Imagine if the Hunter or Yarra Valleys, the Barossa or Margaret River, for that matter, also afforded you in winter one of the best snow experiences on offer in the world. Now you’re getting the idea of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and the adjacent Big White Ski Resort.
But let me back up to late January this year when I flew courtesy of Air Canada (for the same price as a ticket to Vancouver) to Kelowna, Okanagan Valley’s largest city, for a week of skiing in the middle of the Australian summer.
We left Sydney at 7pm on a Sunday evening, ate, watched a couple of movies, slept and arrived on the direct flight to Vancouver at 2pm the same day (courtesy of the change of time zone).
Swarovski crystals are a feature
By 7pm that night we were gathered around an open fire enjoying hors d’oeuvres and some of the Okanagan’s finest white and red varietals at the C$100 million plus Sparkling Hill Resort, just outside Kelowna, where every room opens to stunning and expansive views of either Lake Okanagan and/or the Monashee Mountains.
The resort was carved into a granite cliff by Gernot Langes Swarovski, of the Austrian Crystal family, and, although independent of Swarovski Crystal, its product is emblematically enshrined throughout.
General Manager and CEO Hans- Peter Mayr explained the concept for the resort was to add European health and wellness practices to the traditional pampering offered as part of the North American spa experience.
And, to that end, we were invited the next morning to take an ice sauna – at -110 Degrees Celsius. We were joined at Sparkling Hill by Michael J Ballingall, the Senior Vice President of Marketing for Big White Ski Resort, and something of a legend for his big personality and collegiate promotion of all things Okanagan, including the ice sauna.
I can’t recall exactly how many times “Michael J”, as he is fondly known, said he had personally taken people into the ice sauna but it was more than a few and it is not a task for the faint hearted.
Here’s the drill: strip to speedos/bikinis; apply a surgical-style face mask to cover your nose and a Dodge-Ball style headband to protect the tips of your ears from frostbite; follow suit with gloves and socks to protect your fingers and toes. Then, aided by trained staff, follow them and Michael J into a first chamber (minus five degrees), then into a second chamber (-50 degrees) and now quickly into a third chamber (-110 degrees). Walk clockwise for 90 seconds (enjoying Michael J’s loud and somehow comforting narrative about the cold), reverse direction for another 90 seconds and then exit, fast.
What’s the effect? Mild euphoria (or is it relief? It is very, very cold in there) and, apparently, the benefit of an ice compression which outside would take hours to sooth inflamed muscles and enhance general well being. Wow! That’s a war story to tell.
The -110 degrees celcius ice sauna
Although our visit was in winter, we dined the following evening with AJ Eathorne, a former leading women’s world golf professional and academy instructor at the neighbouring Predator Ridge Resort. We came to appreciate Okanagan’s summer season is as much about golf and the Valley’s array of world-class courses (and connected properties to let or buy) as winter is about snow.
Next stop was big white, our ultimate destination and a ski resort that is working as hard as any in the world to provide a snow experience to suit any guest’s interests. What do I mean by that? Well, as with Australia, Canada has a large recent migrant population from Asia and India where snow has not been any part of their cultural or sporting heritage.
So there’s a C$10 (about A$10) pass on Friday afternoons. The management is also alert to fine dining and other, more leisurely requirements of more mellow (perhaps older) visitors. And, for the core, die-hard skiers and snowboarders, aside from the full array of terrain, the resort is experimenting with technical innovation, enabling via a telecommunications partnership Wi-Fi on select slopes allowing instant, real time relay and/or YouTube posting of your Go Pro action footage.
As well as Michael J, we enjoyed the company of Big White’s Sales Manager Rob Crichton and, between the two, were introduced to the Gunbarrel Grill – check out Snowshoe Sam’s “shot- gun” coffee; breakfast at Sante Bar and Grille; live music and lunch at the Moose Lounge; Après High Tea and dinner at the Kettle Valley Steak House and dinner at The Bullwheel.
Big White’s accommodation is ski-in, ski-out (we stayed in Stonebridge Lodge) and it is one of the few places on earth that appears to be benefiting from climate change through the advent of more, not less snow, according to the resort. The snow and ski options were fantastic as was the patience of volunteer guides and professional instructors.
On our final evening we were hosted by an émigré Australian, John Mooney, at his 6 Degrees Bistro. The Bistro specialised in Italian and Mediterranean fine cuisine and Okanagan’s finest wines and John introduced us to the best of the best. ‘Wine Spectator’ recently wrote of the Okanagan: “Though white grape varieties led the industry early on, red grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and lately Syrah have caught up.”
Somewhere beyond a sensible tasting and a sensible time, Michael J announced he would be on air on local radio broadcasting from the resort’s Globe Café and Tapas Bar in the morning and invited us to breakfast to watch the broadcast.
It proved an opportunity for one of our party of Australians to step up to the mike and say “G’day” to the local Canadian audience, talk up Aussie resilience courtesy of having survived the ice sauna and, in all seriousness, reflect on what a great opportunity Big White and Okanagan more generally offer Australians to keep in touch with their skis and enjoy a comfortable and rewarding Canadian cultural experience with great food and wine, and all within very easy reach.
Sparkling Hill Resort