T’was a time when chasing a bucket list did not necessitate cracking an Enigma code of shifting Covid tests and requirements, juggling what’s needed to board a plane, to enter a country, to embark on a boat, to disembark, to return in transit. T’was a time recently where nobody was allowed to travel at all, but it looks like we’re finally done with that bit. There’s still too much friction when it comes to global travel, the legacy of Covid lingering like a suds stain around a student’s bathtub. The good news is that much of the world has collectively decided to move on, focusing efforts on protecting the vulnerable while living with Covid the way we live with other problematic viruses. It just took time and money, which tends to solve most problems. The better news: last month I returned to both my Canadian and Global Bucket List after too long a hiatus, and I returned in style. I’ve always wanted to sail in the Caribbean, and I’ve waited over a decade to once again experience to the deep virgin snow of backcountry skiing. March presented the opportunities, and so I grasped them, tightly, with the wind at my sails, and a smooth path from peak to gully.
Part One: The Caribbean
It started with a thought about sailing as an eco-friendlier form of cruising. Then I got lost in the fascinating real-life history of pirates, and distracted by the pool-clear waters of the Caribbean. Putting it altogether, I found the perfect itinerary on board one of the world’s largest passenger sail boats, a towering old-world tall ship operated by Swedish-owned, Malta-flagged Star Clippers. My experience will get its full due in an upcoming issue of the Vancouver Sun, but I will say this: Star Flyer – a 4-masted tall ship that swivels the head of even the saltiest sailor – is out of this world. It carries up to 166 passengers served by 74 crew, sailing the trade winds and ocean currents in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Central America and across the Atlantic. Unlike cruising, you feel the ocean (sometimes a little more than you’d like, but that’s part of the adventure), visiting bays, islands and beaches beyond reach of the cruise ships. It’s a luxury sailing adventure for those who don’t know anyone with a luxury sailboat, which I’m assuming describes most of us.
Staff and service is fantastic, the meals top notch, the cocktails smooth and the onboard amenities (two pools, a massage therapist, deck chairs, an open bridge, stocked library, water sports etc) most accommodating. Time slows down, and people read books, not feeds. You can do bucket list things like hang out on the bowsprit, sprawled on the netting as it dips over rolling waves above playful dolphins (yep, that happened). You can climb up the rope ladder to an 18m-high viewing platform, gazing over islands and ocean. You can bake in the sun like those fried European passengers who don’t seem to know about skin cancer. You can dance at night, request tunes from the pianist, dress like a pirate, or ask a thousand questions of the patient crew as they pull ropes and release topsails with special names that I forgot the moment I heard them. Pop into the Caribbean’s most legendary beach bars (the Soggy Dollar, Foxy’s etc) for a souvenir headache, nap in your cabin, listen to stories of fellow passengers, snorkel into sea caves, paddle-board, ogle at super yachts parking in St Barts. It’s everything one would expect the good life to be, and a very different kind of cruise experience. The more I travel on a small ship – a luxury river barge in the Amazon, a catamaran in the Galapagos, an expedition ship in the Antarctica – the more I fall in love with boats as a bucket list form of travel. If you can burn just 15% of the fuel of a regular ship, as the Star Flyer does under sail, it feels like the future of cruising, and the responsible way to go. As time progresses, I hope to add more small ships to my growing, curated bucket list cruise collection.
Part Two: Catskiing in the Skeena
The last and only time I cat-skied was on a private mountain in Chile. We were filming an episode of Word Travels, and my single biggest memory of that adventure is nervously watching our cameraman Sean ski backwards while he filmed my descent with a large six-figure camera on his shoulder. It was the only true bluebird ski day I’ve ever had, when the sky is crystal clear after a big dump of white snow. Skeena Cat Skiing in BC would be my second, and this time I wouldn’t have to worry about my TV show crashing with a wipeout (I can do that all by myself, thank you).
