Sunday, December 10, 2006

Web: The Rock's cold charm

A newspaper review of Marble Mountain:

The Rock's cold charm
The locals are legendary. The scenery is spectacular — even in the dead of winter. But want to hear the best joke of all? Newfoundland has a mountain. And it's nothing to laugh at
Dec. 2, 2006. 01:00 AM
Corner Brook, Nfld.—There aren't many places in Canada where skiing and snowboarding are a religious experience. But here on Marble Mountain, so many people heading downhill fast have turned to prayer that one of its signature, black-diamond runs is known simply as OMJ — Oh My Jaysus.

Legend has it that local churchgoers were so offended that they threatened to keep their kids off the mountain unless the blasphemy was banned. And who knows if the final outcome was really more Newfie joke than religious conviction?

The run was officially renamed Blow Me Down, though locals still call it "the J."

"At the top, it's a blue run — wide and gentle — and then, about halfway down, the mountain just falls away," says local ski bum Keith Cormier. "Used to be that people would hit that point, put on the skids and say, `Oh My Jaysus, what am I doin' out here?' And it just kind of stuck. When I heard about the name change, I joked that they must have renamed it for the Catholic priest and the Pentecostal minister who are here every Saturday, but never ski on Sunday."

It's hard to imagine a more genuine mountain — and people — than you'll find out here in on The Rock, almost mid-way between Corner Brook and Deer Lake, overlooking the picturesque Humber River.

"I haven't skied all my life — I didn't start 'til I was 2 — but this is a skier's mountain. It's like having your own private hill," says Cormier, a local insurance salesman and long-time Newfoundland resident.

Marble Mountain is a big part of the reason that Brits are flocking here by the planeloads — two Boeing 737s will start arriving here each week from Gatwick as of Jan. 19 — to buy up $500,000 to million-dollar vacation homes at the nearby Humber Valley Resort and escape the ski crowds of Europe.

"Newfoundland has massive appeal because it's a year-round destination," says British orthopaedic surgeon Michael Mowbray who owns one of Humber Valley's upscale chalets and makes the six-hour flight from London a few times a year to hike and salmon fish in summer, ski and snowmobile in winter.

"On top of that, the people are incredibly friendly. When they say, `Have a good day,' you have a sense that they actually mean it. It's a bit of a treasure here."

It was Canadian Olympic ski champion Nancy Greene who first "discovered" Marble Mountain decades ago and pronounced it "the best skiing in Eastern Canada" — a claim that has earned Marble a bit of a cult following among diehard skiers and the curiosity of those looking for something different.

Marble feels much more challenging than its 519-metre vertical (to put it in perspective, neighbouring Mont Tremblant north of Montreal boasts a drop of 650 metres), and the climate on this western coast of Newfoundland is far more moderate than you might expect, averaging just -5 C in winter.

This area gets an average of almost five metres of snow in winter, about a metre more than Tremblant, and boasts hundreds of kilometres of pristine snowmobile trails, as well as legendary ice climbing and cat skiing in the ruggedly beautiful Gros Morne National Park.

But the best-kept secret is that Marble Mountain offers top-calibre skiing with almost no lineups (even on weekends), phenomenal cruisers and challenging blacks — like the aptly named Corkscrew and Boomerang.

"Even people who've skied the world will come to Marble and say, `I've never skied this much vertical in my life in a day," says local Ed English, who used to race at Marble.

"It's just great skiing all the time. You get off a chairlift and there's none of this cruising for 45 seconds or more to get to where you want to be.

"Because there are no lineups, and so many advanced runs all the way down, it's just up and down and up and down. By two o'clock, even good skiers will find that their legs are worn out."

Don't come here, however, looking for the usual mountain experience — gourmet food, fine wine and bustling nightlife. Instead, you'll be treated to entertainment by local artists (on the Saturday night I was here, the only "show" was ski-racing awards) and classic Newfoundland fare such as the potent rum Screech and apr├Ęs ski Old Sams — hot chocolate with whipped cream and Screech.

A quick drive away, in Corner Brook, Deer Lake or even at Marble Inn right across the road, you'll find a belly full of moose meat sandwiches, cod tongues and deadly, deep-fried pork cubes called scruncheons.
"I had heard really good things about Marble, but it was even better than I expected, except for the food," says Dave Fonda, a writer for Montreal-based Ski Press magazine who ventured here last March for the first time. "It's really old-fashioned skiing. Intrawest's model is to make skiing accessible to everyone, even Grandma with her arthritis, and you don't go to places like Tremblant so much to ski as to have fun skiing. Trails are made wider, trails are made flatter and they're groomed to within an inch of their lives.

"But at Marble it's: `This is the way the trail's cut, my boy, and we'll groom it when we gets around to groomin' it. And if there's not enough traffic to justify groomin' it during the week, we'll save that snow for the weekend. But the trail's open if you want to ski it just the same.'

"It's authentic, and it's wild. Each trail has its own personality, which I find very refreshing as a skier."

It's also a remarkably accessible ski hill. You don't have to endure a 45-minute, white-knuckle drive up slippery, snow-covered mountain roads to get to Marble.

The Trans-Canada Highway runs right past its spectacular post and beam lodge, jokingly referred to as the Taj Mahal by non-Newfies.

This magnificent piece of slopeside architecture looks like it's right off the hills of Aspen or Whistler, but it was constructed by the cash-strapped Newfoundland government before someone grabbed a pencil and piece of paper and added up the total cost of turning this somewhat remote, government-owned mountain into a year-round tourist destination with first-class skiing in winter and golfing in summer.

Humber Valley Resorts is an almost laughably ambitious — but so far successful — company started by two Newfoundlanders who have picked up some of the slack and, through heavy marketing, won over legions of Brits and Germans in awe of Newfoundland's culture and wide-open spaces.

Their development, on the nearby shores of the Humber River, features a golf course and 152 upscale chalets. Plans are to have more than 1,000 built on the 1,000-hectare site by 2012.

But Marble Mountain itself has been left in a kind of time warp.

It has four lifts — just one of them a high-speed detachable quad — and 35 trails on about 71 hectares of skiable terrain, but its brightly painted base accommodation (which looks lovely from the outside) is a cross between a university dorm and 1970s-style apartments.

What Marble's amenities lack in sophistication and flare, however, the mountain more than compensates for with genuine charm and characters such as "Gadget" — a.k.a. Eric Hunt — who has manned the Newfie Bullet chairlift for most of his 24 years at Marble.

He spends his day shouting, "How ya' doin', baby?" to skiers and snowboarders jumping off at the 473-metre level.

"I've never had on a pair of skis in my life, my dear," the 62-year-old Corner Brook resident says with a devilish smile and a thick, Newfie accent. "Shockin', eh?

"But this is my spot. I like it slow because I can talk to people. I like to find out where they're from and if they's havin' a good day. The other lifts are just so fast, people's gone."

His warmth is infectious, and often catches newcomers off guard.

"Sometimes when I say good mornin', people look at me strange. One British guy came over and said, `They never say that at home.' But I told him Newfoundland is a different place. It's nice and peaceful, and it's not fast. You'll never find friendlier people than here at Marble. And that means a lot, my love.

"If you make people feel welcome, they'll come back."

Susan Pigg is associate Travel editor at the Star.

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