Whistler. There’s a reason why this is one of the most popular ski destinations in the world, particularly for the many Australians that visit to escape the extreme down under summer heat.
Only a short two hour drive from Vancouver, not only is it stunningly beautiful, it caters for everyone. There is a great young culture of adrenalin junkies looking for the next rush, but it is also ideal for families with the fantastic “Whistler Kids” aimed at teaching children to ski as well as giving parents a break. Even if you don’t ski, Whistler has so many other things to see and do. The restaurants and bars are incredible, interestingly there’s a huge Arts culture with galleries in abundance and of course, there are plenty of off slope activities.
One of the great charms of Whistler is the vibe. With so many young staff working in the town (mostly travellers working to pay for skiing or snowboarding on days off), people are genuinely friendly and most staff appear to be having as much fun as you are. From the hotel staff, to the slopes, activities and everything in between, Whistler is a friendly, laid back place that makes you feel welcome and at home from the moment you arrive. Nothing is too much trouble and the crazy positive energy of the locals is infectious.
Of course, skiing is the draw card to Whistler. Did you know that it’s made up of two mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb, side by side? There’s nearly 5,000 acres of skiable terrain on the mountains which means that no matter how busy the village is, there never seems to be too many people on the slopes or queuing for the lifts, it’s so spread out. The two mountains are joined by the Peak to Peak gondola. An engineering feat that until recently was the longest spanning cable between two towers boasting 3km in length and 600ft above the spectacular Fitzsimmons creek way down in the valley below.
Any visit to Whistler is focused on skiing or snow boarding, but there is so much more than this on offer. This is one of the great appeals to the area, even if you are not a fan of skiing, you will never be bored. Ski as much as you can, its fantastic fun, but also make sure that you allow time to do some of the other activities available. The following are some of the best activities in Whistler and the best part is, you don’t even need car. These are all within the village precinct or provide free transport.
Tucked away behind the main street of Whistler Village next to the Listel Hotel, The Bearfoot Bistro is not a restaurant, it’s a whole experience. An absolutely must visit if you are in Whistler. There is a wine cellar below the restaurant boasting an incredible selection of wines from around the world, but also offering the opportunity to “saber” a bottle of champagne. This is the process whereby you remove the top of the bottle using a large knife. It’s all very theatrical and fun and at the end, you are presented with the cork in a beautiful little presentation box as a keepsake. There is also a Vodka tasting room set at around -32 Celsius where you are given large, warm coats and invited in to try a selection of different Vodkas. It’s another great fun experience, with a personal favorite being the chocolate vodka. You can also enjoy a drink and some freshly shucked oysters at the bar, or eat from the 5 star menu in the restaurant, but I highly recommend trying the “chefs selection” which is a degustation menu that changes daily with the chefs specials, all paired with suitable wines. It’s a total indulgence that just must be done. You finish off with ice cream made at your table from cream using nitrous oxide, just to complete the night with a bang. Any of these activities can be done individually, however to really embrace the experience, allow yourself an evening to enjoy the whole show.
Superfly Zipline with The Adventure Group
There are a couple of options for zip-lining in the Whistler area, with the Adventure Group offering one of the best packages. A short drive from Whistler village in a bus and you arrive at Cougar Mountain where you are given a safety briefing and kitted up before heading up to the top in a 4×4. From there, you zip line your way down the mountain on four separate custom built lines of varying lengths, heights and speeds with the most entertaining guides who complete the experience. Imagine soaring through the trees or 600ft over valleys below on lines over a kilometer long. It’s absolutely breathtaking. And for those afraid of heights, the experience is well worth conquering your fear for. It’s completely safe once you take that first step off the top platform, feel the adrenalin rush, the views and the exhileration of flying between the mountains over the valley, you will instantly forget any fear you had and want to do again and again.
