“Mask up, Helly Hansen!” a lift attendant yells at a skier wearing an HH-branded jacket. She’s standing in the “private cohort” lift line in front of us and has forgotten to re-position her buff.
“Sorry,” she mumbles, hurriedly covering her mouth and nose like a scientist inside a Biosafety Level 4 lab who’s just realized her hazmat suit is compromised.
“You need a Taser to make your job easier,” her ski companion jokes to the liftie. “Or a water gun!”
The surreal reality of lift attendants—those clichéd pot-smoking ski bums of popular imagination—enforcing pandemic dress codes isn’t lost on me as we shuffle toward the chairlift, ensconced in our own thermal layers that include a helmet, goggles, and a makeshift double mask (a thin buff underneath a thick neck warmer). But on this sunny January day, halfway up Mt. Mackenzie at Revelstoke Mountain Resort in British Columbia, liftie mask police are part of the new normal.
Nearly one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S.-Canada border remains closed and the Canadian federal government has canceled all flights to Mexico and the Caribbean through April. Parts of the country are in lockdown—fortunately, not B.C., where I live—and health officials recommend against all non-essential travel.
The ski getaway has become the last vacation standing; the only option available that combines a change of scenery with a healthy outdoor activity and the opportunity to recharge in nature. And B.C. resorts have stepped up with strict regulations to protect guests and staff that include separate lift lines for private and mixed cohorts, reduced capacity in restaurants, and mandated double-layer masks to be worn at all times except when you’re actually skiing.
My husband, teenage daughter, and I have driven 128 miles from Kelowna, in B.C.’s wine and lake country, to Revelstoke, a railway town situated between two massive mountain ranges that regularly break snowfall records. Revelstoke Mountain Resort receives an average of 45 feet of snow every season that’s spread across 3,100 acres of open bowls, gladed gullies, vertigo-inducing steeps, and a smattering of corduroy groomers that snake down the mountain’s 5,620 feet of elevation—the longest vertical drop of any ski area in North America.
Our plan is to stick to our bubble group of three. We’ll ski by day, strictly adhering to the resort’s and town’s COVID-19 protocols, and watch Netflix movies by night inside a spotless, ski-themed basement suite called Snowdrifters Guest House that we found on Airbnb. The accommodation includes a separate entrance and a full kitchen, so we can eat most meals there, too.
Still, it’s a bit awkward when we arrive, all masked up in the entryway. Our physically distant and likewise masked host, Helen Kondos-Sheppard, is eager to chat about the town, the resort, and what’s been an unusual winter. Her guests are both fewer and more hunkered down than last season. Normally, she’d be sold out through spring break, but many skiers from Vancouver canceled after a B.C. travel advisory was announced in late November.
Province-wide restrictions including a mask mandate inside indoor public spaces and rules against group gatherings, combined with news of “COVID clusters” in B.C. resort towns including Whistler, Big White, Fernie, and Revelstoke, have also been a deterrent to would-be schussers. Still, Kondos-Sheppard is loath to turn out-of-town guests away.
“I feel like if everyone’s doing their part, with the hygiene aspect and following the rules, it’s OK. A lot of businesses feel the same way,” she says.
Gallery: 15 Very Bizarre Things You Can Do at Hotels Around the World This Winter (Fodor’s)
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15 Very Bizarre Things You Can Do at Hotels Around the World This Winter
Ski-in, ski-out resorts are an obvious choice for winter adventures, but these hotels offer something a bit more…or, at least, something more, memorable.
COVID-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, countries, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of COVID-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread. From spelunking through an ice cave in Norway to wild oyster tonging through ice on Prince Edward Island, check out these bizarre winter activities at hotels around the world.
WHERE: Val d’Isere, France
As the sun hits the two-meter-thick sheet of ice that covers Tignes Lake in France’s Val d’Isere, the water below transforms into a mesmerizing display of light and texture. It’s a sight that few will ever have the chance to experience, apart from the adventurous guests staying at the Airelles Val d’Isere, Mademoiselle. This ski-in, ski-out luxury hotel sends guests underwater—through a single entry/exit point—during the winter with a qualified diving instructor to explore the icy waters of the lake and watch the sunbeams dance off the ice above. Divers can then warm up at the Guerlain spa or with a cocktail next to the open-log fire in the bar.
Wild Oyster Tonging
WHERE: Prince Edward Island
The only legal way to harvest wild oysters in Canada’s Prince Edward Island is by tonging, which is essentially a method of manually scraping the riverbed with long rakes. When rivers freeze over during the winter months—the time when oysters are their most plump—fishermen cut holes in the ice to reach the water and the oysters below. Tranquility Cove Adventures offers a wild oyster tonging experience from their Tranquility Cove Beach Suite on the Brudenell River where guests can get test their tonging skills before enjoying oysters cooked over a bonfire on the ice.
