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LE MASSIF
QUEBEC, CANADA

Skiing Le Massif de Charlevoix vs European Resorts

12th February 2017

THE START

At the start of our adventure together, Holly and I were lucky enough to be able to kick everything off with a ski holiday to Canada with my Family for almost two weeks.
In total we spent 12 days in Canada at the stunning resort of Le Massif de Charlevoix, close to Baie-St-Paul, a town in the province of Quebec.  With neither of us having had the chance to ski outside of Europe before, we were in for a treat, and a very different experience.

What follows is a short summary of our trip, and based on my experience of European skiing (always in France with the exception of a trip to Austria last year) a short comparison of the two.

We were lucky enough to be invited to stay with family in their family home close to the resort of Le Massif.  Lying around 20 minutes by car from the town of Baie-St-Paul, Quebec Province, the village consists of one road running along the bank of the St Lawrence River littered with beautiful cottages and houses on each side.

The Cottage overlooking the St Lawrence River, Quebec, Canada.

Arriving at night, we didn’t get chance to see the scene until the following morning, but when we woke the first thing that struck us was the size of the river. A staggering 26km across at the point we were staying, the river makes our most familiar comparison point, the Thames, look like a trickle of piss. Starting in the great lakes of North America, the river flows over 3000km, before opening up into a gaping gash on the East side of the North American landmass and draining over 10 million litres of water into the Atlantic every second. Thats 10,000 tonnes of water every second…let that sink in!

Sunrising over the St Lawrence River, Quebec.
Orange skies early morning over St Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada. Sunrising and snow falling.

Waking up on the first morning overlooking St Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada. Sunrising and snow falling.

We travelled for almost 24 hours to reach the cottage, but after waking up to the above view, we’d do it all again twice.

Our journey began with a 7am wake up time at a hotel close to Gatwick airport.  We flew West Jet, and those who saw our first Instagram post will know we had a great experience. Seven and a half hours, a few drinks and some hilarious safety briefings later, we touched down in Toronto around an hour later than schedule due to a delayed take off.

After clearing immigration and (rather curiously to us*) collecting our baggage, we arrived at the baggage drop to send our bags on their way before going back through security to the gates. Due to a combination of the delay and the time taken to collect and re check bags we had a mad dash to our gates on the other side of the airport (typical) meaning we boarded our prop plan to Quebec as the last passengers…a close one!

*Note – we didn’t know when booking that collecting and rechecking bags was the norm in Canada for internal transfers – this is definitely something to be aware of and account for when selecting onward flights.

Another hilarious safety briefing later and we touched down in Quebec at around 18:00 local time, or 23:00 in our bodies which were still clinging to GMT. After killing a few hours in the airport and sampling the famed Tim Hortons Coffee, we departed for the cottage through the snowstorm engulfing the city. After around an hour and a half’s drive through the snow covered roads alongside the river, we arrived at our stunning location.

Our flight costs, which we did book well in advance (June last year), were in total £273 each. This included two checked bags each as we each had a suitcase full of our skiing equipment, as well as our rucksacks for our onward adventure. (£243 for flights, £15 per checked bag)

Now that we had arrived, the serious business of skiing could begin.

Pink and blue toned sky over a frozen St Lawrence River, Quebec, Canada.

The ice covering the St Lawrence River.

The experience of skiing in Canada was a totally different one to that which Holly and I are used to from our skiing in Europe, mostly in France across the usual resorts (Val Thoren, Les Deux Alpes, Les Arc, etc.).  Below are some of the observations that we had to try to bring this to life.

RESORT

The quaint resort of Le Massif makes your typical French alpine town look like a sprawling suburb of New York City. The “resort” itself only really consists of the infrastructure used to facilitate skiing, with only 2 restaurants/cafes, one at the top and one at the bottom of the Pistes.

The European towns are very much a holiday destination experience, with a resort set up solely for the purpose of accommodating snow hunters in the winter and activity holidays in summer, brimming with tailor made chalets and hotels. In contrast it would seem odd to actually refer to Le Massif as a resort at all. Instead it is simply a facility that affords the residents of the surrounding area and any visitors to the area the option to ski. There is no purpose built Carrefour, no leisure centre with a sports hall, climbing wall and crèche,  no clutter of hotels packed with students on the annual uni ski trip. This gives the whole visit a sense of community, as many of the people skiing and working in the resort live close by in surrounding towns and villages, having season passes as they do every year. The barista could be the brother of the assistant in the ski rental shop, who in turn may be the cousin of the bar tender pulling your beer at lunch. It may lead to a different après experience (more on this later), but the vibe is much more relaxed, personal and friendly and this is something we enjoyed.

