Where to start with this one! I have actually had a fair few people ask me about my time in Canada and all of the ins and outs of getting there, finding work, surviving on minimum wage and everything in between. So, I thought it would be great to have a more permanent home for all of this information so it can be referenced at any time. I'm doing it in two parts - getting there/my winter season and my summer season. This will hopefully make it easier to reference without making the blog way too wordy. So, let's jump into it!
The first step was the hardest... and that was actually making the decision to finally bite the bullet and apply for my very first working holiday visa to live and work overseas. Let me tell you this right now (as someone who was very anxious about the gravity of this decision), it is nowhere near as scary as you think. The minute you press the submit button on your application it all begins to feel real and this truly is the first step towards the rest of your life.
I decided to apply for my visa in December of 2016 thinking it would take a while to process (and give me time to maybe change my mind) and was surprised to find an email only a couple of weeks later saying it had been approved. I guess this was it, I was heading to Canada! My boyfriend Michael's visa took a little longer to be approved but only by a few more weeks than me. From what I understand this can vary greatly however, so don't rely on yours happening so quickly as it can ultimately depend on many different variables.
To apply for a Canadian working holiday visa, you should head to the official Canadian Government website and make sure you thoroughly read through all of the information. To find more information on what you will need and how to apply head here.
As far as actually getting to Canada it'll depend on where you decide to go. For me, I flew into Vancouver and spent a couple of nights there before taking a Greyhound bus to Kelowna where I stayed a night there and hitched a ride up to Big White Ski Resort the next day using their ride share page (more info on this in "GETTING AROUND").
CHOOSING A DESTINATION
Next you will need to decide on where you want to live! In my case I was given a list of ski hills from the travel company we used (more about this in "FINDING WORK") and I just Googled all of those and listed my preferences from 1 to 3 on where I'd like to go. I chose Big White Ski Resort as my first preference and that's what we got! I absolutely cannot fault Big White. Now, I may be biased... but it truly was a winter paradise. There's a real feeling of community and family among the staff on the mountain and it's a much smaller mountain in comparison to a place like Whistler.
One of the benefits of it being a smaller mountain is you get to know absolutely everybody by the end of the season. It'd be hard to pass through the village without seeing a friend you'd made at the pub the night before or someone that you work with! Plus, you don't get lines for the ski lifts like you do on the bigger mountains which is a huge plus during peak season. If you're like me and want to be able to visualise what your time here would be like, head here to see some photos and videos of Big White Ski Resort.
I'm going to say right off the bat here that paying third party travel companies to secure you a job and somewhere to live is a total waste of money in my opinion. I'm not going to name which company I used but we spent over $800 each for the security of having a job and accommodation locked in before we arrived in Canada and in hindsight it was money we should have just kept in our savings.
On the day of the job interviews which were held in a hotel in Brisbane CBD we were disappointed to hear that there were only limited roles left on the mountain and only gave us only a few options from the list we were initially shown of what we could do. All of the ideal jobs were already snapped up during the interviews in Sydney and other cities. Now don't get me wrong, I totally understand we weren't going to get exactly what we wanted but the way it was sold to us is we could secure work from a range of different roles on the mountain when frankly this wasn't the case. Instead, all of the half decent jobs had already been taken and we were only offered housekeeping, food and beverage or groundskeeping roles. We were told we would also get ongoing support while we were over there which was music to my ears as someone who was really nervous about moving overseas for the first time. Once we were actually in Canada and I emailed them for some help and I was basically told we were no longer their responsibility and were advised to seek help elsewhere which was really disappointing.
If you're heading to Big White Ski Resort which is where I was, I would recommend is joining the Official Big White Group on Facebook. This is a hub for people who are already on the mountain or wanting to move to the mountain. You can comment on the wall explaining a little about yourself and that you are looking for work and somewhere to live and usually the members of the group are very helpful and will provide you with plenty more information than a money grabbing travel company ever will. Don't be shy to straight up say you are looking for work and does anyone have the email of one of the departments on the mountain so you can seek out some work. If you are heading elsewhere there would be Facebook groups for the other mountains too, I'm sure, you just have to search for it.