I had one day to switch my Caribbean bag for my snow gear, catching a prop flight north from Vancouver to the town of Smithers BC. Here I met a group of elite ski journalists, gathering at the helipad for our memorable ride into base camp. Any day you get to ride a helicopter is a good day. Skeena Cat Skiing is a family-run affair and clearly a passion project of immense love and hard work. Many hours away from anything, guests stay in heated dome tents buried in snow, which is a cool experience unto itself. The comfy, wood-fired heated lodge tent is loaded with fine beer, snacks, worn couches, and a friendly chef who prepared outstanding hearty dinners and desserts. We’re surrounded by the Thomlinson and Gail Creek mountains, 30,000 hectares of fresh powder and skiable glades in every direction. Our ski chair is a customized Piston Bully snow grader, with a large heated cabin for 14 passengers on the back. This ‘cat’ can go anywhere and everywhere it pleases, and it does. Skirting a steep ride, it deposited us at the top of runs that funnel into valleys where we would be collected by the cat for another ascent. Backcountry safety is taken seriously: we’re all equipped with avalanche kits, air bags, walkie-talkies, and given a tutorial in rescue. Veteran guides know what they’re doing and accidents are rare to non-existent. Any nerves dissipate after the first run, replaced with elation and joy and wowzers because this is the skiing you dream about, every time you strap in, and every time you head up a mountain. I was easily the weakest boarder of the group, and I’m no slopestyle expert (especially in the company of Olympic skier Yuki Tsubota). But even at my own pace, I was able to keep up, sharing the pinnacle of what snow sport can deliver. Cat skiing is more affordable than heli-skiing, and you can read more about both in my Bucket Listed column for Can Geo Travel. Suffice to say: it’s going to be hard going up a local ski hill again, but there’s always something to aspire to, and something to look forward to next time.
Another year and another decade have passed, another year and another decade we won’t get back. Despite all the indicators to the contrary (I highly suggest reading Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now) it certainly feels like we’re living in particularly turbulent times. Brexit, Trump, ISIS, Facebook…the 2010’s have repeatedly been called the Decade of Crisis. It was also a decade that took us into science fiction more than one would think. Consider arriving in January 1, 2010, and telling a person on the street:
What the hell are you talking about? And this is just a fraction of the global fizzle-pop martini that has shaken and stirred over the past ten years. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens wrote that timeless line in 1859. There is always political, cultural and economic turbulence, although this decade frequent environmental disasters joined the party. Unprecedented droughts (South Africa, Argentina, Australia), floods (India, Louisiana, Oklahoma), hurricanes (Bahamas, Puerto Rico), storms (Superstorm Sandy, Tropical Irene), heatwaves, wildfires (Australia, California, BC), the melting Arctic, city-sized icebergs breaking off Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula. And facing this global challenge are a bunch of world leaders not too removed from comic book villains.
There have always been high season and low season, but overtourism – best represented by poster children like Barcelona and the Louvre, Venice and Dubrovnik - proved canaries in the coalmine for the onslaught of travellers benefitting from cheap airfare, growing middle classes and an obsession with social media validation. I’ve had to question my own role in all of this, as this decade saw me transform from a freelance writer and television host into the bestselling author of a half dozen “bucket list” themed books. Not to mention a husband and father. What hasn’t changed is the core of what set me off fifteen years ago: an insatiable curiosity, and the desire to share what I discover with others in the hope that it inspires them as much as it has inspired me.
My latest book is about the joys, trials, hilarity and wonders when travelling with kids across Australia. Gone are the days of intense budget travel, and I’m a little long in the tooth to be sharing dorms in hostels (plus kids under six are not the best bunk mates). But they do demand and instigate new adventures all the time. We’re kicking off 2020 with a true bucket list road trip adventure, visiting three incredible BC ski resorts to learn – as a family – how to embrace the Canadian winter, and make it down a mountain on skis. Having warmed up for a recent Vancouver Sun story about Whistler, we’re kicking off on the powder of RED Mountain, revving up for Revelstoke, and with any luck we will get a thumbs up from Olympic legend Nancy Greene on the slopes of Sun Peaks. As usual, I hope to inspire other families to do the same, and at the very least, avoid visits to the hospital (my ER visit in Whistler to saw off my wedding ring was enough, thanks).
Whatever happens in the year and decade to come, may the weather prove fair and your health fairer. May our challenges be met and our smiles frequent. I hope we continue to appreciate the incredible benefits of our privilege, and empathize with those who want nothing more than to share a piece of it. Every year that passes is a year we won’t get back. Regardless of what we might be telling ourselves in 2030, let’s continue to make them count.
Revel in the Stoke
You can really get a sense of place by its name. Take Istanbul, Timbuktu, or even Bird Island (where I write these words, off the coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia). Revelstoke, the BC transport hub on the way from Vancouver to Banff, certainly has a name better than most. A town that lets you revel in the stoke? Come on, a high-priced brand agency couldn’t have come up with something that good. The town, population 15,000, got its name from one Lord Revelstoke, an English industrialist who rescued the Canadian Pacific Railway from bankruptcy in 1885. In the shadow of the Selkirk Mountains, sandwiched by the mountainous beauty of Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks, the town also boasts a ski resort with the greatest vertical descent of any ski resort on the continent. Fun for another time. We’re here for a family roadtrip in summer, driving six hours up from Vancouver to explore local activities for all ages, including another tick on my ever-expanding Canadian Bucket List.
