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Dates: April 2004
Website : http://www.skifernie.com/ is the official site, and you can get a more personal view at http://far.redtree.com/, a website offering regular reports by local skiiers. Amazingly, the two aren't always that dissimilar in terms of reporting good days, although funnily enough there's rather less mention of "poor" conditions on the official site.
Basics : About 200 miles from Calgary (4 hour transfer) in the British Columbia Rockies, about 40 miles north of the american border. Operated by Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, who also own Kimberley (about an hour away, you can use one day of a multiday lift ticket at Kimberley), Lake Louise and a few other resorts.
Lift system : Only nine lifts - a small poma for the beginners, two detachable quads, two fixed grip quads, two fixed triples, a T-bar and a rope tow at the highest point. In our two trips there I've never had to queue, although in typical north american fashion the queues are well-organised so even on busy days I can't see that you would have to wait long.
The terrain : There's a lot of skiing, with 107 "pistes" spread out over 5 bowls, and a couple more bowls accesible outside the official ski area. Not all of it is easy : the terrain accessible to cautious intermediates is limited, and for those with only slightly more experience the choice doesn't increase dramatically. Those with a love of wide-open motorway pistes will be sorely disappointed: sure, there are some (and very nice they are too), but the majority of terrain is aimed at those with a penchant for adventure. The locals talk about "Fernie Blues" and indeed we would have rated some of the supposed "blue" runs much higher had they been in other resorts, bumping them up to reds and even blacks in some places! Many of the "pistes" would probably be classed as "itineraries" or even off-piste in europe and frequently involve steep, tree filled slopes or couloirs. If you have the skills to ride them, they're well worth the effort though. There's a half-pipe at the bottom of the hill served by the triple from the base area, and a Terrain park right at the top end of the Ski area: it takes two lifts to reach the top, and at the end there's a long road out.
The snow : "Legendary Powder" is Fernie's current marketing tag, and as one member of our group put it, "like most legends it's only loosely based in reality". Having followed the snow reports (both official and unofficial), it seems that the early part of the season was as good as ever but a month of no snow was followed by a rise in temperature and even rain. We found that the off-piste was a no-go area for the first few days (too icy), in which time the groomers did a fairly good effort of making the pisted areas worth the effort. As the sun came out to play (and thanks to some rain) the off-piste softened up dramatically and at that point we got to experience some of the more "interesting" runs described above. Result :
Last year's visit was after a similar snow drought, but it must be said we still managed to find real, genuine, honest to god powder, and some excellent skiing. More than one person commented that it was the best snow we'd ever experienced and it was those conditions that persuaded us to choose Fernie for this year's trip. It should be noted that in my seven years of skiing two or three times a year, this is the first time I've ever returned to a resort, so that should give you some indication of just how impressed we were first time round.
Off-piste : As was said above, a large proportion of Fernie's 107 pistes would not be classed as pistes anywhere in europe. I don't think even the most skilled pisteur could groom a 40 degree tree lined slope such as Tom's Run or Concussion Chutes. However on a powder day, you couldn't fail to enjoy yourself in Fernie.
For those with the money to spend, there are a couple of Cat-skiing operation based out of town (including Island Lake Lodge who operate just a few bowls down from the resort and are widely regarded as one of the best outfits) and it's possible to arrange Heli-skiing.
The resort : The resort is about 5km from the town of Fernie, and has limited facilities in terms of shops. RCR own the only Hire shop, which does have a pretty good range of skis for the anticipated conditions (mainly big fat ones!) and the only ski shop (helmets are notably cheaper then in town, boots are noticably nmore expensive). There's only one store which has a pretty good selection of the essentials (including videos and DVDs for hire), prices are similar to shops in town.
There's a regular shuttle bus through the day ($3 per trip, $2.50 if you buy a multi-trip booklet), and in the evening some of the local restaurants have subbed in to offer the same trip as a free service. Alternatively a taxi costs about $20.
The town is very small (circa 6000 people), with a few shops lining the main highway, and a few more on the "main street", downtown. It reminds me of nothing more than "South Park". Yes, as in the foul-mouthed cartoon.
The food :
Daytime: The day lodge offers good basic food at reasonable prices (e.g. Chicken ceasar salad wrap with fries plus bacon cheeseburger for under $15). Kelsey's is a little more elegant with table service available, and only very slightly more expensive. The Wood and the Lizard Lounge (in the Griz Inn and Lizard Creek Lodge respectively) offer super food, with the inevitable price rise. Those used to French mountains will still be amazed at the price though! For those who regard skiing asa more "social" activity, there are excellent puddings at the Lizard Lounge and the New York Baked Cheesecake at the Mean Bean Deli is almost reason enough on it's own to make the trip.
Evening : There's good and bad. Last year we tried Gabriella's (Italian restaurant on the hill) and this year didn't re-visit, for good reason. Having tried the Lizard Creek for lunch, we tried it in the evening and were sadly disappointed. We later heard that the high prices don't reflect the quality of the food, e.g. frozen veg is used instead of fresh.
The Wood, however, was a revalation, and Kelsey's (despite being a chain) was also popular, seeing multiple visits. Down in town, the Corner Pocket restauarant in the Grand Central bar served nice food, very tasty and good prices. The sushi bar Yama Goto got the thumbs up but my personal favourite was the Curry Bowl (name-play here, was one of the bowls forming part of the resort's terrain is Currie Bowl). The cuisine is more oriental than indian with japanese and thai dishes featuring, but the food was excellent and for those missing home too much they have boddingtons - cans though, not draft.
Accommodation : not a bad word to say, personally. Last year we stayed in the polar peak lodges, luxury ski-in accomodation (including a hot-tub on the verandah overlooking the ski-home trail) and only a 5 minute walk to the lifts, even in ski-boots. This year we stayed in the River Rock lodge for ten days - a fantastic house, again ski-in with only a five minute walk to the lifts, and then spent four days in an apartment in the Timberline Lodges complex. A little further down the hill, they are nominally ski-in but this invlolves a short hill and a road crossing. A ten minute walk sees you up at the lifts, but the ski bus stops and you can get a free ticket from the front desk. All these places are privately owned homes or apartments, mostly built to be rented out and all operated by a the Fernie lodging company who were really helpful with things like sorting out the timetables for the ski buses, lending us hairdryers etc.
Costs : Food and drink is cheap. Last year's trip was organised independently, this year we went with Frontier Ski who I can recommend without hesitation. Sure, we could have saved ¬£50 a head doing it ourselves but their service was worth it.
Conclusion : Lots of great skiing if there's good snow - especially if you're prepared to ski bumps, trees and couloirs. Some exceptionally tough marked runs. If there's no snow, however, it may get a little tedious.
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