Skiers treasure first tracks -- gliding through untouched powder early in the morning. But on this day at Ontario's Blue Mountain, I'm getting first tracks at 5 p.m.
In preparation for night skiing, the grooming machines have just finished turning the snow on Memory Lane into a carpet of corduroy. At the top of the run, dozens of skiers and snowboarders wait for the hill to reopen. It's a surreal time of day: Dazzling floodlights replace the dwindling daylight, while the sunset paints the sky a pale, wintry yellow. Just as the sun dips below the horizon, the run opens, and we carve down the hill with nary an ice patch in sight. By now, I've completely forgotten the two-hour drive from my office in Toronto. Goodbye Highway 400, hello night skiing.
Resorts have been lighting their slopes since the 1920s, and today, scores of hills across Canada offer night skiing. While many base their business on after-work and after-school skiers from nearby cities, a growing number of resorts, especially those farther afield, are revamping their evening appeal by offering much more than schussing under the stars.
Today's demanding leisure-seekers want to make the most of their time on the hill, and that extends beyond skiing, says Blue Mountain's marketing director, Paul Pinchbeck. Sitting in the tony Copper Blues restaurant and bar, he gestures toward the nearest chair lift, about 50 metres from the eatery's front door. "Night skiing gets people to the hill, but we want to keep them here with activities and services that promote an active lifestyle," he says, citing the resort's frequent night-time snowboarding competitions, lighted tubing park and last weekend's indoor multimedia exhibition as examples.
At Blue, which is an optimistic two-hour drive from Toronto, getting night skiers to stay for the weekend, or longer, is the name of the game. "By offering fine dining, shopping and nightlife, people stay here longer and make better use of our facilities," Pinchbeck says.
On this Friday night, the hill seems just as busy once the sun goes down (despite the 20 below temperatures and gusting wind). At the top of Memory Lane, Bill Hutchinson of Toronto and friend Susan Blake of Rochester, N.Y., say they plan to grab a quick bite at the Indian Motorcycle Café & Lounge after their next run, and then head out on the hill again. "We arrived this afternoon, so it's great that we can ski, have a decent meal, ski some more, and then do the après-ski thing," says Hutchinson, 32.
Blake, 30, says she arrived early so she could ski at night. "If they didn't have [night skiing] I probably would have come up tomorrow morning," she says. "Now, I can sleep in, grab brunch or shop, and I know I can ski whenever I want."
The pair, who are staying with friends at the new Seasons at Blue -- one of four slope-side hotels -- embody the young, active visitors that resorts are courting. According to the Canadian Ski Council, an industry group based in Mississauga, night skiing can account for up to 60 per cent of a resort's overall business. While this percentage tends to be higher at hills within an hour of large urban centres, ski areas across Canada -- from Quebec's Laurentide hills to the Monashee Mountains of southeast British Columbia -- are looking to grab a piece of this market.
Located about 20 minutes by car from Quebec City, Stoneham Mountain Resort offers 15.6 kilometres of lighted trails, the most in Canada. Despite its urban proximity, it, too, has found that night skiing and night life are complimentary. "Because we have condos, bars and restaurants together at the resort, it creates a great atmosphere. On some evenings, night skiing is more popular than the day skiing," communications manager Maude Bédard says. To lure night-time visitors, Stoneham also offers a lighted tube park and four different terrain parks, one of which features an Olympic-sized half-pipe.
Lighted terrain parks such as these have provided a huge boost to night skiing across Canada by attracting young snowboarders and trickster skiers on weekends and after school.
These loyal visitors, Blue Mountain's Pinchbeck says, hang out at resorts in much the same way they would at a suburban mall. The difference, he adds, is that the slopes provide an active, healthy environment. And while the kids are at the terrain park, parents can ski, dine or shop.
Blue Mountain, which lights about two-thirds of its 102 hectares, is looking at illuminating all its skiable terrain, Pinchbeck says, such is the popularity of night skiing. The resort's Badlands Terrain Park has been upgraded and expanded over the past few years, culminating in the construction of a pair of super-pipes last year.
