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Tuesday, January 15, 2013
The Canadian mega-resort lives up to the hype, finds Tom Marshall – just beware of the cocktails
Nearly everyone I met in Whistler was keen to stress that there’s more to the Canadian mega-resort than snow sports.
“People come for winter, but they stay for the summers,” said our amiable snowboarding instructor Sean.
Leah from Tourism Whistler concurred, as we enjoyed a well-earned après drink and a gargantuan bowl of nachos at the bustling Garibaldi Lift Company.
No doubt they’re right: the beauty of these sweeping pine-covered mountains and scenic lakes won’t be washed away when the snow melts and skiing is replaced by hiking, biking and barbecuing.
As she sipped on her Caesar cocktail, a wince-inducing Canadian spin on the Bloody Mary made from vodka, Worcester sauce, Clamato – a disturbing blend of tomato juice and clams – and topped with a strip of bacon, Leah added that even in winter there’s plenty to do, be it zip-lining, dog sledding or spa-ing.
You can even whiz face first down a twisting tubular course at speeds of more than 60mph, while lying on nothing more than a glorified tray, if you’re brave to the point of having a personality defect and willing to try the skeleton run on the course used in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Yet while it (almost) all sounded like fun, I was there for one thing and one thing only: snowboarding.
Like many of the two million-plus tourists who visit every year, I was more than happy to spend all my time on the slopes.
These snow pilgrims are attracted by Whistler being the largest resort in North America and often cited as the best, with the most runs and the most snow. I had selflessly agreed to investigate whether it lives up to the hype.
It was Whistler’s enviable snow record that attracted me above all, and I wasn’t disappointed, finding a solid base bolstered by daily flurries even in early December.
As well as oodles of snow, Whistler also has attractive pine trees in abundance. The resort is low compared to many in Europe, with the highest lift reaching 2,284 metres, meaning that much of the terrain is below the tree line. That spells scores of beautiful runs and ample opportunity to dart in and out of the woods.
We also found a great sense of freedom and adventure, helped by the casual approach to signage. This meant we often had little idea where we were, but it didn’t matter as the trail network is so well thought out.
Wherever you go, you will eventually hit a gentle run and be funnelled towards a major lift giving easy access to the rest of the mountain. We simply hurtled along, dipping in and out of pillow-soft powder, groomed sections, mogul fields and trees, never taking the same route twice.
The resort is split over two mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb (hence the official name of Whistler Blackcomb), both accessible from the village and connected via the remarkable Peak 2 Peak gondola.
This impressive feat of engineering boasts the longest unsupported span in the world, at three kilometres. It will shred your nerves if you think about it too hard, but thankfully it takes a mere 11 minutes to whisk you from one mountain to the other.
Although it doesn’t have the charm of some European ski towns, being a purpose-built maze of hotels and restaurants, Whistler Village has a lot to offer when it comes to après.
The Garibaldi Lift Company is a fine place for a drink, if you steer clear of the Caesar, while Citta’s serves decent burgers and the far more palatable tipple of the locally brewed Powder Mountain Lager.
All the Canadian staff were typically ultra-friendly, each trying to strike up a conversation and often succeeding even in the face of our British reticence.
The 21 Steps Kitchen was a tasty dinner spot and my massive stuffed Portobello mushroom was a sight to behold. As for mountain grub, the food courts had decent cuisine at reasonable prices, though there wasn’t huge variety.
We stayed at the luxurious Fairmont Chateau Whistler at the base of Blackcomb, seconds from the Wizard Express lift and a 10-minute stroll or free shuttle trip from the village centre. The upper rooms enjoy sweeping views and the facilities were excellent, including five restaurants and a equipment hire and storage centre.
The recently refurbished spa was a great place to relax. But it lacked one thing – ice-cold outdoor pools. It had hot tubs all right, three of them, with waiters serving cocktails, but no pool kept at stupidly low temperatures.
I found that at the beautiful Scandinave Spa, where plunging into freezing waters is the perfect tonic for a body-battering day on the slopes. It felt amazing and was surprisingly addictive.
Whistler nestles in the coastal mountains of British Columbia, about 80 miles north of the western city of Vancouver. It’s a fair way to go, especially when the perfectly good Alps are just over the Channel and down a bit.
Our Air Canada flight was about 10 hours, followed by a three-hour coach transfer. But once we were suited up and strapped into our boards, we had little doubt it was worth the effort.
I’m sure it’s great in the summer, but you would be hard-pressed to beat Whistler in the winter. Even if you don’t try the Olympic skeleton course.
* Air Canada runs up to 63 non-stop flights per week to seven major Canadian cities. The airline operates daily services to Vancouver from Heathrow, with return flights in January available for under £700. Find out more at www.aircanada.com or call 0871 220 1111.
* Tom Marshall stayed at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, which is situated at the base of Blackcomb mountain next to the Wizard Express chairlift. Amenities include five restaurants and a health centre replete with gym, steam rooms and three outdoor hot tubs.
Rooms start from about £220 during the winter and £105 for the rest of the year. Visit www.fairmont.com/whistler or call +1 888 499 9899 for more information and bookings.
* A six-day adult lift pass for Whistler Blackcomb costs about £263 when purchased online. To find out more about lift passes, lessons and other activities go to the Whistler Blackcomb website at www.whistlerblackcomb.com. For more on all things Whistler, visit the Tourism Whistler website at www.whistler.com.