Long a low-key, old-fashioned resort, British Columbia's Whistler has transformed itself, slowly and sensibly, into the next great ski area. Now is the moment to catch it, says Alan Brown
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.)
Usually, it takes me a day or two to adjust to the thin air at ski resorts, but Whistler's unusually low altitude of 2,214 feet means easier breathing—and warmer weather. My fitting done, I set out for a walk. Half of Whistler's population is between 20 and 34, so there's a lot of ambient energy on the streets here—and an unnatural number of absurdly healthy-looking young people with their ski-pants suspenders hanging down (the latest fashion) and their arms in slings (snowboarding accidents; snowboarders now outnumber skiers two to one). Whistler has become an international destination—especially for Australians, who can easily get one-year guest-worker permits—and I heard a virtual United Nations of accents as I strolled through the village, wandering in and out of the casual, hip stores, like Roots and the yoga-wear shop Lululemon Athletica, that cater to this young and cosmopolitan demographic. At Gone Bakery & Soup Co., a café that buzzed with an early après-ski crowd when I stopped in for a latte, I shared a table with a bleary-eyed Australian who confessed that he had partied heavily until dawn. I asked him, doesn't Whistler's low altitude mean that alcohol doesn't pack the usual ski-resort wallop?"No worries, mate, there's no such thing as a hangover here," he agreed. "You get up on the slopes in the fresh air and sunshine and a few hours later you just barf in the snow." I thanked him for sharing and took my latte outside.
Fortunately, Whistler grows up and gets serious when dinnertime arrives. The restaurants here are an extension of Vancouver's celebrated Pacific Rim food culture. With the ocean only 50 miles away, raw bars abound. Village chefs bring in dairy products and crisp produce from neighboring Pemberton Valley and wines from the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia's emerging Napa. Locals seem to take wine almost as seriously as they do snow conditions. The day I arrived, the village was buzzing with news of the recent $210,000 wine heist from the Bearfoot Bistro's celebrated cellar. That night, I headed to the Bearfoot's stunning pewter-and-copper bar (bar dining is an advantage of traveling alone), where the restaurant's award-winning oyster shucker, Chris Field, demonstrated his skills for me, and a charming French-Canadian waiter, Martin, entertained me with local snowboarder jokes. I asked the Bearfoot's owner, André Saint-Jacques, about the theft. "It was like The Thomas Crown Affair. The thieves hot-wired the video cameras and cut the alarm systems," he said. "The police thought it was me. I got about a half-million dollars' worth of free advertising from it."
By the time I'd worked my way through a mountain of oysters (the Chef's Creeks, from Vancouver Island, were my favorite) and a loin of wild arctic caribou, Lee Aaron, a former heavy-metal rocker (in the eighties, she was known as the Pat Benatar of Canada) had begun belting out jazz standards in the main dining room. Bearfoot's wine director, Kirk Shaw, took me to view the scene of the crime. Down in the cellar, he handed me a saber and invited me to lop the top off a champagne bottle—a Bearfoot ritual. I managed on my first try. (André has beaten the Guinness World Record, decapitating 30 bottles in one minute.) Kirk had his own theories about the theft to share. "It was a contracted hit: they really took only the best bottles," he told me. "It smacked of a collector filling holes in his collection."
Everybody, it seemed, had an opinion, even the Seattle real estate developer sitting at the bar at Araxi the next night. "It's got to be an inside job," he declared, digging into a hearts-of-romaine salad with shaved prosciutto and a deep-fried hen's egg on top. "Best damn egg I've ever had," he said, jabbing his fork at the face of his buddy, a merchant seaman. "Taste it, for god's sake!" Krista, Araxi's pretty young bartender, wasn't as interested in the wine theft as she was in the fact that I was from Manhattan. "My roommates and I just watched the entire six seasons of Sex and the City on DVD! I want to go to New York and live like Carrie," she gushed, while I polished off an appetizer of poached smoked sablefish. Then she frowned. "Only problem is, I'm not really a high-heel kind of girl." Krista and I chatted as I devoured a plate of wild B.C. spot prawns with spaghettini in a lemon sauce that shimmered with peas, chives, and flying-fish caviar. Whistler is a "work to play" village, she explained. "When you ask someone here what he does, he doesn't answer with his job. He answers, 'snowboarding, kayaking, biking.'" As I discovered in the days that followed, this local philosophy, combined with a seasonal work force not invested in their jobs, can make for frustratingly bad service. (At Zen Sushi, my bored and impatient waitress couldn't even be bothered to look at me when she took my order.) But when the service is good, which it was at both Bearfoot and Araxi, it's great, as well as disarmingly relaxed.
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.
"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.
Weather January temperatures in Whistler average 18 to 28 degrees; annual snowfall is approximately 30 feet. Getting There The village is about a two-hour drive along Highway 99 from Vancouver International Airport, where you may arrange travel to Whistler by rental car, limousine, bus, shuttle, or privately chartered aircraft. For further information and a complete listing of transportation providers, visit www.tourismwhistler.com. (And for more specialized transportation—specifically, a lift to the mountaintop—check out Coast Range Heliskiing at www.coastrangeheliskiing.com.)
Where to Stay
Fairmont Chateau Whistler
A 550-room hotel at the base of Blackcomb Mountain.
Doubles from $420
4599 Chateau Blvd. 800/606-8244 or 604/938-8000
Four Seasons Resort Whistler
Ski Lite package—equipment and ski suits—is available for $115 per person, per day.
Doubles from $417
4591 Blackcomb Way 888/935-2460 or 604/935-3400
Where to Eat
Araxi Restaurant & Seafood Bar
Dinner for two $110
4222 Village Square; 604/932-4540
Dinner for two $125
4121 Village Green; 604/932-3433
Dusty's Bar & Grill
Dinner for two $50
2040 London lane; 604/905-2171
Fifty Two 80 Bistro
Dinner for two $110
4591 Blackcomb Way 888/935-2460 or 604/966-5280
Gone Bakery & Soup Co.
Lunch for two $10
4205 Village Square; 604/938-1957
Dessert for two $5
4314 Main St., Unit 17; 604/905-2462
Where to Shop
Vancouver-based chain offering yoga-inspired athletic gear.
4293 Mountain Square, Unit 201; 604/938-9642
Hand-made leather goods such as bags, boots, and accessories.
4229 Village Stroll, Unit 40; 604/938-0058
Hand-made leather goods such as bags, boots, and accessories.
Vancouver-based chain offering yoga-inspired athletic gear.