The Traveller's guide to Canadian ski resorts

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

With consistent snowfall and a host of uncrowded resorts that can accommodate novices and experts alike, Canada is the ideal winter sports destination.

WHAT CAN I EXPECT? Ridiculous amounts of snow: last year the Canadians were laying down fresh tracks from November until May. Dynamic and forward-thinking, and flush with investment, ski hills across the country are embracing change. Lifts are speedy, facilities slick, accommodation stylish and well proportioned – while the crowds remain mild to negligible by European standards. This year sees the second major new resort opening in under a decade, and from east coast to west, new developments are rolling in as thick and fast as the winter snows.

SO IS WHISTLER OLD NEWS? Hardly. While the Alps suffered under a hideous dry spell last winter, Whistler Blackcomb (0800 587 1743; www.whistlerblackcomb.com) enjoyed the second snowiest season in its history: a total of 1,416cm. That’s 46ft, for the non-metrically minded. With the snow now melted, Canada’s most famous resort is a-flurry with preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics ( www.vancouver2010.com). Improvements to the downhill courses and snowmaking systems should be finished by this autumn, as should the construction of the new Nordic centre and bobsled track. Not all the new developments, however, are earmarked for the Games. Already boasting North America’s longest vertical drop and largest skiable area by far – at 32 square kilometres, about 12 more than its closest competitor, Vail – the westcoast giant is not content to sit still on its superlatives. Last season saw the opening of the Symphony Express, a high-speed quad that opened up 400 hectares of ungroomed bowls and glades. Soon after plans were announced for an 4.4km gondola uniting the twin peaks for which the resort is named; though not scheduled to open until late 2008, the groundwork is well underway.

WON’T THE PLACE BE A BUILDING SITE? Thankfully not. With on-mountain construction finished, the Olympic village discreetly out of town and temporary structures not scheduled to go up until late 2009, visitors over the next couple of seasons stand only to benefit from the influx of money and infectious enthusiasm. Even the C$600m (£280m) Sea-to-Sky improvement programme is a cause for celebration. The roadworks promise to ease congestion and improve safety on the 110km route from Vancouver to Whistler, and though not due for completion until 2009, the project has thus far kept more or less to its goal of minimum disruption. Sections have even been finished months ahead of schedule.

IS WHISTLER HOSTING ALL THE EVENTS? No. Standing lofty above the suburbs of West Vancouver is Cypress Mountain (001 604 926 5612; www.cypressmountain.com). Floodlit slopes and well-built terrain parks make it the after-school hangout of Vancouver teens; appropriately, the North Shore resort will host 2010’s snowboarding and freestyle skiing events. As a result of funds from the Olympics, this season sees the opening of nine new expert runs, new high speed quad, new snowmaking system and the completion of the Olympic “venues” – notably an impressive grounddug superpipe within ogling distance of the base area. Terrain in place, the resort has scheduled a number of big profile comps for 2007-8 in preparation for the main event, along with almost weekly snowboard jams and events. Cypress is only one of three local hills in the Vancouver area, all sprucing up for the torch. Family- friendly Mount Seymour (001 604 986 2261; www.mountseymour.com) is just 30 minutes from downtown, and popular with snowshoers and snowboarders alike. Even closer is Grouse (001 604 984 0661; www.grousemountain.com), a mere 15 minutes from downtown on the bus, and currently undergoing a C$4m (£1.8m) facelift. As at Cypress and Seymour, chairlifts run until 10pm: visitors can take a lesson in one of the terrain parks (from C$37/£17) under starry skies.

WHAT ELSE IS MAKING HEADLINES? Olympics aside, there’s a lot of excitement about Revelstoke (001 250 814-0087; www.discoverrevelstoke.com). For many years a pit stop for powder pilgrims travelling between the Canadian Rockies and the coast, the sleepy mountain town in the Selkirks is about to become a major ski destination in its own right. Developers have snapped up the local snow cat and heli-skiing operations, and commenced construction over the top of the old single-lift Powder Springs, a local hill operating since 1964. By Christmas, skiers should have access to almost a third of the proposed 5,000 acres; next season, the statistics will include over 100 runs, 2,000 sq km of snowcat- and helicopter-accessed terrain, and the longest vertical descent in North America. Ah yes, and 12-18 metres of snow annually, twice that of Whistler’s average.

AND THE LAST NEXT BIG THINGS? A shiny modern ski eyrie that rose seven years ago from humble beginnings as a non-profit club area, Kicking Horse (001 250 439 5400; www.kicking horseresort.com) remains an under-visited gem, despite the considerable buzz. Only an hour or so further from Calgary than the Banff resorts, and now served by airport shuttle bus (001 250 423 4023; www.mountainperks.ca. From C$67/£31 each way), the extra distance affords uncrowded slopes and impressive in-bounds off-piste terrain. Fifteen minutes down the road is Golden, which remains a spit-and-sawdust lumber town with a snowmobile in every backyard. Experts can ski as the locals do by contacting Golden Snowmobile Rentals (001 250 344 8175; www.goldensnowmobilerentals.com. From £225 per day) and motoring off into the wilderness. Further south, the popularity of Fernie (001 250 423 4655; w ww.skifernie.com) has kept pace with its spiralling reputation. Since the ski hill was taken over by the Lake Louise group in 1997, the historic mining town nestled at the foot of this sprawling ridgeline resort has seen an explosion of condominiums, on-mountain facilities and visitors, while retaining a laidback, intimate vibe. Fernie’s powder-filled bowls and glades are as accessible to intermediates as to experts, the town’s bars and cafes refreshingly idiosyncratic, yet prices remain reasonable and midweek liftlines short to non-existent. For now, at least.

