It’s too far. Doesn’t it get really cold there? Why go all that way for a week when you could just go to the Alps? Just some of the comments and questions that came up whenever I said I wanted to ski in Canada.
But there’s supposed to be easy tree skiing and the scenery looks out-of-this-world, I’d say, still drawn by the idea. And, despite the naysayers, I finally took the plunge, visiting two of Canada’s best known resorts, Whistler and Sun Peaks in British Columbia. Here’s what I learnt from my ski holiday in the big C - and everyone thinking of going should know.
1. Off piste isn’t scary
“We’ll just cut down between these trees, across that traverse and over to the run in the distance,” said my guide Drew from Extremely Canadian ski school in Whistler, pointing to what looked like an off-piste run. No safety briefing, no avalanche transceiver equipment.
But no problem. In Canada unlike in Europe, everything inside the ski area boundary is patrolled and made safe by the resort, including ungroomed snow between the marked pistes, steep couloirs, powder bowls and tree runs. Ropes mark the boundary, and anyone crossing those does so at their own risk, as in Europe. Apart from that, you can quite literally go anywhere and the sense of freedom was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
2. Ski instruction from native English speakers really helps
Most skiers and snowboarders will have endured a lesson in broken English at least once, but there’s no risk of that in Canada - yes they speak the same language! And I was relieved to find my near-beginner boyfriend Dan’s Northern humour proved a match with his Sun Peaks Sport School instructor Paul’s Canadian enthusiasm. And after a few days of instruction Dan was parallel turning and keen to tackle some bumps, and I’m convinced linguistic harmony had a lot to do with his fast progress.
3. The slopes are graded differently
A sense of dread rushed over me as I looked over a lip down the rest of the blue run - it had turned from smooth piste to an ungroomed mogul field. Dan had tackled blues with his instructor, but this was our first together. “Just take it easy,” I said tentatively - my mistake had been to think of this as a European blue run.
In Canada runs are graded green, blue or black diamond or double black diamond – there are no reds as in Europe - blues and single blacks can be like easy or tough reds. And not all pistes are bashed every day - there are the grooming reports each morning so you can check which are. For beginners, it was a pleasure to find easy green routes from the top of both resorts, so Dan didn’t miss out (and yes he did also manage that blue).
And as for ungroomed marked pistes – well, the thrill of skiing my first, covered in an ankle-deep layer of powder on a bluebird day, says it all. There’s a reason they call it ego snow - I immediately started wondering if maybe, just maybe, I am a good skier, and for that I will be eternally grateful to Canada.
4. Locals are genuinely happy to see you
At first we thought the enthusiastic smiles and interest in our day was an act for tourists, but soon realised it’s not. Whether it was the hosts providing free guided tours around the slopes or answering questions in the resort village, the lifties sweeping snow from chairlifts as we boarded, or the inquisitive driver of our transfer coach, the passion of the Canadians we met was infectious and really added to the enjoyment of our trip.
5. Après isn’t always about dancing on tables
Don’t get me wrong I enjoy a bit of dancing-on-tables-in-my-ski-boots European-style après, but the typically Canadian idea of having a couple of drinks when the lifts close then adventuring out for an evening activity was surprisingly refreshing. The choice was huge - we zip-lined through towering trees and soaked in an outdoor hot tub in Whistler, ice fished in solitude on a frozen lake and snowshoed through the forests in Sun Peaks. And not only did I love the experiences, I was fresh faced and spritely for first lift in the morning.
6. Lift queues don’t have to be a bun fight
We Brits love an orderly queue, hence the elbows-out, pushing-in chaos at the bottom of busy European lifts can be mighty stressful. In Canada there are clearly marked lanes and lifties encourage people into chair-sized groups. Singles as well as ski school lines are the norm, and everyone calmly filters onto the lift. The efficiency, the politeness, the (wait for it) smiles – it’s what queuing dreams are made of.
