A balmy day in February and the breakfast room at the Hotel Vancouver is filled with guests in shorts. I'm dressed in my ski gear and feeling faintly ludicrous. I break for the cover of the nearest table, but it's too late – a waiter has spotted me.
"Wow, are you going skiing?" he asks. I mumble in the affirmative. "Oh, I am so jealous," he replies. It's a favourite boast of Vancouverites that they can ski, sail and play golf all in the same day.
It snows as rarely in Vancouver as it does in London – and causes just as much chaos when it does. Yet the Canadian city will be welcoming the world's top snow-sports athletes when the XXIst Winter Olympics open on 12 February.
All eyes have been on Whistler since the opening of its record-breaking Peak 2 Peak gondola ahead of the Games. Yet Vancouver has two covetable ski resorts closer to its city limits – Cypress Mountain (which will co-host the Games) and Grouse Mountain, both set amid the giant trees of British Columbia's temperate rainforest, offering stunning piste-side views of the wild and urban landscape.
To get to the base of Grouse Mountain, you can take the ferry and bus, a journey of about 45 minutes from the city centre. But I have a rental car and drive there in 30 minutes, keeping my faith as I pass the marinas and forests of Stanley Park, which look more like Bournemouth than Canada, until I am at the foot of the snow-capped North Shore Mountains.
I board a cable car which takes me up to 1,250m. Here there are two beginner slopes, The Cut and the Paper Trail, which run through the woods. Advanced skiers and boarders will question whether they can find any challenges in a resort like this, which has just two ski lifts of any note. But, as with so many Canadian resorts, Grouse Mountain combines beginner areas with steep mogul runs, such as the Devil's Advocate, which has a well-deserved status as a black run.
The distinctive North American grid of Vancouver, a city of two million inhabitants, sprawls out below. The high-rise downtown area is scarcely a speck when viewed from here, but I can clearly see the tankers anchored in English Bay, pointing the way to the unfolding Pacific. Even if you are not a skier or boarder, Grouse Mountain is worth a visit for the views.
The next morning my waiter is on hand with coffee and tips for Cypress Mountain, which, like Grouse, can be comfortably explored in a day. (You can even pop up to them in the evening because half the runs in each resort are open for night skiing.)
"Try the Bennie run down from the Raven Chair. That's my favourite," my waiter advises.
Cypress Mountain is 45 minutes from the city centre by car and has more of a ski resort feel than Grouse Mountain, because it is a drive-in, drive-out resort with six major lifts and 610 metres of vertical.
Although the best time to beat the crowds at Cypress is during the day in midweek, the queues I join on a Saturday morning are minor, just as they were at Grouse when I visited late on a Friday evening.
Jonathan, my guide, shows me the freestyle and mogul runs, then the half-pipe – though I am not allowed to do this because I am not wearing a helmet. He also takes me down the snowboard parallel giant slalom, skiercross and boardercross runs, where all four skiers or boarders set off at the same time. All of these will be in use at the Olympics.
Also new to Cypress is the Shore Glades. A glade is a uniquely North American concept of a run straight through the trees, where you have to keep your wits about you. Many resorts in British Columbia are making the best of the infestation of mountain pine beetles that is decimating western Canada's forests by felling stricken trees to create glades for skiers and snowboarders. For something a little calmer, cross-country skis can be hired to explore the resort's 19km network of trails.
Before I go, I stop for one last look from Benny's run at the archipelago of islands in the ocean beyond. I spot the winding road on the mainland – the Sea to Sky Highway – which leads 75 miles up the coast, then inland to Whistler. That may be the favourite of most skiers and snowboarders, but for my money Vancouver's two closest resorts are too good to miss.
How to get there
Colin Nicholson travelled to and around Canada with Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.ca) and ViaRail (0845 644 3553; viarail.ca). Return flights from London to Vancouver cost from £622. A CanRail pass costs £340 for 12 days' travel in a 30-day period. He stayed at the Fairmont Vancouver (00 800 0441 1414; fairmont.com) with doubles from C$233 (£138) a night.
Grouse Mountain (grousemountain .com); Cypress Mountain (cypress mountain.com); Tourism BC (british columbia.travel).Reuse content