In the run-up to the 2010 Olympic Games in February, Whistler in British Columbia is pulling out all the stops. Best of all, most of its ski areas will stay open for skiers of all abilities – and ages
Whistler, in British Columbia, Canada, is one of those ski resorts you just have to ski before you die. Vail in Colorado and Val d’Isère in France will undoubtedly tug at the bindings for different reasons; Val d’Isère is quicker and easier to get to while Vail justifiably ranks as one of America’s finest. Whistler offers something else, though: the feel of a European resort with skiing that has the space and range of being American. Then again, this is the largest ski resort in North America.
Easily accessible (it’s a stunning two-hour drive from Vancouver along the scenic and now upgraded Sea to Sky Highway), Whistler Village is modern, has plenty of bars and restaurants, is car-free and has enough skiing to satisfy all standards. By 2010 it will have added another accolade to its trophy chest as it becomes the "Host Mountain Resort" for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Games. Yet there are downsides. Being close to the Pacific Ocean means rain, particularly at resort level, can be a problem – as is the lack of mountain restaurants with charm and character.
Whistler village sits between two mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb. Depending on where you are staying, you reach the lifts by foot or resort bus. Together, they offer a tantalising selection of cruising pistes, couloirs and bowls, steep descents and tree-lined runs – which isn’t surprising, given that they were rival neighbours before the owners of Whistler merged with IntraWest (the owners of Blackcomb) more than a decade ago to create the winter giant that Whistler is today.
Even after the merger, skiers would still usually opt to ski either Whistler or Blackcomb for the day, rather than return back to the village to access lifts to the other. All that changed in December 2008 with the opening of the new Peak 2 Peak gondola which connects the two mountains at altitude. Each of the 28 gondolas can take 28 people on the 11-minute journey, allowing 2,050 people to travel in each direction every hour.
The beauty of both mountains is that, whichever you choose, there is terrain to suit all levels – from demanding bowls for real experts to gentle blues and greens. The drop from 7th Heaven Chair (on Blackcomb) back to the resort base is 1,609m (5,280ft), the largest in North America. Over on Whistler, the Peak Chair falls 1,530m (5,020ft). As you might expect, there is a good choice of parks and pipes for riders. Parks are rated by size (Small to Extra Large) and boarders are advised to start with the Terrain Garden on Blackcomb before progressing to something more challenging.
THE 2010 VANCOUVER OLYMPICS
Say "Olympic Games" and most skiers will head for the hills – any hills, as long as they are as far from Whistler as possible. Most believe construction will still be going on this winter and the resort will be closed to regular skiers. In fact 90 per cent of Whistler Blackcomb terrain will remain open for public skiing and riding during the Olympic Games (February 12-28, 2010) and Paralympic Games (March 12-21).
There will be restrictions – mainly around Creekside, where the Alpine events are being held and the Creekside Gondola will be closed to public access from February 1 until early March – as well as benefits, such as the $27.6 million that has been spent on resort improvements. And, as a worldwide TV audience tunes in, Whistler is sure to be looking its best. There will also be six free celebration sites in Whistler Village, with big screens where the public can watch and join in.
One note of caution, though. While the Sea to Sky Highway remains open throughout the Olympics and Paralympics, there is no public parking for the duration of the Games. This means that, if you’re thinking of hiring a car at Vancouver, you need to make sure your accommodation includes a parking spot or you won’t be able to get in. Whatever way you travel, extra time will be needed throughout the Games. (For updated Olympic travel details, see www.whistlerblackcomb.com).
FAMILIES AND CHILDREN
Like so many North American resorts, Whistler is great for kids. There are "Family" and "Go Slow" areas, a Children’s Adventure Park on Blackcomb and a Children’s Learning Centre on Whistler mountain. You can choose between private ski lessons, adventure camps where kids ski with the same instructor all week in a group, or a daily programme which visitors can use as they wish.
The Fairmont Château Whistler Imposing, luxurious, château-style hotel at the foot of Blackcomb mountain. Outdoor pool with underwater music, indoor and outdoor whirlpools and spoiling spa. Worth busting the budget for.
The Westin Resort & Spa Luxury all-suite hotel close to the lifts at Whistler Village. Indoor and outdoor pool, indoor and outdoor hot tubs, plus spa and health club. All 419 suites have fireplaces, tubs to soak in and flat-screen televisions.
Whistler Village Inn and Suites Good location hotel right in the centre of Whistler Village, with a range of accommodation choices. Outdoor pool. Hot tub.
Araxi (www.araxi.com) is one of the best places to eat in town. Freshly sourced local food, excellent service and easy to find in Whistler Village.
Monk’s Grill (www.monksgrill.com), next to the Château Whistler, has good, simple grilled beef, steaks and local seafood.
Il Caminetto di Umberto (www.hotelvilladelia.com) offers excellent Tuscan food in a relaxed dining room. It’s the sister restaurant to La Trattoria di Umberto.