By TOM MALONEY
Friday, September 7, 2018
Only upon picking up the car did I realize for the first time that Wendy, my wife and travel partner for this trip into the B.C. Interior, had never seen The Italian Job. In 1961, race car driver John Cooper recognized that a Mini could be a rally champion. His modified version would take the Monte Carlo Rally three times in that decade. The producers of The Italian Job noticed, selecting the Mini for the 1969 film starring Michael Caine to pull off a brazen gold heist in Turin, Italy, which involved the car scaling stairways, roofs and various chasms. The 2003 remake, starring Mark Wahlberg, shifts the action to Los Angeles where the Mini roars through freeways, waterways and subways.
It was then known as the Austin Mini Cooper S, but today BMW manufactures the spirited car we'll be running through the Whistler and Sun Peaks ski resorts in B.C. before heading to the vineyards of the southern Okanagan Valley. The trip would combine alpine sport heritage with wine-touring style and thus, it seemed an ideal fit for the chiclooking 2019 Mini Cooper S. With pin-sharp handling and a strong 189-horsepower, its 2.0-litre turbocharded four cyclinder engine mated to an optional automatic transmission, the car is built to take on - rather, thrill to - the steep, undulating, snaky coastal mountain roads.
We have borrowed the Starlight Blue Edition model with its can't-miss-it exterior coating, 17inch rail spoke alloy wheels, black exterior trim and gloss black light casings. The goal is to indulge in the summer weather by keeping the convertible top down every minute the car is on the road. In this eight-day week, we'll encounter a stunning suspension bridge at Whistler, the fun-fun-fun Duffey Lake Road, Nancy Greene's Cahilty Lodge, the Area 27 racetrack, fine wines of the Okanagan and unintentionally, a glut of forest-fire smoke.
DAY 1 First lesson: The rear compartment normally holds a carry-on and backpack, but if your desire is to go topless, storage is out. In 18 seconds, using a lever at the roofline, the three-way canvas roof is folded electronically into the compartment. The rear seat becomes the de facto trunk for luggage. And away we go.
Destination: Whistler. There's no easy way from the Vancouver airport to the Sea to Sky Highway.
You'll want a flying car. Spots of congestion await like spiderwebs for mosquitoes. For appeasement, the stop-start function is saving fuel and Jimmy Buffett, via satellite radio and the Harman Kardon sound system, reminds me to relax. Forty-five nonetheless teeth-gritting minutes later, the Cooper S's passengers begin the trek to Whistler on a road of unparalleled scenery. It starts with the splendid grandeur of Horseshoe Bay and its blue herons, then on to the 335-metre high Shannon waterfall, Stawamus Chief granite rock face, the BOB (big orange bridge) ... relentless.
The Mini is diving into the banked turns and accelerating out with hunger. Stress dissipates. With a sudden chill hinting of winter on the horizon, the top stays down.
Creekside, a satellite village one stop south of the main Whistler extravaganza, is where the Mini nestles next to a gargantuan SUV under the upscale First Tracks Lodge, which may have the cleanest garage anywhere. As the car is closed up for the first time, the Mini logo projects onto the concrete pavement. Ha.
DAYS 2-3 With mountain biking, golf, hiking, rafting, bungee jumping, paragliding and black bear sightings, Whistler's evolved into a busy all-season resort. On Whistler mountain, the most recently added draw is a steel suspension bridge at the top of Peak Express, stretching from one rock face to another, some 2,300 metres above sea level. Built by Axis Mountain Technical, it's a breathtaking, adrenalin-kicking, acrophobia-inducing 130-metre walk from one side to the other where a viewing platform extends out into space.
DAY 4 We're leaving behind roads named Rob Boyd Way, Dave Murray Place and Crazy Canuck Drive to follow 99 north to Pemberton where we turn east. This stretch is infamously known as Duffey Lake Road, and the agile Mini is built for its steep inclines and swooping descents, gnarly switchbacks and banked turns. With 0-100 kilometre an hour acceleration of 7.1 seconds and 207 pound-feet of torque, the Mini only teases M5 Performance power, still, for those with a passion for driving, this is an hour's worth of nirvana.
Rock walls on one side and soft shoulders tumbling to valleys below, the road requires fixed concentration, a tough task given the relentless mountain scenery. The Mini never hesitates. Its light curb weight, quick steering, firm multilink rear suspension and energetic damper control combine to increasingly boost a driver's confidence. Switched to sport mode with a toggle, it zooms from one pinnacle to the next aggressively, occasionally sounding the ticktick-tick rumble of the centre line underneath.
We cross an old wooden bridge into Lillooet, and begin another climb into smokier conditions to reach Cache Creek, where the temperature has soared to 43 C.
The top stays down. We pass through Kamloops and follow the curvy climb to Sun Peaks in gradually more chill temperatures.
Nancy Greene, Canada's female athlete of the century, won gold and silver medals, and then became director of skiing at Sun Peaks. With husband Al Raine, she built Cahilty Lodge, our residence for the night. Today she's a sitting senator, yet in the lobby of the Lodge are reminders of her zestful youth, in the form of a variety of ski trophies in a glass case.
As with Whistler, Sun Peaks has become a summer destination for mountain bikers, hikers, golfers and partyers. "Elvis" and "Beatles" concerts run throughout the day and night, and a pub rocks like the Londoner in Kitzbuehel into the late hours.
DAY 5 A deluge of rain has seemingly provided sweet relief for firefighters, giving the air the smell of wet soot and plunging the temperature to 8 C. The Mini's fog lights are activated in the surreal grey.
Still, with the top down, we click on one of three stages of seat warming along with the temperature controlled heater, before succumbing. The top is raised as rain falls. The road from Sun Peaks snakes 33 kilometres resolutely downhill and the Mini's 17inch tires hug slickened corners with zero skid.
DAY 6 We're climbing from the northeastern corner of Penticton to the bench on the east side of Lake Okanagan. Top down, the Mini curls up Naramata Road for stops at Lake Breeze, Hillside and Red Rooster vineyards, just three among many.
We note the two electric vehicle charging stations set up at Lake Breeze. From here, the overlook of Lake Okanagan is normally spectacular yet smoke is cloaking the valley in a shade of beigetoned grey.
DAY 7 Highway 97 fissures the Okanagan Valley at its base. Heading south, experienced visitors and locals may veer off, first onto Oliver Ranch Road south of Okanagan Falls to access Noble Ridge, Liquidity and Wild Goose vineyards, then again south of Oliver up onto Black Sage Road. Inbetween, near Vaseux Lake, 97 cuts so sharply through rock face, blinking signs warn drivers to slow down. Accelerating through the turns rather than braking, the Mini pivots through like Steve Nash around a behemoth forward. Cut off Black Sage onto Nk'Mip Road and you'll find Area 27, the racetrack built by Jacques Villeneuve and Trevor Seibert.
From a viewing area, visitors can watch and hear vehicles ranging from an old Datsun to Ferraris.
Sigh. The Mini would've liked that.
DAY 8 We return to Kelowna and gas up - the Mini uses premium, here at $1.65/litre. The Mini's travelled through mountains and desert, on long 100 km/h straightaways and 20 km/h hairpins, having its acceleration and braking tested perhaps more greatly than the average driver might run the car, and over about 800 km it consumed 7.2 litres/100 km.
A weeklong drive from Vancouver to Kelowna, including tours of Whistler and the Okanagan Valley, offered some breathtaking views.
PHOTOS BY TOM MALONEY/THE GLOBE AND MAIL