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Ten Things I Love About Whistler
My husband married me so that he could get Canadian citizenship, live in Vancouver and drive up to Whistler every weekend during ski season. This is something I say to him in jest. Except during years when snow conditions are good, and then I wonder if there is more truth to this than he cares to admit. But admittedly, after all these years of going up the slopes each season and putting in many vertical miles just so I can actually see hubby during ski season, I have become a good skier, proof positive that practice can triumph over genetic klutziness. And all right - it is wonderful to live within a two hour drive of North America's top ski resort (1.5 hrs if you are my husband and drive by autopilot up that highway).
In no particular order, here are my favorite things about Whistler.
1. Getting There and Back
Highway 99 from Horseshoe Bay to the town of Whistler, is known as the Sea to Sky Highway. It actually follows the route of the old Pemberton Trail which was one of the Gold Rush roads to the interior of British Columbia, which in turn was probably following ancient First Nations trails. We have made this drive over and over the past fifteen years and the scenery never fails to make us exclaim "Aren't we lucky to be living here!" I think that it is the most beautiful drive in the world and fortunately for tourists there are numerous viewpoints along the way where you can pull over and pause to feast your eyes on Howe Sound.
The highway runs alongside the waters of Howe Sound for about one-third of the trip and you can see the islands of Gambier and Keats as well as the Sunshine Coast, which is what the area on the other side of Howe Sound is called. If you look south on fine days, you can see the Gulf Islands, bits of Vancouver Island, a ferry or two making the crossings. On days when there is snow at higher altitudes, the drive offers miles of particularly dramatic water, coastline and distant mountains. The Tantalus Mountain Range is especially wonderful.
As we pass Porteau Cove, where there is a dive park built from sunken ships, we always crane our necks to see if there is a diving class bobbing in the water. If we are taking visitors to Whistler, we stop at Shannon Falls and take a short walk into the park to stand at the viewing platform at the foot of the falls. If it has been a very cold winter, the falls freeze and you can see people with ice axes, crampons and death wishes climbing Shannon Falls.
2. Food Shopping
We rent a cabin every season from the same family, so we use it half time. This means we can leave our ski gear in the cabin, a big convenience and we can do our own cooking. Believe it or not, after a day of skiing, going to a restaurant seems like too much tough work and we prefer to lounge around the cabin and cook for ourselves.
There are three supermarkets that we go to in Whistler: The Grocery Store right in the main village, the IGA Plus at Marketplace and Nester's Market on Highway 99 north of the village on the way to Emerald Estates and other residential areas. We have a soft spot for Nester's just because it's so old time Whistler and you can get the best seafood there. The IGA Plus is stupendously well-stocked, reflecting an international clientele with sophisticated palates. Its meat department is great, with cheerful young butchers with Aussie accents (swarms of young and outdoorsy types from the Antipodes get seasonal jobs at Whistler in order to ski and snowboard on their Great Overseas Experience). You can also buy lots of products in small sizes, very handy for people staying in suites or condos for just the week. But in fact, all three grocery stores have amazingly good quality and variety for stores of their size and lots of very good ready-made foods to take home and heat up.
In addition, the liquor store at Marketplace is better-stocked than our neighborhood store, I've seen bottles of Chateau d'Yquem sitting in their cabinets and Cloudy Bay from New Zealand when there was none to be found down in Vancouver.
3. Food Up the Hill
(By "up the hill" I mean any place where you need to ride a chairlift or gondola to get there).
We have a ritual each year. Our friends from San Francisco come up and stay at our timeshare during our Sacred Ski Week (yes, we got sucked into a timeshare and are very happy with the purchase; that's another story). On the first day, we ski on Blackcomb. At one o'clock, we park the skis and go into the lodge and clomp in our boots to Christine's, a fine dining establishment attached to The Rendezvous, the main lodge on Blackcomb Mountain, featuring silver service and a good wine list. We have a very civilized meal, avoid the crowds in the cafeteria, and toast the start of the Sacred Ski Week. We then take the chairlift down to the bottom if we feel a bit wobbly. There is also a sit down restaurant on top of Whistler called Steeps, which is a bit more casual. Does that sound right, you can enter both restaurants in ski boots, so what's formal?
