BIG WHITE B.C. -- It's the closest thing to real heaven.
Swooshing in and out of snowy glades at Big White Ski resort is an out-of-this-world experience that adds a spectacular new dimension to skiing and snowboarding -- especially during the holidays.
Everything is white, soft and quiet. The forest of fluffy snow and snowy white trees filters out all sound, leaving silence, solitude and beauty, and creating a heavenly sensation of gliding on puffy clouds.
The coolest thing is anyone can do it. You don't have to be a star skier or boarder -- green runners can do glades, too.
Big White is known for its wonderful woodsy glades with well-spaced snow-covered evergreens for beginners to thickly wooded terrain for advanced skiers and boarders. These woods tend to hold powder longer thanks to the shade and shelter trees provide.
Of the spectacular 810 hectares of skiable terrain at Big White, 618 hectares are alpine glades.
"Let's go chase some trees!" says Don Swift, a Big White snowboarding instructor better known as "Swifty."
Feeling a little nervous, I specifically asked for Swifty because of his easy-going nature. At an incredible 82-years-young, the former ski-school owner from Calabogie, Ont., can slide through glades like melted butter.
"The secret of doing the glades is -- don't look at the trees, look between them," Swifty says as he guides me through some easy glades along the Black Forest run. "If you stare at the trees, you're going to run into them."
A helpful tip, as previously I did stare at the trees. Fortunately the snowy evergreens in Big White's glades are so soft that when I ran into some branches, only my ego was hurt.
"Keep your body and knees as loose as a goose," Swifty tells me. "Let your body move with the dips in the snow just like you are floating." Start easy, he adds. First try skiing around a few trees, then pop back out onto the main run. At Big White, there is a green run from the top of every lift, and many have some snowy glades to practice on.
"Once you build some confidence, try going a little deeper into the trees, then zip out onto the run again."
As a green-and-blue-run boarder, I never knew I could try this safely, but now I am addicted.
"The biggest obstacle of glading is fear," says Big White snowboard instructor Addy Jeun, 29, from Guelph, Ont.
"I call it girl-brain," she quips.
Addy takes me to the Enchanted Forest -- a spectacular run I never would have found without a guide.
Clydesdale horse team “Doc and Bud” bring diners to the tiny cabin in the woods, where a delicious meal waits. TRACY McLAUGHLIN/Special to QMI Agency
It's so high up in the mountains we are in the clouds, yet, incredibly, this is an easy green run. The snow-covered evergreens -- called "snow ghosts" -- are everywhere. And the glinting sun makes it look like they are covered with twinkling diamonds that, unfortunately, my camera couldn't capture.
It's so breathtaking, so surreal, that I start to weep with happiness.
"It really does add another dimension to skiing," says master instructor Ollie McEvoy, who is so excited about introducing people to the joys of mountain glading that he came along on his day off.
That's what instructors are like at Big White.
For skiers, Ollie says the key to glading is to keep your feet together.
"And don't look at your feet. Look ahead and map out your route."
As always, if you pick up too much speed for comfort, simply turn to ski uphill and it will slow you down.
If you feel fearful of glading, don't sweat it. Instead, play safe and book an instructor for a couple of hours rather than deny yourself this amazing, incredible, heavenly, experience.
It's cheaper than dining out, and has zero calories. So, get out there, and go chase some trees!
Ladies Day draws international crowd
Every Wednesday during the ski season at Big White, women of the world descend.
Young and old, beginner to expert, confident or shy, women from a dozen countries swoop in year after year for Ladies Day.
"Nobody has a ladies day like Big White," says Mark Tillotson, the event's enthusiastic co-ordinator and comedian. "It's my favourite day of the week "¦ These ladies come from all over the world -- from places I can't even pronounce -- and they become life-long friends."
The program starts in the morning, when some 100 women meet at the big bell in quaint Big White village for a two-hour ski or snowboard lesson. Women of every skill level are matched with other women and a skilled instructor according to their needs. While some are matched and placed in small groups, others who are timid or have special needs are matched with instructors one-on-one.