Icelandic Horseback Riding
WHERE: Camden, Maine
Said to be the original Viking horses, this resilient breed picked up a few tricks during its more than 1,000-year isolation on the rugged island of Iceland. Not only do Icelandic horses thrive in winter climates, but they also have five natural gaits, as opposed to the three gaits other horse breeds can perform. Along with galloping, walking, and trotting, Icelandic horses can also tölt (a “smooth as silk” trot) and skeið (often described as a flying pace). Guests booking the Icelandic Trail Riding Adventure from the Hartstone Inn & Hideaway get a first-hand look at these magnificent creatures during a 90-minute introduction and experience riding through the wintry woods before a chef-packed picnic lunch.
WHERE: Nova Scotia, Canada
Surfing isn’t just a summer season sport in Nova Scotia; it’s a lobster season one, which means whipping out the wet suit since the season is open from November through May. Water temperatures swell just barely above the freezing point during the winter surf season, but it’s when the waves are most consistent. The White Point Beach Resort in Queens County has an onsite winter surf shop and offers lessons and rentals for guests. Surfers staying at the resort often end the day with handcrafted s’mores roasted around a roaring bonfire on the beach.
Fat Biking Down a Volcano
Fat biking in the snow is fun, but fat biking down an Icelandic volcano is nothing short of thrilling. Hotel Ranga, a Small Luxury Hotel, sets guests up with local activity partner Midgard Adventure to take a Super Jeep ride up to the top of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier (a volcano that erupted in 2010) only to zoom down 1,400 meters on fat bikes. If that’s not enough, guests can add on an ice climbing adventure up a frozen waterfall or do some winter surfing off the black sandy beach—which is encrusted with snow and ice crystals during winter—of Landeyjafjara.
Winter Via Ferrata
WHERE: Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy
Many of Italy’s most famous via ferrata (“iron path”) routes were installed in the Dolomites during WWI as a way to move troops and supplies high up into formerly inaccessible terrain of the mountains to establish bases. Hiking the via ferrata is often a summer activity, where hikers climb the treacherous terrain using the steel cables as a guide along the climbing path. But at the Cristallo, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, Cortina d’Ampezzo, it’s an all-year event as climbers brave the weather by strapping on crampons and using ice axes to climb the icy trail with an experienced guide from Cortina Alpine Guides.
Snowshoe Labyrinth Meditation
Alaska’s remote backcountry is home to this meditative midwinter activity. Guests of the Winterlake Lodge strap into a pair of snowshoes as they head off with Within the Wild adventure company for a meditative stroll along an ice-candle-lit labyrinth on a frozen lake beneath a possible Northern Lights enflamed sky. Other winter wellness experiences at the hotel include Northern spirit cleansing in a steaming cedar banya or bonfire meditation with a letting go ceremony.
WHERE: St. Moritz, Switzerland
The word “skijoring” translates literally to “ski driving” in Norwegian, although the first skijorers did so in central Asia during the Tang Dynasty. Most often, skijoring involves a skier being pulled by a team of dogs or a snowmobile, but, at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, skiers grab hold of a harness attached to a racing horse as the speed along an icy track.
WHERE: Salt Lake City and Park City, Utah
Kite skiing, or snowkiting, has been popular in Europe for some time, but this extreme sport is taking off—literally—at the Utah SnowKite Center in Salt Lake City. The sport is similar to windsurfing or kiteboarding, except the water is frozen and skiers’ feet are locked in with either a snowboard or pair of skis. Skiers staying at the Washington School House Hotel will have the easiest commute for lessons among the vast snowkiting fields around the slopes of Park City, where riders sail through the scenic mountaintops.
WHERE: Tannersville, Pennsylvania
Many snow tubing hills around the world offer tubing into the late hours of the night, where icy lanes are illuminated by simple floodlights, but the lanes at Camelback Resort in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania are enhanced by something much more memorable. Every night during the winter season, colorful LED lights and dancing disco lights glow up the 42 lightning-fast lanes and two magic carpet lifts for a Galactic Tubing experience like no other, complete with a DJ and food truck serving gourmet soup and sandwiches and craft beer.
WHERE: Adelboden, Switzerland
A skibock is basically the unicycle of snow equipment. This Swiss invention was first introduced in the early 1900s when a local from Adelboden placed a simple seat on a wooden ski and zoomed down a mountain in record time. The skibock has been a beloved winter pastime in Adelboden ever since, and today visitors can add a skibock experience to their stay at The Cambrian, a Design Hotel, where they are transported to the groomed tobogganing hills of Tschentenalp to choose between riding the traditional skibock or any of the other extreme sleds (i.e., snooc, skigibel, airboard, etc.).
