As we mature, our ski needs start to change: comfort, softer snow, better piste grooming, easy access, no walking or carrying, activities for rest days and luxurious accommodation begin to take precedence over the less pernickety requirements of gung-ho youth.
Fed up with diminutive European apartments and noisy chalet sharing, many of us crave a commodious condo with all the technological trappings of home and a few extra luxuries. If we’re still skiing in our 50s and beyond we deserve it!
That’s when resorts like Big White in Canada really come into their own. Apartment buildings such as the Stonebridge where I stayed last spring are set right on the slopes with skiing going on above and below. Not only could I ski to and from my ski locker (which seemed bigger than some French apartments I’ve stayed in), but the village was also right there, a snowball’s thrown from my hot tub patio. Having my own outdoor Jacuzzi sealed the deal for me!
The apartments are spacious and luxurious with everything including the kitchen sink and, of course, those crucial conveniences: a washing machine and tumble dryer – essential for revitalizing undies and drying snow-soaked outerwear. And I really did get drenched in oodles of soft white powder snow that just kept on pouring down while I was there.
As the name suggests, Big White prides itself on its amplitude of snow and loves to show off its snow ghosts in photos – high altitude fir trees clothed in thick white winter coats that stay that way all season long. The summit looks like remote heli-skiing terrain, straight out of a Warren Miller movie set in the wilds of Alaska.
In April, the pistes were meticulously manicured every night (no late season laziness from the groomers) and the glades and bowls kept replenishing with regular spring snowfalls. Every time I strayed into the meandering glades, my previous tracks were already engulfed. And, yes, there were only my tracks there in the first place as I timed my trip just after the Easter holidays so there were few people on the slopes. This made dinner reservations easy, too, on the odd occasion when I wanted to leave my full kitchen and massive fridge freezer.
Smack in the middle of British Columbia, the best airport to access Big White is Kelowna International Airport which links directly to Los Angeles. With the two-center trend for vacations these days, how about a mélange of Magic Kingdom and Winter Wonderland, combining California and Canada in the same trip? If you have the time, you can combine a winter or spring trip to LA for golf, beach (and Disney for those who can bear it) with a ski trip to Big White.
Alternatively, you can fly directly into Vancouver or Calgary and then hop across to Kelowna followed by a 55-minute ride to the resort. If you go in spring like I did, you may be able to ski at the 7606-ft elevation in the morning and play golf just half an hour away in the Okanagan Valley in the afternoon.
Big White dubs itself Canada’s second largest ski resort (after Whistler). The piste, park and powder playground is perched on the highest mountain in the Beaverdell Range.
For multi-generational trips there’s a topnotch kids club and GPS-monitored ski school where instructors will even transport kids to and from their accommodation. A special “Mom, Dad and Me” program enables parent (or grandparent) and child to take a two-hour private lesson so you can learn teaching tactics to use the rest of your holiday. If anyone in your party doesn’t want to ski or snowboard, they can take a chauffeured “snow limo” to see the slopes from the skier’s perspective.
Big White’s 16 lifts cover 2765 acres of patrolled slopes with a bias towards intermediate terrain, absolutely ideal for obstacle-free, cruisy skiing. Natural high-altitude glading means all the runs have accessible glades in between enabling mid-standard skiers to try them out.
For the daring, there’s also extreme skiing in the Cliff area and plenty of black runs around Gem Lake. The Telus terrain park has its own chairlift, boarder cross and skier cross courses, half pipe and a wide array of rails and jumps with loud music and free WiFi – keeping the riskier riders and twin tip brigade in their own designated area.
You don’t even have to memorize the piste map: there are free Snow Hosts who will guide you around the mountain every morning. It’s a great way to get your bearings on the first day or two, taking the navigational stress out of skiing. The hosts – who tend to be retirees – know every inch of the terrain, weather patterns, amenities and history of the area. You can join them regardless of your ski ability in groups of similar ability family, friends or singles. In fact, if you are skiing alone, it’s an easy way to have companionship and safe skiing.
Safety is a big deal at Big White which has developed special “Family/Seniors Skiing and Snowboarding Zones”. Three runs are selected each day with noticeable signage, gated entry and the addition of extra slope watchers to ensure that speed, safe skiing and riding are monitored. These are not the typical slow, green runs but a variety of standards.
Coming up Feb 2-7 is Masters Ski Week dedicated to the over 50s. As well as ski tips, there will be a variety of activities and events, slope side accommodations, Okanagan wine sampling and informative seminars.
For energetic après ski, there are over 15 miles of Nordic skiing, a 147-acre night skiing park, snow tubing, skating, ice climbing and snowshoeing. And for more laid back evenings, Happy Valley Lodge, linked to the main village by gondola, has lively, musical happy hours. Follow this with fine-dining at Kettle Valley Steakhouse and you’ll feel as though you’re in St Moritz or Aspen, with rarefied silver service, AAA Alberta steaks, succulent lamb dishes, seafood, and award-winning Okanagan wines.
The village is full of eclectic restaurants, a useful Market and Deli for self-catering, and a few fancy (but reasonably priced) ski shops. When you’ve O.D.ed on nachos and burgers, there’s Alpine fare at The Black Diamond, which serves cheese fondu, rosti dishes and Hungarian goulash soup. All of these restaurants are accessible both day and night. Dollars go much further than the Euro so you can afford to splurge!
Accommodation options, linked by chairlifts and pedestrian gondolas, include three hotels, 25 condo complexes, 244 vacation homes and a ski in/out youth hostel. For those who dream of owning their own mountain maison or chic chalet, this could be the place. With prices plummeting faster than boarder-cross competitors over the recent recession-riddled years, three-bedroom condos on the slopes are going for just $350,000 right now.
Now that lower European resorts are becoming less reliable for snow, Canada is really becoming the better choice. But what about the cold, I can hear you asking? Actually British Columbia has a mild climate (comparatively) with temps averaging -10C (low) and -1C (high) between December and April. Just make sure to bring layered clothing, face warmers, and nifty inventions such as Volt’s rechargeable battery-heated vests and gloves. Every time I wear mine, someone notices the battery lights and asks me where I got them, even asking to photograph them in order to remember the brand!
Average snowfall at Big White is 24.5 feet each winter so you can just imagine how it piles up as the season goes on. Having also skied masses of powder there in mid-December, I’m in a good position to say that Big White is very well-named.
British skiers can get to Big White independently or with a tour operator such as American Ski Classics, Ski Safari, Ski World, Ski Solutions via Jonview, Canadian Affair, Frontier Travel and Ski Independence.