabouts for centuries, and their graceful contemporary crown jewel, built in 2001, houses a wealth of their cultures, including carved cedar spindle whorls; authentic dugout canoes; wool and cedar weavings; exhibits showcasing their relationship to the land; and a Great Hall designed in the form of a Squamish longhouse. A 15-minute documentary, Where Rivers, Mountain and People Meet, provides a superb overview of their history and ways. Adults CA$18, students/disabled/ 65-plus CA$13.50, age 18 and under CA$8-$11.*

Sno-Limo Mountain Ecotouring When I saw a woman settling onto the Sno-Limo, it looked like so much fun that I had to try it. While the company bills itself as a “fully interactive on-mountain activity for non-skiers” it’s also great for folks like me, who occasionally don’t mind relaxing and letting someone else “drive” down the slopes for a change. Your guide will help you into the sled, belt you in, then control the direction and speed of the descent. My “limo driver” was a college student from England who was a delight to talk to — he even graciously stopped at several points to let me take photos of snowboarders doing stunts. Just remember, bundle up — since you aren’t exerting yourself, it can get chilly! Packages $125-$495; customized itineraries also available.

Bearfoot Bistro Whistler’s après-ski is outstanding, and Bearfoot’s a star among stars, especially famed for its wine list and cellar — more than 2,100 labels and 20,000 bottles. Decadent yet affordable, IMHO it also shines both in service and “modern Canadian”  menu (Arctic caribou chop, anyone?). And when I met the vivacious proprietor André St. Jacques, I had no idea that he’s the Guinness World Record holder for “sabering” champagne — 21 bottles in under a minute. Not familiar with this tradition, dating back to the Napoleonic era? Believe me, it’s a sight to behold. Main courses start at $8.

Peak-2-Peak Gondola What a thrill! Spanning 2 3/4 miles (4 1/2 km) between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains,  this epic engineering feat holds several world records, including highest contraption of its kind — 1,427 feet (436 meters) above the valley floor — and the world’s longest continuous lift system. It’s just an 11-minute ride, but the 360-degree views from the 28-person cabin are stunning — so try to wedge yourself next to the window. The gondola’s included in the $93 regular lift ticket and the $42 “sightseeing” lift ticket.

Grouse Mountain Zipline Grouse is actually a two-hour drive from Whistler — but it’s just 15 minutes from Vancouver, so it’s definitely worth a stop en route for a two-hour taste of the adrenalin rush that Olympic athletes experience as they fly over the snow. “Air Grouse” sends you on a 50-mile-an-hour zip across the peaks of Grouse and Dam mountains along a brand-new cables up to 350 feet (1,150 meters) above the slopes, and you can get it all caught on film by staff photogs. And by the way, during the games, this is where NBC’s Today Show will be based, so keep your eyes peeled for celebrities. Open weekends; 24/7 February 12-28 and March 6-14; $105.

*Approximately US$17 / £11 / AU$19 / 12€ for adults; US$13 / £8 / AU$14 / 9€ for students,disabled, and seniors; CA$8-$11  US$7.50-10 / £4.75-6.50 / AU$8.50-11.50 / 5-7.50€ for 18 and under. All prices above are cited in Canadian dollars.

Why British Columbia Nailed the Winter Olympics

January 4, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Posted in British Columbia, Canada, resorts, skiing/snow sports | Leave a comment
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British Columbia's superlative skiingby Max Pesling

Gold-medal fever’s headed our way again — for the third time in Canada, but just the first in Canada’s westernmost province. It’s fair to say that reasons number one and two why British Columbia is hosting the 21st Winter Olympics this February 12-28, followed by the Paralympic Games March 12-21, are the appeal of world-class Vancouver and nearby Whistler Blackcomb.

