Although just a wisp of snow adorned the Okanagan valley, we found ourselves in a snow-blanketed Shangri-la the nearer we drew to Big White Ski Resort. As we counted our blessings for the invitation to attend the resort’s lauded annual event Big Reds at Big White, we were bewildered that we had allowed so many years to pass since we last skied there.
Only 56 km (35 miles) from Kelowna – about an hour’s drive depending on the road conditions – it offers a paradise of powder in which to play for a wide array of winter activities. After checking into our comfortable room at the Inn at Big White, we chose to work up our appetite through the world’s fastest growing winter sport – snowshoeing.
We have our own equipment. If you don’t, no worries. Big White offers rentals as well as guided tours for varying levels of ability. There’s even a Moonlight Tour available when there’s a full moon. Purchase trail passes at the Happy Valley ticket office or in the Village Centre Mall and pick up a Nordic Trail Map to help you negotiate the extensive network of trails. We set out from the parking lot at the Black Forest Express because we wanted to explore the fresh powder on our own. I highly recommend if it’s your first time to begin via Happy Valley parking. You cross a bridge into the Adventure Centre and connect with the trail head just below the beginner’s slope.
Luckily our plan to cultivate an appetite was more than actualized in the fluffy fairyland because we were invited by Globe Café and Tapas Bar for its après ski “Canadian Tabletop S’mores & Icewine experience.” First though we gave our tummies a bit of a savoury base from the Globe’s Tapas menu choosing the Catalonia Mushrooms. It was a beautiful dish to share with button mushrooms steeped in sherry cream with fresh herbs and garlic and shaved manchego – just the ticket before the dessert extravaganza. A beautiful platter of housemade marshmallows, graham crackers, white and dark chocolate Kahlua ganache arrived complete with a tabletop fire pit. I could have been satisfied by the housemade marshmallows alone although I couldn’t resist the decadence of roasting them over the flickering blue flame and building my own S’mores.
We had time for a long walk through the village which was magically decked out for the festive season before our main event at 7 pm, Big Reds at Big White. Now an annual December tradition, this event celebrates Okanagan wines – primarily reds although you’ll also find some whites, bubbly, rosés and ice wines – in this gorgeous snow-blessed backdrop. Hence the reds because those full-bodied wines help stave off the cold and pair beautifully with hearty winter foods. Speaking of food, Big White’s array of great restaurants participate to provide tasty morsels to nosh while you sample wine from more than 30 Okanagan wineries. From artful charcuterie to sliders and mini tacos, the mountain restaurants strut their stuff to entice you to make a return engagement to their sites for the full meal. Even those tidbits of gooey goodness S’mores were represented in miniature form in a shot glass with whiskey.
It has grown so popular it is held over two nights. While you can opt to attend either night, it’s worthwhile to snatch up the two-night ticket option. Why? Because while you are promised access to over 30 wineries, some of those attend one night only. Over the two nights, it was actually over 45 wineries that I had the opportunity to check out. And by the way, the wineries each offer a number of their wines to sample and the restaurants change up their appetizers each night so if you really want to savour the experience, you’ll want to attend both.
For the wineries, too, this location provides a bit of a break after the harvest. You’ll interact with owners and winemakers and be able to learn more about the specifics of their wine. You’ll probably bump into a few of them with their families on the ski slopes, skating rink, nordic trails and other Big White outdoor adventures, too. For them, it’s not only an opportunity to share some of their new releases and showcase tried-and-true varieties, it’s a break from the norm.
After our day one festivities, we decided after a hearty breakfast to take to the slopes ourselves. At the Inn, The Blarney Stone Irish Tavern had celebrated its grand opening Friday night and its restaurant setting, we were treated to its sumptuous breakfast buffet. It is a great place to try Irish-influenced fare throughout the day whether breakfast, lunch or dinner or to tip back a pint or two later in the pub. Fortified, it was time to step into our skis and search for the other kind of champagne for which Big White is known – powder. The resort had been bestowed with exceptional early season conditions and that Saturday another whole area, Gem Lake, was opened for the first time.
For lunch, there’s so many options with diverse selections and price points. The Woods in the village was new this year so we headed there when our legs began to throb to see how the former residence had been transformed. At its outside grill and patio area, there was an amazing burger deal, however, we wanted to check out the inside decor. It was warm and welcoming with rich wood grains, antique lighting and cheerful staff. We split a healthy flatbread with a citrus-mascarpone spread, smoked salmon, capers, shallots and arugula and would recommend it highly.
Back to the slopes for a few more turns before a dip in the hot tub and shower before dinner at Kettle Valley Steakhouse. Here in the attractive dining room which would fit in at the poshest of resorts, exceptional Okanagan cuisine is presented using the best of Canadian beef, seafood, local game and more. Charcuterie is taken to new highs with housemade pates, smoked and cured meats, local cheeses, pickles and artisan breads. Oh, yes, and the cocktails are pretty amazing as well. My Caesar, for example, was garnished with pork belly, local cheese and an asparagus spear. It’s pretty special to ride a gondola from the village and back for your dinner taking in the sights of the resort and breathing in that crisp mountain air.
We needed another stroll before hitting Big Reds at Big White in its second evening so we explored The Market with its full selection of groceries and deli items if you prefer to eat back at your room rather than its Bistro. There’s also a liquor store if you need to supplement your supplies. We made note of the bakery, pizza place and restaurant options for another day. It was another great night of nibbling and wine tasting as we tried to catch wineries we had missed the night before and those that had arrived Saturday. While the venue was packed, we just picked a path and found flavour in every corner. Be sure to take advantage of the coat check, it makes maneuvering much more mellow. Dress here is casual so why sweat carrying winter garb?
We learned our friend Allison Markin, principal of All She Wrote, had presented a challenge on social media to Santé Bar & Grill to stretch beyond its already remarkable eggs Benedict selection. The dare was for Executive Chef Vincent Denis to create her a grilled cheese eggs benny. This, we had to see! Christina Ferreira, principal of Impact Events, who along with Rob Crichton of Big White had arranged our visit to Big Reds, couldn’t resist seeing how it played out either so off we headed for breakfast. Christina had a traditional breakfast and Mark and I went the half-order eggs Benedict route, he selected the Blackstone with tomato and bacon while I surrendered to the Napa Valley with prawns, avocado and pico de gallo. All of these breakfasts were beautifully presented. Insert drum roll. Allison’s grilled cheese eggs benny was a mountain-sized masterpiece. The grilled cheese sandwich serving as base rather than the traditional English muffins was a marvel in its own right – a medley of five cheeses. Topped with ham and those perfectly prepared eggs, luscious Hollandaise sauce served with roasted Yukon Gold hash browns and a measure of fresh fruit as all of ours were, it was an Everest of a breakfast. Bravo, Ms. Markin for scaling it, Chef for creating it and those of us who tagged along for a taste!
We waddled back to our vehicle which was cosily tucked into the underground heated parking at the Inn. It was time to head home, dig out our 2014 calendar and save the Big Reds at Big White date for next December. First though we vowed to get back to Big White for more snowy activities and gastronomic explorations this winter.
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