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One sweet ski trip in British Columbia, Canada
Sun Peaks, Canada
My heart is racing, and my fingers are sticky inside my ski mitts. Is it excitement at the vast slope of fresh powder before me or the result of spending the last hour sipping my way through a "Sinful Chocolate and Heavenly Wine" event?
In either case, I need to burn off some of that sugar. So I take a deep breath, plant my poles and plunge downhill through a knee-deep carpet of snow.
It's mid-January, and I'm multi-tasking -- combining a love of snow with that of frosty alcoholic liquid honey at the Sun Peaks annual Icewine Festival, a sugar-charged, three-day event celebrating Canada's iconic dessert beverage.
There are tastings, pairings, seminars and parties at Sun Peaks Resort in south-central British Columbia, a 45-minute drive from Kamloops Airport. (Next year's event is scheduled Jan. 14 to 19; see www.thewinefestivals.com.)
Sun Peaks isn't widely known outside British Columbia, but it should be. In B.C., it is second in size only to Whistler and has the country's third biggest skiable area, 3,678 acres of diverse terrain including alpine bowls, glade skiing, snowboard parks, groomed cross-country trails and backcountry routes. Spread across three mountains are 121 downhill runs up to five miles long. Sun Peaks also has the biggest vertical drop (2,891 feet) in interior B.C. And all of that is bathed in 2,000 hours of annual sunshine, which gives the area its name.
Based on the statistics, I was expecting a vast resort but found, instead, a pleasantly cozy village nestled at the base of three mountains 4,100 feet above sea level.
It is an easy-to-navigate little cluster of lodges, hotels, restaurants and pubs that makes for a busy hive of nightlife, but during the day there are few folks on the expansive slopes. That's a good combination; I was amused to overhear a couple of locals grumbling about having to spend three minutes in a "lineup" for a chairlift.
Growing up in Vancouver in the 1960s, I always heard stories about Tod Mountain, the original "Sun Peak" that now has been joined by Sundance Mountain and Mt. Morrisey. Tod was legendary for its steep, predominantly black and double black diamond terrain.
The resort has grown and added less severe blue and green runs -- the mountains' mix is now 10% novice (green), 58% intermediate (blue) and 32% expert (black).
It's nice that green, blue and black runs can be accessed from the top of every chairlift so skiers of various skill levels can stay together. But those early adrenaline stokers like Challenger, Freddy's Nightmare and the famous Headwalls -- site of the annual Velocity Challenge FIS World Cup Speed Skiing -- are still there to take your breath away.
The resort, which is eco- and kid-friendly, has a ski school, an outdoor ice rink, dog-sledding and two snowboarding parks -- one for novices and another for advanced boarders, with rails, tabletops and fun boxes.
British Columbia's interior is known for its dry snow, the result of storms from the Pacific Ocean rising and cooling as they pass over the Coast Mountains before dropping as powder; Sun Peaks averages 220 inches a year.
The snow is so good that the Austrian Ski Team has chosen the resort as its official training center in the run-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in B.C. Both the men's and women's national teams will be training for slalom, giant slalom and super-G at the mountain's training center.
A DAILY DATE WITH A CHAMPION
Sun Peaks has another Olympic connection. One of its full-time residents is Nancy Greene, Canada's top ski racer through the 1960s. She was a hero to us teens snowplowing down the bunny slopes at the time.
Greene moved to Sun Peaks, where she is now director of skiing and runs Cahilty Lodge. She also skis almost daily with anyone who shows up in front of the "Meet Here to Ski With Nancy Greene" sign at the top of the Sunburst Express Chairlift at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
Skiing with Greene was a lifelong dream of mine, and fortunately for me, she didn't decide to "go like hell," which was once her motto.
The Icewine Festival was my main off-piste distraction during my visit. Icewines are a German creation dating to 1794 and were first crafted in B.C. -- and Canada -- in 1973.
Canada has trademarked the term "icewine," and strict rules govern its making. The white wine grapes must be frozen on the vine at a minimum temperature of minus-17 degrees, and they must remain frozen while being pressed. That freezes the water inside the grapes but leaves the precious concentrated juice liquid, dripping out of the press with a sugar content of 35% to 45%.
It takes five times as many grapes to make a bottle of icewine as to produce a bottle of table wine, thus the icewines' cost of $40 to $60 for a half-bottle.
During the annual festival Sun Peaks becomes the tasting ground for about 30 of B.C.'s finest icewines from the Okanagan Valley. Chefs from local restaurants and hotel kitchens marry food with B.C. wines and icewines, the highlight being a judged sugar-fest called "The Magic of Dessert and Icewine." The most recent winner was a pairing of Mission Hill 2004 Reserve Vidal Icewine with Mantles Restaurant's David Commancais' lavender panna cotta with spiced icewine gelée.
There were seminars with John Schreiner, author of the definitive icewine book and the country's leading authority. "Icewine made the world sit up and notice Canadian wines," he says.
Reg Hendrickson of the Dairy Farmers of Canada led a lively "Sparkles and Ice" tasting of bubblies and icewines matched with some of Canada's 400 cheeses, including Goudas, cheddars, Bries and blues.
"You taste cheese much as you do wine by first smelling, then rolling it around in your mouth to extract the flavor," Reg told us, reminding us that one key difference is that we needn't spit the cheese.
In the end our group voted that the mélange of flavors we wanted lingering on our palates was darn near any of the icewines with a dollop of Saltspring Island's Moonstruck Beddis Blue cheese.
The most decadent event was the tasting/pairing of nine wines, from unoaked Chardonnay to raspberry wine and icewine with mounds of French milk and dark chocolates. I learned there is an official way to taste chocolate: Served at room temperature, it should be chewed five to 10 times, then spread around the mouth. Add icewine. Stir with tongue. Swoon.
Over the long weekend I mixed up my winter activities -- downhill one day, cross-country on 18 miles of track-set trails the next, then a morning on snowshoes or ungroomed "backcountry" trails. One night I decided to join the International Fondue and Torchlight Descent that starts with a chairlift ride to the Sunburst Restaurant for a three-course fondue meal -- broth, cheese and chocolate. This meal was accompanied by live music.
After dinner we donned headlamps and skied by moonlight and the glow of torches down a freshly groomed five-mile ski run. For those who preferred not to ski, a snow limo schussed them back to the village.
The Icewine Festival ended Saturday evening with a frozen Mardi Gras. Wine glasses in hand, the parka-clad crowd wandered around the village on a progressive food and wine tasting. We stopped in at lodges, hotels and restaurants for a sip and a sample of fine cuisine before strolling to the next venue.
What better way to spend a January than at a frozen street party with snow crunching under your feet, icewine swirling in your mouth and the knowledge that powder awaits you in the morning?