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Whistler's Big Moment

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

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

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.

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