enRoute’s Winter Hotspots

The Decemberists is a four-part winter travel package that I assigned and edited for the December 2008 issue of enRoute.

The Hills
Dude, where’s my snowboard? You’ll find it in Southern California, where surf culture hits the slopes.
By Benjamin Leszcz

With the Southern California morning sun blazing overhead, bumper-stickered pickup trucks arrive alongside gleaming Audis as the parking lot at Bear Mountain starts to fill up. It’s barely 9 a.m., but the party at this snowboarding hot spot – hovering at 2,130 metres above sea level in the San Bernardino National Forest – is already under way. As my friend Jason struggles with his ski boots, the beats of L.A. hip hop group the Pharcyde fill the air.

Photos: Big Bear Mountain Resorts (top); Jason Stone (bottom)

Photos: Big Bear Mountain Resorts (top); Jason Stone (bottom)

All around us boarders sip energy drinks as though they were beers earned at the end of a hard day. But here no days are hard days, especially not today, which offers a week-old one-metre dump. In this sleepy town 150 kilometres east of L.A., the best times happen not in nightclubs but on the mountain, pulling fakie 720s and inverted 540 heel grabs. Or on the lift, applauding friends below who land their tricks.

When we check into the Block, a concept hotel geared to snowboarders, we realize that the fun has just begun: complimentary Pabst Blue Ribbon beer is available at all hours. We make the most of the offerings.

Snowboarding has always drawn from surfing culture. The dreadlocked lifties and bleach-blond ski instructors at Bear Mountain look like they came straight from Venice Beach. One rider cruises down the mountain wearing nothing but board shorts and purple and yellow leis, a shock of blond hair flailing behind him. Completing the run, he salutes us with a pinkie and thumb. Surf’s up, dude.

J.F., a diminutive Quebecois, is spending a month at Big Bear. The weekend brings a large L.A. crowd, he tells us, but mid-week is for serious riders, here not for the modest 500-metre vertical but for the snowboard terrain – Jibs! Spines! Rolls! – among the best in North America. Like many others, J. F. wears an outrageous costume, a blindingly bright red and orange number that looks like it’s tie-dyed.

The costumes lend a carnivalesque atmosphere to Big Bear’s après-ski scene, which starts as early as 11 a.m. Lunch presents a struggle: Smoking barbecues, loud music and unbeatable people-watching are daily distractions. On day two, as we linger past the one-hour mark, I announce firmly that it’s time to return to the mountain. “Ten more minutes,” pleads Jason.

We’re sluggish as we march to the lift, but halfway to the peak, we’re rejuvenated. We’ve decided on Geronimo, a run we’ve come to love: It’s steep and long, and the newly groomed snow is immaculate. The warm, gentle breeze reminds me of the eternal allure of Southern California. Fresh powder might be rare here, but considering that we’d spent the previous Saturday surfing at the Santa Monica Pier, who’s complaining?

Smith Variant Helmet
Don’t be a fashion victim; wear this slick helmet, which has a lock to keep your customizable Oakley A frame goggles secure.

Burton Wheelie Cargo
You don’t want to be all matchy-matchy, but this deceptively modest suitcase expands to fit the bulkiest sweater. And its five loud patterns make it easy to spot on the airport baggage conveyor.

Pelican Micro Case
If you land on Pelican’s classic hardback case from a few metres in the air, it will still protect your iPod. If you’re up to your chest in a tree well and soaking wet, it will keep your BlackBerry dry. Hard-core boarders already have one, and everyone else should too.

Penguin Caffeinated Cinnamon Mints
These tasty mints aren’t a significant source of fat, cholesterol, dietary fibre, sugars or other nutritional elements, but three of them have the caffeine equivalent of a can of cola.

Burton Custom X Snowboard
With stainless-steel edges and the strongest, lightest wood core of any Burton, this versatile all-mountain board goes from freeriding to jibbing.


Swish Chalet
Sure, there’s horseback riding and snowshoeing in Litchfield Hills – but with a cabin like this, why bother going outside?
By Ilana Weitzman

Don’t expect much to happen in this story. My idea of a perfect weekend at the cabin includes short stretches of activity – snowshoeing, walks in the woods, maybe some skating – to justify long periods of drinking, eating and staring at the great outdoors through thermal-glazed windows. This, it turns out, matches up with the vision of one of the founding partners of Merrill Lynch – only add to that a fully stocked bar, a chef trained by Alain Ducasse and a national park for a backyard. Once the preserve of the ultrarich Smith family, the Connecticut retreat known as Winvian is an investment banker’s version of roughing it.

