WHISTLER, BRITISH COLUMBIA
SNOWSPORTS & LIFESTYLE DESTINATION
By Eric Hendrikx
Photos By Eric Hendrikx (unless noted)
Whistler, Canada – a place of superlatives with the largest skiable terrain, longest ski season and longest lift-serviced vertical in North America, and host of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. It is consistently ranked as the number one mountain resort in North America. It’s surroundings offer distinctive natural beauty, epic skiing and snowboarding, and an almost limitless array of year-round activities including mountain biking, ziplining, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, hiking, – even dog sledding. Whistler Village – the social nucleus for tourists and locals – is a one-mile curvy stretch of pedestrian-only right-of-way, where one can find everything from accommodations and groceries to shopping, restaurants, cafés, bars and spas. And yet there are still many people who are just starting to hear about the size, diversity and international appeal of this spectacular resort. Since getting to Whistler from Los Angeles is under a three-hour flight – followed by a scenic drive up the Coast Mountains – my son Stone and I decided to make the journey and check it out.
Getting to Whistler is a cinch. The Vancouver National Airport (YVR) is one of the best international airports in the world. With walkways flanked by giant water features and native art representing the Squamish and Lil’wat Nation culture, its easy to find yourself relaxed and actually enjoying the ease of getting through customs and immigrations. And while the ambiance was cozy, Stone and I never took our eyes off the prize – our quest for the ultimate powder.
There are several ways to get from the airport to Whistler. You can take a private or rental car, chauffer-driven limo or SUV, helicopter; even a train or float plane can get you there in the late spring and summer months. We opted for cheap and easy – the Pacific Coach Lines bus – a two- and a half hour scenic ride up the mountains that lets you relax and enjoy the sights of the Coast Mountains and Seas-to-Sky highway vistas as you ascend toward your destination. And if you’re a little wiped out from the flight, the seats recline offering you a nice opportunity to snooze before you arrive. The only thing that’s actually cheap about this route is the price, leaving more in your pocket for the restaurants and shops in the Village.
Any time of year is perfect to visit Whistler, but if you’re hunting for snow adventures, then you’ll want to visit between November and May. We chose to visit in Mid-April, during the TELUS World Ski and Snowboard Festival (TWSSF), so that we could satisfy our quench for snowboarding in the mornings and then enjoy the live outdoor concerts and entertainment in the afternoons into the nights. And we weren’t disappointed. TWSSF proved to be a lot of fun and not only did we get to ride down the lower slopes to the sounds of bands including Tokyo Police Club and Broken Social Scene, but we had phenomenal snow conditions after a season total snowfall accumulation of forty-five feet. And the fun and entertainment didn’t end there – evenings never slow down during TWSSF, they’re loaded with film screenings, photography showdowns, and endless parties with internationally acclaimed DJs.
There are over ten thousand rooms available throughout Whistler, so finding accommodations is easy. The key is to get a place that’s centrally located to your activities. Stone and I chose to stay at the Whistler Westin Resort and Spa. It’s located right at the base of both Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, so you can literally ride down the mountain, take off your board or skis, and hand them to the valet. The Westin Whistler also has great restaurants: Aubergine for full service omelet bars and breakfast spreads; and Fire Rock Grille – a great place to go for grilled chicken nachos and a nice cold local Whistler Pale Ale (Stone had the ice tea, of course). But the best part of the Westin is really the rooms: killer views, fire place, full kitchen, and their trademark Heavenly Beds – the only way to sleep after a long day of riding and festivities. The Westin also has its own rental shop in the hotel, making rentals for boots, boards and bindings uber-easy. While in the rental shop you can take a photo with the life-sized grizzly. Don’t worry, he’s not real. He’s a great big smiling stuffed animal that kids, and some grown-ups, can hug for good luck before hitting the slopes.
Once we had our essentials handled it was time to hit the slopes. Snowboarding and skiing doesn’t get much better than the terrain you’ll find on both Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains. Over eight thousand acres of mountain covered by thirty-three feet of snow annually makes for some of the best slopes in the world for beginners to Olympic champions, the possibilities are endless. But if you’re feeling adventurous like Stone and myself, you might want to spend a half-day riding the top of Blackcomb mountain splitting your time between downhill runs and heavily forested terrain. Then take the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, and eleven-minute ride that takes you 2.5 miles across from one mountain peak to the next – the world’s longest unsupported span. And if you like a great view, you’ll love checking out the snow covered forests and valley 1,500 feet below you. Two of the skycabins have glass bottoms so you can watch around and below you as you traverse the expanse. Once at Whistler Mountain, you can take advantage of the snow park, loaded with jumps, rails, boxes and other fantastic obstacles for all levels of riding. And if you get burnt out or hungry, the mountaintops feature great restaurants, coffee shops, and for those who want to grab a little extra liquid courage and risk stability on their ride back down the mountain, there are plenty of bars.
