British Columbia’s Whistler beyond the slope
I was skiing in a world of white-out, high up on British Columbia's Blackcomb mountain.
The fog was so pea-soup thick that though I could hear a chairlift, I couldn't see it - until I careened into its lift-line fence.
In my decades of skiing at Whistler and Blackcomb, the side-by-side mountains of Whistler resort, that day this past spring had some of the worst conditions I'd seen.
It was hard to tell where the fog ended and the snow began, throwing even the hotshot skiers and boarders off balance.
Yet when the conditions are good, Whistler is one of the best places to ski in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia.
What's to love? More than 200 runs on the two mountains, spread over 8,171 acres of terrain.
Ski and board in wide-open alpine bowls or tree-gladed runs. Or just enjoy the wonderfully long and well-groomed easy and intermediate runs that make almost anyone feel like a good skier.
Then there are the classy on-mountain touches, such as daily free orientation tours for newcomers; the "sniffle stations" - boxes of Kleenex strategically placed at the base of the lifts; and ski-trail maps printed on some chairlifts' safety bars so you can easily plot your next run.
Plus excellent on-mountain food at big cafeterias and cosy high-altitude huts.
Whistler tries hard to keep repeat visitors happy and lure new ones, in big ways and small. This season, it's making a big US$18 million push with two new high-speed chairs.
They open December 7, or earlier if the snow's good (Whistler Mountain opened on November 16, thanks to early snow; Blackcomb opens November 28).
But on my spring visit, I gave up skiing when the blinding fog stuck around the next day. The good news? (A) Such really awful days are rare. (B) When skiing here is just no fun, off-slope fun is very easy to find.
Since I couldn't get my adrenaline fix through skiing, I went zip lining with Whistler's Ziptrek Ecotours.
Donning helmets and body harnesses, seven other tour-goers and I tramped through the forest above Whistler Village to small platforms cantilevered up in fir trees.
A guide clipped each person's harness onto a metal cable, or zip line. We waited our turns, then nervously stepped off the platform's edge to go whizzing along the cable strung high through the forest, the first of five zip lines on our several-hour tour.
Some of the zip lines are more than 2,000 feet long and, gulp, more than 180 feet up in the air. They zigzag across and along a narrow valley between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, in a just-right alignment so that gravity speeds you up and helps slow you down as you approach the next tree platform.
I closed my eyes and shrieked as I started down the first zip line, curling up in a scared little ball as I quickly gathered speed, dangling from my harness.
Yet by the fourth zip line I was yipping with glee, with eyes wide open, and even managed to spin upside down and do the "starfish" - limbs spread wide.
The guides gave short talks about forest creatures and the centuries-old trees - that's the eco part of the tour. They cracked jokes in their cheerful Australian accents (a Whistler job is practically a rite of passage for young, athletic Aussies). And by the end of the tour we all went giddily zipping down to the edge of Whistler Village.
Info: ziptrek.com. Tours start at US$89 (NZ$98) (off-peak) for an adult.
More adrenaline action: Whistler offers bungee-jumping, luge-like sledding (both too scary for me) and backcountry snowmobile tours (I avoid snowmobiles ever since I crashed one and sent it tumbling down a ridge).
And a second company, Superfly Ziplines, has started up, with daytime tours and an evening zip line/dinner tour.
Calmer action: For something mellower, local companies offer sleigh rides, snowtubing and snowshoeing. Or ice-skate outdoors, for free, in Whistler Village at the Whistler Olympic Plaza.
One of a winter vacation's decadent pleasures is relaxing in an outdoor hot tub or pool amid the snow. And Whistler resorts can help their guests indulge.
The outdoor pools (and adjoining spa) at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler are among the classiest, letting you loll in the warmth while watching skiers swoop down the slopes.
But even at big high-end resorts like the Fairmont (and The Westin Whistler and Pan Pacific Village Centre, where I stayed earlier this year), the pools are too small for real swimming.
My vote for best hotel pool is the one at the Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside, big enough for laps and with a great overview of the base of the gondolas and the apres-ski partying at outdoor bars.
You'll need to pay a lot to stay and play at those hotels and their pools.
So for the best, and most budget-friendly, pool in town, go to the municipally run Meadow Park Sports Centre which, besides its six-lane pool, boasts a sauna, steam room and hot tub.
Kids will love the rope swing, slide and "lazy river" (a current that carries them in a swirl). Admission is US$8 (NZ$9.8) for an adult, US$16 (NZ$19.7) for a family.
You'll be hungry after zip lining or swimming. Fortunately, the eating (and drinking) is excellent in Whistler, with dozens of places clustered along and near the five-block, pedestrian-only walkway that winds through the village.
