By Sue Kernaghan
Imagine it’s mid-winter, somewhere in British Columbia. You’re curled up by a roaring fire, snug inside a cosy cabin or a romantic inn, as a thick fall of powder drifts over the forest outside.
Are you going to hit the slopes? Not necessarily.
B.C. may have some of the world’s best skiing, but there’s plenty of off-slope winter wonderland, too.
Across the province, pristine snowscapes, frozen lakes and untouched alpine slopes are dotted with quiet little hideaways. At these year-round spas, natural hot springs, heritage inns and family resorts, you can play in the powder, have a massage, explore the wilderness by snowshoe, nordic ski or dogsled, or just curl up by the window and say “let it snow.” There’s even a romantic train journey that lets you take it all in from the comfort of a window seat.
In the Kootenay Rockies, not far from some of North America’s chicest new alpine destinations, is a whole circuit of natural hot springs resorts, most of which stay open year round. You can savor a natural steam bath in the hot spring cave at Ainsworth Hot Springs, just north of Nelson, or soak tired muscles in the mineral pools at Halcyon Hot Springs Village & Spa, near Nakusp. At Halcyon, the pools’ unique mineral mix is thought to work wonders on muscle tension, arthritis and winter aches and pains. If that doesn’t do the trick, there are plenty of holistic and organic treatments offered at the on-site spa. Chalets with kitchens, fireplaces and long views over icy Arrow Lake and the snow-capped Monashees encourage cuddling up and staying a while.
Also in the area, Fairmont Hot Springs Resort has been a romantic destination for almost a century. In winter, besides room discounts, you’ll find a spa, restaurant, several swimming and mineral pools, and, if you must, a nearby ski slope.
One Kootenay Rockies destination that adds new meaning to the term “hideaway” is the Purcell Mountain Lodge. Perched at an altitude of 7,200 feet on the edge of Glacier National Park, this hand-crafted, ecologically sensitive lodge is accessible only by helicopter from the town of Golden. In winter, guests join guides for cross-country skiing, alpine ski touring, telemark skiing, snowboarding, backcountry skiing and snowshoeing in the untouched alpine before gathering by the big central fireplace for Gourmet magazine-rated organic meals.
Rather more rustic, but steeped in history, is Helmcken Falls Lodge, near Clearwater in B.C.’s Thompson Okanagan region. This iconic lodge, built by hand in the 1940s, sits just outside the southern boundary of the vast Wells Gray Provincial Park. In summer, it’s a base for hiking, canoeing and visits to the stunning Helmcken Falls (one of Canada’s loftiest cascades), and it opens again from December though March for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, dog sledding and ice fishing. Ski and snowshoe rentals are available at the lodge and 30 kilometers of track-set trails start right outside the door.
You can even try dog sledding here: with Clearwater-based Alaskan Husky Adventures, no experience is necessary for day trips out mushing across the wilderness.
Planning a girlfriends’ getaway? Go Outdoors Adventures offers women-only, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing holidays based at Helmcken Falls Lodge. You don’t have to be particularly skilled here, but a sense of humor and a love for adventure might be handy, especially for first-time showshoers.
In the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Region, the luxurious Echo Valley Ranch & Spa, where the winter season runs from just Dec. 21 to Jan. 6 for Christmas and the New Year, mixes traditional Thai spa treatments with healthy ranch meals and snowshoe treks along forest trails.
A truly remote Cariboo area hideaway is Tyax Resort, 60 miles west of Lillooet on the edge of the new South Chilcotin Mountain Park. A host of offerings including 28 spacious resort rooms, four fully-equipped lakeside log chalets, cross-country skiing and snowshoe trails, toboggans and a skating rink on the frozen lake make this a good choice for families. Back country skiing and heli-skiing are available, as are ice fishing and snowmobiling. The roads are ploughed and well-maintained, though a four wheel drive vehicle is recommended in winter.
Further north in the Cariboo – within range of the Northern Lights – is the funky little mountain town of Wells. It’s changed little since its start as a mining town in the 1930s, though the multi-hued shop fronts now house art galleries and craft shops rather than company stores. At the historic 1930s-era Wells Hotel, cosy armchairs, period décor, a pub and rooftop hot tub help keep the mountain chill at bay.
Snowmobile and cross-country ski trails, which start pretty much from the front door, lead though the forest to Barkerville, a restored Gold Rush boom town, just five kilometers away. It’s western Canada’s biggest heritage attraction in summer, but come winter, it’s snow-draped and rich in quiet atmosphere. In and around Barkerville, trails head out to deep alpine powder, promising a multitude of winter fun, including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, backcountry touring and telemarking excursions. And those snowmobile trails? Perfect for adventurists seeking a bit more torque aboard their winter steeds.
For something more extreme, it’s now possible to take in some ski touring around the famous Bowron Lakes Circuit. Known internationally as a one of the world’s great canoe journeys, it’s now the setting for a four-day, hut to hut, or a nine-day ski tour, offered by the Wells-based Whitegold Adventures.
Can’t choose? One option is to take in most of B.C. and Alberta’s snowy landscapes (or at least the 800 kilometers from the coast to the Rockies) from the windows of the Rocky Mountaineer winter train. This two-day winter rail journey travels from Vancouver to Banff, Alberta, Dec. 20 and 27 (with motorcoach connections to Calgary) offering lavish meals and fabulous dome-car scenery en route. The same rail adventure will pull out of Banff station Dec. 22 and 29 for the journey to Vancouver. This year, one child can travel free with two adults in GoldLeaf Service and, thanks to a children’s entertainer, a kids-only coach full of games and crafts, and even a surprise visit from Santa, no one’s going to say, “Are we there yet?”