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Snow fun
B.C. resorts ready for busy ski season
In the fall, a skier's fancy turns to thoughts 1 of snow: of fresh tracks and powder-filled bowls, of bluebird days and fireside nights. Queue British Columbia's downhill destinations, each primed for the upcoming season with heart-thumping steeps and mile-long cruisers, romantic ski-in/ski-out villages and, this year, whole new mountainsides of fresh terrain.

Boasting the continent's longest verticals, some of the most advanced lift systems on the planet and, what is considered by many, to be the ultimate terrain for skiers and boarders, BC is more than a one-size-fits-all powder playground. Here, diversity reigns; from jet-set Whistler to funky little Whitewater, every mountain is sure to satisfy even the wildest of winter dreams.

Where to start? Choose Whistler Blackcomb, the much-loved alpine duo north of Vancouver that has been raking in the accolades for years, thanks to its 200 impeccably groomed runs, five-star après and pretty much everything else, from its lift system to its ski school.

Getting to the top off those famous runs will be easier than ever this year, thanks to a wealth of upgrades, including $6-million eight-passenger cabins on the Whistler Village Gondola (weather dependent, skis and poles ride outside, creating a roomier ride within), a new radio-frequency identification system to help speed riders through lift lines and some cool new ski-school ideas. Beginners, for example, can try Whistler Blackcomb Snow School's new Terrain Based Learning concept: instead of snow-ploughing down a bunny hill, first-timers can try small versions of terrain features and get the feel of real skiing from the get-go.

Also new this year are private lessons for families, open to parents with tots as young as 30 months, and a covered magic carpet to protect wee skiers from the elements. Kids even get their own après this winter, with Kids' Night Out, a series of fun, non-skiing evening programs run during holiday weeks.

Parents can no doubt find something else to do among the dozens of restaurants, pubs and nightclubs in Whistler Village. Some fresh spots to check out include Garbo's Grill, a create-your-own burger place, and Brickworks Public House, a lively new neighbourhood pub.

If your snow dreams involve fresh tracks and wide open spaces, head for Sun Peaks, near Kamloops, where you can be among the first to ski the more than 200 hectares (500 acres) of new expert, off-piste terrain opening this year.

With the expansion, Sun Peaks will boast the second largest ski area in Canada, with 360 degrees of skiing on three mountains and runs up to eight kilometres (five miles) long. The terrain is massive, but the vibe at the resort is cosy, especially in the Tyrolean-themed village, where après runs from fine dining to starlit skating and fondue parties.

Sun Peaks is one of a quartet of downhill destinations in BC's Thompson Okanagan region, five hours, or a quick flight from Vancouver. Sunny days, champagne powder, uncrowded slopes and family-friendly lodgings are all part of the deal here, but each resort has its own style.

Big White Ski Resort near Kelowna, for example, is Canada's largest completely ski-in/ski-out resort. A top choice for families, with snowshoeing, vertical adventure on the ice climbing tower, skating, hockey, tubing, bonfires and more all season long, Big White gets plenty of white stuff — typically 750 centimetres (25 feet) of Okanagan champagne powder every year. If you prefer to kick up your heels (a.k.a. cross-country ski) once in a while, make tracks for Silver Star Mountain Resort, near Vernon, where 128 downhill runs, plus one of North America's largest cross-country trail networks, frame a colourful Victorian-themed ski-in, ski-out mid-mountain village.

Eager to avoid the hustle and bustle? Opt instead for Apex Mountain Resort, a local favourite near Penticton that promises an intimate ski hill experience with plenty of terrain (think long cruisers, challenging steeps and thick falls of powder).

More fresh tracks await at RED Mountain Resort in BC's Kootenay Rockies region. Never heard of it? You will. This powder-blessed hub, home to one of Canada's oldest ski clubs (it's been hosting races since 1896), has recently jumped from local-secret status to one of the fastest-growing winter resorts in North America.

After opening 400 hectares (1,000 acres) of new lift-serviced terrain on Grey Mountain last year, RED is set to unveil another 81 hectares (200 acres) of snowy glades on Mount Kirkup this season. Accessed by snowcat, the new tracks will get pulses racing with 488 metres (1,600 feet) of vertical drop and sweeping views of the surrounding Monashee peaks.

RED is just one of a string of alpine resorts along BC's legendary Powder Highway; skirting the western edge of the Rockies, an eight-mountain lineup tempts skiers and riders with steeps, deeps and record-breaking verticals, along with cosy backcountry lodges and a laid-back, outdoors-loving scene. Beyond the lifts, the region is also the world's leading centre for heli- and cat-skiing. Bonus: natural hot springs, and even hot pools, bubble up along this route too.

At Panorama Mountain Resort, for example, steaming on-mountain hot pools are tucked below snowy slopes. But that's not the only draw: this growing destination near Invermere is set to open its Discover Quad chairlift this season, linking the village to a network of long, gentle runs, ideal for novice and intermediate skiers. The best part: these runs in the new Discovery Zone mean skiing and boarding at this resort is truly a family affair.

If you want more, there's big mountain skiing in store at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, where one of the continent's longest verticals clocks in at 1,260 metres (4,133 feet), and Fernie Alpine Resort, near a funky little ski town, is backed by 1,082 metres (3,550 feet) of downhill bliss. Wide cruisers and long runs also draw skiers and boarders to Kimberley Alpine Resort, near the quaint town of the same name.

Ready to mix it up a bit? Revelstoke Mountain Resort, home to North America's highest lift-serviced vertical (a whopping 1,713 metres or 5,620 feet), is also the only ski resort in the world to offer lift-, cat-, heli- and backcountry skiing from one village base.

Whitewater Ski Resort, an up-and-coming hidden gem near Nelson, is another top choice for powderhounds, thanks to steeps, deeps, great glade skiing and snow so light and airy they call it “cold smoke.” (You can find out all about it at the Kootenay Coldsmoke Powder Festival, Whitewater's celebration of all things snow in February.) And if, like many locals, you just can't tear yourself from the slopes, pause for a homemade burger or wild game bratwurst at the Fresh Tracks Café Express, an on-mountain food truck parked all winter at the base of the Glory Chair.

Speaking of hidden gems, British Columbia has top-flight ski resorts in almost every corner of the province. Who knew, for example, that Mount Washington Alpine Resort on Vancouver Island has ocean views, night skiing, fabulous beginners' facilities and 55 kilometres (34 miles) of cross-country trails? Plus it's just minutes from sandy beaches and year-round golf in the nearby Comox Valley.

Further afield, Northern BC's Shames Mountain, Hudson Bay Mountain and Powder King Mountain Resort reward the journey north with uncrowded slopes, consistent snow, a friendly small town feel and, for those who just can't wait to ski, an early start to the season.

If you don't want to travel that far from the city lights, Grouse Mountain, Mt Seymour and Cypress Mountain, a.k.a. the North Shore Mountains, are each just minutes from Vancouver's city centre. And with verticals topping 300 metres (1,000 feet) or more, this city-to-ski-hill experience promises a heightened adventure as the temperature plunges.

Wherever you are in BC, winter is coming. And here, that's a good thing.

For details on ski deals, live snow conditions and travel information on BC's winter resorts, visit www.SkiItToBelieveIt.com. For more on British Columbia's destinations and travel information, visit www.HelloBC.com.
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