It was my final day in Canada and I relaxed upon rattan palms at the entrance of Fairmont Chateau Whistler, which at 25 years of age is the village matriarch. As I awaited my transportation, I observed my surroundings. Encircled by the green of mountains and a blue sky above, the village to the left and spruce and cedars everywhere, it was a Christmas-perfect setting, one that it is best known for in the winter. But having gone in the summer, I discovered that Whistler is much more than just a winter destination.
As if to reaffirm my revelation, pulling beneath the porte-cochère of the hotel was a car to retrieve golfers for tee times, another for bungee jumpers and a third for alpine photographers. Traversing between this motorcade of vehicles were on-the-go bikers and hiking-booted walkers. To quote my taxi driver: “Whatever your sport, it’s here.”
Established initially as a fishing resort, Rainbow Lodge was opened in 1914 by Myrtle and Alex Philip as a summer getaway. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that this under-the-radar community without electricity, piped water, sewage facilities or even a roadway to Squamish or Vancouver, started its gradual transformation to a celebrated ski hangout. It began with a dream. A group of Vancouver businessmen attending the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics returned to Canada with an aspiration to host the Winter Olympics.
A search north of Vancouver uncovered Whistler and the vision accelerated to reality with a bid in 1961 to host the 1968 Winter Olympics, another in 1965 for the 1972 Olympics, an additional bid in 1967 regarding the 1976 event and ultimate success in capturing the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, naming Whistler the site of the alpine, Nordic, luge, skeleton and bobsled competitions.
Development of Whistler was not by happenstance. Sprinkled with cobblestoned plazas and low level buildings designed to showcase the surrounding landscape, wherever one strolls, a view of Whistler or Blackcomb is almost always guaranteed. The community was a vehicle free, pedestrian only, advertising-restricted township. The result is not a touristy town but a lovely, livable village.
It’s one of those I-came-for-the-winter-but-stayed-for-the-summer kind of places where five lakes and two ski mountains represent only a few of Whistler’s natural year-round aesthetics. As North America’s largest ski resort with the longest ski season (November into July with summer’s glacier skiing), it sports an annual average of more than 35 feet of snow and 37 lifts. Since December 2008, Whistler and Blackcomb have become linked by the Peak-2-Peak Gondola, the world’s longest lift of its kind, an 11-minute, 2.73-mile ride between the peaks.
Warm weather brings hanging baskets, outdoor dining, wildflower covered hillsides and a profusion of activity, from an über active to relaxingly docile experience. Scandinave Spa Whistler, a 20,000-square-foot outdoor spa, was my choice after a full day of travel. Set in a forest with views of the surrounding mountains, Scandinave operates on the Nordic concept that a body is rejuvenated through the repetition of three stages: alternating hot and cold, and followed by relaxation. Open 365 days a year, its circuit of saunas, steam baths, hot baths and cold plunges are all experienced in silence.
There are many legacies of the Olympic Games. Olympic Plaza is the epicenter of activity. It’s converted to an outdoor ice skating rink in below-freezing temps, and as the mercury rises it’s furnished with Adirondack chairs. Noted as the world’s fastest track for winter games, Whistler Sliding Centre presents bobsleds on wheels in summer and a bobsleigh experience with speeds reaching up to 75 mph during the snowy months.
Adding to the action-packed list of activities the area is also great for whitewater rafting, ATV tours, ziplining Canada’s longest tandem course, alpine hiking, swimming in one of the five area lakes and experiencing Whistler Mountain Bike Park, North America’s largest mountain biking park with five levels of difficulty, from easy to pro.
The Alpine Wining and Dining adventure is a three-plus hour warm-weather culinary journey that starts at Blackcomb Base, travels the Wizard Express and Solar Coasters for brunch at Christine’s Restaurant in the Rendezvous and includes an alpine trail walk. This is followed by boarding the Peak-2-Peak Gondola for its over-the-valley view, before descending to town via Whistler Village Gondola and ends on the sunny patio of Garibaldi Lift Company (locally called GLC) for a burger, beer and people watching.
Another notable activity are the bear tours that are available around the region. Home to a concentration of approximately 60 black bears and cubs, 4x4 vehicles traverse Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains’ ski roads from mid-May through October to get bear enthusiasts close to the mammals’ feeding sites and their winter hibernation destinations in quest of hopeful sightings.
Whistler Blackcomb’s Ski with an Olympian program underscores a local’s summation: “Athletes are like rockstars here.” This high-altitude package gives skiing enthusiasts the elite experience of a private ski day or lesson with such celebs as Olympic Gold Medalist Ashleigh McIvor or Olympic competitive skier Julia Murray, both local residents.
From the Four Seasons to the Pan Pacific to the Westin, the city has a number of luxury accommodations available. I chose the Fairmont Chateau Whistler for its longevity, as well as its ski-in ski-out location at the base of Blackcomb Mountain. The 550-room landmark features an 18-hole Robert Trent Jones, Jr. golf course, Canada's only Leadbetter Golf Academy, Vida Spa (many treatments are based on the traditional Ayurveda, 5,000-year-old Hindu medicinal system) and an outdoor 60-foot heated lap pool with underwater music. A cross between a mountain lodge and chateau, its culinary offerings are equally appealing, including Alpine Afternoon Tea (served June through October), evening fondue in The Chalet (mid-December through March) and Portobello Market & Fresh Bakery’s specialty—maple-glazed donuts topped with bacon bits.
With over 90 restaurants in the village alone there is no shortage of selection, nor is the area bereft of flavor. Drawing from a combo of Pacific Rim food culture, fresh seafood from the ocean (50 miles away), daily produce from nearby Pemberton Valley and wines from the Okanagan, a meal in Whistler is often a mouth-watering memory. And one-of-a-kind occasions are plentiful, from summer’s epic Mountaintop BBQ Series upon Whistler peak to the fine dining Araxi Restaurant + Bar's Longtable Series. Offered seasonally, this out-of-the-village, open-air dining event features a single lengthy table serving more than 100 guests farm-to-table creations of award-winning executive Chef James Walt, paired with wines selected by wine director Samantha Rahn, 2013 Sommelier of the Year.
Luxury lodging, delectable dining, matchless athletic feats, it’s no surprise that Whistler is a popular inclusion of the international celebrity circuit. It’s where Prince Charles vacationed with William and Harry as young boys, Seal made a mountain-top proposal to Heidi, Gene Simmons owns a home and its most recent royal visit was the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum.
Off season? What off season? White is no longer the new black, as any time is the best season for Whistler. High-luxe living, served with a bit of alpine attitude, you’ll know you’ve arrived when you see Inukshuk, the First Nation’s stone landmark figure of greeting. Welcome to Whistler!