Healthily endowed with rugged mountains, high precipitation and a vigorous outdoor lifestyle, Vancouver does winter activities like Rome does ancient monuments. Restless after a week of ennui in the office, workers in British Columbia’s largest metropolis are just as likely to meet up on the ski slopes as in the pub, although there is usually plenty of time for a rewarding après-ski drink or two back in the city afterwards.

The Holy Grail for Vancouver skiers is Whistler-Blackcomb, located 125km to the north of the city, the largest, most visited and – by most yardsticks – best ski resort in North America. But Whistler makes for a long, expensive and potentially stressful daytrip, especially on dark winter evenings when the winding Sea-to-Sky Highway can be tricky to negotiate in a car. For something more spontaneous and economical, savvy Vancouverites stay closer to home, choosing from a trio of high-quality ski areas that shimmer ethereally just outside the city’s northern suburbs.

Cypress Mountain, Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour stand shoulder to shoulder like errant siblings on Vancouver’s craggy north shore, rising to between 1,200m and 1,450m above sea level. Each mountain harbours its own distinct ski area and, while refreshingly detached from Vancouver’s urban clamour, none is more than 15km by road from the city centre, meaning the old cliché about being able to ski in the morning and hit the beach in the afternoon is improbably true.

But with Vancouver’s downtown beaches uncomfortably chilly until late May, you are better off spending your afternoons and evenings on the ski slopes too. All three mountains offer floodlit night skiing on a portion of their runs which, after dark, resemble low-flying spaceships suspended high above the chocolate-orange glow of metro Vancouver.

Cypress Mountain is the largest and most prestigious of the three ski areas. Covering 600 acres and listing 53 different runs, the resort’s reputation was solidified during the 2010 Winter Olympics when it hosted the freestyle skiing and snowboarding events. White-knuckle skiers and snowboarders love the mountain for its advanced black diamond runs and four different terrain parks, with practice jumps and half-pipes. Cypress is also a nexus for cross-country skiers; the mountain has a separate Nordic ski park – the busiest in Canada – with 21km of trails, a snow-tubing park and a cosy warming hut that serves revitalizing hot chocolate and soup.   

Considered a tourist trap by some but loved by others for its convenience, Grouse Mountain is Vancouver’s most accessible ski area, courtesy of a large, high-speed cable car that whisks skiers from suburban North Vancouver up to the main chalet at 1,127m in less than five minutes. Belting down its quintessential run, “The Cut”, at night with the lights of Vancouver twinkling beneath you, it is easy to imagine you are hand gliding over the city.

Established in the 1920s and fitted with the world’s first double chairlift in 1949, Grouse is Vancouver’s most all-encompassing ski area and has developed into a popular year-round attraction, with excellent hiking and lumberjack shows entertaining sightseers in the summer. For winter visitors, its comprehensive infrastructure includes such unusual luxuries as a high definition cinema, an outdoor skating-rink, Christmas sleigh rides and half a dozen places to eat, including fine-dining. Added recently are a high-flying zip-line and an even higher wind turbine, both of which remain open year-round (weather dependent).  

Those not enamoured with Grouse’s clamour usually head to the more rugged Mount Seymour, which is a little less crowded and more remote than the other two mountains, although still only 35 minutes from central Vancouver by car. Seymour sometimes gets an eye-roll from skiing purists for its slow chair lifts and relatively easy runs, but it remains the most popular place to learn to ski among Vancouverites. A safe and relaxed tubing and tobogganing park pulls in families with young children. Seymour is also known for its snowshoeing; 10km of well-signposted trails ring snow-covered meadows and frozen ponds, most of which can be enjoyed in virginal white solitude.

A day of skiing in Vancouver’s north shore mountains costs between 90 and 100 Canadian dollars, including equipment rental, with Seymour coming out the cheapest by a hair.

Public transport serves all three areas. Grouse is the easiest to reach, with regular public buses running from Lonsdale Quay on Vancouver’s north shore (reachable via a 10-minute boat ride from downtown) to the lower cable-car station in North Vancouver. Cypress and Seymour are connected by steep winding roads to the north shore and are both served by private buses that run two or three times a day from Lonsdale Quay. Cypress’s Express Bus also connects to downtown Vancouver.