WHISTLER, British Columbia — We descended from the gondola to marvel: Canadian flags swirled under a blazing blue sky, Olympic rings framing a stretch of snow-capped peaks, and ribbons of chairlifts carrying brilliantly grouped skiers to the top.
It was our second day at Whistler Blackcomb, North America’s largest ski resort, which covers 8,170 acres in Canada’s Coast Mountains, about two hours north of Vancouver. The resort has 200 marked trails, plenty of double black diamond bowls and 465 inches of snow annually, with a season that runs through May 23.
My siblings and I didn’t even get an inch of fresh powder for five cold February days. But every day was awesome anyway.
On my first trip to Canada west of my hometown of Sarnia, Ontario, my sister, brother and I climbed a glacier, explored an ice cave, marveled at the views of the Sea Highway to Sky, met friendly members of the British Commonwealth and generally reveled in the splendor of our surroundings.
It was the first vacation that the three of us had taken alone, without parents or children. We flew to Seattle, drove through Vancouver, and spent eight days sharing hotel rooms and dinners, chairlift rides, and a rental SUV that I struggled to park in underground garages. It was an adventure, sprinkled with some bickering and punctuated with stories that will certainly be funny later. (Like when my glasses flew off the top of Glacier Bowl and I had to back up a few hundred feet to save them.)
Although Whistler and Vancouver have long been at the top of my travel list, I didn’t really know what to expect. That’s why I was continually, deliciously surprised.
See details for the Vancouver leg of our trip here.
The Lil’wat First Nation are the original inhabitants of Whistler, with European contact only in 1791.
The city grew in the early 1900s with logging, mining and resorts, especially when it was connected to Vancouver by rail in 1914 and by gravel road in 1965 It was named Summit Lake, then Alta Lake, and finally Whistler because of the hissing sound emitted by its hoary marmots, a large squirrel-like animal.
Whistler’s first ski runs were built in 1966 as part of a bid to win the 1968 Olympics.
This does not happen. But neighboring Blackcomb Mountain opened separately in 1980, with a pedestrian village built atop a former landfill between the two bases. The resorts dueled throughout the 1980s and 1990s, outdoing each other with new express chairs, gondolas and trails, until Blackcomb developer Intrawest bought Whistler in 1997.
In 2010, when Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics, Whistler Blackcomb hosted the alpine skiing events, while cross-country skiing events were held nearby in the Callaghan Valley.
Today, the resort, which borders Garibaldi Provincial Park, is owned by Colorado-based Vail Resorts. The city is home to nearly 10,000 year-round residents and millions of tourists, with a bustling, pedestrianized afternoon scene, and hotels and condos near cultural facilities, like the Squamish Lil’ Cultural Center. ‘what.
You can ski from November to May. But Whistler is a year-round tourist attraction, offering cross-country skiing, hiking, and mountain biking, with gondolas and chairlifts open year-round.
on the mountain
I went to Whistler to ski. That’s why I traveled with my siblings and not my kids, who can tear up the hills at our local Boston mills, but have little experience on the actual mountains.
My sister, brother and I learned to ski at Boston Mills with my mom, who is now an instructor. This experience – understanding how to carve our edges as we scraped and slid across patches of ice – came in handy during our week in Whistler.
“Hard off-piste” is how a handwritten white sign on a ski lift base describes the snow. Other adjectives included “difficult conditions in the Alps”. Skiers told us it was the worst conditions they’ve had in Whistler in decades. They also complained about unnatural cold, -4 degrees Fahrenheit numbness at the top one morning.
(This is abnormal for Whistler, which, as part of the Pacific Northwest, is known for its temperate climate and tons of snow.)
But hey, at least it was sunny. The views were stunning, with looming rocks and snowy vistas that we couldn’t resist getting our cameras out for, despite the cold. And the land is huge.
Both Blackcomb and Whistler are full of bowls: massive, steep white bands that drop from the peaks. Blackcomb, at nearly 8,000 feet and slightly higher than Whistler, was my favorite.
