Blue bird days at Sun Peaks

I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. When our clock radio clicked on this morning I heard the news announcer say it was snowing in the mountain pass that’s less than an hour from our home.

Really? Snowing on April 1? In a year where our local ski resort was open (and only partially open at that) for 40 days and our mountain snow pack is at 10 percent of normal?

It must be an April Fool’s joke, I thought.

But it wasn’t. The pass got 10 inches overnight. Look!

silverfir

This might not look like a lot of snow to people who just lived through an epic winter on the East Coast, but considering the snow drought we’ve had on the West Coast this year, this is a serious amount of snow. I have to laugh that it fell on April 1.

See that ski lift? That’s our favorite one at The Summit at Snoqualmie. It sat empty the whole season. (This part of the ski area wasn’t included in the 40-day opening.)

Yes, it was a rough winter for sure.

seattle to sun peaks mapFortunately, we still had our annual mid-winter break trip to Sun Peaks Resort in Kamloops, British Columbia. Sun Peaks, which is about a six-hour drive from our home in Seattle, has become our family’s favorite place to ski, this year more than ever. (Read about our family ski adventures on my other blog, The Family that Skis Together, Stays Together.)

Why Sun Peaks when Whistler is closer, bigger and more popular? For one, it’s less expensive. Even a small savings ($104 Whistler adult lift tickets vs. $84 at Sun Peaks) adds up for a family of four skiing multiple days. There’s even bigger savings for ski-in/ski-out lodging, which can be half the cost of Whistler.

While the family budget is initially what drew us to Sun Peaks, it’s not what keeps us coming back. We come back because lift lines are shorter here, the runs are long (the longest is five miles vs. Whistler’s seven) and uncrowded, and the terrain is plenty diverse for us. What more could we want?

DSC06273-2How about better snow?

The snow is typically drier here than closer to the coast. It reminds me of Colorado where I grew up and learned to ski. I’m a snow snob and Sun Peaks almost always delivers.

The weather is also sunnier here. Most Seattleites are desperate for some winter sun and we’ve found it year after year at Sun Peaks. Their name is well deserved.

The skiing this year

No ski resort has completely escaped this year’s Pacific Northwest snow drought. Our local ski area closed for the season in mid-February and other Western Washington resorts never got even close to full operations.

Even at Sun Peaks the snow wasn’t as good as it usually is, but it was better here than anywhere else nearby. We skied four days in a row on the best snow to be had around these parts this winter. There was enough snow pack at the bottom for decent ski-in/ski-out conditions to our rental condo and that was not the case for friends who skied Whistler at the same time.

The snow was great up top and in the bowls. And it must be holding, because I  read on their website that they’ve extended their season until April 12. That’s good timing for some last minute spring break skiing. Tempting!

Three mountains of skiing

With two bowls, a park, glades, cruisers for me and steep runs for my teens, there’s a run for everyone and a quaint village to ski right into for lunch and coffee breaks. Some of our favorite runs include skiing in and around the trees on The Sticks (on Mt. Morrissey), the Five Mile, the wide open West Bowl accessed by a T-bar, and the Three Bears (all on Mt. Todd). One of my personal favorites, due partly because the sign makes a great photo op, is Midlife Crisis.

Family fun in the snow

Sun Peaks hosts an all-ages Friday Race Series that my oldest daughter has skied in twice, and my husband once. They hand out lots of medals and free drinks in a short ceremony at day’s end. The cost is $15 per competitor and includes all of the above, plus free professional photos posted on Facebook.

Sun Peaks tubing

When you’ve had enough skiing, Sun Peaks also has a tubing hill, accessed by a magic carpet near the village. There are two tubing lanes, one for speed demons and another for those who like to take it a bit slower. The international staff (who we discovered hail mostly from Australia!) offers free spins to anyone who asks.

An ice rink, an extensive system of cross country trails, dog sled rides and good old-fashioned sledding (check out the golf course) round out most of the other snow sports offered at Sun Peaks.