Watch the hipsters and happy families stroll past while sitting outside at the Amsterdam Cafe, warmed by its big heat lamps. The beer and the people-watching are fine; the food is standard pub grub (nachos, burgers, fries). At night it can get rowdy.
For excellent sushi, sashimi and other Japanese specialties, head to Sushi Village. It's always jammed, but it's worth the wait (reservations for groups of six and more only) Another excellent choice, a little off the beaten path, is Sachi Sushi.
For classy fine dining, Araxi is the beloved standby with excellent B.C. seafood (oysters, scallops, salmon) and much, much more.
Travelling with kids? Indulge them with a beaver tail (a big, flat doughnut-type pastry) at Zogs Dogs, a food stall near the base of the gondolas. Or get hot dogs or poutine, Canada's rib-sticking dish of fries, gravy and cheese curds.
I poked my head into Garfinkel's, one of Whistler's biggest and perhaps loudest nightclubs, with live bands and DJs.
Not my demographic, but a lot of 20-somethings were having a lot of fun in the sprawling, subterranean club. See Whistler club/entertainment updates (and local news) at piquenewsmagazine.com. Or see listings at whistler.com.
For restaurant listings, see whistler.com/dining.
You could drop lots of money shopping at Whistler, on everything from jewellery to trendy skiwear and gear. But the 12 percent tax can make things pricier than in the US.
Still, I always check out the homegrown Canadian offerings at the Roots clothing and accessories store, roots.com, and buy edible souvenirs at Rogers' Chocolates, a B.C. chocolate-maker that began in Victoria in 1885.
For something completely different, head to the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre on the edge of Whistler Village.
Housed in a beautifully designed, wood-beamed building with soaring glass windows, it's a showcase for the cultural history and art/crafts of two local First Nations groups.
And sample aboriginal-inspired food - excellent salmon, venison chilli, bannock (fry bread) and more - at its Thunderbird Cafe.
More cultural offerings: Whistler Museum, with a small treasure trove of historic photos and exhibits on the area (including from the 2010 Winter Olympics), is being renovated and reopens Nov. 28.
The Audain Art Museum, a 55,000-square-foot museum, is under construction in the village and will house B.C. art, from First Nations carvings to Emily Carr paintings. It opens in 2015.
Perhaps you're ready for more skiing, but the alpine weather's crummy or you don't want to shell out for lift tickets. Try another sort of skiing at Whistler's two excellent cross-country (nordic) ski areas.
At Lost Lake Park, on the edge of the village, 25 kilometres of groomed trails wind through the woods and around the small Lost Lake (there also are snowshoe trails and winter-hiking trails).
You can see the Whistler condos and ski slopes from some trails, but it feels a world away. And it has wild things; a furry baby lynx dashed a few feet in front of me as I skied there. A daily pass is US$19.50 (NZ$24) for an adult; see whistler.ca/crosscountry.
At the Whistler Olympic Park/Callaghan Valley there's 87 kilometres of groomed trails along with a comfortable day lodge and cafeteria.
This is where the nordic races (and ski-jumping) of the 2010 Winter Olympics were held, and it's one of the best public legacies of the Games. A day ticket is US$23.50 (NZ$29) for an adult, with discounts for youth, seniors, families.
At both areas, trails are groomed for skate and classic skiing, and some trails are lit in the evenings for those who want some outdoor nightlife.
HOW TO SAVE MONEY
Among the cheapest places to stay are the UBC Whistler Lodge, a 42-bed hostel (open to the public as well as University of B.C. students).
Or check out Hostelling International's Whistler hostel. It's a newer, comfortable hostel although it's a 15-minute drive from Whistler Village in what was Olympic athletes' housing.
CHEAPER LIFT TICKETS
Walk up to the lift-ticket kiosk in Whistler village and you'll pay more than $100 for a day ski pass. Ouch.
To cut the cost, get the Edge discount card, available only to Canadian and Washington state residents. It can cut lift prices by almost a third and gives discounts on merchandise, lodging, food and more.
SAVE ON FOOD, DRINKS
Look for a hotel that includes free breakfast. And/or get a unit with a kitchenette so you can make some of your own meals.
Bring some grocery staples and liquor, if you drink, from home (each adult visitor to Canada can take 1.5 liters of wine). B.C. taxes are high and food stores are resort-priced; the best bet is the Whistler Marketplace IGA grocery store.
BE AWARE OF SCHOOL BREAKS
The University of B.C. spring break is Feb. 17-21 next year. That's also when Seattle schools have a weeklong midwinter break (which includes Presidents Day) so Whistler will get busier. Vancouver, B.C., schools have a two-week spring break at the end of March 2014.