SKIING

Going hand in hand with, and indeed being the reason for the existence of, the large resorts of Europe, are the vast number of runs and mountains that they give access to.  For many this is one of the most celebrated aspects of skiing in Europe – scale. Take the three valleys for example – purchasing the total area lift pass gives access to an area so vast in size, that it is quite conceivable to ski most runs only once across the course of a week. If staying at one of the valleys at either side, (Val Thoren and Courchevel) it takes an early start and a quick pace to be able to make it all the way to one side of the map and back in a single day. Last minute dashes for the crucial final chair over to your home valley are par for that course.

By contrast Le Massif offers a piste map at the other end of the scale. In total there are 3 4-man chair lifts and one express gondola, serving a total of 52 runs. Owing to the geography of the resort and the climate of the region, the top of the resort rises just 800m above sea level. This means the whole resort is much more accessible, and it is one of the few resorts in the world wherein it is possible to drive to the top of one of the chair lifts – something that would not be possible in the Alps of Europe.

Le Massif Piste Map

What it lacks in size, Le Massif makes up for in diversity. Since it is not on a mountain range as with the Alps, pretty much the entire surface of the hill can be traversed in order to descend to the base at the St Lawrence river. Home to the longest continuous section of groomed piste on the east coast of Canada, there is certainly no shortage of challenging ways down once you make it up. One of the most challenging is the double diamond (see piste map for an explanation of what this means) “42” run – so called because in parts the slope is a jaw dropping 42 degree pitch.

It also means the true off piste possibilities in Le Massif are much greater than the Alps, simply because there is that much more useable mountain around. It is always possible to find a section of the slopes untouched, and never have I heard as many whoops of delight and shouts of “POOOWWDDDEERRR” the morning after a big snow storm, as everyone makes the most of the hidden trails and countless ways down the mountain in the fresh snow.

Due to the low altitude of the resort, trees hug almost every surface, meaning Le Massif offers something that most European resorts cannot boast – a fantastic array of tree skiing.

Combine the two and add a 30cm snow storm, and you get one of the most incredible days of skiing I have ever had!
Winding through trees in fresh snow bouncing down the mountain on the back of my skis, passing through some stunning surroundings, and destroying my quads to go with it.
I have never ski’d to the point of burning out before – but as I tried to keep up with my sister’s boyfriend, who grew up in the area: Le Massif beat me.

WEATHER

The reason it is possible to have resort peaking at just 800m above sea level owes to the climate of the east coast of Canada and the Quebec province. With hot summers and bitterly cold winters, temperatures in January and February can get to -40 Celsius. For most of our trip it was between -10 and -15, however toward the end the mercury dropped to -28. If, like me before this trip, you live in the UK, head to the Alps once a year to the snow, and have never experienced anything below -8, it is difficult to convey what this level of cold feels like. 

On our final days skiing, which was the coldest we had, two thermal base layers, a balaclava, foot and hand warmers, plus all the usual layers and skiing gear weren’t enough to keep the biting cold out. Taking off gloves to check the piste map was not possible for more than 30 seconds or so, and we had to stop much more frequently to warm up. We would sometimes elect to wait in the longer gondola queue to avoid the biting cold wind of the chair lifts. It is certainly a different kind of skiing at that temperature with it not being possible (or desirable for that matter) to ski all day and eat lunch at the side of the slope, as we often do in Europe. It is also necessary to make sure that the clothing you have is adequate for those extremes, as not all clothing that can be used in European skiing would cut it in Canada.

Bright blue skies. Skiing in Le Massif, mogul run, with St Lawrence river in the background.
Glittering snow in Le Massif, Canada.

Blue skies and fresh snow, Le Massif, Canada.

LIFTS

It was on the coldest days where we observed another key difference between Le Massif and its European alternative – the chair lifts. Being pragmatic about this, they were more than adequate, and got you from A-B safely and even quickly. However, what they do lack (especially on cold days) is the comfort and luxury of some of the better European resorts. Whilst a small point, and by no means common place across all resorts in France, what we wouldn’t have given for a windshield and heated (or even just cushioned) seats on those long cold chair lifts to the summit.

