By Wanda A. Adams, The Honolulu Advertiser
Powder snow, smaller crowds and great value make British Columbia's Thompson Okanagan resorts fun destinations for Islanders looking for winter's perfect ride.
Geoffrey Chu's idea of snow heaven is a place where he can "hammer the slopes" all day without ever feeling crowded and a condo so close to the ski area that "if you open the door, I could snowboard right into the living room."
He'll take Big White over Vail or Aspen any day - and so will an increasing number of others who love skiing, snowboarding and other forms of snow play and are choosing the lesser known ski areas of the rapidly developing Thompson Okanagan tourist region in southeastern British Columbia.
Chu, 51, president of the Ski Association of Hawai'i, said not everyone in the club shares his preference. Some members or their friends and spouses consider amenities such as shops, restaurantas, nightlife and spa facilities just as important as powder snow. But at least four of the eight Thompson Okanagan ski resorts - Apex, Big White, Silver Star and Sun Peaks - boast a complete mountain resort experience.
And this with smaller crowds and lower prices - a savings of as much as 20 percent over Whistler, British Columbia, Islander's favorite ski area, according to Hans Allgeier, manager of Outrigger Travel and a specialist in ski vacations.
Allgeier and others agree that the Thompson Okanagan is a coming area. Obie Olson of the PTB Inc., who organizes ski trips for groups, says the area's location in the shadow of the Rockies creates highly desirable drier, powder snow conditins. Said Allgeier: "It's always champagne snow and lots and lots of it. It's got some of the best skiing around."
And now's the time to enjoy it, say experts, noting that almost all the smaller Okanagan resorts have big development plans on the boards and the larger ones are beginning to be very much noticed by snow players burned out on the crowds elsewhere.
One problem with the area has been access, Olson said: The area is more than three hours by car from Vancouver, BC, and flights to the three key airports (Kamloops, Kelowna and Penticton) tend to book up. But Allgeier noted that Harmony Airways has instituted a weekly direct flight from Honolulu International in the wintertime, leaving Sunday afternoon and returning late the following Sunday night. The cost is about $600 with fare and fees. The service will be offered Dec. 11 through March 26 this year.
The best room rates at ski aeras tend to be available very early and very late in the season (but, of course, you risk a lack of snow). Slightly lesser rates are in January and February, and the highest rates are over the holidays and at spring break time, said Allgeier.
Travel agencies like Outrigger are locking in flights and hotel packages now; Allgeier said the company's ski brochure will be out soon. (Call 923-2377 or 800-676-7740 to request a brochure wen they come out).
The Ski Association of Hawaii traveled to Big White in 2003. Chu remembers that excursion fondly: "That was an outstanding trip - it was ski-in/ski-out, great snow, less people."
The group insists on ski-in/ski-out locations; that is, resorts where you can literally schuss right over to the lifts of ski play areas, or at least walk to them easily, without having to lug your equipment a long distance or take a shuttle or other form of transportation.
Chu said an assessment of a ski resort is a very personal thing having to do with preferred activities, amenities and cost.
For him, it's the slopes that matter. An Islander born and raised, he didn't take up snowboarding until 1998 and never sall falling snow until that year.
A friend was a member of the Ski Association and Chu thoght he'd join a trip and try snowboarding, assuming that his long background as a surfer would help him pick up the sport.
"That was very, very humbling," he recalled. "The skills are very different. I thought it shouldn't be that hard but I fell down maybe 100 times the first day, and to be honest it wasn't my butt that hurt, it was my arms, from picking myself up so many times."
Fortunately, after that first disastrous day, things looked up fast and by the end of the week, he was on the intermediate trails.
Chu recognizes, however, that for some in the ski club (which is about 60 percent transplants, 40 percent locals), off-slope amenities are just as important as good snow. At Big White three years ago, he admitted, "those who wanted to shop, well, they were deprived." (There have been some additions to Big White village since.)
Allgeier said families appreciate some of the Thompson Okanagan ski areas because they're smaller and less crowded.
Several of the ski areas - Harper Mountain and Mount Baldy among them - specifically market themselves as family-friendly.