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Skiing like nowhere else, as close as Québec

Exhilarating slopes — so near to a worldly city

Dufferin Terrace, built in 1838 next to Fort Saint-Louis, overlooks the St. Lawrence River. Château Frontenac lights up the hill. Below, an ice hotel, and a snowboarder at Stoneham, the closest good-sized ski area to Québec City. Dufferin Terrace, built in 1838 next to Fort Saint-Louis, overlooks the St. Lawrence River. Château Frontenac lights up the hill. Below, an ice hotel, and a snowboarder at Stoneham, the closest good-sized ski area to Québec City. (Luc-Antoine Couturier)
By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / January 9, 2011

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QUÉBEC CITY — In the ski vacation tug-of-war between the Rockies and the Alps, Québec City wins. Founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, this walled provincial capital, combined with the nearby resorts of Stoneham, Mont-Sainte-Anne, and Le Massif, provides a dose of France without jetlag, a dash of Europe without the euro, food that surpasses Aspen, and views that rival Tahoe. A winter vacation here is more than a ski holiday, it’s a cultural immersion, and a fun one, at that.

No other place in North America evokes Europe as authentically as this French gem. It noses into the St. Lawrence River, rising from the shoreline to a promontory, and comprises an old section within the walls and a new one outside them, as well as lower and upper villages. Connecting the neighborhoods are steep stairs, steeper streets, and a funky cliff-scaling funiculaire climbing from Petit Champlain, a steeped-in-history neighborhood of artisans shops and boutiques, up to the boardwalk at Place d’Armes. Lording over it all is the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, a castle-like hotel that has welcomed presidents and kings.

Within an hour’s drive of downtown are three alpine resorts. That proximity makes it easy to score first tracks in the morning and still end the day with a nightcap in the Frontenac’s St-Laurent Bar.

Stoneham The closest good-sized ski area to Québec City is Stoneham, a sun-soaked, wind-sheltered party pocket that skis much bigger than it first appears. Stoneham dead-ends a horseshoe-shaped valley. Cradling the central parking lot are three trail- and lift-connected peaks laced with trails, glades, and World Cup-worthy terrain parks. The petite base village has just enough punch to be a knockout at night.

Skiing Stoneham’s 1,380-foot vertical is fun anytime, but the mouse roars when the lights come on. On weekend nights, it sometimes seems as if all of Québec shows up to showboat in the terrain parks, challenge the monstrous half pipe (one of the six largest in North America), party in the bar, or watch the action from the outdoor hot tubs.

Québec is renowned for its food, and that reputation extends to the ski areas. Sure there’s plenty of true French cuisine, but when in Québec, one must have poutine, that artery-clogging, thigh-expanding delicacy of french fries smothered with gravy and topped with cheese curd. Le Feu Follet, Stoneham’s slopeside restaurant, serves a gourmet poutine, a swoon-worthy version made with chevre, foie gras, and a port demi-glace. Work it off in the bonanza of blacks, bumps, and glades on the highest peak until your quads beg for that hot tub.

Mont-Sainte-Anne A sibling of Stoneham, Mont-Sainte-Anne is in Beaupré, about 30 minutes east of Québec City. But allow longer for the drive, in case you get lured into stopping at either Montmorency Falls or the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. Montmorency’s water cascades 272 feet, nearly 1 1/2 times the height of Niagara. In winter, its icy spray creates a mini-mountain at its base that can rise as high as 98 feet. Just west of Mont-Sainte-Anne’s access road, the basilica honors the healing powers of St. Anne, who is credited with miraculously healing the crippled. Peek inside to see stacks of crutches left behind by those who claim to have been cured.

Mont-Sainte-Anne is a four-season outdoor fun park with an active village at its base. Its solitary peak is etched with trails and lifts, and the countryside below is laced with 132 miles of trails, making it Canada’s largest cross-country center. Anne’s mountain terrain includes a whopping 10 International Ski Federation-approved race trails, not to mention take-no-prisoners steeps and glades and plenty of groomed highways that keep just-happy-to-be-here intermediates smiling all day long. For an especially sweet run, mosey down La Pichard, one of the gentle trails on the mountain’s eastern shoulder. A trailside sugar shack sells sugar-on-snow, a taffy treat made from maple syrup poured over snow, then rolled up around a stick.

Anne’s south face, which can be seen when approaching the mountain, has the greatest amount and variety of terrain and an impressive 2,625-foot vertical drop as well as views over the St. Lawrence that can make the heart sing. While there’s enough on the south face to entertain most skiers for days (and nights), hidden from view — and sheltered from winds blowing off the river — are two more faces: the primarily blue-square trails and glades of the north side and the T-bar-served terrain of the sometimes wild west side.

Le Massif Continue another 20 minutes or so east from Beaupré, and you arrive at the summit Le Massif, a topsy-turvy masterpiece-in-progress owned by Daniel Gauthier, a co-founder of Cirque du Soleil. It’s in Québec’s Charlevoix region, a meteorite-carved and glacier-sculpted UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve long favored by artists for its eye candy.

Charlevoix’s capes and headlands plunge to rivers, lakes, and what’s locally referred to as the sea: the 21-mile-wide, tidal, ice-choked St. Lawrence, which laps at Le Massif’s base. Instead of starting the day with a lift ride, begin by swooping down 2,645 feet of true vertical — no run-outs or flats to slow your speed. It’s almost possible to believe that with just enough air off a roller, you might land on one of those icebergs floating below.

Gauthier’s multiyear $230 million development plan honors and protects Charlevoix’s environment and celebrates the region’s arts and culinary renown. On-mountain development is limited and what’s planned is in keeping with the environment; local art accents the walls; entertainment ranges from a skier on stilts to shows by nationally recognized performers; and all of the mountain’s dining venues serve local meats, cheeses, charcuterie, and produce.

And the skiing? Heavenly, thanks to a thoughtfully designed network of trails and glades blanketed by an average of 22 feet of snow each winter. Locals say: Keep your eyes peeled for Le Grande Duke, the area’s mascot owl. When he circles above the peak, it means a massive snowstorm is on the way.

Hilary Nangle can be reached at www.hilarynangle.com.

If You Go

Mont-Sainte-Anne
888-827-4579
www. mont-sainte-anne.com
Stoneham
800-463-6888
www.ski-stoneham.com
Le Massif
877-536-2774
www.lemassif.com
Québec City
877-783-1608