An Old Lady Lived in a Shoe in an Enchanted Forest
After crossing dramatic mountain passes and driving alongside large, scenic lakes, we pull off the Trans Canada Highway to explore The Enchanted Forest and adjacent Skytrek Adventure Park. With various high ropes courses through the tall forest trees, the latter is catnip for kids and adults channelling their inner gibbon. The former is eccentric and certainly bizarre. Dozens of tiny and not so tiny fairy tale houses have been built on the forest floor, complete with a castle, a giant climbing a tree, mermaids, wooden horses, and mischievous forest elves. A passion project that has been a popular, quirky roadside attraction for half a century, my young kids embraced Enchanted Forest with sheer, unadulterated delight. Happy kids, happy parents, and happier still that both these attractions are less than a half hour’s drive from downtown Revelstoke, where our room at the Regent Hotel awaits.
A town that straddles the industries of railway, forestry and tourism, Revelstoke is refreshingly devoid of glitzy retail brands, and oozes small town charm. It is protected from being overrun by its relative isolation from a major city, resulting in the kind of place where locals greet each other at free nightly summer music concerts in Grizzly Plaza, or at the weekend street market bursting with local flavours. Our outstanding meals at Taco Club, Nico’s Pizza, Paramjit’s Kitchen and the exceptional Quartermaster offered funky, homely and fine dining, while a visit to the Aquatic Centre (a must for young kids) made me pine for something similarly inexpensive and less crowded in Vancouver. Toasting outstanding craft beer at Rumpus Beer Co, I admired the moxie of the husband-wife owners chasing their small town dream, and wondered, along with many others I imagine, if Revelstoke is the kind of place where I could chase a dream too. A real sense of community permeates the town, a community that doesn’t mind living ten minutes down the road from a world class ski resort, or two and half hours from Kelowna, the nearest regional airport.
The Pipe Mountain Coaster
Revelstoke Mountain Resort is famous for the highest vertical run on the continent, but is embracing its four season possibilities. This means world-class mountain biking, and for my bucket list, the longest alpine rollercoaster in Canada. Taking the gondola up to mid-mountain, my family soaked in the stellar mountain views and fanning Columbia River, before hopping into yellow go-cart like contraption connected on a narrow single rail. My wife and I each put a kid in our laps and strapped in for a thrilling 1.4 kilometre descent. The Pipe Mountain Coaster twists, curves and whoops its way 279 metres down the mountain, through forest and breathless dips at speeds of up to 42 km/hr. A simple mechanism allows us to brake and go at our own pace, and most first timers will take it easy. Get the three-ride pass (or more) and you’ll soon dispense with the brakes altogether, hitting the hell-yeah! controlled maximum speed that ensures it’s safe and fun for the whole family. “Faster Daddy!” yelled my daughter, and who am I to argue?
Paddle at the Rumpus Beer Company
Feet away from the exit point of the coaster is newly opened Aerial Adventure Park, where you can easily spend two hours navigating fifty different balance and height obstacles, rising four stories above the ground. Graded like ski runs into green, blue and black difficulties, climbers are safely harnessed throughout the entire contraption. Watching brave little kids take on swinging rings or a knee-shaking four-story jump should add some pep to your steps. Fortunately, great food and craft beer awaits the victorious in the village regardless (and for the kids, ice-cream).
A Pirate Battle
River rafting is another popular summer activity in Revelstoke, with various companies offering grade three runs. For younger kids, consider Wild Blue Yonder’s River Pirates Tour, complete with pirate costumes, face paint, bush battles and fun tales of yaargh! Downriver from the impressive hydro dam, we drifted on the glass mirror of the Columbia River, listening to Captain Jack’s brogue as he recounted the myth of the man-eating moose. My daughter - made-up with face paint, bandanna’d, and now known as Jolly Lips Sue - had a blast. Nobody got wet, and foam sword battles continued back in our comfortable family suite at the Regent.
Here comes the train!
Fortunately the sword stayed behind when we checked out the old world Railway Museum, although the knives came out when my three year-old had his thermonuclear meltdown when we told him it was time to leave the large, warm wading pool at the Aquatic Centre. We packed a lot into just three days, and could have easily spent a week exploring this underrated wonder of the BC interior. It’s all right there in the very name of the town, where families can revel in the stoke of it.
