When the mercury dips below freezing, BC locals head for high altitude. The Okanagan may glitter with sunny beaches and warm lakes in summer, but by winter the locals know to climb up above the valley floor and go to where blue sky days take on a different meaning: deep powder, snow-capped mountains for miles, and après any time of day.
Enter Big White Ski Resort. Located 56 kilometers (35 miles) east/southeast of Kelowna off Highway 33, Big White towers above the south Okanagan Valley at an impressive 2,319 meters (7,606 feet). It’s often the first peak in autumn and the last place in spring where you’ll see snow, with runs open in early December and closed mid-April. The mountain sees an average snowfall of 750 cm (24.5 ft), with temperatures from -1.5 to -10.5 Celsius. The higher you go, the colder it gets; there can often be several degrees difference between the village and the top of one of the 118 designated trails/runs.
At the heart of Big White is the Village Centre, where visitors and locals congregate for the annual village light-up (December), après drinks and eats, or to pick up the latest gear and equipment. Rentals and lessons are popular for outdoor enthusiasts of all levels. In exploring the resort’s vast 1,119 patrolled hectares (2,765 acres), visitors will find gentle slopes for beginners and steep drops for pros alike.
While resort mountains might have been designed for skiers and snowboarders, lately they’re realizing there’s more to playing outside. In these majestic mountains, the allure of snowshoeing, skating, tubing, and sledding is almost as strong – providing as much exhausting and challenging entertainment.
Outside of the Happy Valley Adventure Park, you can skate on an Olympic-sized outdoor rink set amid a picturesque snowy forest. Open daily from 11:00 am-9:00 pm (until 10:00 pm during the Christmas and Spring Break periods), this massive rink is free to use. Rentals are available, as is hockey gear and skate sharpening. There’s something magically Canadian about catching a pick-up game of shinny, followed by a well-earned cup of steaming hot chocolate beside the campfire. Or, try tubing on one of 5 groomed lanes. Daily passes go for $20, with kids under 5 free.
While at Big White, I was fortunate to take in a snowmobile tour. Starting at $129 per person for an hour, snowmobiling is provided by Outback Snowmobile Tours. Steve and Tommy led my group on a one-hour tour, easing some of us into our first ride (or first in a while) and set a quicker pace for a few of the more experienced folks. After 20+ years away from sledding, I started out easy and quickly caught up.
From snowshoeing to dogsledding, there’s more to the mountain than skiing and boarding – although those are fun, too. Check out an outdoor adventure of a different kind.
After a day in that fresh alpine air, you’ll have worked up quite an appetite. In the last several years, Big White has upped its culinary game to rival that found in any urban centre – albeit on a smaller scale, as befits the mountain community. There’s a variety of family friendly and white linen spots to choose from, with a few late night haunts to keep you on the dance floor longer than you thought your weary legs could go.
Toasty Treehouse: for outdoor dining on traditional flammlachs
New to Big White is the Toasty Treehouse, serving up easy fare on the mountain’s winter equivalent of patio dining. The owners are familiar faces in these parts, having their hands in a few of the resort’s eateries (and you’ll thank them for it). Try their take on the traditional Finnish flammlachs: planked herb-encrusted salmon smoked over the same wood used in Finland. Mighty delicious.
Kettle Valley Steakhouse: for beautiful cocktails and elegant eats
A leisurely gondola ride away from the Village Centre is the Kettle Valley Steakhouse, with its cozy high alpine vibe and elegant tables. Under the guidance of food and beverage guru Trevor Hanna (now VP of Hospitality for the resort), Kettle Valley has become synonymous with fine dining at altitude. A team of professionals circulate the room with ease, making guests feel welcome and pampered. The menu is locally inspired and globally influenced, with a top notch wine and cocktails list focusing on BC with a nod abroad. Be prepared to spend time here, as you’ll want to try everything.
Local’s tip: Ask for suggestions – in your glass, and on your plate.
6 Degrees Bistro: for relaxed decadence and brilliant Okanagan wines
In each town, there seems to be one location that pulls you with an inexplicable gravitational force. On this mountain it’s John and Anna’s 6 Degrees Bistro, where cool modern meets warm sophistication with a touch of cozy. Executive chef Jeremy Keogh and his team offer a local menu inspired by old French techniques delivered with a fresh spin, taking the comfortable to new heights. Their all-Okanagan wine list pays homage to the bounty of the valley below and the people who work hard to vinify their vision of excellence.
Local’s tip: Order the special, whatever it is, and allow for wine pairings.
Globe Café & Tapas Bar: for the little-bit-of-everything
When you just can’t decide on dinner, get yourself to the Globe Café. The tapas menu makes for easy dining with even the most undecided group (we’ve all been part of one), and local flavour is more than what’s on your plate. Here you’ll find mountain residents sipping an after-work pint or cocktail. While enjoying a table-side smores feast with homemade marshmallows, our group was treated to a poetry performance by one of the never-left-the-mountain originals who’s lived here for 15 years (and still going strong).
Santé’s Bar & Grill: for the best poutine west of Quebec (and darn good eggs Benny)
As a transplanted easterner I’m particular about my poutine, so I pay close attention when I hear of a restaurant featuring it in eight or more ways. Owner and chef Vincent does well by this Canadian standard, keeping in mind that fresh is best when fiddling with something so dear to our hearts. Breakfast (with hollandaise), lunch, or dinner, there’s a poutine for that. Going beyond the curds, the menu is eclectic and very much a reflection of Canada’s diversity in foodstuffs.
Local’s tip: Not Yo Momma’s Mac & Cheese, because lobster.
Snowshoe Sam’s: for your quintessential Canadian pub night
After a full day on the slopes, the sled, or the rink, don your most comfortable jeans and head to Snowshoe Sam’s for a night of live music. With vintage winter gear hanging on the walls, this joint is Classic Canadian Pub – including local pints and musical talent to keep your tired legs moving. My visit coincided with a brilliant set by Kelowna band Tiger Moon, who had the entire bar on its feet with their rendition of Man of Constant Sorrow. We have no photographic evidence of this night, and suggest the same for others.
Local’s tip: watch your sipping while at high altitude.
Sessions Taphouse and Grill: for a morning-after-the-après breakfast
Blame it on the mountain air, your first time on skis this season, or that last pint at Snowshoe Sam’s. Up here, your fuzzy head clears more quickly after a hearty breakfast at Sessions. Eggs done any way you’d like, a few slices of avocado to fortify you for a day in fresh powder, and the much needed large cup o’ java – drip, latte, flat white, or however else you take your caffeine. Located at the end of the Village, the patio offers a magnificent view of a steep run and that seemingly endless mountain forest.
Did we miss one of your favourite things to do at Big White? Let us know in the comments below!
Skiing and snowboarding in Kelowna, British Columbia
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