BAIE-SAINT-PAUL, QUEBEC — The early morning sun shimmered on the St. Lawrence Seaway as we took a short taxi ride from Quebec City to Montmorency Falls. Even in the heart of winter, water poured from the heights of the upper falls, hemmed in by sheets of ice that clung to the cliff walls. Joined by crowds of day trippers excited to ski Le Massif on this frigid Sunday morning, we boarded the double-decker train. I sat back in my comfortable seat and as the train skirted the shoreline of the icy river, I dined on a breakfast of mushroom frittata, yogurt with blackberries and blueberries, a maple caramel pastry, and warm chocolate croissants.
It was a leisurely ride, passing small towns and their requisite churches, including the impressive basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. At Le Massif, we stopped for 15 minutes to allow day skiers the chance to retrieve their equipment and venture onto the gondola for a day on the slopes, before the train picks them up on the return trip. Soon, we were at our final stop (in winter), the town of Baie-Saint-Paul in the Charlevoix region of Quebec.
Mention Charlevoix to a Quebecois and they're bound to sigh, thinking of the mountains and long inlets that dot the shoreline of the seaway northeast of Quebec City. Home to the classic Fairmont Le Manor Richelieu built in 1929, the region has long been a summer retreat for families from Montreal and Quebec City who come to fish for salmon, hike in national parks, and kayak next to beluga whales. Lately the area has earned a reputation as the foodie capital of the province, known for its farm-to-table restaurants, local cheeses, pates, and microbrews.
Then there is the abundance of arts and culture in Charlevoix. It was in the small arts community of Baie-Saint-Paul that Guy Laliberté, Daniel Gauthier, and others formed a troupe in the early 1980s called "The Stiltwalkers of Baie-Saint-Paul," entertaining summer crowds with their juggling, fire breathing, music, and dance. Laliberté and Gauthier would soon cofound Cirque du Soleil. Gauthier sold his share of the company to Laliberté in 2000, but he didn't turn his back on Charlevoix.
In 2002, Gauthier bought Le Massif, a struggling ski resort with majestic views of the St. Lawrence and the largest vertical drop east of the Canadian Rockies. In September 2011, he unveiled the refurbished train I was riding, which travels 140 kilometers from Quebec City to the town of La Malbaie in summer. In June 2012 Gauthier unveiled the latest piece of his puzzle, Hotel La Ferme in Baie-Saint-Paul. Having spent over $300 million, he has quickly transformed Le Massif into a world-class skiing destination that rivals Quebec's Mont Tremblant.
Hotel La Ferme's 145 rooms and lofts are housed in five pavilions reminiscent of farm buildings from yesteryear. Their simple wooden exteriors hide a whimsical and contemporary European decor, where rolling barn doors might open to the bathroom or the family suite might come with comfortable bunk beds for each child. Yet Gauthier's next move is what won me over. He added 12 rooms, each with four beds, as his version of a hostel. Gauthier knew that Le Massif attracted a large crowd of young skiers. He wanted to offer a great place to stay for only $48 per bed. "We didn't want an exclusive gated community. We wanted to be open to everyone," said general manager Richard Germain.
There is no separation between Hotel La Ferme and the community. Gauthier mandated that food and craftsmanship should be produced within a 50-kilometer radius of Baie-Saint-Paul, if possible. So the salmon I dined on that night at the hotel's restaurant, Les Labours, was fished locally; the cheeses and bread are a Charlevoix specialty; and the red beer was brewed just down the road. On Sundays, from mid-June to mid-October, the hotel invites 20 local farmers to showcase their fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and breads in a market just outside the lobby.
Hotel La Ferme also features a spa with six treatment rooms, an outdoor hot tub, a small skating rink, a lounge around a fireplace in the main building, and a coffee shop that makes arguably the best café au lait I've had this side of the Atlantic. Gauthier has also returned to his performing roots by offering a banquet space that doubles as a theater, screening room, or dance hall. Since opening, it has featured many performers, including cabaret singers, theater troupes, and DJs.
After snowshoeing with a local guide and dining at the hotel, I rose early the next morning to sample the trails of Le Massif. At only 2,645 feet, you would think Le Massif would be pretty mellow, and you'd be wrong. More than half of the 53 trails are black diamond or expert. That leaves enough trails for beginners and intermediates to savor the view of the river.
I started with a blue groomer, La Petite-Riviere, and mid-mountain switched to the green trail, L'ancienne, which snakes through trees to the edge of the ski area. The vista was amazing with Baie-Saint-Paul and the snowcapped mountains. Far more dramatic are the waters of the St. Lawrence and the island across from Baie-Saint-Paul, L'Isle-aux-Coudres. You feel as if you're skiing straight into the sea.
More experienced skiers should take advantage of morning sun to head to the southern slope and steeper blacks like La Fenomene. Only the gifted should attempt the triple black diamond La Charlevoix. That's where the Canadian national ski team comes to practice downhill and slalom runs.
Le Massif also offers the rare chance to go rodeling or luging down a 7.5-kilometer trail on the mountain's northern face. The exhilarating two-hour trip starts with a snowcat ride to the top of the trail, where you're handed a small sled. Then you cruise downhill, curving around banks, and sweeping over hills, all with that glorious river view. You use your feet to brake and turn, stopping to walk over bridges or get a drink at a warming hut. The actual time on my sled was probably around 45 minutes, which went far too quickly. On that gondola ride back to the top (Le Massif is one of the few ski areas where lift tickets, parking, and restaurants are located at the summit), I had the urge to sign up for the next luge tour and do it all over again.
When a local son or daughter becomes successful and gives back to the community, as is the case of Gauthier, you can't help but root him on. It helps that he created his vision with patience and an eye for the future. On his wish list is a 300-room hotel at the base of Le Massif, with ongoing talks with Club Med to create one of their ski villages. Now that he has put Le Massif and the Charlevoix region on the international map, anything is possible.
Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.ActiveTravels.com.