WHERE: Denver, Colorado
This Winter Olympic sport is often played on an indoor rink with two fixed hacks and rubber-lined holes, but at the Halcyon, a hotel in Cherry Creek, players play alfresco on the rooftop among the buckets of beer and winterized yurts of the Elevated Rooftop Bar. Packages start at $85 for hotel guests, where they get an hour-and-a-half time slot on the lofty ice with a bucket of beer.
Ice Cave Spelunking
WHERE: Svalbard, Norway
Headlamps help guide trekkers armed with crampons and snowshoes along their journey beneath the polar night sky as the Larsglacier begins to come into view. Basecamp Explorer Svalbard guides lead the way deep inside this glacier so guests can wander and explore around the moon-like landscape of the ice cave inside. The experience lasts five hours, including the challenging hike in the snow that it takes to arrive at this remote glacier.
Sleeping in an ice hotel is one thing, but building your own igloo is on an entirely different level. At Iglu-Dorf Kuhtai in Austria’s Tyrolean mountains, guests of the igloo hotel set out to learn how to construct an igloo as an experienced guide and builder instructs how to build the snowy structure, block by block.
WHERE: Gstaad, Switzerland
Not to be confused with tame sledding hills, the sledge runs in Switzerland are a bit more thrilling. Many sledge runs are formed from retired ski runs, where sledgers can reach speeds up to 50 km/h. Some runs pass through village streets and active ski runs, but for 10 nights during the winter season, guests staying at the Gstaad Palace can book a trip up with the Sparenmoos Active Club to speed down the moon and torch illuminated Family Sparenmoos-Heimchueweid.
Marooned in the middle of B.C., more than two hours from the nearest international airport, it’s difficult to get to Revelstoke even during non-pandemic times. It bodes well for our on-mountain experience: the parking and lift line horror stories we’ve heard about from Whistler on the West Coast and Sunshine Village to the east in Banff, both within a two-hour drive of big cities—Vancouver and Calgary, respectively—are nonexistent here.
When we pull into the parking lot on Saturday it’s a ghost town for a January weekend morning. Evidently, skiers from Alberta and B.C.’s lower mainland are mostly heeding travel advisories and carving turns closer to home. This jives with Revelstoke’s numbers—daily visits are down 50%, says spokesperson Carly Moran.
“We did the math at the beginning of the season and braced ourselves. This is what we have to do to keep people safe. That’s the reality of this year,” she says. “Technically, yes, (people) can come. But please wait until next season.”
Reduced capacity is also by design. In an effort to minimize close contact and touchpoints, and to control skier numbers on the mountain with daily caps, Revelstoke has gone exclusively to online ticket sales (if the day sells out, ticket sales close for that date).
It’s a similar story inside the resort’s on-mountain eateries and base area restaurants, which also have reduced seating along with plexiglass barriers between booths and tables (what’s more, both upper-mountain warming huts are closed this season, as there’s no way to enforce physical distancing).
We pick up our prepaid two-day passes, walk past hand sanitizer stations and the ski school kiosk where masked-up instructors wait for their private and bubble-group lessons, and clomp into our own eight-person gondola car. It’s a bracing 18 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but signs inside the compartment ask that we keep the windows open for ventilation. The cabins are also sprayed periodically with a microbe shield that ruptures bacteria and viruses on contact.
After one more gondola and a quad chairlift ride, with zero lift lines, we’re deposited on the resort’s sun-bathed summit. We’ve burst through a layer of clouds that hides the Columbia River Valley more than a mile below. The distant peaks of the Monashee Mountains to the west appear as snow-capped islands atop a white horizon of shimmering ice crystals.
At this moment, bundled in gear to rival an astronaut and with empty ski runs calling like a siren’s song, COVID seems as distant a threat as Earth’s problems to an astronaut on the moon. Skiing, and the freedom it brings, feels like a wormhole through space and time—I can almost pretend that it’s January 2020 and life is still normal.
The ski getaway has become the last vacation standing; the only option available that combines a change of scenery with a healthy outdoor activity and the opportunity to recharge in nature.
We ski eager turns toward the South Bowl and delight in powder stashes hidden in glades that border groomed runs before traversing to a mid-mountain area with easier terrain for our daughter, a novice snowboarder.
Then, my husband and I make tracks to the Stoke chairlift, where we do lap after lap in the aptly named Separate Reality Bowl. The snow covering the steep, alpine pitches is a week old but skis like it fell yesterday because so few people are on the slopes this year.
At the end of the day, we head to Mt. Begbie Brewery for a subdued après ski session of craft beer for the adults and Snapple for our daughter. Physically distant from the other patrons, we pore over the old-school paper trail map and plot out our Sunday, which includes forays into the North Bowl and more runs in Separate Reality Bowl, which is fitting.
The weekend has delivered a much-needed separate reality—we’ve briefly escaped, both mentally and physically, the crazy world of COVID in a safe and healthy way.
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