Peter Hardy is impressed by Newfoundland, North America’s most unusual and pristine ski destination
INHOSPITABLE is the adjective that springs chillingly to mind as I reluctantly abandon the warm fug of the snowcat to begin my descent of the Blomidon Mountains in Newfoundland.
A salt-laden gale blowing in from the Atlantic threatens to lift me off my feet before I can kick the wet snow from my boots and click into my bindings. Glenn, my guide, is only just visible through the swirling peasouper. Even on the initially gentle slope of the bitterly exposed ridge on which I find myself, the lack of visibility is so disorienting, it is almost impossible to tell down from up. My helmet and goggles are swiftly coated in a film of ice. The windchill factor tests my ski clothing to the manufacturer’s limits.
But perseverance is the only option. Once out of the wind and in the shelter of a steep gully, we find a cache of deep and dry powder. We can only feel it rather than see it as we ski down into the tree line of gnarled larch and gale-twisted spruce, and on towards the ocean shore.
Then, on the fifth run, the clouds lift dramatically and a weak wintry afternoon sun reveals the Blomidons in all their primeval glory.
This is one of those rare places where the earth’s crust is so thin that the raw mantle is exposed: tabletops and crazy crusted slopes of a rock called peridotite. It supports no vegetation in summer but is the supporting act for fabulous winter snow.
Spirits soar in the sunlight. We swoop down West Side Charlie’s and pick our way carefully down The Sands, a set of perilous 40-degree slopes on the far side of Brook Gorge. In reality, inhospitable is a wholly inappropriate description of the most unusual North American ski destination. No one could be more welcoming than the Newfies, who are opening their doors to a winter tourism that is better defined as rugged and delightfully uncommercialised. You certainly don’t need frontier spirit. The Blomidons apart, Newfoundland’s west coast is essentially a family destination.
Newfoundland, which may have escaped your education as much as it had mine, is the world’s 16th largest island and, together with neighbouring Labrador, didn’t become part of Canada until 1949.
It was once renowned for its cod, which was harvested in prodigious quantities off the Newfoundland Banks by British and Breton fishermen. It’s fair to say that, until now, one of Canada’s least populated provinces has not been famous for much else, apart from the filming of E. Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News and a bottomless pit of hillbilly jokes.
Newfoundland’s scant celebrity rollcall includes Cluny Macpherson, who in 1915 invented the gasmask, and Shannon Tweed, an actor who appeared as Playmate of the Month in a 1981 edition of Playboy magazine. However, all that seems about to change, following the extraordinarily ambitious property development during the past five years of Humber Valley Resort at the northern end of Deer Lake.
Elegant timber-framed homes that would pass for mansions elsewhere are tucked away along the shoreline on a private estate. It is reached by a bridge across the Humber River, famous for its salmon fishing. Each home stands on a large block in the pinewoods, and the number of bedrooms ranges from three to seven. They come complete with Americanstyle kitchens, hot tubs and saunas.
Rarely have I stayed in such spacious, rural ski surroundings and never at such a modest price. Humber Valley has been designed as a year-round resort with the emphasis on its par-72 golf course, kayaking, fishing, hunting and a wide range of summer activities.
Most owners put their properties into the rental pool, allowing visitors to stay in unexpected luxury during the less popular winter months.
The main alpine skiing takes place a 10-minute drive away along the TransCanadian Highway — another car in sight is the nearest you get to a traffic jam — at Marble Mountain. It’s not a Verbier or a Val d’Isere, but its four lifts serve a wide variety of runs spread across 70ha of terrain. I recommend user-friendly Marble for beginners, low-intermediates and particularly for families. The friendly tuition is of a high standard and it has its own lift for novices. Marble Mountain Snow School takes children from three years and has a supervised play area.
More accomplished skiers and riders will find that double black diamond runs such as Autobahn and Boomerang, along with highspeed cruising on Corkscrew, will hold their attention for at least a couple of days.
But the real attraction is the cat-skiing, which takes place a 30-minute drive away, above the Bay of Islands and the town of Corner Brook. You can also cross-country ski near Marble Mountain on 48km of groomed trails. But you don’t have to confine your holiday to skiing. Other activities include snowshoeing, snow-kiting and ice-climbing.
Snowmobiles provide the only means of winter transport in much of the interior, which is crisscrossed by 1200km of trails. We spend a memorable evening driving 20km into the middle of nowhere for hot drinks around a blazing bonfire. You don’t need a licence but, with a top speed of 80km/h, you do need lots of commonsense.
A sightseeing helicopter ride across the island shows how sparsely populated the region is. In a one-hour flight we see no sign of life among the frozen woodlands and soaring seaside cliffs apart from a half-dozen giant moose. This is one of the last outposts of the uncommercialised ski holiday.
As Brian Dobbin, owner of Humber Valley Resort, puts it: ‘‘ I want to go somewhere authentic and not have, like in Disney World, 230,000 of my closest friends there with me.’’ Daily Telegraph
Ski Safari offers packages; a hire car is recommended for the 20-minute transfer from the airport to the resort and for reaching the ski area. Marble Mountain has a self-service restaurant in the base lodge. Humber Valley has its own Beach House Restaurant, with great lobsters. Less formal fare can be found in Sully’s Pub. Strawberry Hill Resort at nearby Little Rapids provides alternative five-star accommodation and fine food. www.humbervalley.com www.skimarble.com www.skisafari.com www.strawberryhill.net www.catskiing.net www.cabox.ca www.mynewfoundland.ca
Powder power: Marble Mountain, a familyfriendly resort in Newfoundland, boasts 70ha of trails and terrain