Wednesday , 26 November 2014

Kidless in Kelowna

Big White 2014

Ontario couple discover there’s more to Big White Resort than kids and family activities

By Chris Robinson

Can a kidless couple find the right mix of recreation, relaxation and a little romance at Canada’s favourite family ski resort?That was the question we were asking ourselves when we set out on our annual spring ski trip to Big White Ski Resort, near Kelowna. If you’re short on time or just want to see the story in pictures, CLICK HERE.

Otherwise, I recommend reading on, especially if you’re doing research to find a great ski destination for you and your significant other …

My wife, Lisa, and I have been to many ski resorts over the years but this time we decided to combine a scheduled business meeting in the West with a four-day ski holiday afterwards.

Big White has deservedly earned the reputation as a family ski area – for good reason – they cater to families. From the moment we arrived it was apparent that the majority of the resort population was families and the number of pre-teen kids was staggering! The place clearly lends itself to a family dynamic that offers everyone the opportunity to enjoy the experience both as a group and individually.

The layout of the resort’s central village area provides a focal point for many aspects of the vacation and the Big White Kid’s Centre occupies centre stage in the village. Morning traffic is heavy around 8:30am when kids are being dropped off for programs. Half and full-day programs are available and they sell out quickly. The formula is both simple and brilliant. The offer of fun and adventure, complete with meals, joining friends of similar age and skiing ability in the care and guidance of one of Big White’s many expert instructors is liberating for kids and parents.

Big White Village

The village is also the hub for resort concierge services, lift tickets, snow school, rentals, food –including a bakery and numerous restaurants– shopping (everything from gear and gifts to the Market & Liquor Store), strolling and generally hanging out. The spacious Big White day lodge is ideally suited for this with high-top tables to gather around where the people watching over a morning coffee from Beanos is good sport in itself.

We arrived on a Wednesday. Thursday was to be a day-long meeting for me and a day of R & R for Lisa. Wednesday’s dinner kicked things off with my meeting group gathering for cocktails at the Kettle Valley Steakhouse, a five-minute gondola ride from the village to the Happy Valley base area. Michael J. Ballingal, Big White’s Senior VP, was our host for dinner. We gathered around the large harvest table in the centre of the restaurant and were treated to a variety of fine Okanagan wines accompanied by charcuterie plates and stacked seafood platters before diving into our mains. I chose a 6oz filet mignon with a side sautéed wild mushrooms. After a delicious steak the group was presented with plates of baked alaska, flourless chocolate torte and dulche de leche apple bomb for dessert. Needless to say, we would head to bed on our first evening fully sufficed.

Thursday morning our business group decided to take advantage of first tracks with the meeting scheduled for 10am.  It had snowed all night and 20 cm’s of fresh powder blanketed the resort. Powder skiing is a prime reason to come to B.C. and Big White is reliable for both snow quantity and quality. The resort boasts champagne powder and we were lucky enough to be treated. The Ridge Rocket quad offers nearly 1500 feet of vertical with access to multiple trails and gladed areas. A squadron of eight of us flew through the powder with hoots and hollers echoing across the slopes. Liam from the Big White Ski Patrol was our guide as we had the mountain to ourselves for two runs before the lifts opened to the public. The week had barely begun and I was ready to concede that it might not get any better! We would log five untracked powder runs before duty called.

Skiing the Powder in Big White

At this point I should speak about our accommodation. When I first called Michael J. to inquire about accommodation there was no hesitation in his reply. For a discerning couple he recommended Stonebridge. Upon our arrival the reasons became clear. Stonebridge is slopeside, ski-in, ski-out. The building has an attractive façade, appointed in wood and stone and is accessed from the main road across a stone bridge spanning the ski trail that connects the village to the Bullet quad chair, just 50 meters away.

The living room was spacious, featuring leather and wood furnishings and mountain chalet decor. The open concept kitchen, complete with granite countertops and stainless appliances, flanked the main room. Two full baths –one with a steam unit – and a full-sized hot tub on the balcony overlooked the valley below. It was our home for only five days but our hot tub conversation, while sipping a beer and taking in the views, led Lisa and I to consider the merits of a full time resort lifestyle and felt that Stonebridge could easily fit the bill.

With some epic turns and a successful meeting making up day one, we emerged from the hot tub to join the group for dinner at the Gunbarrel Grill. Wild salmon was my choice and it came perfectly grilled with a medium centre.  The evening was capped by a round of Gunbarrel coffees. The drink is great but the production is even better.  Deserving applause erupts as the final ingredient, Grand Marnier, bursts into flames when poured down the heated barrel of a shotgun into a whipped cream topped goblet of coffee and other assorted booze.

Gun Barrel at Big White

The meeting group had dispersed so Lisa and I set out on our own Friday morning in search of a good latte. Our friend Rob Butler had recently visited Big White and posted on Facebook that Beanos was world-class in the category of espresso drinks. We were keen to put Rob’s review to the test and were not disappointed.

Neither were we disappointed by the bluebird skies that defied the mixed weather forecast for the day. The fresh snow from Thursday remained soft on the surface. In the many glades and bowls there were still fresh tracks to be found. It’s hard to understand just how big Big White is until you make the trek from the Black Forest chair at one end of the resort to the Gem Lake Express at the other.  At a total 7,355 acres the mountain is vast, with 5,100 acres being skiable. There are 14 lifts  with an uphill capacity of 28,000 skiers per hour.  Lift lines are minimal and on a clear day you can follow the sun as it passes across the mountain, catching rays on your face all day long. Once the sun goes down you can always explore the 38 acres of night skiing or better yet, send the kids out for a little more adventure while you enjoy dinner for two or an evening dip in the hot tub.

