BY: Sue Kernaghan PHOTOGRAPHY: Paul Morrison
In British Columbia, nothing sets hearts racing like that first dusting of powder, with its promise of fresh tracks and glistening runs.
That’s because Canada’s westernmost province doesn’t just have mountains — it is mountains. With 10 cloud-skimming, snow-capped ranges and 13 top-notch ski resorts, hitting the slopes is more than a sport here. It’s a way of life.
At Whistler Blackcomb, that was true as far back as 1966, when a gaggle of Vancouver ski bums pointed their VW vans toward a remote Coast Mountain called Whistler. The road was rough in those days but the skiing — and the parties — made it all worthwhile.
Fifty winters, one Olympic Winter Games and countless powdery turns later, Whistler Blackcomb is now among the biggest and best-loved ski resorts on the continent. Boasting more than 200 runs on two mountains and a village famous for its après scene, Whistler celebrates its 50th anniversary this winter with some great deals, plenty of parties and a fresh set of awards, including being named among the best ski resorts in North America — again.
You can’t beat that, but Whistler, being Whistler, always does. New this year are some once-in-a-lifetime encounters with Whistler’s wild side — think backcountry hot springs by helicopter, overnighting in a snow hotel or exploring untouched ice caves. Head-Line Mountain Holidays has the coordinates.
Back in the village, touch base with Whistler’s cultural side at the Audain Art Museum. Canada’s newest public, not-for-profit museum, featuring works by renowned BC artists Emily Carr and E.J. Hughes, plus a world-leading collection of Northwest Coast First Nations masks, is set to open in early 2016.
Two mountains? Try three. At Sun Peaks Resort, in British Columbia’s Thompson Okanagan region, three mountain faces form Canada’s second largest ski area — in all 135 runs across 1,728 hectares (4,270 acres). Add a Tyrolean-style ski-in, ski-out village and 2,000 hours of sunshine each year and you’ve got the recipe for fresh tracks and bluebird days.
And Sun Peaks keeps growing — this year alone sees the addition of two new advanced trails, complementing the 200 hectares (500 acres) of in-bounds backcountry that was unveiled last season. There’s a lot of terrain here but the folks at Sun Peaks are happy to show you around. A wealth of ski camps and clinics include backcountry tours led by local experts, an expanded Ski Sisters program designed specifically for women and new classes just for teens.
It’s a theme across the province this season: more inbound steeps and deeps as backcountry areas open to skiers and boarders, and more insider tips from local experts.
At Big White Ski Resort, for example, the Ski with an Olympian program offers private lessons with resident sports star freestyler Kelsey Serwa. The Kelowna-born Serwa started skiing as a toddler and went on to win silver at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Not every kid makes it to the podium but, like Serwa, a lot of British Columbians grow up on skis. The upshot? If you have tots in tow, the resorts here get it. Some, like Big White, really roll out the magic carpet with everything from an adventure ski trail to kid-sized snowmobile tracks.
All four Thompson Okanagan ski resorts are known for their family-friendly style, ski-in, ski-out villages, plentiful champagne powder and buckets of fun, both on and off-piste.
At SilverStar Mountain Resort, for example, Canada’s first all-inclusive lift ticket, called the My1Pass, lets you downhill and cross-country ski, snowboard, tube, skate, snowshoe and fat bike for one price.
Fat Bike? Yes. Cycling meets skiing as you ride through the snow on bikes with oversized tires. It’s all included, as is access to SilverStar’s 55-kilometre (34-mile) Nordic trail system. It links to the neighbouring Sovereign Lake ski area to form, at 105 kilometres (60 miles), one of the longest cross-country ski networks in the world.
Something else you can count on at most BC resorts: uncrowded slopes. Although if you really want to dip under the radar, head to Apex Mountain Resort near Penticton. Despite its deep powder (six metres in an average year) and its role as a national ski training centre, this ski-in, ski-out resort remains a hidden gem.
Alternatively, head west — far west, to Mount Washington Alpine Resort on Vancouver Island. Besides reigning as one of North America’s premier Nordic centres, Mount Washington welcomes newbies of all ages with its top-rated beginner area, complete with four covered Magic Carpet lifts and endlessly patient instructo