High on a hill in summer
by Steve Hartridge | 08 August 2019
Ski resorts can look rather forlorn out of the winter season, their white slopes filled with meandering skiers replaced by green-and-brown-coloured hills dotted with untidy areas of worn grass and exposed rocks.
The distinctive linear cuts of the ski runs - like scars on a boxer’s face - are devoid of people, the chairlifts remain solemnly silent and the cafes and bars in the village attract a handful of contemplative coffee drinkers rather than a raucous après-ski crowd.
Hotels that run close to capacity in the winter months often struggle to fill 30% of their beds in the summer – and that’s during a good week.
But times are a-changing and mountain resorts that have built both communities and a tourism industry on the back of their snow business are increasingly looking for ways to transform themselves into year-round resorts by introducing a raft of attractions and family-focused activities.
Take, for example, two resorts on different continents: Sun Peaks in British Columbia, Canada and Kitzbühel in Austria.
I have been to both in recent weeks – as a guest on their first-ever hosted summer trade media fams - and tried my hand at everything from golf to stand-up paddle boarding to mountain biking.
I rowed across a lake following a route once taken by the ‘Voyageurs (those early French Canadians who engaged in the transporting of furs by canoe), played golf on Austria’s top-rated course and got a taste for two local cholesterol-raising delicacies: poutine, a Canadian dish consisting of cheese curd and gravy poured over fries, and Kaiserschmarrn, an Austrian sweet dessert that’s a kind of fluffy shredded pancake.
At both Sun Peaks and Kitzbuhel, the chairlifts are no longer silent in the summer.
At Canada’s second largest ski resort in terms of its miles of skiable terrain, the Sunburst Express ferries walkers, hikers and mountain bikers to a point around three-quarters of the way up one of the resort’s three mountains.
From here, a network of numbered or coloured trails – depending on their difficulty level or physical challenge - head off in all directions.
Those up for a serious hike can head up to a point called Top the World, situated 2,080 metres (or 6,834 feet) above the town.
From here the encircling mountains look a little like the Alps, in that they are not topped by the jagged, craggy almost threatening shapes of, say a Whistler or Banff peak, but have altogether smoother, more soothing lines.
The meadows below are ablaze with vibrant summer flowers like the fire-red Indian Paintbrush, white-and-yellow Mountain Asters and Blue Arctic Lupins.
Cows here have alpine ‘roaming rights’ and I also spot deer, marmots and cute Columbian ground squirrels.
All that’s missing from this wondrous replica alpine scene is a lonely goat herd and sprigs of white edelweiss poking out from the crack of a rock.
Black bears also inhabit the Sun Peaks area but remained elusive on my trip. They were close enough though, and I saw their scat (poo) on the cart path of the Sun Peaks golf course that runs through the village.
It may be one of Europe’s best-known winter resorts but long before Kitzbühel was discovered by skiers it attracted visitors keen to inhale its crisp mountain air, walk on its mountains covered with colourful crocuses and bright-yellow cowslips, admire its mirror lakes and swim in its streams.
These remain popular today, but on my walk across the Kitzbuheler Horn’s contoured lines, the powerful glacial peaks of the Hohe Tauern Mountain range rising up in the distance, I saw few other hikers.
Also available to summer visitors is a guided Edelweiss Hike over the Geissstein Mountain, which at 2,363 kilometres is the highest grass-covered mountain in Europe.
Mountain bilking is big business in both Sun Peaks and Kitzbühel.
Sun Peaks has built a reputation for its expert terrain and although it can point to some of the most technical riding in Canada, It is now attracting beginners to Progression Park, a learning and skills development area at the base of the resort that opened in 2018.
After being fitted with protective knee and arm pads, a helmet and given our state-of-the-art dual suspension bikes (around C$8,000 worth of kit), a carpet lift took me to the top of a short hill where Madeleine, my instructor for the six-hour session, talked me through the basic skills set – “keep the pedals level”, “brake before a turn but accelerate through it”, and “don’t lean back when things get steep and scary”!
It was then time to take the aforementioned Sunburst Express to the start of a ‘Green’ single-track run called ‘LevelUp’. Opened last summer, the trail winds nine kilometres back down to the town. It’s a route that builds skill and confidence comfortably – but with its gravel, roots, rocks, potholes, bridges and tight turns was both plenty long and challenging enough for me.
