Canada: Wet Your Whistle at Big White

Big-White.jpgBy Steven Bochenek

There’s nothing wrong with skiing for several days straight. But neither is anything wrong with taking a breather and sampling magnificent wines amidst stunning lakeside vistas. These days everyone’s talking about British Columbia’s Mount Olympus, but I recommend Big White. It’s BC’s second-most popular ski destination and towers over Canada’s second-most popular wine region.

Enjoy some challenges at Big White (this is BC) but plenty of easy runs

Elite skiers will always prefer the jagged peaks of Whistler-Blackcomb whose verticality outdrops Big White’s vast hump 1600 metres to 777. But there’s no shame in being outclassed by the best. And Big White still offers some genuinely terrifying double-black diamonds like the whimsically named Parachute Bowl and moronically obviously named Cliff.
For the rest of us, there are lots of long easy runs with plenty of elbowroom. Of the 118 trails, 54% are intermediate and 18% beginner – all amidst views that God should win awards for.

Big White’s also cheaper (a day’s lift ticket is $71 versus Blackcomb-Whistler’s $89). It’s easier to get to from afar, being just 56km from Kelowna’s international airport. There’s a friendly atmosphere which may have to do with the ubiquitous smiley Australians on staff. It hasn’t been assimilated by that creepy Hallmark perfection pervasive throughout the Intrawest cult. Finally, national pride aside, let’s not forget whose gondola fell over last year.

Besides, there’s more to good a vacation than speed.

Despite having run 19 marathons, my legs weary after two straight days on anybody’s slopes. Big White looks down upon the nearby Okanagan Valley, which contains the delicate eco-system of Canada’s only desert, the Sonora – ideal for vineyards.

Enjoy big
tkwinemission.jpg whites and challenging reds that go down fast and easy – yes, in BC!

Consider sandwiching a day off between skiing and drive from the mountain to tour Okanagan towns and wineries. Actually, unless you have several days, skip the towns. BC has poured its greatest architectural efforts into its wineries. Here are our favourites.

The food and wine are magnificent at Spirit Ridge in Osoyoos. I was chuffed to learn afterwards that my friend and trusted wine expert, St�phane Beauroy, recommends its partner winery the Nk’Mip Cellars. They cleverly pair meals with Nk’Mip’s delicious products like the unspeakably good Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir.

The Burrowing Owl winery is just as impressive. Their lunch menu is intricate but I didn’t get past its first offering of duck confit accompanied by with their rich Cabernet Franc.

Eldorado.jpg We completed our day in Kelowna. Nestled on Okanagan Lake, it offers great eating options showing off the local wines in stunning surroundings. Visit the architecturally triumphant Mission Hill Winery but dine at the Eldorado Hotel. It outshone our other gustatory experiences, again featuring local vintages, and boasts a colourful history. A hunting lodge built in the 1920s by an eccentric Austrian aristocrat, it was floated by barge miles down the lake in 1999 where it was promptly torched by arsonists. A year later, the hardheaded owner had rebuilt it, twinning the original almost inch for inch.

For a full day of unrepeated views, drive a huge oval: south on 33 towards Osoyoos on the Washington border, then north through Oliver and Peachland to Kelowna (such inconsistent names!) where you meet up with the 33 again. If you don’t have a car, there’s a regular shuttle to the Kelowna airport – where cheap taxis into town abound.

Watch the weather for your wine days!

Be leery of Big White’s sunny blue photos on their website and brochures. Arid as it is down in the valley desert, Big White can disappear into a cloud for days on end. Locals cutely call these episodes Big Whiteout.
At best, this creates flat light, which dulls your depth perception.

Translation? You don’t notice bumps and can sustain injury easier. (Moguls hurt.) At worst, it’s outright dangerous. Visibility suddenly drops; we experienced it. Alighting from a lift into the dense fog, my friend and I were instantly lost. Jon spent his teen winters as a ski instructor but 30 years later still maintains his chops. When he had concern in his voice, I got nervous.
We plummeted off a cliff! Fortunately it was only a 6-foot drop into powder but we were sufficiently spooked to glide gingerly, senses heightened, until the cloud dissipated, minutes downhill.

If you have the flexibility in your schedule (and your hips) look at your smart phone towards the end of each ski day to check the next one’s weather. If Big Whiteout’s coming, take a wine tour. Just because there’s cloud up top, it doesn’t mean you won’t have an azure day lakeside in Kelowna or Osoyoos.

Photos courtesy of Tourism Kelowna