Whistler's Big Moment
Published: April 2009
By Alan Brown
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 <span class="author">Alan
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
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
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
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
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