Whistler is the happening place - not only is it home to the new Peak to Peak gondola link with Blackcomb, but most of the ski events at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics will take place here
By any standard it was a bizarre place for lunch. The table was a six-foot block of snow surrounded by benches carved with an ice-axe. A cheerful red checked cloth, flasks of hot spiced tea, plates of sandwiches and a bowl of fruit completed the surreal picture. Snow fell silently on cedars and was beginning to accumulate alarmingly on the rotors of the helicopter parked beside us in a forest clearing deep in the mountains of British Columbia.
'I don’t want to hurry or worry you,' said our ski guide, casting an anxious weather eye at the sky, 'but if we don’t get out of here soon, it could be a long walk to dinner – about 60 miles to be exact.'
Food, it seems is inextricably intertwined with Canadian skiing. My day had begun with a substantial early breakfast at The Fairmont Chateau Whistler
, one of the world’s greatest ski hotels that sits in neo-Gothic splendour on the edge of the piste in Canada’s premier ski resort. A minibus took me the 25 miles to the little town of Pemberton for a day’s heli-skiing.
'My job,' said the guide, after two hours of safety drills, 'is to prevent us being caught in an avalanche. But if we are, you need to know what to do without panicking.'
Up the mountain he demonstrates his skill at snowcraft as we start a run that no one has ever skied before. Twice he stops to dig metre-deep holes in the snow to check on how the layers have bonded. Only when he is fully satisfied do we continue, under strict instructions not to stray from his tracks.
The reward is a glorious descent in knee-deep powder. After 10 turns I was grinning. After 20, I began to lose all sense of gravity. The overwhelming sensation was one of floating in dream-like slow motion. The powder was so fine and dry that it required the minimum of leg movement to make each turn.
By 6pm that evening I was back in my hotel getting ready to go out to one of The Fairmont Chateau Whistler
’s clutch of sushi restaurants. Whistler is one of those rare resorts where you can fit contrastingly different activities into one day – and I had yet to make time for zip-wiring, dog-sledding, eagle-watching, snowmobiling, or moonlight snowshoeing.
However, I did manage to chill in the Fairmont Chateau Whistler
's sumptuous spa, which is one of a dozen spas and health centres in the resort. I chose the 90-minute Lomi Lomi – an ancient Hawaiian massage that uses a lot of kneading motion. The ski-in ski-out Chateau in Whistler Upper Village is the
place to stay here, and Kevin Costner, Brad Pitt, Sylvester Stallone and Pierce Brosnan are just a few of the celebrity visitors who come here regularly. The rival is the Four Seasons Resort Whistler
, tucked behind it and therefore slightly less accessible for the slopes.
Whistler has now grown into a vast resort – almost a small city – and where you stay is of great importance. Personally I would always choose the Chateau, but now there’s a new boutique hotel called Nita Lake Lodge Whistler
at Whistler Mountain Creekside. The rooms here have floor-to-ceiling rock fireplaces and heated stone floors.
The town divides into four main areas: Whistler Village, Whistler Upper Village, Whistler Village North and Whistler Creekside - and there's yet more accommodation in the Whistler valley. However, the only place you’d really want to base yourself is in Whistler Village at the bottom of the Whistler lifts, or in Whistler Upper Village at the bottom of the Blackcomb lifts. Whistler Village North is a cheaper alternative but by no means ski-in ski-out.
But now the skiing beckons. Out in the streets everyone’s heading for Village Square and the gondolas that take you up the peaks of Whistler Mountain and adjoining Blackcomb for two of the longest continuous vertical drops in North America. This winter sees the opening of the 4.4km Peak to Peak gondola, which is the first on-mountain link between Whistler and Blackcomb.
A total of 38 lifts serve a network of 8,171 acres of piste, which is the main reason anyone would travel the nine hours from London to Vancouver and a further two up the scenic Sea-to-Sky highway.
The combination of long, wooded trails of both easy and challenging gradients topped by a huge area of easily accessed bowl skiing, glaciers, and a set of awesome couloirs makes it one of the great resorts of the world. Whistler’s Pacific Rim position also gives it a truly cosmopolitan atmosphere, with Australians, New Zealanders, Japanese and Brits providing a high proportion of the workforce and visitors. As a consequence, its shops, bars and restaurants have an international flavour that is unusual in a North American ski resort.
All of this has to have a downside, and that is the weather. Whistler is just a few miles inland from the coast at a third of the height of a typical French alpine resort. Its northerly latitude ensures snow higher up, but much of the heavy precipitation falls as rain in the village, so be sure to pack an umbrella.
In mid-winter, sunny days are scarce. Changes in temperature between village and summit can be dramatic and you need to wear technical clothing, thermals, hat, goggles, scarf or fleece neckwarmer and – at times – a neoprene face mask.
Warm yourself up after skiing in a wide choice of restaurants with food from a dozen nationalities. Bearfoot Bistro is the star, but prices rival London and New York. Il Caminetto di Umberto and its sister restaurant, Trattoria di Umberto, are close on its heels.
This isn’t a great place for lunch spots, and the best is Monk’s Grill conveniently located beside the Wizard Express lift. Unless, of course, you go for sandwiches and tea beside a helicopter in the middle of nowhere...