Taking the lift down to the beautiful view of the St Lawrence River at Le Massif, Quebec.

SCENERY

As anyone that skis regularly will attest, the views when skiing in the French Alps are quite remarkable. An empty wilderness of rugged peaks, dropping valleys and jaw dropping vistas, you don’t often forget the first time you were lucky enough to break through the cloud on your first day on the mountain.

Blue skies and rugged mountains in Lech, Austria

Fresh powder and rugged mountains in Lech, Austria.

Blue skies and rugged mountains in Lech, Austria

The views in Le Massif, whilst different, are equally stunning. The trees mentioned above combined with the geography of the resort mean you will often be skiing surrounded by Pines, with a view straight across the St Lawrence to the northern shore. It is a surreal experience to be skiing down to a river when you are used to picking your way between peaks in the Alps, however it makes for some jaw dropping sights.

Fresh white slopes and covered trees in Le Massif, Quebec, Canada

Perfect snow in Le Massif, Canada.

APRÈS SKI

Bread and butter.
Ross and Rachel.
Ying and Yang.
Ant and Dec.
Paul and Barry (Chuckle).
Chips and Gravy.

All are superb, and indeed timeless, combinations. However, none come close to the most accepted of all pairings; skiing and boozing. Après ski is for many as crucial as hitting the first lift of the day, or nailing the perfect parallel turn. The après scene in Europe (and not only France) is some of the best in the world. Hundreds of people crammed into a bar on the side of a mountain, fist pumping to techno beats and saxophone collaborations,  doing the ski boot shuffle on the table tops as the light reaches levels questionable for safe skiing on the descent down, is a sight and experience to behold. This is La Folie Douce in France, but in Austria St. Anton and Mayrhofen offer similar experiences.

La Folie Douce, Val Thorens, Aprés Ski

La Folie Douce, Val Thorens.

Photograph by Travello

Whilst Après is still a big part of the day in Le Massif, it is these parties on such scale that is perhaps lacking when comparing to European skiing. The benefits described above of the smaller scale, local town feel have this as the other side of the sword. That being said, a night of drinking and dancing to a live karaoke band, or an organised night skiing descent with light shows and head lamps, whilst not on the same scale as La Folie Douce, are not without their charms.

Apres in Le Massif. GIF of jagerbomb domino shot glasses.

Enjoying the après at Le Massif, Quebec.

COST COMPARISON

The following is a comparison of the approximate costs of a trip to Europe versus its Canadian counterpart.

To do this, I have based everything on the cost of ONE adult travelling for a one week ski holiday with SIX days of skiing (standard) travelling as part of a FOUR person group.
I have not included spending money as this is hugely variable between people, and the price differential we experienced for things like food and drinks on the mountain was not that different in Canada versus Europe (though this will vary with resorts).

FLIGHTS

A quick search on SkyScanner gave the price of a flight (excluding baggage) to Geneva from London Gatwick as £47 with EasyJet. If you add 23kg to be on par with what you would get on the Canada flight, you equal out at £99.

Compare this to a return flight with Air Canada to Montreal Airport at £435 and you (rather expectantly) get off to a bad start for Canada!

TRANSFERS

If you have ever skiied in Europe you would be well acquainted with Ben’s Bus. Ben’s Bus runs cheap and frequent shuttles to most of the key resorts. For this comparison, you can get a return from Geneva Airport to Val Thorens for £79.50.

A shuttle bus runs from Quebec city to Le Massif for $29.85 + 15% = $34.32 – approximately £21.
The shuttle runs once a day: 8am (and back at 4pm). Otherwise, you can hire a car to travel to the resort – but we would only recommend this if you have experience of winter driving and poor weather conditions.
The Base Station does have a brand spanking new train station which had direct trains from Quebec (outer city station), but when we visited in December and January, the station was not in use.

The only other note here is that the shuttle is from Quebec and not Montreal, where your flight will likely arrive. You will need to factor in the transport from Montreal to Quebec, which can be done by catching a bus from the city centre or the airport. You can book this via Ridebooker. This costs $88 CAD each way. Plus the 15% tax and you’re looking at an additional £123.84 for the round trip.
You may be able to find deals that arrive in Quebec, but at the time of posting it was more cost effective to fly to Montreal.

