Here in the center of the Inland Northwest, we're blessed with not one, but six great resorts with Schweitzer, Mt. Spokane, 49 & ordm; North, Silver Mountain, Lookout Pass and Big Mountain, all within a few hours driving distance. But drive just a few more hours and you could be skiing across a suspension bridge over the Methow River, staying in a beautiful turn-of-the-century lodge in Alberta, or snowshoeing to a yurt for hot cocoa in central Idaho. Why not take a few days off, load up the car and turn a day's recreation into an unforgettable weekend event? We've got your destinations all picked out.
If you've ever opted to take the North Cascades Highway during the summer on your way to Vancouver or Puget Sound, then you already know how beautiful the Methow Valley is. Nestled in the eastern foothills of the Cascades, Mazama, Twisp and Winthrop are pretty enough to draw tourists, but are low key enough to keep the locals wanting to continue living there.
In the winter, the North Cascades Highway is closed outside of Mazama, but the end of the road for travelers is just the beginning for nordic skiers. For starters, the area's great weather -- the Methow Valley boasts five sunny days out of seven in the winter -- is appealing to skiers on both sides of the state who long for a little blue sky. The Methow Community Trail connects the three communities mentioned above with the valley's three ski areas, Sun Mountain, Mazama and Rendezvous. The trail system, more than 25 km of groomed trail, includes a suspension bridge over the Methow River and a number of lodges perfect for an overnight stay.
In fact, Rendezvous offers a number of Rendezvous Huts for Methow Valley Sport Trails Association members, borrowed from the European tradition of skiing from hut to hut. These cozy, well-equipped little cabins are a fun alternative to roadside motels and are only accessible by ski. Jay Lucas, an MVSTA member who helps maintain and operate the trail system, reports that while there isn't much new in the valley this winter, the association has finally been granted a 20-year permit from the U.S. Forest Service.
"What this means is we don't have to keep applying every five years," laughs Lucas. He says that most of the Methow Valley's visitors come from the West Coast, but that the area has a loyal following of Eastern Washington residents as well.
If you're interested in staying in town, The Chewuch Inn in Winthrop is running specials through the month of November with rooms at the Inn beginning at $60 and cabins starting at $70. The cabins are divided into two types, family style and romantic. The romantic cabins are a little pricier -- $90 a night -- but offer fireplaces, CD players, down bedding and plush robes. The Inn also has horseback riding, a billiards and game room, a video library and an outdoor spa.
The exchange rate could hardly be better than its current rate of 46 percent. What this means for American travelers is that for every American dollar, you get $1.46 in Canadian. Do the math and you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that $500 in American cash means a cool $730 in Canadian. While the rate can vary from place to place (many hotels make it easy on themselves and just exchange at a standard 40 percent), one of the best ways to spend your newly multiplied wad of money is a stay in the Banff Springs Hotel, the legendary "Castle of the Rockies."
With three world class ski areas -- Lake Louise, Norquay and Sunshine Village -- all easily accessed by the hotel's shuttle service, you'll still be tempted to stay within the romantic confines of your hotel. The 112-year-old Banff Springs Hotel is famous for its Gothic architecture and boasts of no less than 16 restaurants and cafes and 770 rooms. Pamper your winter skin with a trip to Solace, considered one of the best spas in North America, or look into having high tea ($15 Canadian), which is served at the hotel every afternoon. Canadian Rockies Winter Experience Packages are available beginning Nov. 20 and start at $606 (U.S.) for one night's lodging, a 60-minute spa treatment, downhill skiing at any of the three area resorts, a skiing or snowboarding lesson at Norquay and equipment rental.
Similar packages are available at two other Canadian Pacific Hotels, Chateau Lake Louise and Jasper Park Lodge. Chateau Lake Louise bears no small resemblance to the Coeur d'Alene Resort (including its lakefront location) and offers the closest proximity to Canada's largest ski area, Lake Louise. Four mountains and more than 100 named runs make this an international destination resort, and the "champagne powder" is some of the best in the Canadian Rockies. The arid climate produces snow with a moisture content of about 7 percent -- 3 percent less than the European and North American average, making for lots of fluffy white stuff.
The scenery is storybook-beautiful as well -- the mountains are full of glaciers that feed Lake Louise, giving the arctic waters their beautiful deep azure color. Ice skating is available on the lake in front of the Chateau, and both dogsledding and sleigh rides are available from the hotel daily.
While skiing at Lake Louise, be sure to check out the $8 million Lodge of the Ten Peaks at the base of the resort. You could pack a small herd of skiers inside the fireplace, reputed to be the largest in Western Canada, and a wraparound deck offers a chance to warm up under some midwinter rays all day long.
Finally, if a winter getaway -- get far, far away -- is what you're after, consider a stay at Skoki Lodge. The only way to get in is by ski or on horseback and there's no running water or electricity, but for rustic charm, the place can't be beat. Kerosene lamps and firewood keep the lodge warm and well-lit, and water comes from the ice-cold creek nearby.
Closer to the American border you'll find Fernie, one of the best kept secrets of the Canadian Rockies. "Cheap and deep" is the motto here, with unbelievable winter specials and a reputation for more champagne powder than anywhere else in the Canadian Rockies.
Finally, getting closest to home, just a few hours north of the Canadian border is picturesque Nelson, built on either side of a narrow section of Kootenay Lake. Skiing is available at Red Mountain and Whitewater, which celebrates 25 years this winter. As we go to press, Whitewater is putting together some great "Ski & amp; Stay" packages, so check their website in the coming weeks for further details. Whitewater is both beginner and seasoned pro-friendly, with a ski school, a separate snowboard area and some of the best pass prices around. A full-day adult pass on Whitewater is only $37.
Lodgings in Nelson are plentiful and cheap. There are your usual hotel chains and more adorable little bed and breakfast places than you can shake a skipole at, but our favorite is the Heritage Inn, where some of the 1987 Steve Martin film Roxanne was filmed. Staying in one of the Inn's 42 nostalgic guest rooms is well within reach (we're talking $45 American for a typical double) and comes with free breakfast (bacon, eggs and hashbrowns, not just a pastry and coffee). Those who appreciate a good cigar will be happy to know that real Cuban cigars are available in the bar. If the roads are good, be sure to check out Ainsworth Hot Springs, about a 45-minute drive north of Nelson.
Salmon River Area
Brundage ski resort outside of McCall, Idaho, is a vast stretch of ski-friendly mountainside that's become enormously popular with families. Onsite daycare and ski lessons for kids are just a part of what Brundage has to offer. Guided Snowcat Adventures offer superb backcountry skiing with the help of a Snowcat ride and experienced guides licensed by the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association.
Snowshoeing is offered as well, and for $25 you get snowshoe rental, a two-hour guided tour focusing on the area's wildlife, and a cup of hot cocoa at a yurt. Lodging is available in McCall, and also in Riggins, which is worth checking out for a great getaway deal at The Lodge at Riggins Hot Springs right now. Their "Autumn Package" comes with meals and beverages (including wine, beer and champagne), a night's stay and use of the hot springs, which overlook the Salmon River, all for $212.50 per couple.