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Whistler, BC

OverviewWhistler would be a special place even without the whole enchilada it offers when it comes to winter sports. It would be special without the superb system of hiking and mountain biking trails that provide outdoor activity when the sun is warm and the snow isn’t swirling. And it would be special without the amenities—all sorts of lodgings from basic to luxury, plenty of restaurants (and a few of culinary distinction), a nice selection of specialty shops, evening entertainment from mild to wild—that combine to create this covers-every-base active vacation destination.

The reason why has a lot to do with an old adage: location, location, location. About 2 hours north of Vancouver, Whistler snuggles in a Coast Mountains valley amid a cluster of shimmering small lakes, the reflection of forested slopes etched on their surfaces. Rivers rush through steep-walled canyons. Waterfalls plunge. The stark white of glacier ice contrasts with the black of mountain peaks, framed against a brilliantly blue sky. The wilderness is rugged and unspoiled, the air bracingly fresh. Given such a spectacular setting, it’s easy to see why it has become one of Canada’s best all-season resorts.

Although the 2010 Olympic Winter Games are now history, Whistler remains a pretty exciting place—and getting there is part of the fun. From Vancouver, the major road link is the Sea-to-Sky Highway (Hwy. 99). The primary road link between Vancouver and Whistler was widened and improved for the games. The 2-hour drive offers a full plate of scenic views as the highway climbs from a coastal rain forest environment in the vicinity of Horseshoe Bay to the rugged mountain landscapes around Whistler. Even so, it's always a good idea to check road conditions before heading to Whistler; for information and traffic updates phone (800) 944-7853.

Between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish the road runs along the eastern edge of Howe Sound, punctuated by a series of fjords. From a distance, islands in the bay look like plump green mounds floating on water that is invitingly blue in sunny weather and a brooding gray on overcast days.

Just south of Squamish water is left behind as the highway veers inland. If you want to take a break or need to make a pit stop before reaching Whistler, there are gas stations and a scattering of fast-food outlets at the intersection of Hwy. 99 and Cleveland Road. Past Squamish, Hwy. 99 twists and turns around tree-covered granite crags and sheer rock faces that rise almost straight up from the side of the road. Be sure to pull off and stop at the designated viewpoints; great views are guaranteed.

Whistler has no grand entrance; there are just two primary access roads off Hwy. 99 (Village Gate Drive and Lorimer Road). Whistler Village may seem small, but it’s compact. Sitting at the base of Whistler Mountain’s ski runs, this is where lots of hotels, restaurants and shops are concentrated. Blackcomb Way divides Whistler Village from the Upper Village, which lies at the base of Blackcomb Mountain’s ski runs. Distinctions are pretty much a moot point, although the Upper Village tends to have more upscale accommodations and Whistler Village a livelier scene after dark.

You can walk between the two villages in about 5 minutes along Fitzsimmons Trail, which crosses burbling Fitzsimmons Creek via a covered bridge. Branching off Fitzsimmons Trail is Bridge Meadows Trail, a pleasant walk through the woods that follows the creek and ends up near the new Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. Pick up a copy of the tear-off Whistler walking map at your hotel’s front desk, fold it up and stash it in your pocket.

Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain are Whistler’s twin peaks. Each mountain has more than 1,524 metres (5,000 ft.) of vertical rise and more than 100 marked runs that are serviced by multiple lifts; together they offer more than 3,238 hectares (8,000 acres) of ski-worthy terrain. Challenge your thighs on downhill runs, negotiate spectacular alpine bowls or embark on a cross-country trek through deep powder. You can even ski on a glacier. There are lessons and instruction for every skill level, all sorts of equipment rentals and a variety of ski packages to choose from. If skiing doesn’t strike your fancy, go snowshoeing, snowboarding, ice-skating or snowmobiling. And if you’re not the active sort, sit back and relax under a comfy blanket with a mug of hot chocolate on a Blackcomb Mountain sleigh ride. Even active sorts would enjoy this.

Whistler boasts North America's first gondola connecting two mountain peaks, the Peak 2 Peak Gondola at Whistler-Blackcomb Resort. The gondola's passenger cabins travel the 4.4-kilometre (2.7-mi.) distance between the two towers at the summit of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains in 11 minutes, allowing skiers to take advantage of cruising both mountains in the same day. Each gondola cabin holds up to 28 people, and two of them feature glass floors for a dizzying bird's-eye view of Fitzsimmons Valley 435 metres (1,427 ft.) below. Peak 2 Peak tickets are $32-$63 per person.

But Whistler isn’t just about winter sports. Summer is prime time for hiking, mountain biking, windsurfing and canoeing, among other activities. Ski lifts take hikers up the two mountains to explore trails free of snow, but if you’d rather go down a different path, walk to Lost Lake. It takes about 30 minutes to get there from Whistler Village (trail access is off Lorimer Road), a good jaunt if you want to leave the hustle and bustle behind for an afternoon.

This tranquil lake is surrounded by Lost Lake Park’s evergreen forests, with lovely views of mountains in the distance. The shallow water makes for good swimming on warm days. Numerous hiking trails crisscross this wooded area. There’s no parking at the lake, but free shuttle bus service departs from the Gondola Transit Exchange on Blackcomb Way in July and August.

Walkers, hikers, cyclists and inline skaters all take advantage of the paved Valley Trail, which wends its way for some 30.5 kilometres (19 mi.) around the greater Whistler area, connecting parks, residential neighborhoods and the villages. It’s a popular commuter biking route.

Adrenaline junkies head to Whistler Mountain Bike Park, a lift-accessed mountain biking haven. The terrain here covers the bases from gently banked trails through a lush coastal forest environment to single-track trails twisting in a series of tight turns to death-defying descents down the side of steep rock faces (which sounds a bit like skiing on wheels). Access is by lift tickets or park passes; bikes and accessories can be rented. The park is open from mid-May to mid-October.

