Saturday, March 17, 2007

A welcoming outpost of affordable skiing

Peter Hardy is impressed by the nearest and the most unusual of North America's ski destinations, the island of Newfoundland.

'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 of 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.

Ideal for families:
a four-bedroom chalet in Humber

Glenn, my guide, is only just visible through the swirling pea-souper. Even on the initially gentle slope of the bitterly exposed ridge on which I find myself, the lack of visibility is so disorientating it is almost impossible to tell "down" from "up". My helmet and goggles are swiftly covered in a film of ice. The windchill factor is testing my ski clothing to the manufacturer's limits.
But perseverance is the only option. Once out of the wind and into 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 geological 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 what is much the nearest and certainly the most unusual of all North American ski destinations.Indeed no one could be more welcoming than the native 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. 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 lies just a 5½-hour flight from Gatwick and has only a 3½-hour time difference from Britain.
In the past it has been renowned for its cod, which used to be harvested in prodigious quantities off the Newfoundland Banks by British and Breton fishermen. It's fair to say that one of Canada's least populated provinces has - until now - not been famous for much else apart from the filming of Annie Proulx's novel The Shipping News, and a bottomless pit of "Newfie" hilly-billy jokes.
Newfoundland's scant celebrity roll-call includes Cluny Macpherson, who in 1915 invented the gas mask, and Shannon Tweed, an erotic actress who appeared as Playmate of the Month in a 1981 edition of Playboy magazine. However, all that seems set to change with the extraordinarily ambitious property development over 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 - they have from three to seven bedrooms - stands in at least an acre of its own grounds in the pinewoods.
They come complete with American-style 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 championship golf course, kayaking, fishing, hunting and a wide range of summer activities.

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