During the week when the crowds are much diminished, we lunch in the cafeteria with our sandwiches and buy hot soups. Or else, we go all out and buy our lunches from a tempting range of food stations. Blackcomb and Whistler mountains are both owned by Intrawest now, and the quality of food is really good on both mountains. There are several lodges scattered throughout the two mountains, but The Rendezvous on Blackcomb and The Roundhouse on Whistler are the two main ones. The vegetarian chili is really good, with a nice kick to it, but in addition to the expected grill bar for burgers and hot dogs, there are different food areas: pasta, salads, noodle bowls, wraps, and pastries. It's all tasty and hearty fare for cold skiers. You can also get beer and wine, and it is very hard to resist their double chocolate cookies. Just last season the infamous Aussie Meat Pie made an appearance in the lodges and my husband had to try it out.
Our particular favorite is actually The Glacier Lodge which is in a little valley at the foot of the Jersey Cream run on Blackcomb. During spring skiing, we sit outside in the sunshine where fast order cooks are flipping burgers on big barbecues wearing Hawaiian shirts and leis, and watch the skiers cruise down Jersey Cream, some only wearing t-shirts over their ski pants, it can get so warm.
Some years back, a marketing coup happened and now Seattle's Best Coffee has taken over from Starbucks as supplier of espressos, lattes, and coffees to Whistler/Blackcomb lodges (fear not, there are at least two Starbucks down in the village).
One of the really convenient things that Intrawest has done to make life easier for frequent skiers is the EDGE card (formerly known as the Resort Card), available to BC and Washington State residents. There are various levels of card you can get, and if you are going to be there for a week sometimes a 5-day pass is the best deal you can get. In addition, you can link your EDGE card to the credit card of your choice and use it for shopping at any Intrawest-owned establishment up the hill (this means all of them). You don't need to bring any other credit cards or cash with you when you are skiing. But best of all for families with independent-minded children, the kids' EDGE Card can be linked to your credit card but restricted for use at the cafeteria for food only. So they can go off and ski with their friends or their ski class and parents can be relieved of the concern that they will spend lunch money on Other Stuff.
4. Whistler Kids Ski Programs
First of all, we don't have children, we have cats. However, we have friends with children and they rave about the ski programs. The kids are enrolled, get dropped off at the Whistler Kids Camp where they get assigned to instructors. The parents and their hosts (the childless hosts) go off and have an adult day of skiing. The parents pick up the kids at 3:00pm and can do a bit of family skiing together.
I am told by some very reliable children, without exception, that they had a wonderful time. For one thing, the young ski instructors are like gods to the kids. Kids who never listen to Mom or Dad will listen to Bob from Perth or develop a huge crush on Chrissie from Arrowtown, NZ. Yes, they actually learn how to ski. The very young ones basically get put into soft boots, learn how to be mobile in them, get small skis strapped on to their boots and go up and down the very gentle rise. Then they play around in the snow, go into the Whistler Kids lodge for lunches of macaroni and cheese or some other kiddy gourmet favorite, take naps, play games, go out for a bit more snow activity. The instructors will take your cell phone number in case of emergency and if you don't have a cell phone, will give you a pager.
We know families who come back every year because the kids ski program gives them the perfect combination of family time and time for the adults to remember what it was like before they had to keep small people within shouting distance. We love the kids ski program because we end up with very happy visitors, a lovely time is had by all, and they all come back so that we get to see them more often!
5. The Ski Runs
Yes, and the skiing is wonderful too. My husband used to be very keen and hustled everyone out the door at 7:30am so that we would be at the head of the lift lineup. Somewhere along the way either he slowed down or we (the cabin team) had a revolt and now we go at a much more weekend-like hour. If it is extremely cold, we take our time because we know it will be icy. If it snowed overnight, we fairly leap into our ski suits to get going.
When new visitors ask if they would enjoy Whistler or Blackcomb more, the answer is "It depends". Whereupon my husband, who feels that it is his job to ensure the visitor has the perfect ski holiday begins quizzing them on their skiing competence, whether they prefer groomed or off-piste, bumps or cruising, steeps or easy - you get the idea.
