In the lodge, in mountain eateries, in après bars, Sun Peaks’ skiers and snowboarders drink and socialize, enthused by the daring deeds of a dazzling downhill day. Same as any resort, you might say. But, here, when roughly half the clientele remove their goggle and helmet disguises, you’ll be surprised to see that they are mountain-mature.
If there was ever such a thing as an over 50s ski resort, it would be Sun Peaks, British Columbia. This is a town and a resort that you can walk into at age 50, 60, 70 or even 80 and feel relevant.
With ski clubs like the Polar Bears, the Grizzlies, and the Sun Peaks Antiques, there is a firm focus on older gens sending it on the mountain just as much as the youngsters. And not just on the groomed tree-lined greens and blues which slalom around flourishing fragrant firs. Canada’s second largest resort, at 4,270 acres, encompasses 32 percent black diamond and double black terrain, 17 gladed areas, and abundant backcountry options where you’ll always encounter ageless adventurers. The over-50 flock are very active on the visitor-friendly Skier/Boarder Cross course which hosts the TELUS Nancy Greene Classic each year and the weekly Friday Race Series – both open to every standard. Pretty much the only place you won’t see them ripping it up is the terrain park – unless it is to ski the ungroomed snow around the jumps on a powder morning.
Senior ski groups send hundreds of mature members there every year, intent on extending their skiing longevity on Sun Peaks’ masterfully manicured trails. Rocky Mountain Seniors Ski Club President, JoAnn Grand says “We’ve been coming here forever, since the club first started. It’s just a love affair.” Most are repeaters, one member rents for a month each season, and another once stayed for the whole season. With over 700 members, the club’s age group spans 55 to 94, all still skiing. “Fran Cuyler, who is 84, still comes on the Sun Peaks trips,” says Grand. “She is an unbelievable skier. She’ll take Crystal Chair and ski the trees and say ‘come on, JoAnn, let’s hit the powder’.” The club, which focuses on biking and hiking in the summer, serves as an extended family network. “As you get older socialization is so important,” says Grand. “I think our members live longer because of skiing.”
So, what is it about Sun Peaks that attracts the baby boomers? The design of the resort is a major component. Paul Mathews – the visionary ski resort master planner responsible for location scouting and venues for the last six Winter Olympic – is pro convenience. He favours ramps over any type of steps, which makes walking around in ski boots, or when tired after skiing, so much easier. At Sun Peaks, where he owns an apartment himself, he designed the magical main street to be gently ski-through and wide enough for a groomer to smooth out. This also enables horse-drawn sleigh rides which wend around the daily-groomed forested trails of the town. And his thoughtful layout utilizes the natural topography of the box canyon to link most of the accommodation to the horseshoe shape of three mountains of pistes by a quick pole, skate or ski. A recently added chairlift, the Orient, is enabling even more ski in/out property as the town expands.
Expansion, though, is limited due to the remoteness of the area – a big plus when it comes to ski hill capacity. There are never crowds at Sun Peaks. Lift lines, even at the peak periods between Christmas and New Year and February holidays, are nominal. Five minutes max and that is just at the base lifts of Sundance, Sunburst and Morrisey. Once you’re in the expansive mid-mountain terrain, you rarely have to queue. Even on 17 February this year – the busiest day of the season due to British Columbia’s and Alberta’s Family Day coinciding with the USA’s Presidents’ Day holiday – we were skiing runs with no-one else competing for space. There is no major metropolitan area nearby – Vancouver is around four hours’ drive and Calgary is eight. So, although there is a smattering of weekend traffic from Kamloops in the valley, the rest of the tourists are there for a longer stay and their numbers are limited by the availability of accommodation. Lodging capacity is far less than the vastness of the skiable acreage warrants. Calm slopes are a huge plus for the older skier who fears collisions caused by the over-tourism so prevalent at many resorts nowadays.
