When the snow flies north of the 49th, many tourists flee for warmer climates.
But those who travel Canada when the mercury dips below the tan line can reap big rewards, nowhere bigger than in British Columbia for skiers and boarders.
From the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the knee-deep powder of the Kootenay Range, B.C. knows how to make the most out of winter.
There are 13 world-class ski resorts and nearly two dozen smaller ski areas in the westernmost province, such as Kicking Horse Mountain Resort near Golden in the Rockies, Mount Washington Alpine Resort on Vancouver Island, Red Mountain near Rossland in the Kootenays and Powder King in the north near Mackenzie.
The province is the world leader in heli- and cat-skiing, with 20 such operations peppered throughout the 10 mountain ranges that cleave B.C., taking skiers and snowboarders into the backcountry for pristine wilderness experiences.
“We are a world leader in skiing in British Columbia,” said Stuart Rempel, senior vice-president of marketing and sales for Whistler Blackcomb.
“We’ve got some of the most amazing ski resorts. We are the epicentre for heli-skiing. . . You can’t find that anywhere else. We lead in that regard.”
Whistler Blackcomb made the list of the best ski runs and lodges in National Geographic’s 10 Best of Everything 2011 book.
Sun Peaks, located about 400 kilometres northeast of Vancouver near Kamloops, B.C., was named second best ski resort in Canada in a 2010 Conde Nast Traveler reader poll, according to Tourism B.C.
What’s so great about it? According to Ski Canada Magazine’s Best of Skiing Awards 2012, a lot.
The list, published in this month’s edition, gives B.C. 13 of the top 19 places in Canada with the best snow, including the latest addition to the province’s ski scene: the Hudson Bay Mountain resort near Smithers, 1,200 kilometres north of Vancouver.
The annual poll of Ski Canada readers names Fernie, Rossland, Nelson, Whistler and Revelstoke among the best ski towns in Canada to live in.
“There really is something for everybody,” said Iain MacMillan, editor of the Ontario-based magazine and an avid skier who just returned from a heli-skiing tour in B.C.
From the sunshine of the Okanagan and the “powder highway” of the Kootenays to the massive snow of the Rockies and the coast, MacMillan said skiers come to B.C. and “wake up in paradise.”
They can combine skiing at a combination of resorts in many regions and add heli- or cat-skiing to the mix, which he considers the best in the world.
“There’s no comparison. British Columbia’s powder skiing through helicopters or cats is spectacularly above the rest of the world.”
Best place to get high, according to Ski Canada? The Bounce Acrobatic Academy in Whistler, where athletes can train and the rest of us can just have some fun.
Best chance to sip and spit? A lift ticket-wine tour combo package offered by Distinctly Kelowna Tours, that includes a two-day lift ticket for Big White and a wine tour.
Best undiscovered ski party? The Gathering, at Red Mountain on March 23-24, where mountain culture is celebrated in film and photographs, as well as on the slopes.
Ski Canada readers cite the Scandinave Spa in Whistler, with its no-talking rule, as the best place to relax and they recommend the $1 tacos available after 6 p.m. at Merlin’s at the base of Blackcomb.
Which B.C. bars make the list? Spirit Bar, Mike’s Place and BiBO, in Nelson; Griz Bar, Fernie; Johnnie Canucks, Big White; Garibaldi Lift Co., Whistler; Gunbarrel Saloon, Apex, and Long John’s, Silver Star.
Craig Beaulieu, a member of the Canadian national snowboard team, would add The Brasserie, in Whistler, to that list.
The 26-year-old from Timmins, Ont., also says Grouse Mountain offers up the best view in B.C. skiing for its vantage point over Vancouver and the Pacific Ocean.
“I love looking as far as you can see from left to right and all you see is the city and the ocean. If you want mountain top peaks, high elevation views of Whistler town, then I would have to give it to the best mountain in the world. Whistler/Blackcomb,” he said in an email.
The most heart-thumping run in his opinion? The Dave Murray Downhill in the morning on Whistler Mountain.
Fernie Alpine Resort, located 60 kilometres from the Alberta boundary in the B.C. Rockies, Apex Mountain Resort, near Penticton in the Okanagan, and Sun Peaks near Kamloops, all turn 50 this season.
But a ski vacation isn’t just about the slopes and resorts have a growing list of events and activities to captivate visitors.
At Big White, in the Monashee Mountains near Kelowna, there’s a massive ice-climbing tower to test your mettle or a Hockey 101 package, where rink rookies can learn some moves on the ice and take in a game along with their lift tickets and hotel.
Sun Peaks, 400 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, offers cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and dogsledding.
But skiing and boarding remain the main reason people travel to B.C., said Christopher Nicolson, president of Tourism Sun Peaks.
“It’s very reliable. When they’re coming into British Columbia, the snow is reliable.”
Rempel said Whistler Blackcomb had the third snowiest November of record last month, as Europe and the U.S. (plus much of Canada) are suffering a noticeable lack of snow. Desperate vacationers are flooding the resort with requests for last-minute ski vacations over the holidays.
“Because of the natural snow that we received and our snow-making capability, we’re really offering the best product in North America at the moment,” he said.
If you go . . .
– Visit www.hellobc.com, the provincial tourism website, and download or order a copy of the 2012 B.C. Ski Guide
– Have a look at www.skicanadamag.com
– Check out www.hellobc.com for special offers and book vacations online or at 1-800-HelloBC
– See individual resort websites including whistlerblackcomb.com, bigwhite.com, sunpeaksresort.com, skisilverstar.com, skikimberley.com