Three hours drive from the Chilean capital of Santiago is a ski resort without any shops, malls, or promenades. There are no restaurants, bars or hotels either. There’s not even a ski lift. Yet it still attracts clients from around the world, and for good reason. Ski Arpa is the dream of a lifelong ski instructor who scrapped and saved over three decades to open a mountain for anyone in love with stunning views, and untracked snow. Here, two Pisten Bully Snowcats shepherd up to 22 skiers to the top of the mountain, where they have mind-boggling access to 4000 acres of skiable terrain.
Toni Sponar, a veteran ski-instructor of Aspen, Banff, and number of South American ski resorts, bought 5000 acres of land back in 1983. At just $5000, it was a bargain even for a ski instructor. The location was ideal. From atop the peak of Alto del Arpa you can see the Pacific Ocean to the west, and Mount Aconagua, the tallest mountain outside the Himalayas, to the east. The south facing slopes receive plenty of sun, protected from harsh winds, with chutes forming in natural abundance. Surrounding you is the Andes mountain range in all its glory - so different from the view in the Rockies, or the Alps.
A year after his dream purchase, Toni installed a ski lift and set to work creating an 8km switchback road to the base lodge. Then disaster struck. A massive storm dumped metres of snow, causing an avalanche that wiped out the lift, the lodge, and all of Toni’s savings in the process. He would still visit his mountain with friends over the years, but it would take another 20 years before he could resurrect his dream of a skier’s ski resort. He purchased two Snowcats, aligned with booking and marketing agents, and finally created the most rewarding catskiing operation on the continent. Clients visit from around the world for the powder, the sweeping vista, and the unlimited fresh tracks.
As we slowly make our way up the switchbacks, the van abruptly stops and one of my fellow passengers throws up. It’s a rough road, which Toni maintains himself, zig-zagging 600m up the valley. I’m feeling a little queasy from the altitude, but the excitement seems to settle my stomach. I only discovered the joy of snow when I moved to Canada in my twenties. When I was 6 years old, a once-a-century freak snowstorm hit Johannesburg. My schoolteacher, having never seen snow, made the class hide under our desks. She thought it was nuclear fall out.
I was retelling the story in the van as the switchbacks became ever steeper. Finally, our Swiss driver announces we have arrived. Next to the parking clearing is a humble, rustic building, built deliberately into the hill to avoid being wiped out by an avalanche like its predecessor. I am blessed with perfect conditions – the sky is clear and blue, and a 20cm of snow fell overnight. I sign a waiver, and get handed an avalanche transmitter by Anton, Toni’s son and partner in the operation. There are a dozen clients today, made up of Americans from Colorado, some French, some German. This is not Whistler or St Moritz or Aspen. We have all packed our own lunch, and accept the simplicity of the amenities. We have come for the snow, not the glitz.
It takes 45 minutes for the powerful snowcat to make its way up the mountain. I am standing at the back of the outdoor passenger area, watching Toni and another skier being towed behind us. The snowcat eats the steepest of inclines, charging like a tank up towards the peak. The air gets thinner and colder, and suddenly, the full might of the Andes appear on the horizon, a true alpine wonderland. After a final push from the powerful cat, my back against its protective rails at a near 45-degree angle, we arrive on the peak and dismount. The groups split up respectively, choosing a wild multitude of lines. Mount Aconagua, nearly 7000m high and dividing the Argentinean and Chilean border, beckons me forward. I let out a Wilhelm Scream, for if you can’t scream at the top of the world, where can you? Within seconds, I begin carving this mountain like a Thanksgiving turkey.
A full day with Ski Arpa includes four runs with a guide. By my third run, I am feeling braver, dropping into a gully to attempt an unsuccessful launch through a chute. It takes a while to dig myself out. Toni joins me on the next run, rocketing down his mountain, enjoying the start of another stellar season in Chile. He whips down so gracefully I find it hard to believe he’s old enough to be my grandfather. Meanwhile his clients are bonding over fat smiles and white powder. Warming up in the sun outside the base hut, we all agree: Who needs malls and promenades when you have a 1000m vertical descent on some of the best powder in the world? Especially when you have it all to yourself.
Ski Arpa is located near the village of Los Andes, 108km from Chile’s capital city Santiago.
Santiago Adventures (http://www.santiagoadventures.com/) provide hotel pick-up and guide service. If you drive, a 4 X 4 vehicle is essential. Reasonably priced gear rental is available through Santiago’s KL Adventures (http://www.kladventure.com) en-route. Ski Arpa’s season typically runs mid-June to mid-October.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.