7. Eating out is varied
“What do you fancy tonight? Mexican, Chinese, steak?” I never thought I’d be asking that question on a ski holiday, so used am I to wall-to-wall French/Austrian/Swiss cuisine in Alpine restaurants. Whistler for example boasts 200 restaurants of many different styles, our favourite being the newly-opened Basalt that served us an international menu of cured meats and cheeses followed by pan seared Pacific snapper. While it’s smaller, Sun Peaks also had a lot to choose from, such as sushi, Italian and traditional Canadian cuisine, which included bison steaks and rainbow trout (the same as we’d caught during our ice fishing adventure).
Eating out was also not overly expensive. One night we enjoyed a three-course Mexican affair, where the bill came to C$90 (about £57) including drinks for two.
8. Beer is king
“Well that was embarrassing, they laughed at me when I ordered that,” said Dan as he returned with a pint of Big Bear lager (a local BC brew) for himself and a mulled wine for me. I don’t drink beer, and while every bar has a pump line full of craft lagers and ales from local breweries, it’s rare anyone plumps for my go-to après hot spiced wine.
That said, despite the laughter, it was on offer in every bar. As is hot apple cider - which after a few mugs I learnt is non alcoholic - plus fine Canadian wine and the usual roster of spirits. Whatever the order, we soon learnt to carry spare cash to leave for tips, as it’s commonplace in bars, cafes and restaurants (on top of the 12% tax, both provincial and national, added to the bill).
9. Skiing in trees is so much fun
I’ve never skied trees in Europe, deeming it for experts and worried about bumping into a stray branch. But in Canada, since there are gladed runs, when some of the trees are removed, and the wooded areas beside the groomed pistes are patrolled, I finally discovered what fun it is to weave between trees. The powder stays fresh longer in this wooded playground too, and you can see even in a whiteout.
10. There’s a lot to be said for self catering
Rather than the catered chalets and half-board hotels I’m used to, most lodging in Canada is accommodation only, which was rather a culture shock, but (surprising to me) I learnt to love the freedom. We made restaurant reservations, got up earlier to go out for breakfast, and went to the supermarket. When you’ve skied from 8:30am until the lifts closed, sometimes a takeaway pizza is all that is needed before a good night’s sleep.
However, Canadian accommodation certainly makes up for any lack of catering with space and facilities. There’s always a hot tub close by your room (if not on the balcony) and after staying in beds big enough to sleep an entire family and a hotel room larger than some flats in London - complete with a kitchen-diner - I began to wonder how I’ll ever again fit myself and a suitcase in a European chalet twin bedroom again.
11. It’s easy to get around villages
The largely pedestrianised base villages of both Whistler and Sun Peaks were designed and purpose built for skiers and snowboarders, and the same is true at many other Canadian resorts - though some have a small base village with few bars and restaurants and another more ‘real’ village near by. We could ski down the car-free high street to our door in Sun Peaks and had an easy 200m stroll to the lifts in Whistler (some accommodation is further flung) and wandering about the snowy resort streets in the evenings was like stepping out into a exhaust-fume-free winter wonderland, with only other snow-dazed visitors for company.
12. You can never have too many layers
While we knew it would be colder in Canada Dan and I didn’t know it would be THAT cold - we later discovered Canada is officially the second coldest nation on the planet after Russia. The coldest temperature I’ve ever experienced on the slopes in the Alps is -12ºC, but in British Columbia the average temperatures often plummet to well below freezing. Add wind, cold fronts off the Pacific ocean and lows of up to -29ºC the week before we arrived and the result was a frozen beard (for Dan, not me) and wearing all the layers we’d brought every day.
13. Long haul is worth it
The thought of spending nine hours on a plane was a huge deal for me, having never left Europe before, and I’d wondered if it would be worth it. Especially since while the flight to Vancouver for Whistler was direct, flying back from Kamloops after Sun Peaks meant adding an internal connecting flight to the mix.
But not only were the flights enjoyable and the connection smooth, the time difference (Whistler is seven hours behind the UK) meant, yes we were spent come bedtime, but could easily get up early to make the most of the mountain - lifts open and close earlier 8:30am and 4pm in both Whistler and Sun Peaks, compared to 8:45am or 9am 4:30pm in much of the Alps. However there’s no question, I underestimated the exhaustion of jet lag.