WE WANT TO TAKE THE KIDS Friendly, easygoing locals, the lack of a language barrier at ski school, a decent exchange rate and modern facilities go a long way to making Canadian resorts an optimum choice for family ski holidays. Particularly notable and still relatively unknown in the UK is Big White (001 250 765 3101; www.bigwhite.com). Canada’s fourth-largest resort is expressly designed to meet the needs of families. All accommodation is ski-in ski-out, and the Kid’s Centre is a focal point, not an afterthought. Kids not only get their own slopes, but tubing, ice-skating and mini-skidoos; teens don’t go to boring ski school, but to the temptingly titled Flight School and Heavy Metal Shop. Daycare is available from 18 months to five years, and the After Dark programme supplants the need for babysitters. Meanwhile, parents benefit from over 30 sq km of terrain, and the consistent supply of dry snow that gave the resort its name.

ADVENTURES OFF THE SLOPES? One for nature lovers, modest Marmot Basin (001 780 852 3816; www.skimarmot.com) is located in the heart of Jasper National Park. The resort itself is basic but pleasantly uncrowded, easy to navigate and with terrain to suit all levels; though advanced tuition is available, both kids and adults lessons are geared to novice skiers and riders. Away from the pistes, visitors can explore the rugged wilderness by snowshoe, dogsled or sleigh. An extensive network of cross-country trails snakes through the National Park, and helitours explore the vast expanses of the Columbia icefield. An added bonus is that summer is peak season in the nearby town of Jasper, making winter accommodation and activities competitively priced. Technically closer to home but alluringly far flung, Marble Mountain (001 709 637 7601; www.skimarble.com) lies in a snowbelt in the northern tip of the Appalachians, way up on the west coast of Newfoundland. There are weekly flights through Humber Valley Resorts direct from Gatwick to Deer Lake. The reward: a single lodge, a mere 35 trails – and the opportunity to snowshoe or cross-country ski through miles and miles of untrammelled wilderness, from the Blomidon Mountains to the remote Bay of Islands.

JUST HOW CLOSE ARE THE CANADIAN ROCKIES? With both Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.com; from £400 return) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.britishairways.com) now flying direct from London to Calgary, the most popular resorts in the Canadian Rockies are less than 10 hours from the UK. One of the largest in North America, Lake Louise (001 403 522 3555; www.skilouise.com) has enough terrain to absorb the Calgary crowds: from meandering beginner runs to wide-open back country bowls, dedicated kid’s zones to the best terrain parks in the Rockies. The season lasts from November until May; visit in March or April for blue skies, mild temperatures and a chance to spot the Northern Lights. Visitors can stay conveniently close to the resort or trade a 40-minute commute for the bustling town of Banff.

IS IT WORTH GOING EAST? Postcard-pretty resorts ring both Montreal and Quebec City, close enough for day trips, but sufficiently alluring as overnight destinations in themselves. Towering Mont Tremblant (001 819 681-2000; www.tremblant.ca) is the star of Montreal’s Laurentian range, consistently ranked the East Coast’s number one in the North American ski press. Carefully manicured trails to suit every level of skier and rider spill off all four sides of the mountain, and state-of-the-art snowmaking ensures decent piste conditions. Skiing is only one of many activities on offer. From winter horseriding, ice climbing and ziplining to hottubbing in the chic Le Scandinave Spa, Tremblant is much more than the sum of its pistes.

I’M LOOKING FOR SOMETHING A LITTLE MORE FRENCH Even schoolboy French will give Brits an immediate advantage over visiting Americans, particularly around the Francophone bastion of Quebec City. “Thank you for trying to speak our language,” is a typical comment from the locals. Stoneham (001 418 848 2411; www.ski-stoneham.com) is just outside the city walls, and boasts the most extensive night-skiing in the country; sister resort Mont Sainte Anne (001 418 827 4561; www.mont-sainte-anne.com) is only 40km from town, and second only in size on the East Coast to Tremblant. A little further into the Charlevoix is Le Massif (001 418 632 5876; www.lemassif.com), which Unesco has designated a World Biosphere Reserve. Founded in 1980 as a backcountry operation, the resort is a unique experiment: a ski area created to provide a stable winter economy that will support the local environment. And it’s some environment: the highest skiable terrain east of the Rockies, favoured with 600cm of powder annually, with runs that appear to plunge dramatically down into the broad expanse of the St Lawrence river. Owned by the founding president of the Cirque du Soleil, boosted by Olympic funds, development has been conscientiously sustainable but steady: there are now lifts to the summit, in lieu of the original schoolbus. Le Massif is also idiosyncratically Francophile: banning fried food in favour of Charlevoix specialities, and graced by a resident artiste-sur-skis, who carves around the mountain, palette and paintbrush in hand.

For more information about skiing in Canada log on to www.canada.travel/ski.

CLICK HERE to explore Canada further.

CLICK HERE for Simon Calder's Canada podcast.

Comments