Fondue Dinner At Crystal Hut with Canadian Wilderness Adventures
One of the more challenging experiences, you head up the top of the ski slopes driving your own snow mobile to the Crystal Hut for a fondue dinner. Leaving Whistler village at around 7pm, this is an activity in the dark and handling the snow mobiles can be a bit tricky. If you are confident (and follow all the directions and instructions from the guides) this can be a great fun ride up, however when it is snowing and in the dark, can be a bit daunting. There is an alternative to take a snow cat up to the Hut, driven by an expert in relative comfort which is something to keep in mind when booking this tour. Once you arrive at the Crystal Hut, on a clear night, the views back to Whistler at the bottom of the mountain are incredible, with the starts lighting up the valley below. The Fondue dinner is a unique and exclusive experience in a cozy wooden hut, entertained with live music from local musicians.
With all the adventuring and activity, sometimes you just need to relax, and soothe your tired muscles and there’s no better place in Whistler than the Scandinave Spa. Less than a 10 minute drive out of Whistler, this indulgent experience is for adults 19 years and over and once you enter the spa, there’s absolutely no talking and no technology. The idea is to disconnect from the outside world and an hour here and all your aches and stresses disappear. Set in an outdoor space of 25,000 square feet surrounded by cedar forest and calming mountain air, the Spa offers a maze of hot, cold and relaxing areas for you to unwind. This is a Nordic-inspired oasis whereby you spend 15 minutes in a hot environment, choosing from a sauna or eucalyptus steam room, followed by a plunge in a freezing Nordic Waterfall or pool and then relax in one of the warm pools or relaxation rooms. You repeat this process as many times as you like with the theory that at the end of your visit, you will have eliminated all toxins from your body, relaxed your muscles and improved your circulation. It’s a complete unwind and you leave with a renewed sense of harmony. If this isn’t enough, they Spa also offers massage, Yoga and a healthy café with Namasthe herbal teas.
Visit one of the many Art Galleries
There is a strong Arts culture in Whistler with an abundance of galleries throughout the villages including the Fairmont Hotel and Westin Hotel featuring Canadian art, not to forget the impressive Audain Art Museum with a permanent collection of Canadian Art from the 18th Century to Modern day and Maury Young Arts Centre showcasing artists from the Sea to Sky region. There is also the Whistler Museum where you can discover the unique mountain history with year round exhibits. If you’re lucky, you will find something special that you can take home as a memento.
Take a ride on the Peak to Peak
Whether you are skiing or not, no visit to Whistler is complete without experiencing the Peak to Peak Gondola, one of the only of it’s kind in the world. If you’re skiing, it’s easy, from either Blackcomb or Whistler Mountain, the Peak to Peak joins the two and allows you to ski both locations effortlessly. If you don’t fancy gracing the slopes, there are still many people that buy a day pass and take the Whistler Village gondola from Whistler Main village, up to the end (there’s a stop half way up) and step outside pretty much directly next to the Peak to Peak. Not only will you experience incredible views of Whistler village, the mountains and valleys on the 15-minute journey, you ride the first lift of its kind in the world joining two mountains. Until recently it was the longest free span cable between ropeway towers at just over 3 km long and 1,400 feet above the ground, the journey is breathtaking. There are also restaurants at both ends of the Gondola so take the opportunity to enjoy lunch above the clouds.
It’s like being in heaven and finally, before taking the Gondola ride back down the mountain, get a photo with the famous Inukshuk Statue near the Gondonola entrance overlooking Whistler Village. It’s an iconic stone statue created to symbolize the 2010 winter Olympics. There are also the Olympic rings here as well as in the Market Square in Whistler Town.
Shop the streets of Whistler village
Unlike some other ski resorts, Whistler Village is full of shops, restaurants and cafes to explore. It’s definitely worth spending a few hours wondering the lane ways and finding some of the more unusual treasures on offer. Surprisingly, Canada produces some exceptional wines, including “Ice-Wine” which is a very sweet, desert type wine and can be tasted and purchased in local shops with assistance from enthusiastic locals who are happy to give you a history and education on the different types. There are also interesting shops like the Whistler Hardware Store which has some more quirky items on offer and then of course, there are the souvenir shops and clothing stores that you can spend hours searching. No shopping trip or day on the slopes is complete without an après drink at one of the many bars, particularly in Whistler Square at the bottom of the Whistler Village Gondola. Places like Longhorn Saloon which offer a Corona Beer inside frozen Margherita. It is highly refreshing and one of those things that just has to be done!
