FONDUES IN THE SNOW
The ski slopes of British Columbia offer a plethora of fun eating experiences, finds John Lee
IT is late afternoon at wintry Grouse Mountain, a 20-minute drive via the Lions Gate Bridge from downtown Vancouver. I’m teetering in the snow while a guide stoops to fasten my hired snowshoes. Pretending to ignore the raised eyebrows of passing skiers, I feel like a kid who can’t tie his shoelaces.
A favourite seasonal playground for local skiers and snowboarders, Grouse offers plenty of options for those who are happy just looking at the snow. Restaurant lounging and comfy sleigh rides are popular here but my chosen activity — a guided snowshoe trek followed by a fondue dinner — seems to offer the right combination of sweat production and stomach stuffing.
Within minutes of setting off on our trek it feels as if the guide and I are the only people on the mountain. Fading voices are replaced by the crunch-crunch of icy snow, along with the ever-present cawing of scavenging ravens. I catch the high-pitched song of a couple of steller’s jays, but I don’t spot any of the eagles that populate the area and pick off squirrels for lunch.
After 90 minutes, and an occasional burst of pace that has my snowshoes flicking ice crumbs like confetti, we reach the chilly, treelined summit. We’re overlooking the moonlit surface of Capilano Reservoir to the distant, fading crags of Vancouver Island. Poking around in the drifts and chatting about the city, it soon feels as if it’s time to amble to the lodge.
Waving goodbye to my guide, I head for a hearthside table at Grouse’s Altitudes Bistro, with a window overlooking the twinkling lights of Vancouver. Piling my gear and rubbing sore muscles, I await the feast. My ideas about fondues are based mostly on 1970s television shows; dispelling the notion I should be sporting a large moustache and a pair of tan flares, I peruse the small dishes of salmon, prawns and scallops alongside the pyramids of raw chicken, beef and pork as they arrive in front of me. There’s also a large platter of soft, pre-cooked vegetables to keep things healthy.
The waitress ignites my table’s mini gas burner and I watch as the dual-section pan of curried bouillon and hot-pot stock starts bubbling. There’s also a separate pan of what looks like custard but turns out to be melted cheese. Slender forks poised, I plunge several fish and meat chunks into the main pan. The bowl is soon empty.
I make sure I save room for a bowl of warm molten chocolate, accompanied by chunks of fruit and sponge cake squares. Scoffing such morsels makes me feel as if I am not eating much; then suddenly I can’t put another thing in my mouth. The elasticised waist on my snow pants has become a licence to gorge.
Slowing to a halt and drooping comfortably in the heat from the fire, I begin to make a mental list of British Columbia’s other snow-related dining opportunities; the prov- ince is dripping with foodie experiences for winter gourmands who like combining outdoor exertion with slap-up nosh.
Whistler, for example — a two-hour drive away on the Sea to Sky Highway — has always been a popular resort with food fans. On a recent visit, I checked out Cornucopia, one of Canada’s most popular culinary festivals. A four-day bacchanalian extravaganza of snow, skiing and stuffing yourself silly, it colonises restaurants and bars around the icicle-covered alpine village and showcases the region’s best ingredients, creative chefs and winemakers. But even if you miss this annual indulgence, Whistler is bulging with finger-licking grub throughout the season. Araxi (4222 Village Square) is among the best restaurants of any BC ski resort, combining an ever-changing menu of seasonal dishes — such as Queen Charlotte Island cod and Cowichan Valley chicken — with the kind of friendly service that proves high-end restaurants don’t have to be snooty.
But you don’t have to break the bank to eat well in Whistler.
The homely Beetroot Cafe (4340 Lorimer Rd) entices with its blackboard menu of hearty treats, ranging from yam quesadillas to thick-packed turkey and brie sandwiches. And stick around for the coffee and bakery goodies, especially the apricot cookies.
While high-profile Whistler attracts plenty of international visitors, you’re more likely to rub shoulders with locals at some of the province’s other ski areas. But although Fernie, Silver Star and Manning Park have their fans, travelling gourmands often make for Sun Peaks near Kamloops, a two-hour flight from Vancouver. Try to make it here for the mid-January Icewine Festival. A five-day celebration of Canada’s signature dessert wine, the festival includes laidback workshops on food and wine pairings, an introduction to icewine production (officially, the grapes have to freeze on the vine) and a series of indulgent dinners staged in gable-roofed lodges and hotels.
The festival’s highlight is the Saturday night progressive tasting, when hundreds of wine quaffers slip and slide around the village searching for the sample tables located in various venues.
On my last visit, I barrelled into a couple of snow banks but never spilled a drop of wine.
Back on Grouse, after gamely polishing off my fondue banquet, I strap on the snowshoes for a final waddle in the refreshing night air, weaving among the growing crowds of floodlit revellers.
After a few restorative circuits, I return to the lodge, ease off my snowshoes, and head to the upstairs bar. A cold bottle of local Granville Island lager seems the best way to end an evening of exertion and indulgence.
Grouse Mountain snowshoe-fondue packages, including equipment and dinner, cost $C79 ($85) a person. More: www.grousemountain.com. Whistler’s Cornucopia festival takes place on November 8-12 this year. More: www.whistlercornucopia.com. Sun Peaks’ Icewine Festival takes place on January 14-19, 2008. More: www.thewinefestivals.com.
Rising to the occasion: Clockwise from above, a lift carries snow revellers up Grouse Mountain, near Vancouver in British Columbia; charming Whistler Blackcomb resort is popular with foodies; steaming cheese fondue entices skiers