Skiing in Canada

Three resorts in one trip? It sounds like hard work but, for the indecisive, a 'ski safari' is a great way to hit the slopes - and lots of them. Caroline Kamp reports from Canada

A ski safari has nothing to do with big game. In fact, it's more a skiing holiday on wheels. You visit a handful of resorts, staying for a few days in each before driving on to the next. There's always that nagging feeling in the back of your mind when you make a big trip across the Atlantic: have we picked the right resort? So the safari idea, which is big in North America, is a good option if you know roughly where you want to go but can't quite commit to one place. For once, being a bit indecisive is actually a bonus.

We were heading for the Okanagan Valley in the interior of British Columbia. With our itinerary sorted out in the UK before we left, our plan was to take in the three biggest resorts in the region: Big White, Silver Star and Sun Peaks.

Flying in to Vancouver we then caught a domestic flight to Kelowna. We could have chosen to spend a day or two in the city that recently topped the Economist Intelligence Unit's "liveability survey". And a lot of people do break their journeys here, but we pressed on. Geographically, the resorts lie in a convenient arc, and if you fly in to the more southerly airport of Kelowna, you can visit all three flying out of Kamloops to the north.

We picked up our beast of a 4x4, which had enough room in the back for a junior ice-hockey team. After some furious scraping of ice off the windscreen (note to self: pack warm gloves in hand luggage) we set off along the highway.

There is definitely something exciting about making our own way, map in hand, to the resort. It's very different to being herded on to a coach and just switching off. With the radio tuned to the nearest country-rock station and foot pressed firmly on the gas pedal, we reckoned we fitted right in.

The directions to Big White were straightforward and the roads easy to drive; no hairpin bends or steep climbs here. We arrived at the resort, in the dark, just over an hour after leaving the airport. It was immediately clear how the resort got its name; a thick blanket of snow covered the rooftops and was banked up at the side of the road.

Also visible were a few of the famous "snow ghosts", where the wind whips up the snow and it clings hard to the pine trees in the spookiest of shapes. Settling into our inviting wood and stone-built apartment, complete with hot tub on the balcony (there are more than 1,000 hot tubs in the resort), we were soon fast asleep.

In summer, the Okanagan Valley is an area of lakes and vineyards, with a hot, dry climate and lots of golf. In winter, when the lakes freeze over and the mountains are covered in snow, it becomes a buzzing ski resort. The area is far enough inland to avoid the maritime climate of Whistler, and lying to the west of the Rockies it avoids the extremely cold temperatures that you get in Banff and around Lake Louise.

It's one of those places where the locals seem to be sitting on a secret, possibly of eternal youth. Our guide on the first day in Big White was a grizzled snowboarder with a plaited goatee beard, called Scott, age 61. Fancying ourselves as pretty handy with a snowboard, and conscious of the 30-year age gap, we cast each other knowing "better take it easy on him" looks. We strapped on our boards and swooshed down after him, but couldn't catch him all day. It set a precedent for the week to come; we kept being overtaken by oldies.

They call it hero snow in Big White, and that's exactly how you feel when you've got a rooster tail of fluffy white powder behind you. They get a lot of snow, which falls light and fluffy on the mountain. Even in the trees it was still possible to find some untracked snow some days after a big fall.

After a few days of big snow, we dug out the 4x4 and headed off to the next destination, Silver Star. We drove for two hours past frozen lakes and small towns. On arrival, it had a very different feel to Big White; it is much smaller, with buildings designed like Wild West saloons but painted in nursery-school colours. The feeling of being on the set of a snowy western was augmented when we met up with the resort rep Robin, who multitasks as a fire chief and unofficial mayor. But this is no theme park; the near side of the mountain was all easy, rolling cruisers, but the far side was steep, steep, steep.

We were greeted with bear hugs on our first morning (a resort tradition among the ski hosts) and encouraged to take up the offer of free ski guiding. Our instructor stepped forward. Leo was Austrian and 66 years old. "When I cross my sticks behind my back like zees, it means go fast." Under Leo's guidance - "Now! Fast!" - we headed to the far side of the mountain and were rewarded with some slip, slide, tumbledown double-black diamond chutes and deep, wide powder pistes. Back on the resort side of the mountain, we cruised some easy blues home.

Leaving the small-town vibe and big hugs of Silver Star, we headed for Sun Peaks, a purpose-built resort two hours away. Checking into our smart hotel, we strolled downstairs to find a very lively bar and lots of restaurants in the adjacent street. It had a completely different atmosphere.

We were up early for the First Tracks breakfast at the top of one of the chair lifts. A surprisingly large crowd of fellow early risers was up for first dibs on the freshly groomed runs. Mid-morning, we met up with the former Olympic giant slalom gold medallist Nancy Greene, something of a national treasure in Canada. Now in her mid-60s, she hosts free daily ski tours that anyone can join, as long as you can keep up with her. As she bombed off down the mountain, she yelled something about having already done the downhill course that morning.

The business brains behind Sun Peaks had the time and money to build the resort from scratch across three mountains, so there are no long queues and the runs are never crowded. We exhausted ourselves on the final leg of our trip, taking advantage of the fast lifts and wide runs.

Jumping into our 4x4 at the end of the safari, we drove ourselves down to tiny Kamloops airport to board a twin-prop plane to Vancouver. We'd seen three very different resorts and a fair bit of the country in between.

As we walked towards the plane, our British Columbia adventure nearly over, we paused. "You're from England!" said one of the security staff, clocking our passports.

He nodded his head and smiled as if he already knew the answer: "So how did you like the trip?"

Traveller's Guide

GETTING THERE

Airlines serving Vancouver from the UK include Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.ca), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba. com) and Zoom (0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com).

Air Canada also flies from Vancouver to Kelowna and Kamloops.

STAYING THERE

All quoted rates are room only.

Chateau Big White (opens 23 November), (001 800 663 2772; www.big white.com). Doubles from C$168 (£81).

Vance Creek Hotel, Silver Star Mountain (001 250 549 5191; www.silverstarclub resort.com). Doubles from C$131 (£63).

Delta Sun Peaks, Sun Peaks (001 250 578 6000; www.delta hotels.com). Doubles from C$114 (£55).

SKIING THERE

Ski Safari (01273 224060; www.skisafari.co.uk) offers similar 10-night trips from £1,295 per person. This includes return flights from Heathrow to Vancouver on Air Canada or BA, hire of a 4x4 vehicle and room-only accommodation at the Chateau Big White (four nights), Barnes Creak Hotel (three nights) and Delta Sun Peaks (four nights). Ski equipment hire is extra but can be arranged through Ski Safari.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Big White (001 250 765 3101; www.bigwhite.com).

Silver Star (001 250 542 0224; www.skisilverstar.com).

Sun Peaks (001 250 578 7842; www.sun peaksresort.com).

British Columbia Tourism (0906 871 5000, calls 75p/min; www.hellobc.com).

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