At the top of the Glacier Express chair we climbed the precarious feet of Spanky’s Ladder to fall into a bowl that took us down the mountain past some rocks or cliffs, all well marked with orange warning signs . It was like flying. On the Jersey Cream bowl, we rode through the bumps feeling like Olympians. And after picking up my goggles at the top of Glacier Bowl, we followed the stream of skiers to an ice cave as magical as anything in “Frozen.”
The grotto was one of the most unexpected and inspiring moments of our trip, as we entered through the mouth into a cavern lined with marbled white and blue walls. The kids slid down ice slides and my sister and I slid on ice floors as we explored, climbing ice boulders and diving through ice tunnels. Everyone posed for photos, wanting to capture the awe to take home.
My sister and I are bump buffs and tree magnets, drawn to the evergreens clustered halfway up Whistler’s peaks. But if you like neat cruisers, Whistler has plenty. Basically, each lift features an easy descent, with a corduroy run of intermediate blue or beginner green, winding its way up the mountainside. This way, skiers and snowboarders of all skill levels can enjoy the view.
And there are myriad must-see photo spots, including a handful of inuksuit, the symbol of the 2010 Olympics, honoring the indigenous tradition of stacked stones that served as a reference point for travel itineraries. .
In the village
Whistler has three main base areas, all with gondolas: Creekside, home to Whistler’s first ski lifts; Upper Village; and Whistler’s main village, where the piazzas are lined with restaurants and shops, including groceries, liquor stores, and pharmacies.
We stayed in Whistler Village, in a one-bedroom Airbnb apartment at the Cascade, overlooking the steaming pool and the ski slopes beyond. Five weeknights cost us about $1,400 US – a bargain compared to most places I’ve found. It was a 10 minute walk to the gondolas each morning, even in ski boots. And while we expected long lines, since Vail resorts this season are notorious for understaffing and oversold season passes, we walked every day when they opened.
After skiing, or après-ski, as they say, the music echoed in the bars, while skiers still in helmets and coats hung out under heat lamps. We drank Bloody Caesars at the Garibaldi Lift Co. above the Whistler gondola. Other days we stopped to shop or rushed off to soak in one of the Cascade hot tubs.
There we had exciting discussions with strangers from Seattle and Toronto, London and Dublin. We learned that so many Australians work in Whistler that it has earned it the nickname “Whistralia”.
“It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of the invasion until you actually arrive and see the number of Australian accents at Whistler Blackcomb,” writes the Australian Traveler. “There are others too – lots of English accents, even the odd Canadian – but the vast majority speak genuine Strine.”
I definitely noticed the Aussie accents, although there are fewer of them during the COVID pandemic than the roughly 2,000 workers under normal circumstances. Anyway, Aussie or not, almost every worker I thanked replied “No worries”.
The restaurant servers were super friendly, even though the restaurants were extremely busy. One night we ended up with slices of pizza, as every restaurant we checked at 7pm had a two hour wait. The rest of the week we ate early and well – pasta and poutine, truffle fries and tacos.
Our favourite? High Mountain Brewing Co., which had happy hour deals on local beers and the most delicious salmon burger I’ve ever tasted. (Maybe because all I ate for lunch was a bag of trail mix and a clementine on the chair.)
Visiting Canada is not as simple as before the pandemic. But it gets easier.
You must still complete the ArriveCAN app with your vaccination and citizenship information and obtain a COVID test in advance, although rapid tests are now accepted.
In British Columbia, face coverings are required in all indoor public places, including gondolas, and identification and proof of vaccination are required in all restaurants, including mountain lodges. The three main lodges at Whistler Blackcomb require advance dining reservations, which can be made on Vail’s Epic Mix app from 7am the day before.
People take wearing a mask seriously, much more so than in Ohio.
You can fly to Vancouver. But we decided it was easier to fly to Seattle and cross the border at the Peace Arch in Blaine, Washington. We only had to wait a few minutes at the border to enter Canada. Next, we drove north on the Sea to Sky Highway, BC 99, which has been much improved for the Olympics and offers drivers great views as they wind between Howe Sound and the Coast Mountains.
Another amazing show in a week full of adventures.