By: Georgette Diamandis
Ever heard of the Kootenays? Well, neither had I until my husband Cam and I went there this February to ski and experience South Eastern British Columbia’s rustic hospitality. is the region north of Montana over the Canadian border, which has five mountain ranges — including the Canadian Rockies and Purcell and four national parks. This area is famous for champagne powder and eight world-class ski resorts known as the Powder Highway, where waiting in lift lines is unheard of. It’s also famous for an abundance of wildlife, dubbed the Serengeti of the north, most known for elk. The Columbia River Valley is spectacular and also home to 27 championship golf courses (you can read more in Cam’s upcoming article). The web links for the eight Alpine ski resorts on the Powder Highway (and other adventure operators) can be found on . Check out their video!
FLY DELTA TO CRANBROOK
Right now you can fly to the brand new beautiful Cranbrook Airport from JFK via Salt Lake City on for $398 round trip. The two flights almost halted my scared-to-fly husband, but the promise of powder won out. The plane from Salt Lake was a CRJ, which held about 50 people and the flying time was less than two hours. Customs was a breeze and the Canadians couldn’t have been friendlier. One of the runway staff was happy to take our picture. We were met by the friendliest of hosts -Laurie Reed from Kootenays Tourism www.kootenays.com We were picked up in a four wheel drive Jeep and went right to for lunch.
ST. EUGENE GOLF RESORT
This picturesque, early 20th century building is owned by an Aboriginal band and was once a boarding school for Native children. Now, it’s an inn, restaurant and resort. We were given a brief orientation and reassured that we didn’t need a GPS to get where we were going – skiing!
The Alberta beef burgers were honestly the best burgers Cam and I had ever had. And boy did they hit the spot after eating peanuts and drinking sodas for the previous eight hours! (Hint: Don’t rely on food-for-purchase on the plane, so bring your own!) We hit the road with our easy-to-read map for those with ADD or directionally challenged (only because there is really only one way to go!) and headed through the cute town of Kimberley where we picked up our rental equipment. We then drove north on Rte. 95 to . The resort was about an hour away from Kimberley, which is only 15 minutes from the airport, located in the town of Fairmont Hot Springs and no relation to the hotel chain.
FAIRMONT HOT SPRINGS RESORT
My first impression of the resort was that it reminded me of the ‘60s contemporary house in which I’d grown up, tall cathedral ceilings in the lodge with triangular windows. Our room was #156, a corner unit (love those!), with a huge Jacuzzi in the bedroom divided by a decorative fireplace into the living/kitchenette area. The best part about the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort is the hot springs pools. Every morning and evening, Cam and I would don our h resort bathrobes and be the first and last ones in the large round pool with built-in underwater benches. The water comes from natural hot springs deep in the earth and is drained every night, so they are able to get away without using much chlorine. The sight of the Rocky Mountains silhouetted against a cobalt blue sky early in the morning, while steam rose from the outdoor pool was quite a sight. There are also indoor hot and cold plunge pools and a steam room and sauna. We had a couples spa treatment, which meant that Cam soaked in a hot mud tub while I had a body massage, and then vice-versa. We ate dinner in the hotel’s main dining room, the Mountain Flower Restaurant. I had delicious halibut and Cam had chicken quesadillas. He had to try the Rolo ice cream because it was highly recommended by a two-year-old! Then it was off to bed after a long travel day.
SMOKING WATERS AND BIG HILLS
The next morning we had eggs Benedict in our room and then went on a tour of the quaint Fairmont Ski Hill (they call them hills up there but they’re really big mountains) and wished we were skiing there. It seemed quite steep but all the runs lead to the lodge, which is heaven for families. Most runs are green or blue. The views from the lodge across the valley of the Purcell Mountains are amazing. Cam and I are famous for “smoking out” the local coffee bars so we found the Smoking Waters Café at the bottom of the hill. The Canadian coffee seemed even stronger than Starbucks and the double latte really jazzed me up. This resort is very laid back now, but the owners have big plans to upgrade the resort within the next ten years. Currently, there’s a public hot springs pool and an extensive RV park as well for summer.
PANORAMA SKI RESORT
We drove an hour north to Panorama Ski Resort, another heavenly spot and were surprised yet thrilled at the lack of crowds in the lift lines, even during school break week. We were told the conditions were icy because the area was suffering from a lack of snow. I was disappointed in the lack of powder, but realized the conditions were better than most ski days back east and the awesome views are indeed panoramic. Fortuitously, we rode the fast quad with a local resident, Phil Marshall, owner of a bed and breakfast — , famous in the area for gourmet dinners and cozy accommodations right on the mountain, starting at $99 per night. He showed us much of the mountain and recommended Elk Hound Lodge for lunch.
ELK HOUND LODGE
We probably would have overlooked this rustic gem tucked away halfway down blue-rated “Rollercoaster” ski slope. It ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. It reminded me of a lunch we had in Zermatt, Switzerland. The prix fixe lunch was $16 for either a chicken and butternut squash potpie or an Alberta beef burger and dessert, which was homemade caramel gelato with maple syrup. The food and company were delightful; the lodge is small so often you share a table. The outhouse is in the back and a trek up a hill, so the owner, Don Bilodeau, has 40-year-old leather ski poles (just like my mother’s) to lend.
WHAT PEOPLE WHO LOVE TO SKI LIVE TO DO
Cam and I enjoyed a blue bird sky ski day and quit at 4pm to meet the proprietors of to get the scoop. I had the preconceived notion that when you heli-skied, you jumped out of the helicopter and that it’s only for expert skiers. I learned that you don’t jump out of the copter, you walk, and that a guide is assigned to ski with the group. The copter picks up expert and intermediate skiers several times to ski on open terrain and hopefully lots of untouched powder. FYI:For nervous nellies like my husband, they have a perfect track record! (No pun intended!)
