Whistler sets a standard that many other ski resorts have to match; right up there with Aspen and the best resorts in Europe but for very different reasons. The main concern for many is the flight; eleven hours but you do not lose skiing time as it is overnight and you are chasing the sun outbound. Passing through Vancouver airport is quick and the transfer is less than two hours to Whistler, the roads are good and it’s worth keeping awake for the stunning scenery.
The quiet end of Whistler is Creekside where we stayed at the Nita Lake Lodge – a rustic style but modern boutique hotel with fabulous views. We were privileged to be given the best suite only to find out they were all of an identical high standard. The hotel had a shuttle to the lift and shops, however it was too close to bother so we always walked. The dining experience was excellent both with the food and the wine, whilst the breakfasts certainly set us up well for an energetic day.
There are enough runs to use every ounce of energy for a long time with the skiing right across two linked adjacent mountains; Whistler, which is above Creekside (the ‘historic’ resort from 1966!), and Backcomb, which is above Whistler town, is about four miles up the valley. The two mountains have a well planned series of interconnecting lifts and I was proved wrong to be sceptical about the Peak to Peak cable car, it works well and offers much more flexibility and speed to move around the mountains. If it looks a bit overcast on one peak, the odds are that it is sunny on the other.
A big plus is that there is skiing to suit just about everyone whether it is on or off piste. The range is from seemingly endless motorway cruising through the tree lined trails, to wide and deep open bowls of variously demanding inclines, plus tight steep blacks through the trees. It is impossible not to have a grin on your face on most of these runs. One feature much enjoyed was ‘Fresh tracks’ – up before dawn to queue, as reportedly it is often over-subscribed, to take the lift for breakfast on top of the mountain whilst waiting for the bell to sound. A quick mass exodus and everyone is off on the fresh snow, we had so much of it that there was no better way to start the day. As Whistler is near the water and sea, it does not normally get severely cold temperatures however there is not the same dry atmosphere to create the champagne powder of the Rockies, but what fun it was apart from trying to get up after a fall.
The scale of the ski area is extraordinary and one can believe their claim to have both the biggest ski area in North America and the longest runs. The 37 lifts and 200 runs supports those contentions and my last run of a very full day was on their longest run; Peak to Creek. It was totally shattering for I skied it non-stop but my speed was glacial on some stretches as my legs were so tired. We did encounter short queues at peak times for some lifts despite an uphill capacity of 67,000 per hour; they moved and merged quickly in an orderly fashion which took the tension out of any delays.
We moved to the centre of Whistler for a few nights in the Fairmont Chateau which has been up-dated in recent times. I would only argue about their claim to be ‘ski-in, ski-out’ as you would have to ski into the basement to ski-out. This is a resort in its own right as it is so large; everything you could imagine was under one roof but it could have been anywhere apart from its prime location; right on the slopes with great views. We particularly enjoyed the Chalet restaurant as it was more intimate, nevertheless the main dining room also served us well. The breakfast self-service cafe was pretty grim being more like a motorway service station.
The Crystal Lodge, also in the centre, is a hotel garni with rooms and suites but there are dining packages with a nearby restaurant/bar – good food and wine in Whistler is one of their fortes. Whilst the hotel is four star and a little plain, the staff have five star smiles. In its price bracket, it rates well.
If cost is not an issue, the Four Seasons Resort is beautifully presented in a very modern style, its location is just off centre and is quieter despite being very near the slopes. When it comes to international 5* hotels the level of service and comfort tends to take away the local character; on the other hand you know the standards you can expect and the hotel was supremely comfortable and food very accomplished.
We have yet to explore the self-catering and chalets which probably have the most capacity, the most sought after are those alongside the lower slopes of the runs on Blackcomb mountain some of which are ski-in, ski out. The Oxford Ski Company has a selection.
The mountain restaurants were very much identified as being in north America; large with soaring roofs and little atmosphere, they should visit Courmayeur and Zermatt to up their style. One of the best lunches we enjoyed on the slopes incorporated a wine tasting. This was not the paranoid USA!