Many of Western Canada's smaller "local" hills offer night skiing, but the relatively isolated big-mountain resorts are less inclined to light their slopes since the expansive, diverse terrain is difficult and expensive to illuminate. But some, such as Kimberley Alpine Resort and Big White Ski Resort in southeastern B.C., are following the lead of their eastern counterparts.
Big White offers the most night-skiing terrain in Western Canada, with more than 500 vertical metres of quad-lift-serviced slopes. Over the past two years, it has extensively developed its lighted terrain park and "adventure centre," which offers tubing and other activities at night. It parlays these offerings with four hotels, 17 restaurants, cafés and delis, eight bars and lounges and a host of slope-side condos. Jim Loyd, sales director of the resort, points out that skiing in the evening is especially popular with family groups, since kids are often occupied with lessons during the day.
Kimberley, which serves up 640 vertical metres of night skiing, aims to attract demanding urban gourmets with The Club, a new dining experience at the Trickle Creek Golf Resort. It offers a different four-course menu every week, featuring fare such as butternut squash soup with hints of orange and ginger and blackened Cornish game hen. Definitely not your typical day-lodge cafeteria.
As March Break approaches -- and the weather (hopefully) warms up -- resorts across the country are gearing up for what they hope will be a night-time bonanza, with concerts, ski and snowboard competitions and fireworks displays among the events planned. Blue Mountain's "March Break Mayhem" week, for example, will feature an outdoor retro revival concert on Saturday, March 13, as well as the "Triple Challenge" -- three days of ski and snowboard competitions, hot-tubs, live music and parties.Of course, once the on-hill excitement dies down, the après-ski fun heats up.
This is evident at Copper Blues, where a lineup snakes out the front door of by the time the lifts close at 10 p.m. Many patrons are still wearing ski boots and tuques, while others look like they just stepped out of the spa at the nearby Blue Mountain Inn. This, I think to myself, is the way to start a weekend -- no rushing through traffic on Saturday morning, and I get to wake up on the hill. After two hours of tearing up the corduroy slopes, my wife and I make our way to Windy O'Neill's pub, where horrendous hat-head is the look du jour. Luckily, there's a bar for every hairstyle at today's night-skiing venues.
Canada's best after-dark slopes
Night-skiing operations range from small hills close to urban centres to relatively isolated big-mountain resorts. Quebec offers the most choice, with dozens, such as Bromont, Mont Saint-Sauveur and Stoneham, clustered around Montreal and Quebec City. But Ontario isn't far behind, and every province offers at least one lighted hill. Hours of operation vary, and can depend on weather conditions. Many resorts wrap up their evening operations after March Break. Rates usually cost less, on an hourly basis, than during the day.
Here is a cross-section of night skiing across the country:
Grouse Mountain: North Vancouver; http://www.grousemountain.com; (604) 984-0661.
Big White Ski Resort: Kelowna; (250) 765-3101 or 1-800-663-2772; http://www.bigwhite.com.
Canada Olympic Park: Calgary; http://www.canadaolympicpark.ca; (403) 247-5452.
Rabbit Hill: Edmonton;
http://www.rabbithill.com; (403) 955-2440.
Mission Ridge: Fort Qu'Appelle;
Asessippi Ski Area & Winter Park: Inglis; (204) 564-2000;
Blue Mountain: Collingwood;
(705) 445-0231 or (416) 869-3799; http://www.bluemountain.ca.
Horseshoe Resort: Barrie;
Ski Bromont: Bromont; (450) 534-2200; http://www.skibromont.com.
Mont Saint-Sauveur: Saint-Sauveur; (450) 227-4671; http://www.mssi.ca.
Stoneham Mountain Resort: Stoneham; http://www.ski-stoneham.com;
Crabbe Mountain: Woodstock; http://www.crabbemountain.com;
Ski Wentworth: Amherst; (902) 548-2089; http://www.skiwentworth.ca.
PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
Brookvale Provincial Park: (902) 658-7861.
Marble Mountain: Steady Brook;
1-888-462-7253 or (709) 637-7600; http://www.skimarble.com.