The more they build here, the less it seems to snow," Jason, my massage therapistat the Four Seasons Resort Whistler, observed as he wrapped warm, moist towels around my aching feet. Ever since it won the 2010 Winter Olympics a few years back, this British Columbia resort has become North America's "it" ski destination, prompting the inevitable laments from locals about overdevelopment and rising real estate prices. Celebrity sightings (Justin and Cameron, Goldie and Kurt, Susan and Tim, Chris Klein and a pre-Tom Katie Holmes) have become more frequent than snowfall. It was on a Whistler glacier that Seal proposed to Heidi Klum. The World Snowboard Championship was held here in 2004. And it doesn't let up in the summer, when the resort attracts rock climbers and extreme mountain bikers (they race down the precipitous slopes in body armor), along with less adventurous types who come simply to play golf, canoe, and hike in one of the world's most beautiful settings.
Whistler sits in a lake-dotted glacial valley north of Vancouver, and until the 1940's it was accessible only by a combination of steamship and train. People came mostly to fish. The first ski lifts opened in 1965. Whistler bid for the '76 Winter Olympics and lost—fortunately, everybody now agrees. Instead of rushing headlong into expansion, the village took its careful time, hiring the California-based landscape architect Eldon Beck and planning from scratch. Beck paid close attention to both the failures and successes of ski resorts in North America and abroad, then took a kind of backward approach, focusing on the spaces around the buildings rather than on the buildings themselves. The result is a charming cobblestoned progression of roomy pedestrian plazas. Underground parking runs beneath large portions of the village, although frequent shuttle buses make cars superfluous. The buildings are low, so sunlight and views stream in; you can almost always see Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. "Whistler is based on a pedestrian corridor," Beck said from his home in Marin County, where he continues to act as the resort's design adviser, working with its rigorous planning committee. "The success of the village is that its total composition is greater than any single building."
I first heard about Whistler a few years back, from my ski-obsessed brother-in-law, Kenny, and my sister, Laurie, who had been won over by the sheer magnitude of Whistler's skiable terrain—the most extensive on the continent—and by the fact that they didn't see the same people there whom they see every season in Vail. "We really felt as if we'd left the country," Laurie said. When they declared it their new favorite ski resort, I booked a flight.
A fussy friend had recommended the Four Seasons as "really, the only place to stay in Whistler if you want any pampering at all," and my first views of Whistler's toniest new address were heartening. The 273-room hotel's two buildings, designed by Vancouver architect Michael Huggins, are divided by a wide, landscaped courtyard and connected by a walkway and a pedestrian bridge. With its rough-hewn local stone balanced by light-colored wood, and graduated rooflines that echo the mountain peaks, the hotel suggests a cross between an alpine lodge and a Japanese shrine. Inside the eucalyptus, limestone, and granite lobby, the rustic aesthetic is offset by lofty, eye-catching flower arrangements. My cozy suite, a compact bedroom and living room on the fourth floor, had all the right mountain touches, including a gas fireplace, wooden window blinds, a timber terrace—and a snowdrift-sized bed.
But I was here to ski, not to lounge. I'd booked the Four Seasons' Ski Lite package: not only did I not have to lug skis, poles, and boots along on the plane, I didn't even have to pack ski clothes. Downstairs in the hotel's rental shop, I was cross-examined on my experience and technique by an Australian and a Brit ("What exactly do you mean, Mr. Brown, by 'enthusiastic but unpracticed high intermediate'?"), then fitted with the latest Atomic skis and Salomon boots. I passed on the Prada outfit (chic, but too lightweight) in favor of a top-of-the-line Spyder suit that made me look—or so I thought when I caught sight of my reflection in the dressing-room mirror—like a cross between an Olympic contender and a superhero. (Returning it at the end of my stay was the hardest part of leaving.)