Like thousands of other Vancouverites, I try make my annual pilgrimage to Whistler at least a couple times each season. There’s more than just the heaving bars and the runs that seem to stretch on forever. Whistler in winter ranges from adventurous snowmobiling and tree-top ziptrekking to award-winning spas, fine dining and luxury hotels. Towering above the village are the two mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb, linked by the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, the world’s longest and highest lift system.
Located two hours drive from Vancouver, Whistler has seen an explosion in development. Hotels, timeshare complexes and townhouses have mushroomed at the base, leading to more shops, restaurants and tour operators to keep visitors happy. The 10,000 locals brace themselves for the winter months that pack in up to two million visitors a year. The resort offers 39 lifts and an incredible 8000 acres of skiable area. To give you an idea of scale, that’s over 50% more terrain than any other resort on the continent.
I’ve been itching to get on a snowmobile for years, and Canadian Snowmobile Adventures offer various packages to introduce both newbie’s and experts to the surrounding terrain. My 4-stroke Yamaha snowmobile is a beast, and surprisingly easy to manoeuvre and control once I get the hang of its weight and powerful engine. Thumbing the throttle, I blast off into the snow on backcountry trails that snake through forest trails, leading to a frozen lake where I can cut loose and feed my speed addiction. Cotton balls of snow are falling but the company’s gear keeps me toasty. Once I turn off the engine, it is unnerving how quiet nature can be.
Snowmobiling, dogsledding, a tube park, fondues – there’s plenty of options for those who don’t ski, including the chance to head into the forest to experience the rush of Zip Trekking. Zip Trek EcoTours combines the beauty of experiencing an ancient rainforest with the thrill of speeding up to 80 km/hr between the trees. Opened in 2013, you can also check out Superfly, which has the highest and longest ziplines in Canada.
Feeling inspired by the Olympics, it seems like a good idea to hurl myself headfirst down a professional bobsled track. Whistler Sliding Centre offers a public skeleton ride, which lets you fly down the lower third of the track at speeds of up to 100 km/hr. More remarkable is that the activity is relatively safe and just about anyone can do it (although there are height and weight restrictions). It’s unnerving just how low my face is to the ice, and the sound of the sled is almost deafening. There’s not a lot you can do other than hold on and wait for it to end, and chalk up another adrenalin-soaked Bucket List experience.
At the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, I’m reminded that indigenous people have been living here for thousands of years, and the nations of Squamish and Lil’wat, which shared this land, have a rich and thriving heritage. Their art, carvings and bark weavings provide a fascinating visit, along with multimedia displays and an excellent art gallery. By now I’m getting hungry and if I’m going to tackle both mountains in the morning (taking advantage of a program called Fresh Tracks Mountain Top Breakfast, which allows the first 650 people who show up to hit the slopes before the gondolas officially open) I’m going to stock up on some carbs.
Trattoria di Umbertos is a regular favourite, having opened its doors as far back as 1981, when Whistler was largely unknown. An open kitchen design allows patrons to literally watch their Tuscan-inspired meals being created, chatting with the frenetic chefs as they battle through a constant flow of orders. Melt-in–the-mouth carpaccio, wild Pacific salmon, and a marsala-infused veal dish accompany the words of visitors. Another must-visit restaurant, if you can afford it, is the Bistro Barefoot. Their nitro ice-cream dessert is a spectacle, as is the vodka tasting in their special ice-room.
By the time the sun rises the following day, I am gliding over 15cm of fresh powder, my snowboard carving the first run of the day in the alpine terrain of the unsurpassable Whistler-Blackcomb. The mountains are so large that the skiing options are practically limitless, and the snow, nothing short of glorious. Seventh Heaven and Jersey Cream have long been my favourite runs. Peak Chair drops you off at the top of the world. Getting back to the village is like running a marathon with a big smile on your face. Mid-afternoon, as the mountain begins to close, I return to my room at Fairmont’s Chateau Whistler exhausted, elated, and thoroughly deserving of an Apres-Ski beer.