DID SOMEONE SAY HOT POOL?
We drove back to the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort to enjoy more time in the outdoor soaking pool. We had dinner that night in the Bear Paw Lounge and enjoyed nachos and beer.
BACK TOWARD CIVILIZATION
We checked out the next morning and stopped again at the Smoking Waters Café for another latte and scone. The girls all had interesting accents, one, a French Canadian from Montreal and another from Eastern Europe. We drove the hour south back to Kimberley for our last night in the Kootenays. Along the way, I saw a small heard of elk. It was so cool to see these huge majestic creatures. We arrived at the brand new beautiful , right on the mountain at . Our three-bedroom unit was on the second floor with a hot tub on the deck overlooking the slopes. The washer and dryer were nice to have at the end of an adventurous trip, especially since we rented our ski equipment so we could use carry-on bags and had limited clothing. We like to avoid the bag charges and like the extra hour to sleep since you can arrive at the airport only two hours earlier for an international flight instead of three. I also use plastic travel bags that suction out all the air from your clothes, allowing me to stuff twice as much inside!
KIMBERLEY ALPINE RESORT
We unpacked, put our skis on and slid down the mountain to meet our friendly mountain guides, Lorna and Suzanne. The mountain resort offers this complimentary service twice a day. It was so nice to meet some locals and have them guide us down the unfamiliar mountain while sharing stories about the area. Suzanne and Cam skied through the woods together a few times and met us down the trail. We broke for lunch at noon to meet Bob Dyrda from at the base of the mountain at Stemwinder Bar and Grill. After eating, we went back for a short afternoon of skiing because we were meeting Craig from Adrenaline Dog Tours at 3pm. We hated to leave Kimberley Alpine Resort, especially on a blue bird day, and vowed to be back soon. The skiing and view of the Rockies are unforgettable.
The ride to Adrenaline Dog Tours was about half an hour and soon we were deep in the woods. We met all 24 of his pack and helped Craig bring the barking dogs, one at a time, to the sleds. Of course not all get to go, only three or four per sled, and they’re all barking, “Pick me!” in unison. The energy is exhilarating. He introduced us to his puppies, and one, Butterball, almost came home with us! I had never been in a dog sled before and we were given a brief orientation. Hint: Wear warm boots with good treads. The sled is for one person to sit in and there is nothing to hold on to. You hope the musher, first it was Cam, doesn’t roll the sled over. Craig was in the front on his sled and all Cam had to do was follow and work the steel jaw brake, by pushing it into the snow. He had sneakers on, so his feet were cold! Cam and I took turns mushing around a three-mile trail in the woods and we both laughed a lot. The price is $150 per person and can be booked through .
DINNER IN A 350-YEAR-OLD BARN
We had two options for dinner that night: Dinner in an , which included snowshoeing and tobogganing or the 350-year-old Bavarian barn. Since we had done a lot of activities that day, we opted for The Old Bauernhaus Restaurant right in downtown Kimberley (Tel: 250-427-5133). We enjoyed the cozy rustic BC experience with local and German ales, BC Alpine cheese fondue and sourdough baguettes. The place was hopping and Cam and I sat through the four-course meal for over three hours. Cam went for the German sausages and I had the chicken schnitzel with organic vegetables. We both had very simple but delicious organic mixed leaf salads with balsamic vinaigrette. For dessert, we shared a chocolate cake with homemade cinnamon gelato, a nice finishing touch to our last night in the Kootenays.
DOG SLED RACES
Laurie had one more adventure for us before we headed back home via Salt Lake City on : a stopover at The First Annual Bootleg Dog Sled Races at Bootleg Gap Golf Course. First, we went to the Platzl, the downtown of Kimberley and found yet another great coffee house, The Bean Tree, at the end of the German-style plaza. The organic, strong lattes and muffins were superb. Then we were off to the races, where over 50 dog sled teams and 200 dogs, mostly huskies, were entered. My favorite part was the skijoring races, which involve a cross-country skier attached to one or two dogs. Can’t wait to try hooking up my chocolate Labrador next winter! I noticed lots of folks wearing funky hats with fake fur on top and found out they are Kootenay’s own hats, designed to keep out the famous Canadian “brain freeze”. I had to have one! We reluctantly left for the easy airport, returned the rental car and hopped aboard the Delta CRJ to Salt Lake City. The Rocky Mountains and Purcell Mountain Range looked magnificent as we flew above them.
OVERNIGHT IN SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH
In Salt Lake, we decided to spend the night at the new near the airport for our early flight the next day, and visit Cam’s brother and family for dinner. I was really pleased with the room I settled on, after having to change the one that was too close to the freeway. Make sure you ask for the rooms at the end, farthest away and you’ll have no problems. Our young Mormon host baked cookies at teatime, where there is always complimentary coffee, tea, computer access and breakfast! Rooms start at $99. The indoor pool and hot tub are great too!
Since everybody always bashes New Jersey, I just thought I would say something positive about . It’s awesome! It took the same amount of time to get there as it does to get to JFK from my house in southeastern Connecticut, with fewer traffic hassles. Also, the economy parking only cost us $70 for five nights! The parking lot shuttle bus runs every 20 minutes and we were picked up immediately at 5:30 am, in the dark, by a very nice driver who gave us a card with his name on it and the lot number where we parked.
The Kootenays are as fun to visit as it is to say! From the ancient Kootenay Indians who first discovered the natural hot springs to the European pioneers who were mesmerized when they saw the giant mountains, you too can feel like an explorer in one of the world’s great playgrounds.
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