"The neat thing about the ladies is that they are all so supportive of each other," Tillotson says. "They don't have that competitive thing that men do. They are here to have fun."
After the lesson, the women ski down to Big White's folksy Happy Valley for a gourmet lunch, and a glass of Okanagan wine at the Kettle Valley Steakhouse. The buffet is delicious, the desserts are sinful, and Tillotson gets the everyone hooting and cheering while he hands out draw prizes.
"I look forward to this event all year long," says Margaret Walker, an Australian who is there with her granddaughter. Walker says she is a "lifer," and hasn't missed a Ladies Day in the past 10 years.
"It's a day where anything goes, and I've met some great friends. And Mark is a hit -- he's awesome."
The ski instructors are also a hit with the ladies. Like all of Big White's staff -- from the instructors to the wait staff to the cleaning staff -- positive attitudes and energy abound.
"We want the ladies to have as much fun as possible," says co-host and snowboard instructor Lee Adam, who runs an adventure watersports school on Okanagan Lake in the summer.
During the lesson, Adam gives helpful hints on how arm placement or putting more weight on one foot can make a big difference in performance.
"At the end of the day they're not just happy ladies with new friends," he says. "They're better skiers."
Sleigh ride to dinner
The bells on our horse-drawn sleigh jingle as we wind our way along snowy trails through Big White's pristine forests.
Under the starlit sky we huddle in blankets, although our horse team, Doc and Bud, don't seem to notice the chilly night air.
A hundred years ago, this is what everyone did out of necessity. But tonight, six couples have signed up for this traditional Canadian adventure just for fun.
After 20 minutes or so, we arrive at a campfire beside a tiny cabin in the woods, where the aroma of hot savoury food makes our stomachs growl.
Inside we gather around two large wooden picnic tables and crack open the wine we have brought along. I am wishing we had a little more time to sip our wine and laugh with new friends, but the food is hot and ready so we are quickly served a feast of barbecued chicken, fall-off-the-bone ribs, steamy baked potatoes, hot vegetables and salad. Tangy-sweet apple pie and a specially ordered chocolate birthday cake finish off the meal.
Happily satiated, we huddle back into blankets and gaze at the stars on our way back to Happy Valley Day Lodge, where the shouts of children's laughter float up to reach us from skaters on the ice pond.
-- The sleigh ride is also offered early in the day for a magnificent brunch of bacon, sausage, eggs and pancakes hot off a grill.
-- If you go, don't forget to dress warm from top to bottom, and bring along a bottle of Okanagan wine.
-- Don't look at the trees, look between them.
-- Look ahead and map out your route.
-- Take baby steps -- start on well-spaced glades off groomed green runs.
-- Stay "loose as a goose" and bend your knees with the dips.
-- Skiers keep your feet together and take hands out of the pole straps in case a pole gets caught in deep snow.
-- Turn uphill to scrub off speed.
-- Play safe. Get a Big White instructor for the first time.
-- Glade with a buddy.
-- Fresh powder is best for beginners. On powder days, don't wait, go for it!
-- If you are new to glading, leg muscles may be sore at the end of the day. Book a sports massage at Beyond Rapture spa in ski out Chateau Big White. (Ask for Claudia, she has hands of steel.)
-- Best green glade runs for beginners: Sun Run, Hwy. 33 and Sun Dance all have spaced evergreens to play on.
-- Warmed-up beginners and beyond: Black Forest cruiser runs, Paradise Glades, Never Never Glades, Enchanted Forest.
-- Intermediate and beyond: Gem Lake for Black Bear Glades, Lightening Glades, Talon Glades, Black & Blue Glades, Black Bear Glades, Ribbon Glades, Corkscrew Glades, Thunder Glades.
-- For information on skiing and boarding at Big White, including family activities, see bigwhite.com.