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Fernie's century-old buildings downtown are being turned into restaurants, boutiques and lofts.
Fernie's century-old buildings downtown are being turned into restaurants, boutiques and lofts.

Fernie: The small mountain city with big ski dreams Add to ...

A decade ago, an acquaintance described Fernie as the next Telluride. It seemed a brazen prediction at the time; not so much today.

Telluride is located remotely in southwestern Colorado, set in a box canyon, characterized by Old West/Victorian architecture and a wide main street, overshadowed by a ski mountain in the Rockies, spooked by the legend of the bloody raccoon skin, home to a film festival that last September attracted the likes of Colin Firth, Laura Linney and George Clooney.

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Fernie is located remotely in southeastern B.C., set in a box canyon, characterized by Old West/Victorian architecture and a wide main street, overshadowed by a ski mountain in the Lizard Range of the Rockies, spooked by the legend of the Ghostrider, and home to a film festival in February that, well, gives free popcorn to kids and “is dedicated to filmmakers who spark awareness of mountain cultures.”

In other words, no Clooney, but who knows, the way Fernie is trending.

Trains hauling coal blast haunting bellicose horns while trudging through Fernie in the middle of the night, a reminder of the resource-based economy past and present. That economy has diversified from mining to tourism and recreation, driven by the skiing and spiced now by an emerging entertainment and shopping scene. Downtown, there's a growing sense of West Coast culture meeting Alberta petrodollars as Calgarians – three hours' drive and several radar traps away (watch out: the Longview, Alta., trap is notorious) – arrive in droves on weekends.

Fernie Alpine Resort, the tourist magnet owned by Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, celebrated its 50th year of skiing with the opening of the Polar Peak chairlift last week.

The chair takes skiers and boarders for the first time to Fernie's ridge line and drops them into Currie Bowl, one of five open bowls spread across the terrain. The lift extends the resort's vertical metres to 1,082, its skiable in-bounds acreage to 2,550, and number of marked runs to 140. The ski mountain offers plenty of everything – glades, bumps, wide-open bowls, skinny double-diamond chutes through craggy boulders.

To survive, though, ski resorts are increasingly installing infrastructure for families. Fernie is no different, with a terrain park in place, an aerial park and zip line to come this summer. Still, the snow is the resort's primary asset, with a dump of about 12 metres last winter. Nearly 150 centimetres of joyous, whoop-inducing powder dropped just this past week (43 cm in one night alone).

When our family visited just before Christmas, though, the conditions (grrr) ranged from hard-packed to windswept, and these office-softened legs were grateful one day to see how the downtown core, once deemed a lost cause for seasonal business, is gradually luring people from the slopes and cross-country trails.

I walked into the General Store building on Second Avenue, the main drag, to shop for souvenirs in a clothing store. But a shop tucked in the back caught my eye – especially a painting by Laura Nelson. Turns out the shopkeeper, Michael Hepher, moved his family to town this past summer and, in October, opened the

Clawhammer Letterpress and Gallery, showcasing works by local artists, as well as his own three-dimensional pieces. We chatted for a while about Fernie, I left, and later arranged to have the painting shipped to Ontario. Definitely a no-pressure sale.

“People here seem to love unique, one-of-a-kind merchandise and shopping experiences,” Hepher told me later. “Downtown Fernie is becoming a destination in and of itself.”

Fernie has twice burned to the ground, the last time in 1908 when a forest fire claimed 100 lives. It was rebuilt with stone and brick, and today entrepreneurs are gradually transforming the heritage buildings into restaurants, shops and lofts. You can walk through the downtown core in about 15 minutes. Highway 3 fissures through town on its way to the ski hill. On both sides, the old clapboard miners' shacks are gradually disappearing in favour of modern rebuilds, especially along the Elk River where fly fishing is popular in summer. Most remarkably, the old high school in a scuzzy-ish part of the downtown core was developed into 901 Fernie, a collection of luxury lofts and condos priced between $600,000 and $1-million, with some available for rent.

“There's an invisible magical factor in Fernie with the combination of the people, place and determination,” says Nelson, the artist. “From all those hard times, a definite spirit lingers in the old Fernie-ites. People try to make a go of it in Fernie, and that means being creative.”

Several years ago, volunteers saved a crumbling railway building by moving it across the tracks and transforming it into the Arts Station, where paintings surround diners in the popular breakfast spot, the Blue Toque. The community effort triggered a movement that now appears full steam ahead as people migrate to Fernie to take up permanent residence. Once a meat-and-potatoes, rough-and-tough mining town, Fernie is in irrepressible transition.

At the Beanpod, raw cacao beans are stone-ground in a 1948 granite mélangeur and turned into $7 bars over five days. An individual melt-in-the-mouth bonbon tasted so incredible it made me yearn for a glass of Okanagan cabernet. Grand Fromage makes its own cheese, the Essential Yoga Studio offers more than 30 classes a week, and microbrewer Fernie Brewing Co. fills 1.98-litre “growlers” on the spot, European-style. (You won't ever go wrong with the Buck Wild lightly hopped golden blond.) The Yamagoya sushi restaurant still serves the “best rolls this side of Vancouver” (as deemed by aficionado Bruce Dowbiggin, The Globe and Mail's sports media columnist), the new Fernie Cattle Co. restaurant advertises grass-fed SPCA-certified meats and sustainable seafood, the Picnic Restaurant serves house-made elk chorizo, and the Northern Bar & Stage is a first-class sports bar with live keno and (eat your heart out, Ontario) a half-price wine night.

Aside from Albertans, the resort attracts skiers and riders from Britain and the American Midwest, and visionaries – led by eightysomething Heiko Socher, who took the first chair up this season at the resort he developed – who see even greater potential. Island Lake Lodge, accessed on the north side of town, already offers world-class cat-skiing and has received regulatory approval to install a chairlift and expand hilltop accommodations. Get this, though. Socher has proposed a development, Heaven's Gate, to transport skiers from a downtown gondola to Coal Ridge south of town, as you might experience in Italy or France.

While oil-and-gas companies dream of coal-bed methane production out in those hills, others, in this evolving ski village, see a different future, this one fuelled by a snow-white dream.

IF YOU GO

Getting there

From Calgary’s airport, it’s a three-hour drive southwest; from Cranbrook, B.C., it’s a one-hour drive east or you can take the Fernie Connector shuttle.

Where to stay

Cornerstone Lodge is a luxury condo at the base of the mountain with a Kelsey’s on the main floor. From $296 a night. 888-423-6855; cornerstonelodge.ca

Timberline Lodge has condos a short uphill walk away from the lifts. From $205 a night. 877-333-2339: skifernie.com/vacations

Skiing

Lift tickets are $76.95 for adults. 1-877-333-2339; skifernie.com.

Tired of skiing?

The Fernie Aquatic Centre (downtown on Pine Avenue) has a six-lane, 25-metre competition pool with a one-metre diving board and Tarzan swing, a 15-metre leisure pool with spray fountains, a 25-person hot tub, a 15-person steam room, and a 45-metre waterslide. 250-423-4466; fernie.ca.

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