ACCOMMODATION

Right now it’s possible to book out a self-catered chalet in Val Thoren to sleep four people for between £600 and £800, which per person is between £150 and £200 – for parity lets go for £175.

Whilst we were incredibly lucky and were staying at family accommodation that does mean that we do not have a direct comparison point. However, another quick Google search (how did we even book holidays before the internet?) reveals a hotel room being available close to Le Massif for £70 per night for a double room, giving £35 per person, per night.
For seven nights this does comes out at £245.

Before chalking another up to Europe, consider that you are staying in a hotel in Canada rather than a basic self-catered ski chalet as in France. This will mean breakfast, room and maid services, etc. So while you pay more in Canada you will have a breakfast to wake up to every morning and a clean room and turned down bed to come home from each evening after a hard day on the slopes – but you will lack the opportunity to cook for yourself.

LIFT PASS

The cost of the full Three Valleys lift pass for six days is 294€ for an adult. At todays exchange rate this is approximately £250 (thanks BREXIT you tit).

To get six days skiing in Le Massif the cheapest way to go is to not purchase the multi-day passes, but instead to purchase the Privilege Card. 

By purchasing a Privilege Card you get 1 day free skiing and additional days at a discount.
Privilege Cards have 2 different day rates. A reduced rate for the weekends: Friday, Saturday and Sunday ($65 CAD per day), and a further reduced rate for the rest of the week ($57 CAD per day). This is in opposition to the ‘Multi-day Passes’ which, at it’s best, will only get you a reduced rate of $70 CAD per day.

What you need to bare in mind, however, is another quirk of North America. In general all prices exclude the local tax. In the Quebec this tax is around 15%.

Add this on and the total for six days (assuming 2 x weekend days, 1 x free weekday and 3 x weekday rates) for an adult becomes $391 CAD+ 15% = $449.65 .
At today’s rate this is approximately £275 (thanks again, Brexit you tit).

SKI RENTAL

The cost of a basic ski package rental in France for six days is 90€, a steal at £77.

Unlike France or other European resorts, you do not get the huge savings for purchasing in bulk weeks.
The best discount you would receive here is for purchasing more than 3, which would get you the cost of the tax off (15%). Most skiiers to this resort are regulars and own their own equipment.
Frustratingly for us (lodging at the bottom of the slope), there is no competition between ski hire places and you need to travel to the top of the mountain to hire the skis from the only ski shop – which, in turn, results in needing to drop them off at the top when you’re done with them and embarrassingly take the lift southward to the base.

The equivalent cost is £213. Again, just a smidgin’ more…

SUMMARY

As a reminder these costs are based on:
1 Adult within a group of 4 Adults travelling together.
Skiing for 6 x Days.
Lodging for 7 x Days.

We have excluded any spending money on catering (self, or restaurant) and any other spends on socialising as we found these costs to be similar across the board and subjective to the person. These costs will need to be added on top of the below.

The total cost for Val Thoren works out as:

Flight + baggage: £99
Transfers: £79.50
Accommodation: £175
Lift Pass: £250
Ski Rental: £77
Total: ~£680.50

For Le Massif:

Flight + baggage: £435
Transfers (from Montreal): £145
Accommodation: £245
Lift Pass: £275
Ski Rental: £213
Total: ~£1313

On the face of it, an easy victory for skiing in Europe.

It has to be reiterated that the accommodation standard in Canada would be much higher than those priced here for Europe – I know by experience of university ski trips being putting up in such chalets – once I literally slept in a cupboard…!

However, there are no such saving graces for lift pass and ski hire. With a pass for the largest combined ski area in the world coming out at £50 less than one of the smallest and due to larger numbers and competition between companies, the ski rental in France also considerably less.

The only thing that could be conjured in the defence of Canada here is the scale of the resort. Without the benefit of the scale that European resorts have it is difficult to get prices as low for things like lift passes and ski hire – the fixed costs in running a ski resort are simply too high. Sure, if there were more skiers in Le Massif it may be Cheaper, but it would loose all its charm and appeal in the process. And besides, we don’t go skiing for what it costs – if we did, we wouldn’t go.
We go for the thrill, the scenery, the après, and the love of the snow – all the things that we cant add up or compare using money. And for these things, our time in Le Massif was right up there!

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