The Woods beer garden is also located at the centre of the village. On Friday we enjoyed it as a BBQ lunch stop and again later in the day, sitting by the fire pit for some après ski and more people watching. Everyone seemed relaxed. Even a Golden Doodle on a leash appeared content to just take in the scene and the sun before the shadows started to cool things down at around 5pm.

PHOTO HERE – après ski

Apres Ski at Big White

Our Friday dinner reservation was at 6 Degrees Bistro. Upon arrival we were greeted by John Mooney, restaurant owner, with a long history at Big White and a prolific entrepreneur on the mountain as the owner of four businesses – Beanos, The Bullwheel, the Big White Bakery and 6 Degrees. Tucked into a slopeside corner of Stonebridge building two, 6 Degrees is an intimate place with mountain chic décor, wood accents and soft lighting that will take the edge off city hardened ‘A’ type urbanites. The wine list features exclusively Okanagan selections that John enthusiastically promotes. His knowledge of local wine is extensive and we gave him free reign to pair with our food selections masterfully prepared by Chef Jeremy Keogh. The ‘Foxtrot’ Pinot Noir was my favourite and was perfect with our shared appetizers of Beef Carpaccio and Sachetti Fois Gras pasta. The ‘Le Vieux Pin’ Syrah was also great with my Black Angus Tenderloin in a truffle-mushroom butter sauce. The service was excellent – with John and his partner Ana Bryne smoothly moving amongst the tables ensuring that everyone was satisfied and enjoying the 6 Degrees experience. We certainly did.

CIMG1790

Saturday was a busy day at the resort but never too much so that things felt crowded.  It was also a special day for Big White dedicated to celebrating local hero and Olympic Ski Cross Silver Medalist, Kelsey Serwa. Kelsey hosted a ski cross clinic for young skiers throughout the day which was followed up with an autograph session in the main lodge. Nearly 1,000 beaming kids lined up to get a signed poster and a photo with the Olympic star.

Light snow fell throughout the day and the soft surface made for silky turns with each run where we lapped all morning on the Snow Ghost Express 6-passenger chair. Our lunch break included a leisurely run to the Happy Valley Lodge and the Moose Lounge where the tasty Fish Tacos had been recommended. After lunch we connected with Big White Director of Skiing, Josh Foster (Ski tips presenter on Ski Television).  Josh is poetry in motion on skis and I studied hard as I followed for a few runs. Later Lisa and I ventured to the Powder and Falcon chairs where the old school triple and double fixed grips offered a relaxing ride between runs where we were starting to feel our eastern legs after three days on the mountain.

On every road trip Lisa and I try to leave with a defining souvenir. Making our way back to Stonebridge we stopped to take in an art exhibition in the White Crystal Inn. A number of local artists were exhibiting, including a live demonstration by featured Kelowna artist Alex Fong.  A small painting of the East Peak of Big White by Kato Rempel caught our eye and we made the purchase. The light reflecting on the rolling mountain ridge with the Monashees in the background would be the perfect memento of our trip.

Saturday evening’s Spring Wine Gala offered a deeper exploration of Okanagan wines along with a great band in celebration of Kelsey Serwa’s success. The evening included some good funds raised for the local race club.

For a late dinner after the wine tasting we chose The Woods. Local guitar player Simon Doe was perfect for the relaxed atmosphere and casual fare. The pan seared Tuna Tataki and Scallop starters were great for sharing and quite memorable.

Sunday presented a highlight of the week for me when we hooked up with Kelsey Serwa and national ski cross team member, Ian Deans, for a bunch of runs.  Lisa was able to lap on the main runs while Kelsey and Ian took me through the trees and into off piste areas for some good adrenaline turns. My skiing hasn’t felt energized to that level for some time. Needless to say, chasing an World Cup ski racer through the trees in the powder glades is not something one does every day – pretty cool!

Kelsey Serwa and Ian Deans Taking Air

One more trip to the Kettle Valley Steakhouse on Sunday evening where I had to repeat the Filet Mignon from the first night. Lisa chose the Duet of Duck. The Bordeaux blend ‘Laughing Stock Portfolio’ was an excellent recommendation from our server and the Flourless Chocolate Torte provided a grand finale.

The last day on the mountain we covered the resort once again from the Black Forest to Gem Lake. The day was highlighted by three runs on the Cliff where Lisa pushed through her comfort zone and tackled the steep bowl with conviction. It was a great way to wrap up our skiing at Big White and left us both wishing for more.

After packing up for an early morning shuttle to YLW for our flight home, we decided to check out The Blarney Stone Irish Pub. A good burger and a pint of Guinness filled the gap as we struggled through the trivia competition that happens every Monday evening. We were among 14 teams vying for the weekly trophy and clearly up against some Big White regulars who pooled their brain power to ace the questions in the subject matter of ‘Heroes and Villains’.  Not our strongest suit but Team Chris & Lisa finished in eighth and had some good laughs in the process.

The trip was coming to an end so what about the original question?  Can a kidless couple find the right mix of recreation, relaxation and a little romance at Canada’s favourite family ski resort? …

You bet!  And we would do it all again.

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