The all-suite rooms at Hotel Jay are decorated with subtle Vermont touches: locally crafted beds, side tables and photography on the walls. (Photo by Justin Fantl)
After climbing six flights of stairs and stepping into the glass-lid chamber of La Chute, I'm listening to the countdown: a tinny female voice that says, "Three, two, one" while my heart beats out of my chest. At "one," the floor drops out beneath me, and I free-fall 20 metres at 70 kilometres an hour before the Aqualoop spits me out into a warm, churning mass of water. Catching my breath, I spy my husband, William, and two children drifting happily in an oversize inner tube along the "lazy river" as the sun shines through the retractable roof. I've got the same rush I get from making it down the slopes of upper River Quai's steep pitch or the gnarly glade chute Deliverance – plus a black-diamond bathing suit wedgie.
In my family, getting ready for a weekend at Jay Peak has traditionally involved pulling out a jumble of mismatched ski socks and nubby long underwear from the back of a drawer. But Jay's new 50,000-square-foot water park, called the Pump House, means I've packed for a ski and beach holiday – the ultimate weatherproof vacation. For someone who grew up skiing here, standing in my bathing suit while I slather my kids with sunscreen – their eyes are glued to the skiers whipping past outside –
is a bit surreal.
As we drive up Highway 242, which winds its way to Jay, the foothill towns appear to be frozen in 1947 (in a good way). Picture-postcard villages with covered bridges and general stores with their piano-playing owners dot the steep road on the way up. We almost miss the entrance. What was formerly a sprinkling of rustic Swiss-German chalets around a parking lot is now a sprawling resort. Somehow it manages to be discreet. Where a shabby A-frame hotel used to be now stands a lodge with a new-Bavarian exterior (no stucco but still hints of Heidi) that stays true to its roots by incorporating the old with the new. (The skating rink is called the Ice Haus; a lift tower from the old Green Chair is the bar's centrepiece.)
Two girls walk through the lobby wearing ski boots and string bikinis. Vermont's Green Mountains are still white, but the hotel's entrance is a collision of board shorts, beach towels and snowboards – the familiar smell of pine mingling with a whiff of chlorine and a hit of Hawaiian Tropic.
Rick Ross, a local Vermonter who's been a loyal Jay fan since 1978, puts it perfectly: "It's like a time warp – jumping from an old, rundown Austrian-type ski hill to one of the top ski areas in the east with year-round activities." The glade skiing and extreme chutes I enjoyed growing up as a Quebec "white-plater" are still the same. From the peak you can still almost spot Montreal in the distance on a clear day.
Eighty kilometres of trails on 385 acres aside, skiers return to Jay Peak winter after winter because of what locals call the Jay Cloud. The mountain often reports five to 10 centimetres more snow than any other resort in New England – some years getting hit with more than Aspen – which also means skiers can stretch out the season. (It's not unusual to ski and golf on the same day come spring.) Rentals are now picked up right in front of the beginner lifts, and hopping on the tram – the 1966 original parked to the left as a reminder of the old days – involves just a few steps instead of 50.
All these improvements come in handy for the next generation of skiers in my family – my two- and four-year-old sons who are here for their first Jay experience. Stepping onto the new enclosed magic carpet with Andrew, my eldest, is like experiencing the tunnel scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey (helmet included). We cruise slowly up the hill as the carpet hums beneath us, shielded from the elements thanks to the clear dome overhead. After hopping off, I watch Andrew head down the gentle slope with confidence, attempting a few turns while my husband and littlest one wave at us from the carpet on their way up. Lapping the run a few more times, Andrew is skidding to a hockey stop at the bottom, controlling his speed and making rounded turns. He's ready for the Metro Quad.
The quad chair swings us up into the air, picking up speed as we head up the mountain. Suspended over the Subway, we watch skiers zip by underneath, getting smaller and smaller as we climb. Looking over my shoulder, I spy the beginnings of a snowball fight near the outdoor hot tub. As we make our way down the winding groomer together, I get to experience the mountain through Andrew's eyes and ears: seeing how the thin snow-covered trees look like they're made of marshmallows; why the sound of the snow crunching beneath his skis is so loud.
Taking a solo run on the last chairlift at 4 p.m., I watch the sun setting behind me as the chair snakes slowly up the hill. I wonder if my family's still hanging out in one of the Pump House cabanas – snacking on chicken fingers and sipping slushies while watching surfers bail off their boards on the FlowRider's standing wave. Maybe they've gone back to the arcade, where earlier, the only way we were able to lure Andrew away from the air hockey table was with promises of the chocolate lava cake dessert at Alice's Table. (This family-friendly restaurant is named after Alice Lewis, a Jay Peak employee during the 1960s who ran a staff boarding house across the road and who would invite lodgers to her table for dinner out of the goodness of her heart.)
Starting the final descent of the day, I think back to long afternoons in my teens spent on this exact run, skiing until I couldn't feel my toes. With flecks of frost on my cheeks, I would seek warmth from a cup of hot chocolate – and, more of a challenge, a place to sit – in the bustling cafeteria. I can still remember burning my tongue on the scalding drink every time. But the days of hotshots stuffed into ski boots are over for me. I'll take that hot tub.
Air Canada and Air Canada Express offer daily non-stop flights to Montreal from a host of Canadian, U.S. and international cities. From Montreal, Jay Peak Resort is a two-hour drive away.