Author: Leslie Anthony
There’s a reason Canada is fondly dubbed The Great White North. In 1964, Quebec singer-songwriter Gilles Vigneault penned “Mon pays” (my country), whose lyrical turns on wind, cold, snow and ice captured not only the solitude of winter landscapes, but the camaraderie of those who brave them. The song’s theme, Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver—my country isn’t a country, it’s winter—is a provincial anthem, but well-known throughout Canada, where most of us can relate to saluting the season no matter where we dwell.
Regional differences in winter observances enrich the experience for skiers, whether through local activities or cultural gestalt. To understand how, let’s take a quick tour of the country’s destination ski regions, from east to west.
We’ll start someplace unexpected: Newfoundland and Labrador’s western peninsula. Mooseburgers, seal-flipper pie, and cod-tongues may rule local menus here, but the town of Corner Brook harbours another surprise: Marble Mountain Resort, with serious vertical, award-winning runs, and consistent sea-borne snow. Not to mention backcountry ski-touring in the scenic Blomidon Mountains and Gros Morne National Park. And I’ve never met a more welcoming, fun-loving lot than Newfoundlanders, who go out of their way to share everything with visitors—including a “Screech-in” (spoiler alert: this involves downing belly-burning rum and kissing a dead fish).
If this seems a tad exotic, our next stop is unique in an entirely different way. While every ski region is home to passionate snow aficionados, Quebec’s devotees are on another level. Decades ago, citing its litany of over 100 ski hills, I referenced the province as “ski-mad,” and no experience since has changed my sentiment. But skiing in Quebec offers more than just the passion of participants. It also reflects the joie de vivre that permeates life here, with its focus on outdoors, art, culture and gastronomy.
Take Le Massif, a ski area overlooking the ice-filled St. Lawrence River as it widens into ocean near Baie St. Paul. Once a whispered deep-powder destination employing school buses to ferry skiers to the top, Le Massif became a lift-served resort in 1992, with the biggest vertical drop east of the Rockies at 2,500 feet, scenic pistes and glades, and a gourmand-level lodge that reflected the Charlevoix region’s artisan ethos, serving locally sourced food a decade before the 100-mile diet craze. Over my years skiing here it has only improved, a powderhound and foodie’s dream with the added bonus of a 4.6-mile European-style rodelling (snow luge) run, an iconic attraction found nowhere else in North America.
A few hours west, historic Ville de Québec has its own icons—like the plump, toque and sash-bound snowman known as Bonhomme, outsized mascot for the world-renowned Carnaval de Québec. Bonhomme (“happy man”) is so ubiquitous during the hibernal season he’s become a patron saint of Quebec skiing. Third on the world’s list of top fêtes behind Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans, Quebec’s rowdy winter carnival is a must-do for skiers who can enjoy groomed-to-perfection slopes at Mont-Sainte-Anne and Stoneham while taking in festival activities like ice-canoe and dog-sled races, ice-hotel dining and tobogganing.
Quebec’s largest city, Montréal, gateways two separate ski realms. Autoroutes running south drop you at sugarloaf mountains of the Eastern Townships like Owl’s Head and Mt. Orford, while heading north lands you in the fabled Laurentians at the province’s largest resort, Mont Tremblant, with its huge panoply of runs and European feel—not to mention Le P’tit Caribou, rated one of the world’s best après-ski bars.
Jumping west to the Rockies, skiers can dose on both history and prehistory. The former is obvious, embodied by architectural icons like the Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Lake Louise, grand 19th century edifices erected to lure eastern Canadians to the west’s mountain parks by the Canadian Pacific Railroad. The latter is more sublime, catching me off-guard during my last visit to Sunshine Village Ski Area outside Banff, where a fossil-bearing rock reminded me that I was sliding across the bottom of an ancient ocean thrust some 8,800 feet into the sky. The same sun that once bathed those protean reefs burned in a clear blue sky, the seafloor now cushioned by a generous amount of Canada’s lightest snow—the kind skiers go ga-ga for. Not only that, but I had, in a single leisurely run, skied from Alberta into British Columbia then back again along the Continental Divide. From my vantage, no sign of civilization marred the horizon, only the serrations of the vaunted Rocky Mountains with peaks like Mt. Assiniboine—Canada’s Matterhorn—punctuating a view that has drawn skiers to this aerie since 1929.
Indeed Alberta skiing is all about the Front Range of the Rockies: tilted limestone layer-cakes skirted in vast swaths of untouched forest, riven by glaciers and the robin’s-egg lakes gathered at their feet. This is the leitmotif backdropping the Banff-to-Jasper Icefields Parkway, the roadway that enjoys more global cachet than any other. In winter, the drive is spectacular in a different way; gone are summer’s aquamarine lakes, wandering wildlife, and thick traffic, replaced by an empty ribbon of asphalt, wind pluming off razor peaks, and a white frosting on every surface. In fact, at Lake Louise Ski Resort, it’s hard to say which is more stunning: the gaze from Whitehorn over the parkway to Princess Louise’s eponymous lake, constellated with ice-skaters, snowshoers and cross-country skiers, or the battleship ramparts of Redoubt Mountain viewed during a backcountry tour to historic Skoki Lodge, the first facility in North America built specifically to cater to ski-tourists. Arriving at Skoki’s snow-covered log structure feels like going back in time, the interior unchanged from opening day in 1931 and the aroma of fresh bread and soup stirring the air with the kind of western hospitality Alberta has always been famous for. Either way, you can’t avoid the breathtaking wallpaper; awe is part of the Front Range ski experience.
Beyond Alberta lies range after range of mountains—an enormous, silent sea of snow, rock and ice known as British Columbia, with more ski experiences than you can possibly imagine and as many distinct ski regions as the rest of Canada combined: between Vancouver Island, the South Coast, the Thompson Okanagan, and the Kootenay Rockies you’ll find 13 major ski resorts and a host of more intimate hills. The latter two regions host B.C.’s signature Powder Highway, a grand circle route linking the resorts of Whitewater, Red, Fernie, Kimberly, Panorama, Kicking Horse and Revelstoke—not to mention 90 per cent of North America’s heli-ski, cat-ski, and backcountry lodges. Expand your horizons to northern B.C. and there’s even more to choose from. Or make up your own road trip like I did: most people visit the Okanagan Valley for a summer wine tour, but with many of its star wineries and restaurants open in winter when human traffic is lowest, skiing Sun Peaks, SilverStar, Big White, Apex and Mt. Baldy is a perfect way to combine winter recreation and cultured libation.
With its infamously prodigious snows, British Columbia is all about winter adventuring—on-piste and off, whether skiing or pursuing other activities. The adventure also extends to food and beverage, with a huge range of craft breweries and funky eateries defining every ski town. Nothing better exemplifies this nexus than the international destination resort of Whistler, with 90-some bars and restaurants featuring food from every corner of the world including the local ocean-and-farm-to-table fusion known as Pacific Northwest cuisine. Another way B.C. shares its winter with visitors is through events. Whistler, for instance, comes alive for skiers with celebrations that include the Whistler Film Festival, Cornucopia, World Ski & Snowboard Festival, and WinterPRIDE, smaller versions of which can be found at other resorts.
Regardless of where you find yourself in B.C.’s pantheon of skiing, the range of other activities to partake in seems endless: cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, tubing, dog-sledding, ice-skating, fat-biking, zip-lining, winter fishing—even bobsledding on an Olympic track. If this litany boggles the mind, well, at least it comes naturally. And though they may look slightly different here, remember that a multitude of snow-based activities is a coast-to-coast affair in Canada. After all, my country may be winter, but that winter, it seems, has many dimensions.