Soon after my family arrived at Mount Washington Alpine Resort, I knew we’d be back. With 1,700 acres of downhill and cross-country trails throughout British Columbia’s coastal hamlets of Comox and Courtenay, Mount Washington offers a family-friendly ski resort at a budget-friendly price.
Located at the southeastern edge of Strathcona Provincial Park, Mount Washington is a paradise of lakes, waterfalls, snowy peaks, glaciers and coastal forest. It’s also ideal for families, especially ones who are just learning how to ski. A bonus: Thanks to the exchange rate (79 American cents to every Canadian dollar), the rates for just about everything are lower than at most American resorts.
Mount Washington is located 255 miles north of Seattle. Start with a lovely two-hour ferry ride from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal near Vancouver, B.C. You’ll cross the Georgia Strait to Duke Point and then drive 70 miles to Courtenay, where, along with the adjoining town of Comox, you’ll find much of the lodging for skiers. From Highway 19 just outside of Courtenay, it’s 12 miles to the slopes. The first 3 miles have a 12 percent grade, but it levels out. The roads were clear when we went, but bring tire chains if snow is forecasted.
Best way to get started
We tried the tube park on our first day, a good intro for my risk-averse daughter. After two rides with me, she excelled at whizzing solo down the slope. A moving carpet brought us back up. The resort also offers 13.6 miles of snowshoeing trails, plus tobogganing.
Just down the hill from the main Alpine Lodge is Raven’s Lodge. It includes a small café and a rental shop for cross-country skis, boots, poles and snowshoes. From there, you’ve got 34 miles of Nordic trails to explore. After a day on the trails, the lodge’s upper lounge, which features cozy couches, a fireplace and stellar views of the southern part of Strathcona Provincial Park, makes a great spot to warm up and take a break.
My daughter had never skied downhill, so it wasn’t until the third day that she braved a private intro lesson. She adored her ski instructor, who taught her how to snowplow and turn slightly. The snow school has a huge variety of ski and snowboard lessons for all levels, especially beginners. As for me, it took three days to get a sampling of the runs, which soar from a base at 3,558 feet to a summit at 5,215 feet. The latter had a 360-degree vista of the central part of the island.
Where to get cheap ski gear: Blue Toque Sports in Courtenay is a real gem, with is a huge selection of secondhand gear. I got a pair of cross-country skis for myself, and snow boots and ski pants for my daughter at consignment shop prices.
Winter water parks
One of our best decisions was to stop at the Aquatic Centre in Nanaimo, which boasts one of the largest wave pools in western Canada. It’s very warm, and the wave machine goes off about every 15 minutes. There is a “river” to one side with jets that propel swimmers along, not to mention a large hot tub and two other pools. I’d forgotten my bathing suit, so the lifeguards kindly let me borrow from a pile of suits in their lost-and-found basket.
Closer to the slopes is the Comox Valley Aquatic Centre. It has a wave pool and facilities similar to its bigger cousin in Nanaimo. The open swim schedule during the week falls at either midday or in the early evening; the hours are more flexible on the weekends.
Places to stay
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Courtenay, a smart option considering larger number of options for restaurants and activities in town. It also has an indoor pool and water slide. There are plenty of other places to stay in Courtenay and Comox; or there’s an array of townhomes, condos and homes available to rent if you want to stay closer to the slopes.
Best places to eat
One of our favorites is the cozy Cornerstone Café & Taphouse in downtown Courtenay. My daughter wasn’t wild about the sweet potato dip she ordered, so a kind waitress furnished her with sour cream, which improved things immensely.
Some locals recommended Jo Klassen’s Restaurant, a very nice seafood restaurant in Courtenay where we got lots of shrimp, a very good seafood chowder, fried clam strips and fabulous coconut cream pie. If you venture into Comox, be sure to try Toscano’s Mediterranean Grill, which has gorgeous water and mountain views and a sophisticated kids’ menu. For breakfast, check out The Hen and Hog Cafe in downtown Courtenay, a charming place that dishes up farmer’s breakfasts and where guests sit in rust-red wooden captain’s chairs.
When you’re not skiing
OK, it’s not Victoria, but Fifth Avenue in Courtenay has some cute shops. Look for Laughing Oyster Bookshop, which has a well-stocked kids’ section. Behind the Starbucks on Cliffe Avenue, you’ll find a shopping center with a Canadian Automobile Association store, which has fabulous maps of the island and other parts of Canada. Just outside of town is Nymph Falls Nature Park, where you’ll find a series of trails along the Puntledge River, which has some low waterfalls. The paths were covered in snow and the restroom was boarded up when we were there, so we didn’t linger, but in warmer weather, this could be a lovely place to swim and wander.
Try the beach
The best spot is Goose Spit Park, a charming spit of land extending out from downtown Comox. The whole area has stunning views of the strait, the mountains to the east, Comox Harbor, nearby Denman and Hornby islands, and, to the west, the snowy Beaufort Range. There are lots of ducks, seagulls and people. There are also plenty of bathrooms, dogs can be unleashed, and to the north of the park, there’s a 165-step staircase up to homes on Yates Road. Even more beaches lie north along the coastline past the regional airport.
Visit the farm
Find Morningstar Farm on an idyllic 88 acres in Parksville, about a half-hour drive south of Courtenay. It includes Little Qualicum Cheeseworks and MooBerry Winery, along with a store that offers cheese samples. Anyone can wander about the barns, which include a bunny pen, pigs, two horses, a donkey pen, a sheep pen with three goats and a sheep, some calves and lots of placards explaining the various animals. Most fascinating is the large cow milking barn, which has a robotic milking machine that the cows were lining up to use.