Ski touring, off-piste, ice-climbing: Whistler’s backcountry experience is expansive, offering plenty of terrain for seasoned backcountry enthusiasts and for off-piste skiers looking for new ways to explore the Coast Mountains. Guides who have tracked these peaks and slopes as part of their backyard show guests their favorite hidden powder stashes and untracked valleys. Heli-skiing/boarding is offered on many nearby glaciers and powder fields in the Coast Mountains, the world’s most glaciated mountain range. And while Stone and I didn’t find our way onto a helicopter this trip, we definitely made some tracks in uncharted and heavily forested backcountry.
Aside from the snow, the Ziptrek Ecotour was by far the most exhilarating adrenaline rushed activity we tried in Whistler. They offer three different tours depending on the level of thrill you’re seeking: Eagle, Bear and Canopy Walk (No zipping). Stone and I both opted for the fasted and biggest drops – the Eagle tour. Once the eco-guides secure you into a state-of-the-art harness system, they drive you up the mountain to the starting point. After a short walk and instructions, they send you zipping across spans of up to 2,000 feet, where sometimes you are 200 feet above the ground. The tour flows through the forest and along a number of treetop bridges, lasting about three hours and showcases Whistler’s temperate rainforest and environmental sustainability. They even let you eat some of the moss from the trees if that’s your thing. Brilliantly designed, the last zip allows for an incredible drop where we were convinced (not coerced) into riding upside down. The tour conveniently ends right at the base of the mountain, so you can quickly drop off your gear and hit straight to any of the patios in the Village for a bite to eat and an ice-cold beer.
Whistler is definitely the place to go for families – From the tube park to huge discounts on lessons, Whistler is focusing heavily on the family market. The goal? A world-class resort at affordable prices. Early book-by packages offer unprecedented deals for families. Whistler’s wide range of accommodations provide many options for families of any size and many price points including condo units and hotel suite accommodations with full cooking facilities and living space ideal for longer stays. Whistler’s family-friendly pedestrian village, free village shuttle and walking access to most restaurants, shops and lifts allow guests to leave the car at home. Whistler Kid’s offers renowned on- and off-hill kid’s programs, and kids receive up to 50 per cent off most activities like snowmobiling and sleigh rides.
And it’s all about keeping green in Whistler as the mountain continues to prove that it is not only one of the world’s leading ski resorts but a proven leader in environmental sustainability. The latest project by Whistler Blackcomb will produce enough renewable energy to power the entire resort. The Fitzsimmons Creek Hydro Project, located within Whistler Blackcomb’s operating area, will produce 33.5 gigawatt hours of hydro electricity per year – the equivalent of powering the ski resort’s winter and summer operations including 38 lifts, 17 restaurants, 269 snowguns and countless other buildings and services. The Fitzsimmons Creek area provides the ultimate conditions for a successful small hydro electric project. The creek has an abundance of water, the necessary vertical drop, it is not a major fish-bearing stream, nor is the creek used recreationally within the project area. Keeping with the green theme, electricity lines will be buried underground in previously disturbed areas and much of the area that needs to be developed runs along already existing access roads.
When To Go?
Skiing and Snowboarding: November – May
Mountain Biking: May – October
Some Signature Events:
August – Crankworx Festival
Whistler is a year round adventure with the obvious winter activities, but also one of the most popular mountain biking destinations in Canada, featuring a Crankworx – a nine-day showcase of gravity-fueled and high-flying mountain biking action, with competitions ranging from downhill to slope style. The event also has pro-riding demos, live concerts, and all the parties one might crave to attend. Crankworx is the biggest event of the summer and attracts over 20,000 people to watch the best mountain bikers in the world.
December – Whistler Film Festival
The future of Sundance? Maybe. This four-day cinematic celebration showcases films from around the globe along with all of the snow sports and live music that accompany.
April – TELUS World Ski & Snowboard Festival
TELUS is a ten-day action packed extravaganza that features competitions of some of the best skiiers and snowboarders in the world, plus live outdoor concerts, filmmakers showdowns, and parties that stretch into the wee hours. There’s nothing like getting in a great day of riding and then making it back to the base of the mountain to enjoy free live music and a nice warm up drink – whatever that might be!
1. SNOWBOARDING! – “Me and my dad found killer powder at the top of the mountains. Riding through the trees and backcountry was gnarly!”
2. ZIPLINING! (Zip Trek) – “I went upside-down while zipping almost 50 miles an hour! It was so high above the river, like over 200 feet up!”
3. CHILLIN’ IN THE VILLAGE! – “Using the free Wi-Fi at Starbucks and getting hot drinks after being in the freezing cold.”
4. FONDUE! – “Cheese and bread…yum.”
5. PEAK 2 PEAK! – “Riding across from Blackcomb Mountain to Whistler Mountain and looking down 1,500 feet to the ground!”
1. BEAVER TAILS! (A local favorite treat!) – “They’re like beaver tail-shaped desserts that taste like churros. The maple ones are killer too!”
2. HOT AUSTRALIAN BABES! – They work everywhere! Did Canada buy them?” (We don’t know how they get them all here, but we’d like to thank Canada for the kind import!)
Tourism Whistler www.tourismwhistler.com
Westin Resort and Spa, Whistler www.westinwhistler.com
Scandinavia Spa Whistler www.scandinave.com
Ziptrek Ecotours, Whistler www.ziptrek.com[Whistler Blackcomb]