Fun on the run
Snow-offs ... mastering the slopes at Silver Star Ski Resort.
With the snow season in British Columbia about to start, two of its most popular resorts get the thumbs up from Debbie Neilson-Hunter and her family.
It has been another full day on the Big White's ski slopes for our party of five. Judging by the hot-chocolate-ringed smiles on my daughters, there is little doubt they're having a good time.
The horses at Big White. Photo: Debbie Neilson-Hunter
"Ski school rocks," Miss four confirms, handing me her latest art creation completed in between making snowploughs and aeroplanes beside the other Ready Teddys and Eager Elephants on the beginner slopes. Miss six then rolls off the names of the new friends she's making as a more experienced Speedy Squirrel.
They are a picture of exhausted contentedness, and as sweet-looking as a Sara Lee dessert under layers of ski clothes, with Rudolph noses, ruddy cheeks and dishevelled beanie/helmet hair.
While we pack up and store our skis for the day, there's still plenty of daylight to enjoy. First it's a long-awaited sleigh ride.
We head down Lara's Gondola from the Village Centre Mall (the retail, rental and booking hub) to the Happy Valley beginner area where we snuggle under blankets as Clydesdales Doc and Bud gently pulls us along some of the resort's back-country trails.
The sun sinks behind the frosted forest of tall firs as we return. As we warm by the rink-side open fire, we toss up whether to go skating on Canada's highest ice rink or tubing on North America's largest resort tubing park - the Mega Snow Coaster - lit up by lights in the Happy Valley Adventure Park.
Nanna's feeling the cold and retreats to our cosy three-bedroom slope-side Stonebridge apartment (romantically adorned with vintage skis, art deco travel posters and a luxurious fireside leather sofa) for a cuppa. I'm warming to the idea of the hot tub on the balcony until grandad and my girls vote to give both snow activities a try before we meet up again for dinner.
Big White is renowned for three things. First, it claims some of the most idyllic skiing conditions on the continent. The snow is dry, fluffy and deep thanks to the more than seven metres that falls annually. Its position on the protected western side of the Canadian Rockies in the southern Okanagan region of British Columbia also means a mild, temperate climate and comfortable average winter daytime temperatures of minus-5 degrees.
Sitting at 1755 metres, the resort's sprawling terraced village, offering more than 17,000 guest beds across hotel, vacation home and luxury condominium-style accommodation, has been deliberately built into the side of the mountain so everything is ski in, ski out - ideal for little ones who grow weary of being shuttled back and forth from the ski fields.
Which brings me to its other claim to fame: as one of North America's most family-friendly ski destinations. It's not just about the snow but what all ages can do on it that sets this resort apart from so many others.
Children up to 40 kilograms can ride their own mini snowmobiles or try ice climbing (the 18.3-metre tower is the coolest new attraction at the Happy Valley Adventure Park), snow biking, snowshoeing or dog sledding, while non-skiers and boarders can be chauffeured around the slopes via Sno-Limo. The Telus Terrain Park's rails and jumps are where to look for AWOL teenagers.
The Kids' Centre offers full- and half-day programs for children aged from four, and an after-dark program. Children can even be picked up from accommodation and dropped back. If your little ones are too young to learn to ski, the Tot Town daycare, next to the central mall in the modern Euro-style pedestrian village, takes care of children from as young as 18 months in a closely supervised environment, leaving new parents free to enjoy some rare time together.
If you have nervous beginners aged between three and six, new "Mum or Dad and Me" two-hour ski programs teach parents to guide their children using games and other fun activities. Three runs are also zoned off and staffed each day to ensure older skiers and families with small children can safely and comfortably explore more than just the green runs.
And there's plenty to discover. Sixteen lifts access 118 runs (105 kilometres of marked trails across 2976 hectares) of varied terrain encompassing deep-powder bowls, ghostly forest glades, steeps and bumps and fall-line cruising. More than half cater to blue intermediate skiers, while the rest is almost equally divided between the more advanced blacks and the easy greens, but it is also possible to explore the breadth of this picturesque mountain either way. There are also 25 kilometres of Nordic trails.
As well as regular weekly fireworks, bonfires, craft, movie, trivia and Wii nights, throughout the season Big White hosts some major sporting and special events. Our visit falls on Australia Day, one of the biggest days on the winter calendar thanks to the growing numbers of Australians who holiday and work here (including the resort's owners). And while they might be thousands of kilometres from Bondi or the Gold Coast's beaches, they still like to celebrate loud and proud and semi-naked, bravely heading up the chairlifts in beanies, bikinis and boardshorts even as heavy snow falls. In the evening the carnival atmosphere continues with jumping castles, games, face painting and furry hugs from a giant kangaroo named Boomer.
Two hours away, enjoying an equally idyllic climate and loads of light dry snow is Silver Star. Rising above Vernon in the lake-studded Okanagan Valley, Silver Star is significantly smaller than its sister resort, with no fewer than 5500 pillows fluffed across a variety of ski-in, ski-out accommodation options - from hotel style to larger vacation homes (popular for long stays), luxury condominiums and apartments (some with hot tubs).
