For us in the North Sound, winter can be a bit dreary: what isn’t rain is cloud, the relentless low ceiling of our winter days. It feels as if the sun sets at noon, damp and cold settling between our layers of knits and fleece. Fortunately, on the other side of Vancouver, up the Sea-to-Sky corridor — one of the most scenic drives in North America — you can enjoy warm stone treatments, clear mountain air, fresh powder, carefully crafted cocktails and fine food. Whistler is named for the Whistling Marmots who inhabit the trees of the Coast Mountains. Its companion, Blackcomb, is the newer addition to this winter playland. Together, they are some of the best skiing in the world.
Whistler was originally conceived to be an Olympic village. In 2010, 55 years later, Whistler Blackcomb realized its dream. Whistler had always been a kind of a village — generations ago, it had been a trading stop between the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations. Now it caters to commerce of a different kind, with more than 200 shops and hundreds of restaurants all collected together on pedestrian-friendly central avenues.
With an annual average snowfall of more than 35 feet, Whistler Blackcomb is famous for the soft powder on its Whistler Winter Wonderland slopes. Advanced skiers and snowboarders will find plenty of places to play, including heli-skiing packages. Beginners are best starting out at Blackcomb Base, Whistler Village and Whistler Creekside and gradually working their way up to the more advanced slopes. The resort has added two new lifts opening this winter. The Crystal Ridge Express will give skiers faster and better access to Blackcomb Glacier, Hortsman Glacier and Spanky’s Ladder, and the Harmony 6 Express will carry snowboarders and skiers to the Harmony Zone.
Snowshoers and cross-country skiers have a vast network of trails both around the villages and on the lower slopes of the mountains, and guided tours are also available. Sledding is also a great way to enjoy the snow without having to strap on special gear. For the non-skiing tots, the Magic Castle on Blackcomb and Tree Fort on Whistler are great places to explore and play. And if you’re a fan of ice climbing, Whistler offers classes and tours from the beginning to advanced levels. A good tip is to purchase a gift card that includes lift tickets and rentals, so that you aren’t having to schlep a wallet around a mountain all day.
There is a huge range of accommodations at Whistler, from simple, clean lodges to four-star retreats. You book through whistlerblackcomb.com. The website features a comprehensive A-to-Z list of all the accommodations, as well as type, maps and level of luxury. You’re sure to find a room that matches your budget or pampers your every whim. You can also purchase ski packages with your room accommodations. Insider tip: last-minute lodging deals are available online for local travelers who are just a short hop away.
If you prefer to enjoy the snow from inside, there are plenty of shops, restaurants, cafes and spas to keep you busy all day. Armchair Books has a great selection of fiction and nonfiction in all genres. They specialize in outdoor books, but also offer a full selection of current titles as well. My personal favorite stop at Whistler, Moguls Coffee Shop, is near Armchair Books and serves excellent coffee in a cheery space with plenty spots for winter reading and writing.
All that snow play makes Whistler’s visitors hungry. On the finer side of dining, Araxi serves up a menu that is locally sourced and innovative. The wine list is deep and extensive, and the ambiance is elegant without being too overdone. For a quick bar bite or casual meal, the FireRock Lounge at the Westin Whistler Resort and Spa is a good place to grab a beer and bite, or savor a cocktail while the snow piles up outside. With its cozy lodge atmosphere, heavy leather furniture and warm hearth, it’s the perfect spot for a little apres-ski. There are also several bars and casual spots slopeside to keep you fueled.
During the holidays, becomes a holiday dreamland with lights and events. Free skating, tubing, sleigh rides and holiday displays — not to mention skiing — ensures that whatever your idea of a great snowy holiday may be, Whistler can accommodate it. If you want to capture yourself in an action shot flying over a mogul or making snow angels with the kids, professional photographers and videographers are available for mountain service — a great way to capture memories without having to carry a camera. On Sundays, Whistler’s snow showoffs perform in the “Fire and Ice” show, in which advanced skiers leap through flaming hoops while the snowflakes gather.
For a fascinating afternoon out of the cold, the beautiful Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre at Whistler contains a longhouse, pithouse, historical displays, a theater and offers classes in cedar weaving and other arts. The tours are first-rate, complete with fascinating historical insights and excellent storytelling. You will learn about the Wild Woman of the Mountains and the inukshuk — the stack of stones that became Whistler’s symbol for the Olympics. Inukshuks marked important places like burial grounds and food caches and, later, the Olympic Village. Miniature inukshuks can be purchased at the many gift shops around Whistler.
Getting to Whistler in the driving snow can be a challenge. Take tire chains and drive carefully. The town of Squamish is a nice stopping place on the way, and the Squamish Inn and Brewery is a great place to catch a bite. The Rocky Mountaineer Sea-to-Sky Climb train service runs from downtown Vancouver to the heart of Whistler Village. The train is a luxury ride and priced accordingly. There are two classes available, Whistler Classic or Whistler Dome. Another fun way to go is by seaplane. There are several carriers out of Vancouver. On a clear day, the views are spectacular.