Cirque du Soleil, Québec and Le Massif

Late January update: Le Massif has a 330cm base. Powder and groomed ski conditions is the latest report. If you are headed to Québec for Bonhomme Carnivale, this is a great side trip!

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skier at Le Massif

Le Massif overlooking the St. Lawrence River - photo: Benjamin Gagnon

Le Massif overlooking the St. Lawrence River – photo: Benjamin Gagnon

What do Le Massif (french for “The Massive”) and the Cirque du Soleil have in common? Le Massif, a ski hill east of Quebec City is owned by Cirque du Soleil co-founder, Daniel Gauthier. Through my volunteer work with a large Canadian travel media association, I had the pleasure of meeting Dany Gauthier in Quebec City earlier this year. He’s good looking and fit as a fiddle and I couldn’t resist asking him if he had once been an acrobat (thinking Cirque du Soleil). He chuckled and told me that no, his role with Cirque had been more as a bean counter.

Helicopter ride over the St. Lawrence River

Helicopter ride over the St. Lawrence River

Later, my colleagues and I flew in Dany’s private helicopter. Flying just above the icy St. Lawrence, the pilot hugged the mountainous shoreline all the way to Le Massif. It’s popular with Quebec City area skiers, but few outside of Quebec have ever heard of the place. That’s about to change. Le Massif and nearby Baie St. Paul, a picturesque town on the St. Lawrence, are about to become Canada’s next big ski destination. But not just any ski destination. With Gauthier at the helm, this one is expected to have a creative flair not seen in the ski world before. Baie St. Paul is, after all, the birthplace of the Cirque du Soleil. Gauthier and his busker buddies hatched the Cirque idea in a youth hostel here while performing at a local buskerfest. If Dany Gauthier has his way, Le Massif and Baie St. Paul will not only deliver great skiing but will be a feast for all the senses.

Town of Baie St. Paul, Quebec

Town of Baie St. Paul, Quebec

93 kilometers (58 miles) from Quebec City may seem like a crazy distance to get to in the height of winter (this region gets a ton of snow) but Gauthier has negotiated a deal with a railway. A new tour train will run along a stretch of existing track that hugs that same shoreline we flew over from Quebec City to Baie St. Paul. The scenery is drop dead gorgeous and I’m willing to bet the train will become an instant hit. Other forms of transportation planned for the project include dogsleds and electric cars. The Farm, a unique resort complex being built in Baie St. Paul is lean in terms of size and that’s for a reason. Gauthier is committed to sustainable development so, the resort is slated to be low density and energy efficient with spectacular views of the St. Lawrence River and the Farm’s working fields. There will also be a spa, a Farmer’s Market selling locals’ fare year round and of course, a new, spectacular train station. The Farm opens in summer 2011 and the entire operation is expected to be fully operational by 2013.

But the Cirque du Soleil and Dany Gauthier’s connection to Baie St Paul are not the town’s only claims to fame. This was a favourite destination of Canada’s famous Group of Seven painters too. Le Massif and Baie St. Paul sit on the doorstep of Charlevoix, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The 6000 square kilometre region is Canadian Shield, the oldest rock formation on earth. 350 million years ago a 15 billion ton meteor slammed into the earth here creating a crater 56 kilometres wide. Besides its beauty, Charlevoix’s reputation as  a foodie destination was around long before everyone in the tourism business starting pitching destinations as such. The Quebecois are like their cousins across the Atlantic. Their ability to prepare great food comes naturally.