It's so quiet that the youngest members of our group, two babies bobbing along on their dads' backs, have been sound asleep since we strapped on our snowshoes and headed out for our guided walk. Fat snowflakes are drifting down as the 10 of us make our way toward the trees, our snowshoe tracks joining those of a hare.
The silence is surprising, given that the liveliness of the Sun Peaks Resort village and the excitement of a downhill-ski race are just a half-hour's walk behind us. Here on the snowshoe trail, the snow is powder, the temperature is a balmy 25°, and the view of the surrounding mountains is spectacular. Even the babies, who wake up when our guide breaks out home-baked cookies, are delighted. One is tasting her first chocolate chips, the other is feeling snow on her face for the first time.
Sun Peaks, 250 miles east of Vancouver, is one of three beautifully sunny winter destinations in British Columbia's Thompson Okanagan area. For most travelers, of course, B.C. skiing means Whistler Blackcomb, the more-than-8,100-acre resort north of Vancouver that will play host to several events in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Whistler is indeed wonderful. But smaller resorts in the interior Thompson Okanagan have advantages as well. Taken in by the small-town atmosphere of resorts like Sun Peaks, Silver Star Mountain, and Big White Ski Resort, you feel a heightened sense of getting away from it all. Because the resorts require a bit more effort to get to (Sun Peaks is a 4 1/2-hour drive from Vancouver), lift lines are short or nonexistent. And sun is plentiful, with Sun Peaks enjoying an average of 2,000 hours per year. While Whistler's winter allure comes at a premium price, your dollars stretch further at smaller resorts. A one-day adult lift ticket at Sun Peaks comes to just under $47 U.S., an excellent value.
Collectively, Sun Peaks, Silver Star Mountain, and Big White Ski Resort are probably the best-kept snowy-destination secret in North America, with vast expanses of dry powder, excellent facilities, and winter temperatures averaging 21°, perfect for playing in the snow.
"The geography is what makes it so beautiful," says Nancy Greene, Sun Peaks' director of skiing. "The base elevation here is 4,200 feet, so the snow is really good, with mountains on both sides of the valley and the village tucked in between."
Even for Greene, an Olympic downhill gold medalist, this area is not only about skiing. In fact, once you've put away your skis, there's still skating, dogsledding, tobogganing, sightseeing from a horse-drawn sleigh, or just curling up with a hot rum in front of a fireplace.