The Village

Sun Peaks’ village is just the right size. It’s not so big that it’s overwhelming and not so small that there’s not enough to do. It’s family friendly – with almost everything (except a nightclub, that I imagine is filled with Aussie ski staff) closing up by 9 p.m. The scene is much quieter here than Whistler.

Most of the hotel offerings are clustered in the village, while most (but not all) of the condo offerings extend a mile or so on either side of the village. There is a grocery store with prices we’ve found to be similar to the larger grocers in Kamloops. Overall, Canadian food prices are a lot pricier than American. Be prepared for food to take a bigger chunk out of your vacation budget than you expected.

The village has a decent choice of restaurants (from a pricey steakhouse to less expensive burgers). Not to be missed is Mountain High Pizza, where it’s best to order takeout or delivery as the seating area is tiny – unless you’re just grabbing a slice for lunch and you don’t mind sitting at the counter outside. (And if it’s sunny at Sun Peaks, why not?)

We also love the crepery for lunch. And, a daily cappuccino at Bolacco Café is a must. If you’re lucky enough to get the owner pulling your espresso you’re in for a real treat. It’s de-li-cious. Your kids, however, might like the Vertical Café next door which offers Nutella hot chocolate. Heck, you might want to try that one day, too. Burn the calories up on the slopes.

Where to stay

There are a lot of lodging choices at a variety of price points, including hotels, condos and full-size homes. Book early for holiday periods, including the U.S. President’s Day weekend. A lot of Americans visit during this time.

We’ve stayed in two places, which I’ll mention below, but from what I’ve seen of Sun Peaks, you really can’t go wrong with most of the accommodations. Stay in town or a bit farther out, depending what you’re looking for. At the top of our must-have list is ski-in/ski-out access. To us, not having to lug our ski gear (or the kids’ ski gear) around, makes for a much more relaxing vacation. Of course, we pay more for this luxury, but we’ve discovered we don’t have to pay village prices for it.

Sun Peaks Grand (previously The Delta at Sun Peaks) – We’ve stayed here twice, once in the hotel and once in their condos. Both are ski-in/ski-out right into the village, offer a valet ski check and access to their mountainside heated outdoor pool and hot tubs. We loved the magical feeling of swimming while big fluffy snowflakes coated our hair.

The hotel was a better value than the condo, but the room was basic, a bit cramped for a family of four and there was no kitchenette, not even a small fridge. (There are other room types, if you’re interested.)The next year we moved into the costlier “condo” side of the hotel, but we made up for some of the added expense with a full-size kitchen where we cooked breakfast and most lunches. For dinner, we walked downstairs and straight into the village. We loved the easy location and the fact that we didn’t have to give up access to our magic swimming pool or ski-in/ski-out access for it.

Condo developments outside village – This year, we paid about half the cost of the village condo and rented a condo in a development that was a 10-15 minute walk east of the village, but still offered ski-in/ski-out access (via a different trail). Surprisingly, we found the ski-in/ski-out access even better here than in the village. There was no pool, but we did have a private hot tub!

At first, we didn’t think we would like staying so far. We generally prefer to be in the center of the action and not have to move our car after we arrive, but the private condo was roomier, better stocked, more modern and well worth the small inconvenience. We walked into town a couple of times and took the car a couple. Parking was never a problem and the savings was worth it. We’ve re-booked the same place for next year.

How to get there: The airport in Kamloops (about 35 miles from Sun Peaks) offers daily flights from Vancouver International Airport.

It’s also a beautiful drive. The landscape near the town of Hope, B.C. – right before you start the drive over the mountain passes – reminds us of our visit to the Swiss Alps two years ago. Picturesque waterfalls spill down the mountainsides right off the highway.

Follow the Trans-Canada Highway 1 East toward Hope, then take the Coquihalla Highway to Kamloops (about 2.75 hours, depending on snow/road conditions). After arriving in Kamloops, get some gas if you need some because there are no filling stations in Sun Peaks. Take the Highway 5 exit northbound. After approximately 20 kilometers, look for signs to Tod Mountain Road and follow the sign to Sun Peaks. This two-lane road winds up the mountain for about 25 minutes before arriving at the resort.

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