There is much more to Whistler than skiing and snowboarding, summer is their busier season; non-skiers can indulge in so many activities from energetic to totally relaxation. I sampled a few. Families have lots of possibilities with many varied facilities for children; I rather fancied a go on the 1,000 feet long tubing park under lights, looked fun!
Not having a head for heights the zip-lining was a challenge but the crew were very professional and included an interesting dialogue on the eco-systems and natural habitat.
Frustrated supercar drivers can get the adrenaline run with a snowmobile tour, 120 European BHP with a 500 pounds vehicle says it all. My four fellow riders were well-behaved behind our guide as we climbed and wended our way through the tracks and paths in the back country. I made sure that I was tail-end Charlie and lagged back in order to exploit the speed potential. The possibilities were staggering and irresponsibly I quietly managed to more than double the top speed of my companions. Great fun.
An experience I will not repeat was the Olympic Skeleton ride on the bottom section of the Olympic bobsleigh run. The ‘Death Talk’ and operations on the Cresta Run were comprehensive and professionally very slick sets the necessary standard. A few lessons to be learnt by the crew before I would repeat the experience at Whistler.
Time to relax in the Scandinave Spa complex in a delightful wooded setting where traditional Finnish hot and cold experiences were offered as well as massages. There was an almost religious silence ethos but that was broken when the shock of hitting the cold water in the outdoor pool prompted an involuntary very loud but happily mild expletive.
There are many other options but outstanding for me is the wining and dining experiences in Whistler, I had not expected such high standards and the local wines were a revelation.
The centre of Whistler is the smallest place in which I have ever been constantly lost as the buildings are so bland and characterless. However, the hidden gem in one of those buildings is the Araxi restaurant which was simply brilliant. Quite how they achieve the standards in a relatively large restaurant is commendable. The service was excellent, the sommelier made time to explain any point and he matched our courses with nectar, the waiters were attentive but not intrusive and the food was very accomplished. I gather ski buff Heston Blumenthal had also dined there just a few days earlier.
The Bearfoot Bistro had much more to offer than the outside of an uninspiring building promised. The bar and restaurant had good atmosphere and the food was again excellent, a first for me was a visiting to a vodka tasting room. Acclaimed as the world’s coldest at -40*, togged up in puffer jackets we sampled four vodkas. I have since learned they have warmed the room up to -32*.
The piece-de-resistance is the high ceilinged cellar; under which hung an Olympic bobsleigh. The walls of the main area were lined with champagne and other wine bottles right up to the ceiling. A great sight not to be missed. I was a little hesitant at being offered the opportunity of sabering a champagne bottle but with a confident swish along the side of the bottle, it was a clean cut. The art is in the preparation; over-chill a bottle for 24 hours before the event and I noted the wire cap was fixed above the usual rib.
A short taxi ride out of town took us to probably the most popular restaurant around: the Rimrock Café. For a start, you should book well before your arrival in Whistler such is its appeal that ad hoc bookings few and far between. The polished service is probably partly due to the fact that they only serve dinner so that there are opportunities for the team to ski longer than staff in other restaurants. There must be few chances of vacancies as it seems they are all long term employees. The food is exemplary and the atmosphere very conducive to a enjoying a great evening.
If you like a snowy winter holiday then Whistler can come up trumps for virtually every individual requirement. I spoke to lots of people working in the resort and their paraphrased reaction sums up the appeal “ I came here for a season three years ago and have just stayed on”
After the energetic stay in Whistler, we stopped over in Vancouver for a couple of days as its reputation of being one of the most highly rated cities in which to live and work.
We stayed in a centrally located boutique hotel, the St. Regis, it had plenty of character and its unique Gotham restaurant was bizarrely appealing even before we ate our meals. The director is understood to have various hotel interests and I imagine that this was his trophy hotel, where he wanted to present a gem of an hotel rather than trying to optimise the profits. Everything was immaculate which was expected but when you choose to have fragile wall coverings that would show any scuff there is obviously an ulterior motive, I gather they constantly redecorate the rooms.
There is masses of interest around the city and we could have been absorbed for several days, but one feature was of particularly fun, the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. On my next visit, I will find time to take a flying boat tour as the setting is quite stunning.
I welcome new challenges in skiing but I would set Whistler apart and say I am much looking forward to returning.