With four championship courses, Whistler’s got some very good golf. The Whistler Golf Club, (604) 932-3280 or (800) 376-1777, is the first course in Canada designed by Arnold Palmer. Robert Trent Jones Jr. was the course architect for the Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club, (604) 938-2092 or (877) 938-2092, at The Fairmont Chateau Whistler. The Golden Bear designed the Nicklaus North Golf Course, (604) 938-9898 or (800) 386-9898. Big Sky Golf and Country Club, (604) 894-6106 or (800) 668-7900, is near Pemberton, about a 25-minute drive north of Whistler. With a Bob Cupp-designed layout along the Green River, you can be assured that water will come into play.

For pure sightseeing fun, take the Whistler Village Gondola up Whistler Mountain. The bird’s-eye views of alpine lakes, meadows full of wildflowers (in summertime) and mountain slopes from the enclosed gondola are breathtaking. The ride up takes about 25 minutes. Once at the top, hike back-country trails or have a leisurely lunch at the Roundhouse Lodge, a cool 1,850 metres (6,069 ft.) above sea level, while taking in the scenery all around you. More intrepid souls can continue ascending on the Peak Chair to the 2,182-metre (7,160-ft.) level, where a 360-degree panorama of the Coast Mountains awaits.

And what do you do après skiing or otherwise testing your physical endurance? You stroll around Whistler Village. It’s pedestrian-only, it’s done in the style of a German mountain village, and it’s cute. In winter the atmosphere is all woolen caps, puffy ski parkas and oversize mittens; summer brings out the hanging flower baskets and umbrella-shaded tables for outdoor cafe dining. Mogul’s Coffee House, next to the drugstore at Village Square, is a funky little place to hang out for a spell.

Four large day-use lots between the two villages offer free parking. Whistler and Valley Express (WAVE) public buses operated by BC Transit provide service to the greater area. Various bus lines serve the resort; shuttle lines 5 and 6 are the most useful if you’re staying in or near Whistler Village. The fare is $2.50; free (ages 0-5). Exact change is required. Tickets (ten tickets $22.50; day pass $7) that are good for multiple rides can be purchased at the Whistler Visitor Centre, 4320 Gateway Dr. (as well as at Whistler Village stores and Meadow Park Sports Centre).

Visitor Centers Tourism Whistler 4230 Gateway Dr. Whistler, BC V0N 1B4. Phone:(604)935-3357 or (877)991-9988

ShoppingWith all kinds of specialty boutiques and eateries, Whistler Village is where it’s at. Whistler's Marketplace (entrance off Lorimer Road) is the main shopping center. It has a ski lodge ambience and retailers like the Escape Route, which carries a full lineup of outdoor recreation wear and accessories—body wear, head wear, hand wear, footwear, snowshoes, backpacks, you name it. Let kids loose in the Great Glass Elevator Candy Shop with its head-turning display of sweets. It just may be enough to drive you to the more adult-oriented Upper Village Market, where you can stock up on gourmet groceries (they’ll also deliver to your hotel room).

Also in the Upper Village is Snowflake (in The Fairmont Chateau Whistler), with a selection of Canadian-designed fur and leather jackets, cashmere sweaters, scarves, shawls, boots and accessories for women. Bring lots of money. Back in Whistler Village, New Agers will want to waft into The Oracle at Whistler (on Main Street) and check out the jewelry, candles, incense and gifts. Tarot card and palm readings are given, or you can give in to a relaxing reiki massage.

The Whistler Village Art Gallery exhibits contemporary paintings, sculpture and art and has two locations, in the Four Seasons Whistler and at the Hilton Whistler Resort & Spa’s Gallery Row. A popular and long-established showcase for Canadian artists is Adele Campbell Fine Art Gallery in the Westin Resort & Spa. Mountain Galleries at the Fairmont, in The Fairmont Chateau Whistler, exhibits museum-quality work—paintings, glass pieces, bronze sculptures, stone carvings—by respected Canadian artists.

NightlifeWhistler’s a family-oriented kind of place, but that doesn’t mean it lacks hotspots for those itching to get down and party. Maxx Fish, below the Amsterdam Cafe in Village Square, has plush booths and plasma-screen TVs, plus a light show choreographed to the slammin’ beats cooked up by resident and visiting DJs. A similar uninhibited mood and young, good-looking crowd prevails at Tommy Africa’s Bar, not far away on Gateway Drive next to the taxi loop.

Garfinkel's Whistler, on Main Street in Whistler Village, throws club night bashes on different days of the week; locals and visitors alike flock to “Happy Thursdays,” and Saturday is another big party night. The music is DJ dance mixes, augmented by occasional live hip-hop shows. “Garf’s” also has VIP hosts and table service, so reservations are a good idea; phone (604) 932-2323. Also in the village is Buffalo Bills Bar and Grill, a high-energy nightspot that packs ’em in with drink specials, a huge dance floor and a mix of mainstream and classic rock.

On the other hand, if crowded clubs and ear-splitting music isn’t your cup of tea, you could catch a movie at the Village 8 Cinemas in Whistler Village. Or better yet, pick up a takeout pie at Avalanche Pizza (locals say it’s the best in town) and chill out in your room, because you just might want to save your energy for the slopes.

Things to Do Harbour Air

Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre

Whistler Museum

Recreational Activities

Mountain Biking Whistler Mountain Bike Park

Skiing Whistler/Blackcomb Mountain

White-water Rafting Canadian Outback Rafting

Wedge Rafting

Ziplines Adventure Group Whistler

Ziptrek Ecotours

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Whistler, BC

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