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Whistler's Big Moment

Andrea Fazzari Heli-skiing at Whistler, in British Columbia.

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

The atmosphere is more subdued, but no less friendly and professional, at the Four Seasons' Fifty Two 80 Bistro (named for the vertical you can ski on Blackcomb Mountain). A curved space warmed by flickering firelight and onyx-and-nickel walls, Fifty Two 80 has just the right balance of informality and stylishness, so that I felt equally comfortable there in evening clothes and my ski outfit. Chef Jason McLeod knows his ingredients are top quality and doesn't fuss with them too much. The black cod, flown down from Alaska, was as rich as tuna belly. But the real revelation was the fatty honey mussels, raised off the coast of Quadra Island, with a meat-to-shell ratio of 60 percent (30 is normal). I'm not yet thinking of emigrating, but Fifty Two 80's Canadian-cheese course, with a creamy goat's milk Blue Juliette and a washed-rind cow's milk Empereur, does have me mulling over dual citizenship.

Because of  Whistler's low altitude, the bottom third of the slopes can sometimes be slushy. But the top is pretty near perfect. With so vast a skiable area and an average of 30 feet of snow per season, the trails don't get skied out, the way they can in Colorado and Utah. There's always plenty of powder. And with more than 30 lifts between the two interconnected mountains, I had to force myself to break for lunch. Every day, I rose bright and early and took my few minutes' walk to the hotel's Ski Concierge shop, at the base of Blackcomb Mountain. My waxed skis and my pre-warmed boots were waiting, and within moments I was ready to go. At the end of the day, uniformed Four Seasons concierges would be waiting with carts at the base of each mountain. I'd just ski right up to them, hand over my equipment, and head off for a beer and a soak in the Jacuzzi.

Whistler has about 1,200 ski instructors from around the world. Mine was a Canadian, John Kindree. Decades ago, John met his wife in Sun Valley and brought her back to Whistler. "She told me she'd only marry me if I taught her how to ski," he said, laughing. "Now, she can ski any slope that I can." That's saying a lot. Whistler's terrain, he explained as we paused at the edge of a knee-quaking precipice, is especially attractive to expert skiers because of its extreme verticals. "We've got a lot of steep chutes on the upper part of the mountain. Adrenaline junkies just love it." I'd kicked the adrenaline habit years before, but John gave me the confidence to really pick up my speed. "The faster you go, the more control you'll have," he insisted. At the end of the day, I followed him down a black-diamond slope so steep that I felt I was defying the laws of gravity by not spilling off into space.

John has been in Whistler since 1965 (there was no village then, and only four lifts) and seems to know everybody on the slopes. And he knows the slopes. Whistler and Blackcomb mountains are so big, it could take a week just to get the lay of the land. For those who don't have an instructor, Whistler offers free mountain tours daily. And the locals are not territorial. On my second day, I shared a chair with James, a bellhop from the Sundial Hotel, who led me to a "secret" area of the mountain where, astonishingly, we were practically the only ones on the trails. I promised not to publish the lift's name, but I will tell you that it's on Blackcomb, far from Seventh Heaven (a sun-drenched, popular area). A Vancouver native, James had a city boy's gimlet-eyed view of  Whistler's "work to play" population ("The thirty-year-olds have the maturity level of sixteen-year-olds"), and was a font of local lore, including the supposed fact that in B.C. marijuana and related products are bigger than the fishing and timber industries. He also told me that housing is so tight for seasonal workers that some of his friends were living in saunas and laundry rooms.

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