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Whistler's Big Moment

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

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

"We have enough hotel rooms, but living spaces are tight," admitted Hugh O'Reilly, Whistler's third-term mayor, when I met him for coffee one afternoon. A former competitive skier, O'Reilly moved here from California in the seventies, joined the ski patrol, opened a chimney-sweeping business, and stayed. "This is a real village, not just a resort," he told me. "Whistler has the strongest residential-worker program in North America. Seventy-five percent of our workers actually live here." Thanks to O'Reilly and others, Whistler also has restrictive building codes, a "warm bed" covenant (owners must keep their units in the rental pool most of the year), an extensive hiking-trail system toward which developers must contribute, insistence on the use of natural materials, and a strict design panel whose members must approve absolutely everything. "We're surrounded by traditional industries, and we saw what they were doing to the environment. We recognized that tourism can be hard on the land," he said. "We have the best public transit system in B.C. We compost our sewage. We're making use of geothermal heat. Our product is about nature. If you don't have clean air and water, a cute village isn't going to cut it." When I brought up the coming Olympics, O'Reilly didn't hesitate: "We spent thirty years building this resort and we're not going to destroy it in seventeen days." Beck agreed: "Sustainable is a word that gets bandied about, but Whistler has really done it. The Olympics will be a superb opportunity for the village to make a philosophical statement, to become the leading environmentally sustainable ski resort in North America. And it's great for the Olympics to have Whistler as well."

Despite the most cautious planning, Whistler's future can still sometimes seem to be careening toward its present like an out-of-control snowboarder. Black Tusk, a prominent local peak and a symbol featured on every brochure, is now the site of new cellular towers (Whistler has great cell-phone reception). And what of the whistling marmot, from which the town took its name?"I've never seen one," James the bellhop had lamented. After just a week here, I, too, wanted Whistler to stop growing. Yes, the wines and seafood are exceptional and the hotels luxurious. But that's not what makes this the best ski resort in North America. On my last day, I shared a lift chair with another ski instructor, Leslie, who'd arrived for a visit many years before and never left (she named her son Winter). As we reached the top, we both gazed out at the spectacular views. At the newly opened Flute Bowl, with 700 acres of patrolled backcountry-style terrain. At the four new "peak-to-creek" runs. Preparing to dismount, Leslie pulled her goggles on and grinned at me. "It's all about the mountain," she said. And off she flew.

Alan Brown is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor and a novelist and filmmaker. His most recent film is Book of Love.

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