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.
Play in the snow
Except where noted, all prices listed are in U.S. dollars; visit www.bank-banque-canada.ca and click "Currency" for current conversion rates.
Sun Peaks Resort
The farthest north of the three resorts, Sun Peaks has slopes on three mountains, with good challenges for advanced skiers ― one-third of the 117 runs are in the expert category. The five-minute stroll from one end of the base village to the other is like walking among a collection of perfect gingerbread houses, especially in the evening, when the buildings glow with sparkling lights.
BEST FOR: Families that include a thrill-seeker or couples looking for romance.
FAVORITE SKI RUN: The Five Mile, a super-long, beginner-level run that takes you from top to base in one shot. Alternatively, many guests' favorite run is whichever one Nancy Greene chooses to ski with visitors. She convenes groups at the top of the Sunburst Express lift at 11 and 1 daily.
TERRAIN: 10 percent beginner runs, 58 percent intermediate, 32 percent expert; 220 inches of snowfall annually; 11 lifts.
BEST GUIDED SNOWSHOE TOUR: The Friday-evening guided tour with a fondue dinner and dessert. $42, reservations required. 250/578-5542.
BEST APRES-SKI HOT SPOT: Bottoms Bar & Grill, for cold beer and hot wings. $$. In the Sundance Lodge, near the Village Day Lodge; 250/578-0013.
BEST TASTE OF EUROPE: Powder Hounds Restaurant, where the schnitzel is justifiably famous. $$. In the Fireside Lodge, at the top of the village; 250/578-0014.
WHERE TO STAY: Delta Sun Peaks Resort is the largest hotel at Sun Peaks, with a health club, pool, and restaurant. From $159. In the middle of the village; www.deltasunpeaks resort.com, 866/552-5516, or 250/578-6000. Nancy Greene's Cahilty Lodge is adjacent to the Sun Peaks Sport Centre, whose facilities include outdoor skating rinks. You can ski to and from the lodge. From $149. In the middle of the village; www.cahiltylodge.com or 800/244-8424.
TRAVEL INFORMATION: Sun Peaks is a 4 1/2-hour drive from Vancouver. The closest airport is in Kamloops, and shuttle service to the resort is available. For ski and road conditions and resort activities, contact Sun Peaks Resort www.sunpeaksresort.com or 800/807-3257.
Silver Star Mountain Resort
Averaging 23 feet of dry, powdery snow each winter, Silver Star has always been a place for families to play. The village's streetscape resembles that of a mining town from the province's 19th-century gold rush days, with brightly colored storefronts along the pedestrian-only street.
BEST FOR: Families and anyone else with a preference for a smaller resort.
FAVORITE SKI RUN: Eldorado, an intermediate run with 5 miles of powder.
TERRAIN: 20 percent beginner runs, 50 percent intermediate, 30 percent expert; 276 inches of snowfall annually; 10 lifts.
BEST GUIDED SNOWSHOE TOUR: The Fabulous Fondue Frolic, a snowshoe trek on Thursday and Saturday evenings to a cabin; includes a fondue dinner and a sleigh ride back. $58, reservations required. 250/558-4292.
BEST APRES-SKI HOT SPOT: Long John's Pub, with two fireplaces, a mining theme, and delicious burgers. $$.In the Village Centre, next to the Lord Aberdeen Apartment Hotel; 250/549-2992.
BEST PLACE TO GET CHEESY: Silver Lode Restaurant, for the cheese and chocolate fondues. $$$. In the Swiss Hotel Silver Lode Inn; 250/549-5105.
WHERE TO STAY: Swiss Hotel Silver Lode Inn has cozy rooms, some with private hot tubs or full kitchens. From $83. In the Village Centre; www.silverlode.com or 800/554-4881. Putnam Station Inn has train-themed decor inside and out. From $83.In the Village Centre; www.putnamstation.com or 800/489-0599.
TRAVEL INFORMATION: Driving time from Vancouver is 5 hours. Shuttle service is available to and from the Kelowna International Airport. For ski and road conditions and more information, contact Silver Star Mountain Resort www.skisilverstar.com or 800/663-4431.
Big White Ski Resort
Opening the season with a $127.9 million (Canadian) expansion that includes more lifts, ski runs, and accommodations, Big White is definitely ready for winter crowds. It's not unusual to ski above the clouds here, with a brilliant blue sky, powder snow, and only the sound of your skis for company. The moon makes good company too: Big White has western Canada's largest night-skiing area.
BEST FOR: Adventurous skiers who prefer a bit of pampering.
FAVORITE SKI RUN: The longest one ― Around the World, with 4 1/2 miles of beginner-level skiing.
TERRAIN: 18 percent beginner runs, 56 percent intermediate, 26 percent expert; 294 inches of snowfall annually; 15 lifts.
BEST GUIDED SNOWSHOE TOUR: A two-hour outing that takes you through the woods near the base village. $23, reservations required. 250/491-4244.
BEST APRES-SKI HOT SPOT: Snowshoe Sam's main-floor pub offers huge plates of excellent nachos. The upstairs restaurant serves steaks and lobster. Pub $; upstairs $$$. In the middle of the village; 250/765-1416.
BEST LAST LIFT RIDE OF THE DAY: Take a five-minute trip on the gondola to the Kettle Valley Steak & Wine Bar for terrific steaks and a wine list that features Okanagan selections. $$, reservations recommended. 250/491-0130.
WHERE TO STAY: Chateau Big White has a day spa and a good restaurant; accommodations include rooms, suites, and lofts, all with gas fireplaces. White Crystal Inn has spacious rooms and a slopeside location, plus a hot tub and sauna. Both hotels' rooms from $83. 800/663-2772.
TRAVEL INFORMATION: Driving time from Vancouver is 4 1/2 hours. The closest airport is in Kelowna, and shuttle service is available. For ski and road conditions and more information, contact Big White Ski Resort www.bigwhite.com, 800/663-2772, or 250/765-3101.