Canada: Big snow in the big white

By Hannah Stephenson

Hannah Stephenson cruises into the heart of British Columbia to hit the slopes of ski haven, Big White.

With an annual dump of more than 7m of powder, Canada's Big White ski field is a magnet for powder hounds. Photo / Thinkstock
With an annual dump of more than 7m of powder, Canada's Big White ski field is a magnet for powder hounds. Photo / Thinkstock

Driving down Highway 33 in British Columbia, we stop to take in the fresh air and admire the snow-capped Monashee Mountains.

It's snowing quite heavily, but we're not worried, as there's no traffic, no danger of anyone spinning out of control and careering into us. But then Highway 33 is no ordinary carriageway.

In fact, it's just one of the 118 runs that make up Big White, a little-known gem of a family resort with plenty of snow all season, even at Easter when we visit.

Tied to school holidays, in Europe we'd been used to packed pistes, teeming with out-of-control skiers.

We'd opted for Big White after hearing that - not only does it have the emptiest pistes when it's holiday hell in Europe, but also lashings of snow and little slush, even towards the end of the season.

An hour's drive from Kelowna Airport, the resort was built in the 1960s and centres around a single main street.

It's a magnet for powder hounds, with an annual dump of more than 7m of light, fluffy, champagne powder - no snow cannons here because they simply don't need them - while more leisurely skiers can comfortably tackle the network of tree-lined groomed green and blue slopes to the village centre.

We arrive for the last week of the season, and the slopes are largely deserted as locals, we're told, are now busy polishing their boats and servicing their camper vans in preparation for summer, having long since packed away their skis.

The region of Kelowna is actually better known as a summer resort, when families holiday around the stunning 130km-long Okanagan Lake, set against the ancient mountains of the Okanagan Valley, home to many watersports and activities including bird watching and mountain biking.

Legend has it that the lake is also home to the Ogopogo, a close relative of the Loch Ness Monster.

While there are some more challenging runs, hard-core skiers in search of blacks can venture to the larger and more popular resorts of Banff and Lake Louise nearby, but they'll be faced with bus rides, whereas at Big White you can ski to your hotel door.

From the minute we hire our equipment we feel we're on another planet. The rental staff couldn't be more accommodating, with an ethos of `how can I help you?', rather than the `what do you want?' attitude so prevalent in some European resorts.

We're introduced to Byron, our mountain host for the morning and an ebullient, enthusiastic, larger-than-life ski guide, who shows us much of what Big White has to offer, from its gentle blues and greens to the more challenging powder bowls.

At the summit, we ski past eerie snow ghosts - trees covered with snow which has frozen solid and assumed weird shapes in the wind.

Byron eagerly leads us to Telus Park, an area comprising jumps and obstacles suitable for skiers and boarders alike, and the kids can't wait to leave the starting blocks.

Even the designated chairlift for this daredevil park is designed with families in mind, displaying a sign requesting people to refrain from smoking or swearing while using it.

On another day, we enjoy a family ski lesson, and as the week progresses, my children - William, 13, and Grace, 12 - both competent skiers, decide to try a snowboard taster session.

The beginners' learning area is perfect for this, with a young, fun instructor and a magic carpet (a conveyor belt in the snow) to take the learners up the nursery slope.

There are plenty of other highlights for kids, too, including the Mega Snow Coaster - Canada's largest resort tubing park, where you can zoom down specially built lanes in big inflatable rings.

There's also a mini skidoo track, and bigger snowmobiles for grown-ups - fantastic if you want to feel like James Bond for an hour. We come away shaken, but not stirred.

Other activities include ice skating and a climbing ice tower. More sedate is a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the peaceful, tree-lined terrain.

For indoor family fun you can head to Happy Valley Day Lodge, a big building a short gondola ride from the village centre, where activities range from Wii competitions to carnival nights, and the restaurants serve up everything from burgers and fries to top class Alberta steak and fine local wines.

Grizzly Lodge, the condo-style hotel where we're staying, is spacious and comfortable with a truly alpine feel, and amazing views of the mountains.

Our holiday also consists of a short stay in Silver Star, Big White's sister resort, some two hours away.

It's even quieter than Big White with one small main street, but offers the same amount of ski terrain, and is so colourful; the shops and hotels painted in a rainbow of bright colours, giving the place a Wild West-meets-Disney feel.

The trademark cinnamon buns from Bugaboos cosy bakery, where ski guides share stories with visitors about the best runs and the snow conditions, are delicious.

Our accommodation here is at the impressive Snowbird Lodge. Situated right on the slopes, it's a real luxury, with a hot tub on the balcony, fully fitted kitchen and spacious lounge.

Everyone knows everyone here, so you can't get lost, and the ski school is easily located in the centre of town.

The front of the mountain at Silver Star is ideal for perfecting those parallel turns on green and blue runs, but venture to the back and you have a more challenging playground, with blacks and fun trails which suit kids who like jumps and bumps amid the trees (don't miss Peanut Trail for this).

Both resorts are also havens for cross-country skiers who want a good workout surrounded by nature.

We don't spot any brown bears, but we're assured they live in the mountains, along with chipmunks and grouse.

KEY FACTS - BIG WHITE AND SILVER STAR RESORTS

BEST FOR: Champagne powder, quiet pistes and family entertainment.

TIME TO GO: Any time in northern winter, even the school holidays.

DON'T MISS: The eerie `snow ghosts' at Big White.

NEED TO KNOW: In Canada tips are not usually included in the bill. The normal amount to tip is around 15 per cent but don't feel obliged if the service is poor.

DON'T FORGET: Your lip protection, to keep blisters and dryness at bay.

- APP

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