Set in Connecticut’s impeccably frosted Litchfield Hills, Winvian (shorthand for original owner Winthrop Smith and his wife, Vivian) is like a picture of a country estate that’s been curiously retouched. Fifteen architects were each given carte blanche to reinterpret the idea of the cabin. The result is a commune of micro-chalets with a twist – one looks like a mini-stable, another riffs on the idea of a greenhouse with glass walls. Then there’s the stone cottage, a low-slung structure where animal skins drape the windows, that would suit hibernating bears.

When we pull up, I hand over my keys to a cheery polar-fleeced staffer who insists on driving my car over to our cottage to drop off our luggage and light our fire while we wait in the main lodge. Paolo, the Italian maître d’ who stands by like an aproned drink-mixing sentinel, fixes us a perfect martini before I smash my partner in a heated game of table-top shuffleboard. I miraculously come back from being 19 points down, and celebrate with a second drink.

We are told that “the best thing to do here is as little as possible.” If you are going to practise laziness, then it is worth going somewhere that turns it into an art. Our home for the weekend is the Woodland, a post-and-beam cabin with six-metre trees supporting the roof, a steam shower, heated floors, a remote-controlled waterfall, two sinks carved straight into tree trunks, a double-sided fireplace and a TV that pops out of the foot of the bed. Cozy.

After a long, hard day at the spa, which included a body scrub with Guerande sea salts and a massage, we run ourselves a bath in the sunken whirlpool tub so that we can get a better view of the woods outside. These will later be glimpsed on a mildly exerting walk through the surrounding White Memorial Foundation forest. We choose the short loop, stopping at a lookout point over a frozen lake for a swig of whiskey swiped from the self-serve bar in our room. Happily, a driver is parked at the trailhead in a Mercedes van to take us back to our cottage. Where, of course, there’s a fire waiting inside.

Yaktrax Traction Device
Bring your own or use the ones supplied by the property. Heaven forbid you should slip, fall and be forced to spend your remaining time eating chocolate soufflés.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau
This book about self-sufficiency is the perfect foil for those who want to pretend they’re really isolated in the woods and that no one will suddenly show up to chauffeur them to their next hike or set up a picnic lunch.

REN Toiletries
Make sure to pick up a full-size set of the REN toiletry products that are stocked in the rooms, like the amazing Seaweed and Sage body wash and Black Cardamom and Honey hand cream.

Karen Walker Plaid Coat
Baby, it’s cold outside, but you’re surrounded by New York’s moneyed elite, so you’ll need to dress up. And for the gentlemen, a handsome Canada Goose down parka will get you to the hiking trails and back in style.

Alice, Your Golden Retriever

Kids might not be allowed, except at select times, but several cottages are dog-friendly.

Chic-Chocs Therapy
A wildlife reserve all to yourself – splitboard and fresh powder included – is the best way to zap the winter blahs.
By Judith Lussier

Meta skis, alpine touring skis, snowshoes, splitboards… The equipment run-through has left us perplexed. Yann, our guide at the Chic-Chocs Mountain Lodge, does his best to reassure us: “If you can’t decide, there are always the four Ss: spa, sauna, sofa, and I’ll leave the fourth one up to you.” I don’t hesitate a second: Splitboard, here I come.

This clever invention was clearly made for a hard-core snowboarder like me. Want to scale a mountain? Sheathe your skis in (synthetic) sealskin. Want a run? Lock your skis together with a latch. Instant snowboard!

By the time morning rolls around, though, my excitement is gone: The guides are announcing icy ski conditions. The mountains, barely perceptible the day before in the thick fog, are revealed in all their splendour. You’d think you were in the Alps instead of the Matane Wildlife Reserve in Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. The oddest thing in the landscape is the elevator, which seems out of place at this lodge geared to sports buffs. “Its main purpose is to bring bottles up from the wine cellar,” jokes manager Dominique Gagnon.

I decide to play it safe with snowshoeing, which turns out to be an extreme sport when it involves our guide Jean-François. “Is there a special technique for going down hills?” asks one woman. “Yeah, run!” he answers, hurtling down the slope at full speed. When we bump into an intrepid group of alpine skiers later that morning, I regret turning down the splitboard. Their squeals of joy (interlaced with panic) resonate through the trees.

Over lunch, our guides outline the afternoon’s activities: a snowshoe expedition around the lodge, or a board ride down to the Hélène waterfall, which in winter looks like an iceberg hanging off the side of the mountain. I throw caution to the wind and join the second group, splitboard in hand.

Yann, a splitboard fanatic, offers me his guidance, followed by Jacques, the oldest (and likely wisest) guide. “Have you ever snowboarded before?” Jacques asks doubtfully. I refrain from boasting that I’m a pro. Word has it that, in the Chic-Chocs, you’re only half as good as you think you are.