Take a Swim outside in the Snow
This may sound crazy, but many of the hotels have swimming pools outdoors which are heated to be more like warm baths. There is nothing nicer than soaking in pool, snow falling around you and enjoying a cocktail. It’s a perfect way to end a day on the slopes and wind down.
Take a walk through Regagliati Park
There are so many walks and snow shoe trails around the Whistler area, but sometimes, in the freezing cold and snow, you don’t want to venture too far away from the fireplace. For a lazy alternative, at least take the time to walk from Whistler Upper Village to Lower Village through Regagliati Park. Named after Ross Regagliati who won the first ever snow boarding Olympic Gold Medal for Canada in 1998, the park is bordered by Fitzsimmonds Creek and has charming bridges and cute deck chairs lining the river which are almost comical in the snow of winter. It’s a refreshing walk and the river is beautiful. If you feel like venturing further, check the local maps, but another great option is the Lost Lake.
There are so many other activities on offer in Whistler, like a helicopter ride, daytime snow mobile adventures, private guided tours and more, however you need months not weeks to fit it all in. If you are travelling to Whistler/Canada, here are some tips that I found useful and hopefully will help you be prepared:
- Prior to my first visit to Whistler, almost everyone warmed me about how cold it is, and if I’m totally honest, I do feel the cold. So I purchased pretty much every thermal undergarment and piece of clothing using the latest Gore-Tex etc technology. Then, in Whistler, I layered. Having lived in the UK in my early 20’s this was one of the things I learnt. It’s not about wearing one thick layer, it’s layering. So with this in mind, I honestly never once felt cold. My main advice would be, be prepared.
- On the theme of clothing, by accident, I bought a pair of inner glove liners (continuing on my layering theme), that had conductive technology for touch screens. In translation, this means that the gloves work on mobile phone screens. It took me a few days to work this out, and I only discovered it by accident, but believe me, it’s AWESOME. Especially somewhere so cold like Whistler. Example, riding up the chairlifts on the ski slopes, wanted to take a picture, took off my main gloves, temperature is around minus 10 degrees Celsius and I could keep my inners on to take a pic as they worked on the screen. Trust me, you’ll be thanking me for this one (and they were only around $20)
- Tipping is still an expectation in Canada, and most establishments expected around 20%. I guess at the end of the day, if you walk out without leaving a tip, there’s not much that anyone can do, but be aware, it’s expected.
- Ski hire is fairly expensive but make sure you shop around as there is a BIG difference. From the first place I approached to where I ended up hiring the gear from (Black Tie Ski Rentals if you are interested, and the service was 5 star, couldn’t be happier), the difference was double! That’s a massive amount, thousands of dollars for a family of 4 so don’t be afraid to ask for several quotes. As far as quality of equipment, it was all pretty good so it’s not a case of “you get what you pay for”, and depending where you are staying, many establishments will offer a concierge service (if your hotel doesn’t already) which saves you having to carry your skis to and from your hotel each day. Also, note that it’s not necessary to pre-arrange ski hire, this can be done once you arrive.
- For ski clothing, if you are going to buy (again you can rent pretty much everything), the prices in Whistler were no cheaper than back home in Australia so my advice would be don’t give yourself the extra job when you arrive of chasing down gear, buy before you go. There is obviously everything available at one of the many shops in Whistler for emergencies, and some great sale pieces, but I would arrive prepared.
- For Ski passes, I would recommend the new “Epic Pass”. This is something to look into as it’s a season pass and often a lot cheaper than just a two week pass – although this obviously depends on how long you plan to ski. From Australia, there is an “Epic Australia Ski Pass” available which allows you a full winter season in Perisher, but also an additional 10 days combined at various Canadian and US locations (including Whistler). Great value. For full details check out their website at Perisher.com.au
- And finally, if the cold does get too much, there is a television channel that is 24/7 a fireplace nicely crackling away. No seriously, every time I came across it, had to have a laugh.
Whistler is one of the most stunningly beautiful, winter wonderlands in the world and should go straight to the top of everyone’s bucket list. A trip to Whistler will not only take your breath away but leave you wanting more and planning your next visit.
If you would like to see more of my images, or hear more short stories, follow me on Instagram and Facebook @JulesIngall or read my stories in the Gold Coast Bulletin Newspaper