Canada: Whistler is seriously cool

By Jan Shure, February 12, 2009
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Peak2Peak, Whistler’s new cable car, the world’s highest, longest, fastest

Peak2Peak, Whistler’s new cable car, the world’s highest, longest, fastest

An official sign in Whistler Village reads “Whistler: Cultural Capital of Canada.”

Now Whistler — located 75 miles north of Vancouver, and Canada’s premier ski resort — has many fine attributes: it offers winter visitors an endless menu of activities that include downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, dog-sledding, heli-skiing, ice-climbing, sleigh- and sno-limo rides, snowcat skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, zip-lining and tubing.

Its folksy, low-rise Alpine architecture combined with magnificent natural scenery of soaring snow-capped peaks, shimmering lakes, winding streams and towering firs, create eye-ravishing vistas, while its 200 shops, 20 spas, 30 bars and nightclubs and 90 restaurants, cater to the most demanding après-skier.

It is also a town of snowy superlatives: longest ski season (November to June); largest skiable terrain in North America (8,100 acres compared with Lake Louise’s 4,000 and Vale’s 5,000); 10-metre average snowfall; and the highest, longest, fastest cable-car in the world. But cultural capital of Canada, I don’t think so…

But don’t let this piece of misplaced municipal egotism put you off, for the resort — currently completing its preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics which begin in exactly a year — is one of the best equipped and most charming ski resorts in North America.

If you are one of the celebs who regularly visit Whistler (Sandra Bullock and Harrison Ford, have houses there, while Tom Cruise, Kurt Russell and Hugh Jackman have all been spotted on the slopes), you can fly in by helicopter or seaplane or take a stretch limo.

Non-celebs can hire a car (though you won’t need one while there, since everywhere is an easy walk), take the Whistler Mountaineer train or — as we did — pick up the door-to-door Pacific Coach Lines SkyLynx coach service.

The Fairmont Chateau Whistler: the largest ski-in/ski-out hotel in North America

The Fairmont Chateau Whistler: the largest ski-in/ski-out hotel in North America

Running hourly from Vancouver Airport, it collects guests from a slew of city-centre hotels before taking the romantically named Sea to Sky Highway along the dramatic Pacific coastline taking in views of waterfalls, mountains and verdant forest, before decanting guests and their luggage at the front door of their hotel.

In our case, this was the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, not only the resort’s best hotel but voted number one ski hotel in North America by Conde Nast Traveller magazine, which also voted it number one golf resort in Canada, for those thinking of a summer visit.

Located at the foot of Blackcomb Mountain — which combines with Whistler Mountain to make the resort of Whistler — the 550-room property is all über-chic boho folksy, with stone floors, exposed brick walls, colourful rugs, rough-hewn wood tables, huge sofas, artfully casual floral arrangements and smart, local art.

Guest rooms are spacious and comfortable and well-equipped, most with dazzling views of the snow-covered slopes, though bathrooms have meagre tubs and disappointingly small bath towels.

There is seriously fine cuisine — at $85CAD (£48) per head, or $135CAD (£76) accompanied by selected wines — in the hotel’s elegant Wine Room, where executive chef, Vincent Stufano, a pioneer locavore, ensures that most ingredients are sourced locally including wines — many from British Columbia’s 200 boutique wineries.

There are vegetarian dishes (mushroom and truffle risotto and baked Marcella-stuffed brioche among the starters) and fresh fish (caught in British Columbia’s rivers or off its Pacific coastline) on every menu (roasted Scotch salmon in butter sauce when we were there), followed by worth-the-calories puddings, such as intensely chocolatey Black Forest cake with fresh morello cherries and chocolate sauce, or leaves of paper-thin apple on a crisp sliver of pastry, with almond ice cream.

The Wildflower Restaurant — where a vast, anything-you-could-possibly-want buffet breakfast is served daily — offers rather more casual (and affordable) dining for lunch and dinner, with staples such as burgers as well as plenty of fish and pasta dishes, and a children’s menu.

The Mallard Lounge, which has both a cosy indoor area with a bar and live music, and an outdoor terrace where you can laze toastily in the winter sun around warming fire-pits, also serves lunches and snacks. Skiers with vast lunchtime appetites can stoke up on soups, stews and pastries in the Portobello Deli.

While snow-bunnies will particularly welcome the fact that the Chateau Whistler is the largest ski-in/ski-out hotel in North America, with two chair lift operations within 50 yards of the hotel (and more at the foot of Whistler Mountain, a scenic 15-minute walk away, or a five-minute journey by hotel shuttle), it is the award-winning Vida Spa; the three outdoor hot tubs; the inside-outside swimming pool and kids’ facilities that see the ballroom transformed at high season into a huge play area with bouncy castles, Wii, kids’ movies and bake-ins, that bring guests — a majority from the UK — back year after year.

Not being skiers, we took an all-day sightseeing pass ($39CAD, £22), which allows access to all the lifts and cable cars, including the spectacular new Peak2Peak. Opened only in December and the longest, fastest, highest cable car in the world, it links the top of Blackcomb Mountain to the top of Whistler Mountain in a breathtaking, silent three-mile glide above the snow carpeted valley.

For our own adrenalin rush, we took the short trip by cable car up Whistler Mountain to the Tube Park where a “magic carpet” drags you and your variation on an inner tube, to the top of a selection of downhill runs from where you can make a fast descent without fear of collision or broken limbs. Kids as young as three were on the shorter runs, along with thrill-seeking grown-ups on the longer, steeper runs.

It is worth taking an hour away from the slopes to visit the Squamish Cultural Centre where the history, art and craft of what Canadians poetically call the First Nation, is skillfully displayed in a stunning, light-filled museum with an on-site shop offering everything from totem poles to jewellery.

There is plenty of opportunity for retail therapy (much of it ski and snow kit, it must be said), and of course there are all those places to eat, with restaurants offering gourmet and national cuisine of just about every variety, though sadly not kosher.

There is permitted fish on virtually every menu and — thanks to Vancouver’s community of fitness freaks — vegetarian and vegan dishes are also widely available.

And when the snow melts, and the temperatures rise, the entire resort becomes a paradise for walkers, golfers, bikers and hikers as well as those who want to play tennis or indulge in water sports on any of its five lakes, or watch a movie outdoors beside the Lost Lake.

But if you want to visit, it is best to go soon, because once the Winter Olympic coverage starts and Whistler’s charms are revealed to the world, you may find it impossible to get a hotel room there…

Travel facts

British Airways (www.ba.com; 0844 493 0787) flies daily from Heathrow to Vancouver from £512.40 return. Club World returns, from £1,799 during seat sale which ends February 24. Fairmont Chateau Whistler (www.fairmont.com; 0845 071 0153) offers Fairmont Rooms from $199 CAD (£112) per night. Fairmont loyalty programme, President’s Club, offers benefits including free internet access and local calls. Pacific Coach YVR-Whistler SkyLynx (www.pacificcoach.com/Whistler) $53 CAD (£29.62); children 5-11 half price; under 4s go free. (www.BritishColumbia.travel)

Jewish Whistler

● Some 60 Jewish families live Whistler
● 70,000 Jewish tourists visit every year
● Chabad runs the Sinai Center, led by Rabbi Chaim Shapiro. Known as the snowboarding rabbi, he visits Whistler every weekend(001 604) 618-7411)
● There are Friday-night “Apres-ski” Shabbat services, communal dinners and morning and festival services (www.jewishwhistler.com)
● Whistler also has a Progressive community, Sh’ar Harim (www.rabbi-mercy.com)

    Last updated: 3:09pm, March 11 2009