Blackcomb is known as "the long run mountain". It has way more green and blue runs, and they are really long, going top to bottom, which really gives you time to find your ski legs. We like to warm up on Blackcomb by getting to the small Crystal Chair, and taking the Crystal Ridge Run down to Ridge Runner. Or we may decide to swoop and whoop on Twist and Shout, meeting up with Glacier Road that takes us to the Excelerator Chair, to ride up and decide if we should to it again. Getting off the Excelerator Chair, we can ski down to the Glacier Lodge and either hop on the Jersey Cream Chair or the Glacier Express. The snow on the Jersey Cream runs stay soft and lovely no matter how hot the weather, so it's always a good bet.
But if it's early in the day, we could invest some time in skiing one of the glaciers. The Glacier Express takes you to the Horstman Glacier, where the snow is always fabulous, squeaky and easy. Ego snow. There are t-bars there, and it's one way of getting over to Seventh Heaven, but if it's crowded, we avoid Seventh Heaven. Instead we might take off our skis and hike up the other side of the Horstman Glacier and drop into Blackcomb Glacier. This also eventually leads out to the Blackcomb Glacier Road. The Blackcomb Glacier is typically not groomed and can be filled with heavy snow which is very tiring unless you can ski under those conditions. If it's not a busy day, we try for Seventh Heaven because it really is glorious and open.
But usually we prefer Whistler Mountain, because there is a wider variety of terrain. My favorite run is a top to bottom run which starts at The Saddle (which you get to from the Peak Chair) down Franz's Run, finishing at the lower part of the Dave Murray Run at Creekside. Creekside is south of Whistler Village and is a secondary base with the Creekside Gondola that takes you back up to the Big Red Chair and the Orange Chair on Whistler. It's just such a long sweeping run and hardly any of the non-locals seem to want to ski to Creekside so usually you have the run to yourself once you get past the Red and Orange Chairs.
My husband loves skiing in West Bowl, leaping off cornices and doing the steeps and deeps. Under good conditions, he will get into West Bowl from Cockalorum, which is a double black. Under good conditions, West Bowl is more a blue-black than a black and I'll enter it from Bagel Bowl.
The sun spot on Whistler is Harmony Bowl and the Harmony Chair can get crowded pretty quickly, so we go there early or at lunchtime. Harmony Bowl is great for us because I can ski the easier runs that traverse along the sides of the bowl while my husband pretty much points his skis straight down, waves as he passes by. One of our friends is particularly fond of Burnt Stew in Symphony Bowl, which contains long cruising runs with lovely views.
In fact, it's impossible to be anywhere on a trail on Whistler/Blackcomb and miss out on scenery. Every view is amazing, from Black Tusk in the distance (a hunk of black lava, all that remains of a volcano now eroded away) to the lakes and village below. And by the way - it doesn't matter which mountain you go to. Both are owned by Intrawest, so your ski pass is good for both mountains, and there are chairs and trails that allow you to cross from one to the other.
Skiers at Whistler
6. The Peak to Valley Race
There is a particular form of madness called the Peak to Valley Race. This is pretty much the Saddle to Creekside run described earlier only it's been set up as a race course with anywhere from 170 - 180 gates. The race takes place in the first week of February. There are a limited number of teams, usually eighty. The race committee starts taking team entries in September and if you don't fax in your team entry on day one, you miss out. All the race spots are filled by 2:00pm. This is a great tradition at Whistler with teams that form regularly to compete, coming from as far as Toronto, Washington State, California as well as lots of local teams.
There are four people to a team, and at least one member must be a woman. The teams are handicapped by age and gender. Some of the teams finishing in the top ten can be seniors, very fit and skilled skiers. Some of the individual seniors pull better times than skiers half their age, thanks to skill and practice. Probably ex-Team Canada members, the envious thirty-somethings mutter, as they look at the results.
And yes, my husband has fielded teams and been invited to join teams and this is the highlight of his ski season. I get to stand at the finish line with his warm jacket (the serious competitors wear skin tight racing suits). Our most memorable Peak to Valley was one year when a team member fractured an ankle the week before the race. My husband phoned a friend in Toronto on a Friday to see if he'd like to fill in. By Monday, Craig had somehow managed to ditch or delegate his work, hopped on a plane to Vancouver, got to Whistler, booked two days of race training from his favorite instructor and was ready to go on Friday for the first round of races.