Alternatively, I would recommend heading directly to the mountain's website and contacting them there in regards to finding work. It's also important to keep an open mind about what you're willing to do for work, and remember it all adds to the experience if you're doing something you wouldn't normally do!
I worked in the food and beverage department for the Happy Valley Day Lodge and absolutely loved it. At the time of my employment (2017/2018) I was paid $11.50 an hour plus some tips if I worked on the cash register that day. Now I may be biased but I truly believe I had the best job on the hill. I was indoors and was in charge of basically wiping tables, setting up/packing down functions and working at the cash register in the cafeteria. This exposed me to the staff who worked in the downstairs cafe, the upstairs cafeteria (including the chefs) and the servers and bartenders of the Moose Lounge restaurant. All three areas were within the Happy Valley Day Lodge. I made so many friends this way and enjoyed the variety of roles I was doing day to day. For the most part I was given either a morning shift of around 7am to about 2 or 3pm or the afternoon shift was 3pm until close. So, it allowed for skiing or downtime of a morning or afternoon depending which shift I was on! You also catch the most beautiful sunrises you'll ever see when you're on the early shift at Happy Valley and if that's not a selling point I don't know what else to tell you.
Most ski hills in Canada will offer staff accommodation so make sure you ask your potential employer if they provide staff accom if this is something you are looking for. Personally, I had private accommodation lined up through a friend of Michael's from Brisbane who was already over there. Utilising those Facebook groups as previously mentioned in "FINDING WORK" will really help you with finding accommodation privately if need be. Again, I would just recommend commenting within the group a little bit about yourself, the type of roomie you are, a photo of yourself, some details about what you're looking for, when you'll be looking to move in and how long you're wanting to stay etc. If you're stuck on what to say just have a look through the posts on this page and you'll soon understand the type of things people say when posting to the page.
The cost of accommodation on the mountain at Big White certainly shocked me. But rest assured the high prices are (unfortunately) the same across the whole mountain for the most part. Personally, I paid $650 a month for private accommodation in Happy Valley which in hindsight was a really good deal. I had friends who paid anywhere from $650 to upwards of $800 a month but this is totally dependent on where you end up as most buildings are privately owned and the price is decided by the owner.
Some of the living conditions can be quite confined. Again, just depending on where you end up. But this is something you should expect as accommodation in such a scenic place to live is understandably a hot commodity. So be prepared to share a house or apartment with a whole bunch of people! For me I was pretty lucky and only had to share a house with 5 other people but you'd be looking at a lot more housemates for the larger houses out at Snowpines.
SPENDING/COST OF LIVING
As I mentioned earlier the cost of rent for me was $650 per month. I earned $11.50 per hour so I certainly had to be frugal with my money. Having said that I managed to save a substantial amount of money prior to arriving in Canada which was a nice safety net for me should I find myself in trouble. For the most part I never touched my savings until we bought our car for our road trip! I wouldn't rely on your savings to spend on the mountain, you're much better off keeping it for a holiday between seasons or an investment like a car over there.
If you're looking for a car you can generally pick them up for a few thousand dollars, depending what you're looking for. They can range from $1,000 to $5,000 from a common sedan to something like a van.
The cost of dining out was generally the same as Australia by the time you add on a tip for your server. For example, you could get a burger and fries for about $16 but then if you add the recommended tip amount of say 20%, you'd be up for about $19.20.
There is a Walmart in the nearby town Kelowna which is down the bottom of the hill and you can get groceries for pretty cheap there. Alternatively, there's a food market/grocer on the hill but I would not recommend doing the bulk of your shopping there as it can be very expensive.
Alcohol was pretty cheap by Australian standards but honestly, I stopped keeping count once I was earning money on the hill as it all became relative to me. It didn't take me long to stop thinking of things in Australian dollars and just start adjusting my living expenses to Canadian costs.
Ultimately though don't be afraid to splash out from time to time. You're on holiday and as long as you're living somewhat within your means a little treat here and there never hurt anyone.
Just make sure you save ample money before you go so that you don't feel like your holiday is controlled by what's in your bank account. I think within a year I managed to save about $15k and got a further few thousand once I was over there from some inheritance. But don't get me wrong you can do it for a lot cheaper! I just wanted to have as much money as possible so I could have the freedom to do whatever I wanted.
