Grouse Mountain rises above the sandy beaches and gleaming skyscrapers of Vancouver as distinctively as the Hollywood sign beckons across L.A. The mountain's hulking presence is not merely visible from all over Vancouver, it is impossible to ignore. Caked in snow, with its wide main slope illuminated as brilliantly as Boston's Fenway Park on a game night, Grouse climbs more than 4,000 vertical feet straight out of the city's North Shore. The six-mile drive from downtown to the Grouse's base-area lift takes all of 10 minutes. Part old-school ski area and part new-world tourist attraction, the mountain is a city landmark: exotic to newcomers, integral to the 2 million who call this rainy Pacific Rim greater metro area home.
"If I didn't ski, it would be like living near the beach and never going there," says Chris Freimond, a 45-year-old public relations executive who lives five minutes from Grouse Mountain's tram. Like more than one-third of greater Vancouver's population, the native South African is an immigrant. And like one-sixth of all Vancouverites, he considers himself a skier. Freimond took up the sport-at Grouse-shortly after arriving from Capetown in 1995. Now he skis weekly. "The convenience is obviously the main thing," he says before pushing off on a Monday evening down the even grade of The Cut. "The ability to get up here after work and relax is amazing. It's as easy as going for a jog."
Three of Grouse's four chairlifts are old and slow. Its challenges for the high-end skier are limited to a few wonky pitches too treed to be groomed. That's not really the point. Vancouver's snow-capped peaks are easier to reach than those in most ski towns: A public bus (Translink No. 236) stops four times an hour at Grouse Mountain's base area-which helps explain the unsupervised packs of teens (who comprise a full third of the mountain's skiing passholders and two-thirds of snowboard passholders) screeching happily around the slopes. Six miles away are bicycle messengers and business suits, nuns and junkies, 280,000 people who speak an Asian language as their native tongue and an annual roster of cultural events ranging from opera and Shakespeare to gay pride and world-class jazz. The city is as bountiful in public spaces (186 parks and 11 beaches) as it is in employment mix (none of the city's top 10 corporations are in the same industry). Nowhere else-not even Geneva, Switz.-does a city this diverse stand in such close proximity to ski slopes.
For skiers, Grouse is only the beginning. Twenty minutes away stands Cypress Mountain, where Vancouver's 136 days of rain turn into a whopping 550 inches of snow annually. "Whistler-Blackcomb is where I go for a whole weekend. This is where I come the rest of the time," explains Pam, a Cypress season passholder. An expert skier who works as a building inspector in West Vancouver, she frequents Cypress for its 1,785-foot vertical drop and 250 acres of rollicking, gladed terrain. Making Cypress part of her weekly routine is easy. "It's close to my work, and it's more challenging than the other local hills. Other people go to the gym after work; I go skiing. I'm usually on the mountain by 5:30 p.m. and home in bed by 10." Small wonder Vancouver ranked No. 1 among 200 cities worldwide in Mercer Co.'s most recent annual survey of quality of living.
But surveys don't get at the subtleties of pros and cons, so let's take a closer look: A misty coastal city, encircled by the Pacific Ocean on one side and rugged mountains on the other. Mt. Baker (far nearer to Vancouver than to Seattle) rising like a beacon 75 miles to the south. Twenty-three distinct neighborhoods, including a teeming Chinatown, a thriving Little India and wooded 'burbs of Forties bungalows. No handguns. Streets you can walk safely at night. Great public schools (where field trips to Grouse, Cypress or Mt. Seymour, the third ski area in town, are standard operating procedure). One public university, one private uniiversity and one leading institute of technology (with clubs that have ski cabins in Whistler, 75 miles north). And only one or two days a year when snow so much as dusts the streets.
But it's Canada, eh? Not the good old USA The government will slam you with a minimum 25.4 percent income tax on every penny you earn, plus 14 percent sales tax on every penny you spend. You'll linger for months on medical waiting lists for any nonurgent surgery. Your kids will grow up thinking Americans are the enemy and the letter z is pronounced "zed." The exchange rate's not bad though-especially when you figure in the currency of life. Vancouver, after all, is a city where people work to play. And it just so happens the skiing is only 10 minutes away.