It's tough course and with that handicap that encourages racers of all ages, it's not strength or speed that counts so much as skill and stamina. You need to get through the gates skiing the most efficient line possible. I think Ken Read of the Crazy Canucks (now retired from skiing and coaching the Canadian Alpine Women's team) holds the record with a sub-five minute time. Six minutes is considered excellent for mere mortals. It is grueling and exhilarating, as our friend Craig can testify. He is extremely fit, young and an excellent skier. He said that by the time he got to the finish line, all he wanted to do was lie down and puke his guts out. "But it was fantastic and I want to do it again next year!"
But best of all is the Awards Party afterwards, the prizes from sponsors are great, there are lots of door prizes, but the most wonderful time comes when prizes are handed out to the winning teams in each age category. The winning senior's teams always get standing ovations because it's so inspiring to everyone, to know that men and women in their seventies and eighties are still enjoying their skiing and in fact can compete with much younger athletes and do better than most of the field. There is also a legendary wild man, who I guess I should not name, but he's a Whistler character who skis like a demon in the winter and mountain bikes the same way in the summer and he is an amputee with one leg. He also skis the Peak to Valley every year and consistently finishes in the top 30. He dances like a maniac at the Awards Party, and when you see someone like that, you realize that you have no excuse for not making the most of your life.
7. The Dave Murray Race Camp
Dave Murray was one of the Crazy Canucks who skied the World Cup circuit in the 1970's and stunned the European skiers when all four Canadians finished in the top ten. He died of skin cancer in 1990 and Whistler named a ski run after him and this race program also bears his name. The training philosophy is that if you learn race ski techniques, in particular, gates, even if you don't race, your recreational skiing will improve. It's true and it's three days of hard work and fun.
Dave Murray program instructors are the best on the mountain and have terrific personalities. Sometimes it's hard to ski straight when you are bent over laughing. You don't have to be a hotshot, just willing to work at your technique because the class gets split off into different levels.
We don't always manage to sign up for a Dave Murray camp since there are a limited number scheduled, but we do try to take a private lesson or two at the start of the season to make sure we haven't picked up any bad habits. Worth every dollar because it means you ski better and enjoy the season more.
Parade Before the Juvenile World Cup Races
If you're not a skier, but enjoy shopping, you can wander happily in Whistler and have a great time. There are innumerable stores selling souvenir shirts and hats, but also very high end retail stores, many of them in the big hotels such as the Four Seasons and the Fairmont. There are spas, hair salons. There is LUSH, a natural beauty store with soaps and scrubs and bath bombs and very fun packaging. There is Gap and Guess and Eddie Bauer. There are ski stores everywhere that sell hard core "technical" gear and there are stores that sell Prada ski outfits. I love the Whistler Kitchen Store and have been known to do all my Christmas shopping within one hour in that one store.
Nothing would be complete without a mention of a major (for us) destination called Snowcovers, which is Geoff's favorite store. Three guesses - and yes! Ski equipment. Our skis, boots and bindings always come from Snowcovers. Jay the owner and his staff fit out the Whistler junior racers and Team Canada racers and any boots we buy from them just keep getting tweaked until they fit perfectly, no extra charge. Until you ski in custom-fitted boots you have no idea that you can ski and keep circulation in your feet too. When Geoff took up Master's Racing, I'm sure we became a line item on their sales projections every year. Their service is awesome and they have demo skis set aside for their regulars to try out, and will credit you back the rental when you purchase equipment.
When you ski all day, it's easy to justify a nice big meal. It's hard to keep up with the restaurants in Whistler, new ones seem to spring up every year, but there are some long-standing favorites, places that have been operating a long time.
When we have a craving for burgers, we like Citta's. Their Canuck Burger is a favorite, big and delicious and loaded up with cheese, bacon and mushrooms. The upstairs looks down on the Village Square and people-watching is great.
For a long time, because our anniversary coincided with spring skiing, we would celebrate at Araxis. This restaurant is among the many in Whistler with an excellent wine list, and serves Italian food with a west coast influence. Service is impeccable but the place can get a bit noisy.
Lately for pleasant but not too formal dining we have been going to a French restaurant, the Brasserie Val d'Isere which has been there forever but which we only tried out a few years ago. Shame on us, we lost out on years of good dining.