By the time I reached the bottom, after a couple of painless spills – “keep the bike moving at all times or it will get stuck in the gravel and topple you,” said Madeleine – I felt exhilarated and had added another must-do-again sport to my list.
Mountain biking is big in Kitzbühel too, and there are plenty of trails for bikers of all levels. I didn’t have time to take on the bike trail at the Hahnenkamm, one of the world’s most famous ski runs, but the ‘blue’ bike trail is aimed at family cycling excursions and the seven-kilometre route connects the Fleckalm mountain station with the Hahnenkamm mountain.
Obviously, not everybody who visits a mountain resort in the summer wants to explore the many ways to get down those mountains.
That’s why other summer activities at Sun Peaks include a cross cart track - featuring gravity-powered cars that reach speeds of up to 35kph - kayaking and canoeing on nearby McGillivray Lake, horse-riding lessons or trail riding, Segway tours and even excursions to nearby wineries.
Paddle-boarding is said to be the world’s fastest-growing watersport and lessons and excursions are offered on beautiful Heffley Lake, a few miles down the mountain from Sun Peaks on the road towards the prairie town of Kamloops.
With its log-built cottages and houses, small wooden boat launch areas, azure-blue waters and the sound of loons echoing around the lake, it feels quintessentially Canadian.
Bodie Shandro is the owner-instructor of Paddle Surfit. He is both calming and knowledgeable and a bit of an action man. He makes and markets his own boards – who knew they are inflatable? – surfs on mountainous waves in Mexico, and in winter is an expert ski instructor at Sun Peaks and a heli-ski guide in nearby Blue River.
But sadly neither his professionalism nor the surrounding beauty could inspire me to master the art of balancing whilst standing on a wobbling board and I took a couple of refreshing plunges in the lake before deciding to paddle my way across the narrow lake in a siting position.
But I still got to enjoy the serenity and beauty, spot turtles, trout and an osprey, and gaze up at amazing anvil cloud formations.
Sun Peaks also attracts big crowds to its occasional weekend summer concerts, held at the bottom of a grassy slope where the ski runs end and the village begins.
That’s how in late July I was found myself among a 6,000-strong crowd made up of all ages watching a well-received hour-long set from popular Canadian singer-songwriter Serena Ryder.
Many of those concert-goers visitors stayed in Sun Peaks overnight, enjoying more live music outside one of the town’s popular pubs, Morrissey’s, and dining in restaurants that served everything from sushi to schnitzel, bison burgers to grilled salmon, before moving on to shops selling homemade fudge or hand-crafted slabs of chocolate.
In Kitzbühel, the tourist board is currently pushing its golf product – and with good reason.
There are two excellent championship golf courses on the edge of town, the 18-hole Kitzbühel -Schwarzsee-Reith and the beautifully kept nine-hole Kitzbühel Golf Course, featuring two island greens.
A few miles out of town is the 18-hole Eichenheim Golf Course. With its rock faces and dense deciduous forests, Eichenheim is regularly rated Austria’s best course and offers what is surely one of Europe’s most scenic rounds of golf.
Kitzbühel Tourism has partnered with 11 hotels to specifically target golfers, who are offered discounted green fees, welcome drinks and mid-round snacks.
In the spring, selected ski runs are still open until early May and the golf courses have reopened – making Kitzbuhel one of the few places in the world where you can ski and play golf on the same day.
Like Sun Peaks, the larger Kitzbühel also has a growing series of summer events and festivals. My visit coincided with one of its most popular weekends, Kitz on Wheels, which sees the Harley Club Kitzbühel invite Harley-Davidson riders from around the world.
The day’s riding culminates in live concerts in the town centre, but the bars and restaurants were surprisingly quiet and it was easy to walk around the narrow streets.
The city itself has a delightful medieval centre that is packed with bars, restaurants, hotels and shops.
As a ski destination, Kitzbühel it is undeniably upmarket, but prices in both the hotels and restaurants fall in the summer, as they do at Sun Peaks – another reason why summer is an attractive time to visit and the perfect season to experience those many mountain highs, whether in Austria or Canada.
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