Silver Star's Victorian architecture, modelled on a 19th-century mining town (with one main street) and painted a kaleidoscope of colour, also gives it a Disney-like charm of its own. Striking against a canvas of pure white, the primary colours instantly appeal to our sense of fun. And that's what this award-winning resort also offers families in spades. At the Star Kids Centre, youngsters feel like mini-VIPs in a fully supervised club/daycare environment. The centre is also the meeting point for full- and half-day ski lessons for four- to 14-year-olds.
Boarding lessons at both mountains start from age seven. Beyond the Discovery Park's magic carpet, Silver Star's 12 lifts access a total of 115 marked runs for all levels across 1240 skiable hectares (including a terrain park).
While Big White provides superlative glade skiing, Silver Star's terrain has become particularly renowned for its awesome steep groomers. Advanced skiers and boarders enjoy celebrity-like status with a large network of runs on the "backside" of the mountain leading down to Putnam Creek, reserved exclusively for them. Accessed by the Powder Gulch Express chair, the nicest way to get there from the summit is via El Dorado - a magical blue cruiser skirting the edges of the unpatrolled back country. The pretty groomed runs and deep-powder short cuts through the trees off the Silver Woods Express chairlift also quickly become my favourites.
When the lifts shut, you could head straight off for traditional apres-ski drinks, but my kids have other ideas. Balancing on a blade barely the width of a Paddle Pop stick takes some getting used but my girls are determined to master ice skating. Brewers Pond, a short walk across one of Silver Star's car parks, is where we again pull skates on. But this experience takes on a new thrill when I tell my girls they're standing on an actual frozen pond. The look on their faces is priceless. As if they need proof, they down hockey sticks and drop to their bellies to look for the fish.
The biting evening chill doesn't discourage us from testing out Silver Star's own Tube Town nearby.
Snow flies as we rocket down to the farthest barrier, having worked out that the more friends you can link with, the faster you go.
Frozen fingers and faces have to be thawed out with more hot chocolate in the Tube Town Cantina before Miss Six puts her fledgling driving skills to the test around the children's snowmobile track.
Unlike Big White, Silver Star is not just a winter mountain. In summer, the trails through its pretty alpine meadows entice nature lovers, mountain bikers and horse riders. But when the snow reaches your middle, there's only one way to travel beyond the groomed slopes and fairy lights - on snowshoes. On my two-hour snowshoe adventure I learn the techniques of making a trail as we head to a secret mountain-top lookout to watch the sun set with a cup of hot apple cider. Although clouds dull the light show, the serenity of the snow-cloaked forest is enchanting. So is my naturalist guide, Roseanne Van Ee, as she recalls the stories of the generations of people who made this mountain home long before it first became a popular ski hill in the '60s.
Although a lot has changed since the original silver mine was abandoned and the developers moved in, Silver Star's closely knit community's love and appreciation for its "hill" still radiates. It will win you over, too.
The writer travelled to Canada as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourism British Columbia and Travel Alberta.
Best bites at Big White
- Sample Okanagan's finest wines at the Kettle Valley Steakhouse and Wine Bar. Share a plate by the fire at Six Degrees bistro.
- For an all-round Canadian vibe, hit the Bull Wheel, popular for its burgers and ribs.
- Sante Bar & Grille does great big breakfasts, plus great Canadian seafood and steak.
- Beano's in the Village Centre Mall has great coffee, home-made sandwiches and soups.
- For apres-ski family fun, the Moose Lounge.
- Friends gather at the Globe Cafe & Tapas and Snowshoe Sams.
Silver Star's sizzlers
- Sample a famous "Bear's Claw" — fists of chocolate with a chewy caramel centre and topped with cashews - at Bugaboos Bakery.
- Long Johns Pub is a local favourite, tucked underneath the Lord Aberdeen Hotel, serves great food super fast and has a rockin' vibe.
- The Den Bistro and Cafe — for wholesome food, live entertainment. Best spot is by the fire.
- For aged, hand-cut Canadian beef, a variety of fresh seafood and wine, try the Silver Grill.
- The Saloon has the biggest dance floor on the mountain.
Air Canada flies daily from Sydney to Vancouver, with regular connections on to Kelowna Airport, which accesses both Big White and Silver Star. Visitors can also fly via Los Angeles on V Australia, United Airlines, Qantas, Delta or Air New Zealand, with connections up to Canada with either Air Canada, WestJet, Alaska Airlines or Horizon Airlines. Shuttle services transfer guests to (and between) the resorts via the airport. Bookings are essential.
Seven nights in a one-bedroom executive suite (with hot tub) at Stonebridge Lodge and six-day lift pass at Big White from $1429 a person. Seven nights' studio accommodation at Silver Star and six-day lift pass from $838 a person. Conditions apply. Phone Adventure World, 1300 363 055.
November to early/mid-April.
For more information