With its Tyrolean-inspired architecture, Sun Peaks looks like Europe but feels like Canada. Less obvious on the tourist radar than Whistler or Lake Louise, it’s nevertheless the favoured ski spot for thousands of Canadians, Australians, Brits, Americans, and even Europeans despite (or maybe because of) its isolation. One Swiss skier, questioned about his motivation to travel so far from his home resorts, recently said he came for the more dependable snow and the lack of lift lines – both in shorter supply in Europe. Everyone echoes this sentiment and usually adds ‘and the friendliness and inclusiveness of the locals’. These are full-time and winter seasonal residents who have moved there from all over the world in the past 25 years, attracted by the Alpine architecture, the ski in/ski out comforts, the Canadian friendliness, and unique facilities like the school perched at the top of the bunny run platter, the chairlift-accessed chapel at 1863m elevation for Sunday services and winsome weddings, the ski-through main street, and the new health centre built right by the daylodge.
The free Sun Host service available every day of the four-month plus season means you never lack for a ski buddy and you’ll also learn a lot from the volunteer hosts. Most of them are retirees, happy to share the secret stashes of the mountains and authentic recommendations for après ski activities. This kind of insider info can really make your holiday.
As well as a four-season resort, Sun Peak’s a municipality with around 800 full-time residents, increasingly appealing to families, retirees, digital nomads, re-inventing emptynesters, and lifestyle relocators. New entrepreneurial businesses are cropping up all the time – for example, Sun Peaks Cargo which brings up shopping and deliveries from the valley and the new Sun Peaks Yoga Studio. When a condo or townhome goes on the market, prospective buyers flock to viewings from around Canada and nearby US hubs such as Seattle. According to Liz Forster from Sotheby’s Sun Peaks, the real estate market bounced back from the 2008 recession much quicker than other BC resorts, causing a housing boom which has only recently started to flatten. “Hardly anyone is actually from here,” says Forster. “They are originally from elsewhere and they all buy in to the development plans and the whole community. Some buyers have met people on the chairlift during a vacation and then come into the office wanting to buy a property so they can be neighbours with their new chairlift friends.”
As a municipality, Sun Peaks has to have a Mayor and who could be better than former competitive skier and Canadian Alpine Ski Team coach, Al Raine. He has skied the world, built up hotel businesses in Whistler and Sun Peaks, worked as consultant for Provincial Ski Area Coordination with the British Columbia Ministry of Lands, and still in his late 70s gets on the first chairlift most days. His wife, Olympic and World Champion skier Nancy Greene Raine, is the charismatic Director of Skiing for Sun Peaks, who only recently retired from the Canadian Senate – and who skis almost every afternoon with guests. Just roll up at the meeting sign at 1pm and she’ll share her passion for Sun Peaks. At 77, she can still outski everyone (of any age).
With the combined efforts of key people like the pioneering Raines and Mathews, plus enthusiastic buy-in from a committed community that has chosen to relocate there, the vibrant village feels like a hometown hub with a heart rather than mere infrastructure for a seasonal tide of temporary visitors.
Having recently gone part-time and remote, I moved with my husband to these postcard-picturesque pistes this winter to celebrate our 60th year. It was just a one-season-plan, but, after five weeks delighting in Sun Peaks’ powder and personalities, we signed a rental contract for a second winter. Longterm rentals go quickly here, so we can’t afford to prevaricate, particularly as our two-bedroom apartment is just a five-minute scoot to and from the base chairlifts.
Already at mid-season we probably know as many people as our age. Joining ski groups, a wine club, the ArtZone Sun Peaks arts group, Facebook community groups, hanging out in ski-accessed village cafés and just chatting on chairlifts has led to neighbourly help as well as heaps of happy hour and party invitations. And, to top it all, our two sons who left home several years ago, have prodigally returned to take advantage of free rent to work here for the winter. While they’re suffering long shifts in hospitality, we’re happily combining our work from home with over 50 ski days already and a vibrant social life. Forget digital nomads – we’re digital sno-mads!!
Fly to: Kamloops via Calgary
Louise Hudson is the co-author, with her husband Dr. Simon Hudson, of the book A Worldwide Guide to Destination Retirements, published last year by Cambridge Scholars. And the pair also wrote Winter Sport Tourism: Working in Winter Wonderlands which has recently also been translated into Chinese.