Vibrant yet laid-back, sophisticated yet outdoorsy, Vancouver will be hosting various ceremonies, events, and of course parties, but there’s only so much in the way of winter sports you can get done in a city — you need those soaring mountain resorts. And in this rarefied catgory, Whistler Blackcomb, a two-hour drive away, has become North America’s biggest ski area and a world star. Known for its dozen Alpine bowls, 5,280 vertical feet, and more than 8,000 skiiable acres, all 200-plus runs will be open before and after the Olympics (when it hosts events including Alpine racing, Nordic, luge, bobsled, and skelton), and 90 percent of them even during the games themselves. Serving up a wide variety of dining, shopping, clubbing, and miscellaneous fun, by now Whistler’s a phenomenon.

But it’s far from the province’s only superb center of snowy action (in fact, some would even say not the best), and in fact various Olympic teams consider several good enough to have their athletes living and training there at this very moment. So here’s a quick primer covering eight of the best of BC’s 19 resorts. Chances are you’ll be able to nab some good deals on lift passes and accommodations season — even, in some cases, during the games themselves — yet still get a chance to cross paths with an international bevy of Olympians in training.

Apex Outside Penticton in the Okanagan Valley 250 miles (420 km) from Vancouver, this under-the-radar gem is a hot practice spot this winter. So watch for an international crew of freestyle ski athletes doing their thing on the bumps, jumps, and some of North America’s driest, fluffiest powder. With a 7,250-foot elevation, it’s a little quieter than other BC resorts, and a bit more geared toward advanced levels.

Big White Also in the Okanagan, outside the town of Kelowna a few miles from Apex, B.C.’s second most popular winter resort has an elevation of just over 7,600 feet and 2,565 skiable acres celebrated for their dry powder and good for beginners and intermediate. With three hotels and more than 250 condos, cabins, and more, it’s got a pretty admirable apres-ski scene, too, including a shopping mall, spas, nine eateries, and eight nightspots.

Kimberley A good 6,500 feet up in the Kootenay Rockies 510 miles (850 km) east of Vancouver, here’s another lesser-known gem with lots to do for all skill levels (strongest on intermediate), plenty of powder, new year-round, $6-million facilities, 1,800 scenic acres, and also a fair bit of good après-ski and activity when the white stuff goes bye-bye.

Mount Washington On Vancouver Island, 75 miles (125 km) by road and ferry from the Big V, it’s not hosting events, but it is hosting plenty of Olympians, because its 5,209-foot elevation, temperatures, and ambience are similar to Whistler Blackcomb’s; more than 23 Nordic and Alpine teams from ten countries will be training and kicking back here until show time. Indeed, for scores of elite snow jocks, Mount Washington has become a second home.

Red Mountain Just over the Washington State border and 385 miles (640 km) east of Vancouver, this former gold mining town in the Monashee Mountains boasts a pair of impressive peaks with a 2,887-foot drop and is top rated for powder, service, and overall experience. And January 22-24, it’ll be hosting the Canadian Freeskiing Championships during the its annual winter carnival; front and center this year will be the Olympic torch relay.

Revelstoke Over the past three years, this West Kootenay railroad town 360 miles (600 km) east of Vancouver has morphed into BC’s most talked about new winter destination. Besides some of the newest equipment in the business (including a new on-hill helicopter, cat-ski, and mountain education/backcountry adventure center), you’ll find North America’s longest top-to-bottom trails. And of course the historic town itself is quite the charmer.

Sun Peaks When it comes to ogling Olympians and Paralympians in training, gliding on some fab powder, or just plain relaxing, it doesn’t get better than this sun-splashed trio of peaks on 3,678 acres near Kamloops, 210 miles (350 km) miles east of Vancouver. It’s where national alpine ski teams from Canada and Europe (especially mighty Austria) gather in advance to steel their nerves against scary-steep runs, and home to Canada’s top winter Olympian, skier Nancy Greene Raine (drop by the lobby her Cahilty Lodge to check out her impressive trophy cabinet, and don’t be surprised if she even offers to let you hang one around your neck). It’s all affordable, walkable, and lift lines minimal — what’s not to like?

Whitewater Intimate, mellow, and a bit off the beaten path, this resort in Nelson, 390 miles (650 km) from Vancouver (not far from Red Mountain) has been long known as the place for some outrageous champagne powder — sometimes topping 45 feet (13 meters) in a season. An “Olympic Gear-Up Winter Carnival” is being held here January 30.

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