I had friends who didn't have a lot of savings and this put them under a lot of stress if they weren't happy in their job but had no money to fall back on. It also meant they had to compromise on what they did in their down time or what holiday they would take between the winter and summer season. Having no savings will see you working longer hours and missing out on the fun of living on a ski hill! Which ultimately is what you're there for. Or at least in my case it was.
PLACES TO EAT
There's plenty of restaurants, pubs and cafes on the hill with a range of cuisines catered to your taste! For a quick bite between runs I'd recommend the Happy Valley Day Lodge cafeteria for things like chips, burgers, hot dogs etc. They run daily specials too which were always pretty good! For more of a pub meal, I'd head to the Bullwheel which is at the top of the gondola in the village or even Snowshoe Sam's did a good feed as well.
My go-to takeaway on the mountain was Underground Pizza and the Thai place in the village market did a mean curry as well. If you're looking for something fancier the Kettle Valley Steakhouse has a famous tomahawk steak that I heard rave reviews about although never trying it myself. The Woods up in the village is also a beautiful spot to head for a cocktail and a nice meal.
Ultimately the food on the mountain is generally catered towards family friendly dining but has the upmarket options as well for the more refined pallet. There's also plenty of cafes to enjoy a hot chocolate or coffee and hide from the cold!
For more information on what restaurants are on the mountain head here.
A list of my must do's at Big White are as follows:
- Horse drawn sleigh ride through the woods.
- Karaoke night at Snowshoe Sam's (it used to be on Tuesday nights when I was there).
- Watching/participating in the staff ice hockey comp down at the ice-skating rink in Happy Valley.
- Skiing/snowboarding as much of the mountain as you can! There is so much beauty to see.
- Dog sled tour (I never did this but I saw the dogs in their kennels and they were super cute!).
- Sunday doubles at Snowshoe Sam's. That's two shots in your drink for the price of one!
- Trivia night at Happy Valley Day Lodge.
- Checking out the fireworks and Christmas lights in the village if you're lucky enough to be there in December!
- Getting down to Kelowna to see their local Kelowna Rockets ice hockey team play.
There is a bright yellow gondola that can get you from the bottom of the hill in Happy Valley to the top of the centre of the hill in the village. From the village you can take ski lifts up to whatever run you please. As the entire mountain is ski in, ski out - you can basically get wherever you need to go on your skis or snowboard. If you do want to walk around just make sure you have a good quality pair of snow boots to avoid slipping over! The whole mountain is connected by roads so driving is an option to. Alternatively, there is a staff shuttle bus that can take you from A to B should you need it.
As far as getting into town (Kelowna) if you want to go grocery shopping or just to wander around, it is best to try and ride share. You can do this by heading to the Big White Ride Share Facebook page and write on there that you're looking for a ride and what you're willing to pay. For the most part people usually offer to pay about $10 to $20 depending how desperate they are. A lot of the time you will see people post on the page if they're doing a trip offering spare seats so you can jump on the option that way too.
THINGS I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY
Honestly, probably not a lot. I was of the perspective that my time at Big White/in Canada in general was only going to be limited so I needed to make the absolute most of my time there. I've honestly never experienced a loop hole as big as working at a ski resort like this where people pay thousands and thousands of dollars to holiday for a few weeks, and I get to live there for 6 months and get paid for it.
I went out and socialised as much as I could while also enjoying a solo day in front of the fire watching a movie when I had the house to myself. I went skiing when I felt like it, did activities solo if no one else wanted to and I always got involved in the hill's activities like trivia night and dress up parties. I knew these moments would be fleeting and I can proudly say I made the most of all of them.
I made so many friends and experienced so much. It was a real growth period for me but it's all a part of the process. I leaned on friends when I was feeling the effects of "seasonal depression", I trusted my feelings and stayed in my bedroom with the door shut when I needed some alone time.
Doing a winter season anywhere is going to be a wild ride. I suggest you buckle up and enter it with an open mind and take everything from it you can.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my Working Holiday Visa in Canada where I will talk about my time living in Banff during the summer!