Hy's Steakhouse, located in the Delta Whistler Village Suites is my favorite steak place and is beloved of all carnivores. High end, just fabulous steaks, a short focused menu, good wine list, great service.
Also in the Delta Whistler Village Suites is Milestones. This chain, along with Earls, delivers quality family dining and I'm very fond of the honey lime cilantro dressing they use in their chicken salad. Yuuummm. Wish they'd sell it in bottles.
For ethnic dining, the Tandoori Grill Indian Restaurant, Thai One On, Zeuski's Greek restaurant and Sushi-Ya are our favorites. Sushi Village is also quite good and is easier to get into for lunches if you're there all week since Sushi-Ya is only open for lunch on weekends.
For aprs ski we often go to Dusty's at Creekside and reminisce over the days when it was a large shack with musty carpeting that bred unknown strains of beer-loving bacteria. Old Dusty's was torn down when Creekside got gentrified and now the new pub is a smart, Alpine styled lodge with big open patios and clean new carpets. We still like it a lot. The bacteria wasn't really the main attraction. If we need to rendezvous with friends in the village, we like the Dub Linh Gate which is in the Pan Pacific Hotel at the foot of the Whistler Gondola. They serve great soups and stews that keep you going until dinnertime.
Actually, it's hard to get a bad meal in Whistler, there is so much competition. We feel that it's pretty good value for quality and in the lower priced eateries, good value for quantity.
10. Meeting People from All Over
It's a resort town. People go there to vacation and they are in a good mood. We have had so many interesting conversations on chairlifts and in the gondola or while eating lunch with people from around the world. There are always visitors from other parts of Canada and the United States. There have been a lot of British accents around lately and of course the skiers from Down Under. During Mexican school holidays, we hear lovely Spanish voices. Since Whistler is part of the World Cup circuit, it gets attention from Austrian and German skiers also. We have hosted friends and visitors from the US, Norway and New Zealand, France and China. We expect to meet even more nationalities in 2010 when Whistler and Vancouver host the Winter Olympics!
What we love most about Whistler is that it is such a beautiful, well-planned resort. It was only when a friend from Boston came to ski and exclaimed over all the details that we appreciated how much thought and experience had gone into designing every aspect of the visitor experience. The amount of terrain you can ski is fantastic and then to come down to a vibrant and fun village with so many amenities is just the icing on the cake.
We have skied there so often we no longer feel the need to ski like crazy all day, and now take a mellower attitude (a Slow Travel attitude!) to the day. We enjoy nothing more than showing out of town friends around the mountains, our favorite runs, how to avoid long lift lineups. We now stop to enjoy the views and linger over an espresso after lunch. If the weather is bad we might just wander around the village visiting favorite stores, seeing what's new at Snowcovers, or sit in the cabin reading. Then we drive home along that beautiful highway and again we say to each other "Aren't we lucky to live here!"
www.whistlerblackcomb.com: The Whistler Blackcomb website is really great. Gives you great information including a Flash version of the mountain map, list of restaurants, some idea of attractions and mountain amenities. Also a live snowcam and frequently updated snow reports.
www.seatoskycountry.net: For a bit of history and information about the Sea to Sky Highway, this is a nice site.
www.deltahotels.com/hotels/hotels.php?hotelId=23: Please forgive my ignorance of hotels. Since we rent a cabin there, we don't really need to stay in hotels. However, when we do, we prefer suites. Get your own breakfast, have a fridge and cooking facilities, a washer-dryer for those days when all your clothes get wet. There are a limited number of suite hotels. Mostly it's hotel rooms or condos. So a suite hotel we would recommend is the Delta Whistler Village Suites.
This is a four-star hotel with spa, fitness center, pool and two good restaurants attached. Since it is not right beside the village base, it costs a bit less than the other high end suite hotels such as the Pan Pacific and the Westin. It's also much quieter than being in the center of the village. So unless it really matters to you to be that close to the gondola, this Delta is a better value. It's a short walk to the lifts or you can go out the back entrance and wait for the (free) village shuttle bus. We stay here when the cabin isn't available.
And finally for those of us who can not let go of the real world - the entire village has free wireless coverage. But you get what you pay for and I find it rather slow. Just around the corner from the Delta is a Hot Box Internet Cafe.
Get more information from the Wikitravel Whistler Travel Guide.
© Janie & Geoff, 2006
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