Gingerly, I start my descent. There’s a good metre of fresh snow under my board. Aside from a handful of wipeouts, I surprise myself. I reach the waterfall so early that I’ve got time to split my board into skis (child’s play) and install my skins before the rest of the group gets there.

Now all that’s left is to hike back up the mountain. We scale the hill in a zigzag pattern – cotteillage, in local parlance. Boy, is a splitboard heavy.

Back at the lodge, I declare victory while begging for an ice pack to soothe my aching muscles. Tomorrow, I’ll be testing out those first three Ss.

Meta Skis
A cross between snowshoes and alpine skis, metas are the ultimate multitaskers. These now-discontinued skis can be found at only a handful of places, including the Chic-Chocs Mountain Lodge.

The Classic Date Square
A date square will keep you going for miles. Claim low blood sugar and stock up in the lodge’s kitchen.

Black Light 3-Layer Jacket
Layer up against the cold with a jacket and pants from Peak Performance’s professional series.

Crocs Mammoth
When the mercury plunges to -28˚C, the outdoor Jacuzzi gives you a good excuse to wear your Crocs; the Mammoth model is both warm and waterproof.

MEC Mountain Fountain-Standard Hydration Pack
With a lunch packed by the lodge’s chef, all you need is a good source of hydration – and one of these hydration packs from Mountain Equipment Co-op to carry it all.

Snow Kidding
With a family-friendly mountain, a new activity centre and the bestest ski teachers ever, Aspen finally finds its inner child.
By Neal McLennan

Aspen is breathtaking. Literally. I’ve brought my daughters, Greer, nine, and Lola, five, to the glitziest of locales to tackle that most pedestrian of parental duties – lining up ski lessons – and the mere task of toting their skis to the hill has my sea-level lungs begging for oxygen. I’m trying to be Superdad, but at an altitude of 2,400 metres, I feel like Christopher Hitchens running a marathon.

Teaching kids to ski in Aspen is akin to training them to use utensils at the French Laundry in Napa Valley. But the Ski Company – as locals call the Aspen corporation that owns the ski hills – has become a paragon of the industry, creating a kind of Christmas-morning-meets-Disneyland experience. Like the Beatles, each of the resort’s four mountains has a role: Aspen Mountain is the classic steep terrain, Aspen Highlands is the new extreme locale, and Snowmass, where we’re skiing, is the family choice. (Buttermilk is like Ringo – grateful just to be included.)

We start the trip with a visit to the new $17-million Treehouse Kids’ Adventure Center, a Wonkaesque world of climbing walls, themed rooms and singalongs. Any parent knows that key moment when you drop the kids off somewhere new. After uttering the famous line “I’ll see you at the end of the day,” there is an outpouring of youthful grief normally reserved for the breakup of a favourite boy band. But when my wife, Amanda, and I head for the door, Greer and Lola look at the climbing wall, glance back at us and simply bid us adieu. If they weren’t wearing ski boots, I think they would have started skipping.

We ski the rest of the day in a state of bemused joy. The snow is epic, the hill empty and, far from being childish, Snowmass’ terrain – which, at 3,000 acres, is larger than the other three resorts combined – has both insane chutes that look like bobsled tracks pitched at 35 degrees and bumps that resemble buried Porsche 911s.

This scene plays itself out again the next day as the kids run over to hug their instructors. Shaking our heads, Amanda and I hop a shuttle to Aspen Highlands, ski for several hours and return to find the kids with the same silly grins on their faces. By the end of day three, magic happens: Not only are the kids skiing, but we’re all cruising down solid green circles together, laughing and racing. It’s like the Huxtables on skis.

At night, we stroll the streets of Aspen, playing “spot the most outrageous shearling-coat-and-furry-boots combo” while regaling each other with tales of heroism from the day’s skiing. Soon both Greer and Lola are attacking the blue squares with abandon and asking why we don’t have a trust fund. Kids, I guess, just acclimatize faster.

Horchow Cashmere Travel Blanket
A cold-combatting wrap is essential for keeping everyone warm on Aspen Carriage and Sleigh’s Clydesdale-led ride past the Roaring Fork River.

If you don’t need it after visiting the cacophonous Treehouse Kids’ Adventure Center (complete with jungle gym and singalongs), you’ll want it for those mogul-induced aches and pains.

Salomon Skis
The nimble, lightweight X-Wing Fury (for boys) and the Jade (for girls) will take junior from the first lesson at snow school to a solo schuss down the slopes.

Nikon Coolpix P6000
This 13.5-megapixel camera is the kind of inconspicuous lens that you can whip out when you’re celeb-watching in downtown Aspen. (Jack Nicholson and Michael Douglas have both spent time here.) Or tuck it into your ski jacket for shots of the kids making it beyond the bunny hill.