Saturday, February 2, 2008

WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP)A dozen years ago, a roommate and I were wasting away another rainy winter night in Seattle when we decided to drive the pickup truck five hours north to Whistler. We left at 10 p.m., pulled into the lot near the lifts and spent a few fitful, freezing hours of semisleep in the cab until sunrise.

We gladly paid about $45 each to ski blissfully on the softest, freshest snow in the Northwest — which often provides wet cement.

You couldn’t pull that off today.

Whistler and its twin neighbor, Blackcomb Mountain, about a two-hour drive north up the stunningly beautiful Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver, are widely recognized as being among the top resorts in North America by skiers and snowboarders. Whistler is easily recognized by everyone else as a gorgeous paradise of snow amid the towering evergreens and jagged, rocky peaks of British Columbia’s Coastal Mountains. Once nestled into Whistler Valley, you instantly forget you are just 70 miles north of Vancouver’s urban sprawl.

Those qualities don’t come cheap, however. The venue for the downhill skiing and snowboarding events in the 2010 Winter Olympics — plus the Nordic events nearby — has become a haven for those who want luxury near their lift lines.

The standard daily lift ticket is $81. All-day adult group lessons begin at $77, with lift ticket.

Fancy hotels such as the Four Seasons, the Fairmont Chateau, the Westin Resort and Spa and not one, but two Pan Pacific palaces, seem to be at every turn inside Whistler Village. The pulsing main pedestrian walk of shops, bars, restaurants and two grocery stores even has a wine shop at the base of Whistler ski area.

Not a Motel 6, Super 8 or can of Hamm’s beer in sight, and, based on the ubiquitous No Overnight Parking signs, sleeping in a truck is no longer a hassle-free option.

My family of four and a married couple without children — the most patient, tolerating friends on the planet — spent a pre-holiday-crush Friday night and Saturday at Whistler in December. We found a room at the Tantalus Lodge, a 10-minute walk or three-minute shuttle-van ride south of the Whistler Village Gondola. We enjoyed a two-bedroom, two-bath suite with a sofa bed, full kitchen and fireplace for $261 per night (plus $16 a day to park). It slept six comfortably.

Local merchants and many of Whistler’s 3,400 employees — seemingly all perky and in their 20s, many of them from New Zealand, Australia or Great Britain — push the fact that theirs is a four-season resort.

Ski season runs from November through June, with the spring months usually spent on higher Blackcomb Mountain, elevation 7,500 feet. (Whistler Mountain tops out at 7,160 feet.) Blackcomb’s summer glacier skiing and snowboarding are tentatively scheduled to run through July 27.

There’s a vibrant mountain-biking season and a relatively new zip-line attraction. Some of Canada’s world-class mountain bikers live at Whistler or at Squamish, the small town midway between Vancouver and Whistler along B.C. Highway 99.

Whistler’s gondola takes you from the main base at 2,214 feet to above 6,000 feet. From there, chairs take you to the black-diamond runs off the top. Or you can swoosh off to the south, to the Dave Murray and Wild Card trails, which will be the runs for the men’s and women’s downhill and super-giant-slalom races in the Olympics. Those runs end at Creekside, another lodge with rentals, bars and restaurants a short distance south of Whistler Village.

In my trips here over the years, I’ve liked the snow better and found the runs more wide open atop Blackcomb. It is accessible from the bottom of Whistler’s main village by the Blackcomb Excalibur Gondola, by walking 15 minutes north through Whistler Village along the well-marked Valley Trail System to the Blackcomb Daylodge, or five minutes by shuttle or car. Beginning in late 2008, a peak-to-peak gondola will connect the two mountains at the 6,100-foot levels.

In preparation for the Olympics, the only highway into Whistler is torn up in a widening project. Half of Vancouver seemingly is under construction.

Ryan Proctor, public relations coordinator for Intrawest at Whistler, says the Olympics will consume just 10 percent of the skiable terrain at Whistler-Blackcomb. “We’ll still be fully operational during the Olympics,” he says.

At Whistler-Blackcomb, that’s a very good thing.


Whistler Blackcomb: Whistler, British Columbia, Canada; visit or phone 800/766-0449.

From Vancouver International Airport, you can rent a car for the 2-hour, 15-minute drive to Whistler, or take the Perimeter Whistler Express bus ($33 to $58, 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. during peak snow season). If you are flying between the United States and Canada, you must have a passport. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is a 41/2-hour drive from the south. Train service on the Whistler Mountaineer from Vancouver is available (888/687-7245). If you are driving between the United States and Canada, you must have a government-issued ID (such as a driver’s license) and proof of citizenship (such as a birth certificate) beginning Jan. 31. Children 18 and younger need proof of citizenship.

Condos, villas, luxury hotels and resorts dominate the immediate area of Whistler Village, with prices from $243 to $535 per night during peak winter months. More standard lodging (Residence Inn by Marriott, Holiday Inn Sunspree, Listel Best Western) and some bed-and-breakfasts can be found in the village and on the periphery for $174 and up midweek (more on weekends).

Eateries include steakhouses (the Keg at 4429 Sundial Place, Hy’s at 4308 Main St.), sushi (Sachi Sushi, 4359 Main St.), Thai (Thai One On, 4557 Blackcomb Way), pizza, pubs, nightclubs, coffee shops — even fondue (Bavaria Restaurant, 4369 Main St.).

The two mountains provide 38 combined lifts and 8,171 skiable acres. Average snowfall is 33.5 feet per year at the summit of Whistler Mountain. Average alpine temperatures aren’t bad, either.

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