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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Twin peaks treat of Winter Olympics’ next home

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WHISTLER WHILE YOU WORK The slopes are big enough to feel fairly empty.
Photograph: Paul Morrison/Intrawest

April is a great time to carve it up in Whistler, North America’s top ski resort, writes ORLA NELIGAN

‘THERE AIN’T nobody living over there,” our bus driver says with a chuckle as we wind our way up the Sea to Sky Highway on the two-hour drive from Vancouver, in Canada, to the mountain resort of Whistler.

He is referring to the lonely landscape on the other side of Howe Sound, a sprawling wilderness anchored by a glacial fjord so still that it reflects perfectly the craggy mountains and snow-capped conifers around it.

A scene from the film Fargo pops into my head: long snow-covered roads, rusty pickups, country music on the stereo, an axe in the trunk, wood shredders . . . You get the picture. But nowhere is British Columbia’s reputation as a vast space of incredible beauty and exotic emptiness so palpable.

About 130km farther along the road the town of Whistler appears, two mountains, Blackcomb and Whistler, penetrating the skyline, black dots of skiers descending their sides like ants from a cream bun. The view has a movie-like grandeur, a Disney-esque village at its base built on what used to be a municipal rubbish dump.

It wasn’t until 1980 that the site’s potential as North America’s top ski resort was realised and locals’ leftovers were replaced with cookie-cutter hotels and buzzing bars.

Chocolate-boxy as it may be, however, it is the sort of environment that elicits poetic responses from the most cynical of visitors. Just ask the locals, most of whom arrived in Whistler as part of the hippy commune that arrived on holiday in the 1970s and ended up staying.

“When I first came here, in 1970, there were only 500 people living here, and we hiked to most ski runs,” says local legend Terry Spence. Then the rubbish provided live entertainment. “In summertime we’d go down to the dump, where they had trenches dug out, and we’d throw our garbage in there and watch the bears come down and eat it. Well, we had no TV.”

Toulouse, as Spence is nicknamed, is now one of the most revered private ski instructors on the mountain; his wife, Ann, runs their delightful BB, Golden Dreams. When Prince Charles came west some years ago with William and Harry, Toulouse was chosen to guide the royal entourage around the mountains.

Bears and rubbish aside, this is a premier ski resort. Host of the alpine events for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and with celebrity sightings as frequent as the snowfall, it comes down to two mountains with almost 3,000 hectares of terrain – which means a relatively crowd-free ski – one of the longest seasons on the calendar, from October to May, 38 high-speed lifts that help alleviate queues, 90 restaurants, 200 shops and the Peak to Peak gondola, which connects the summits of the mountains. When you’re deciding which mountain to ride, the answer is both.

So where to go first? For Toulouse it’s the Blackcomb glacier and Harmony and Symphony Bowls that appeal, knocked together with Diamond and Ruby Bowls (for extreme skiers, I might add).

“For beginners and intermediate skiers, the Crystal Zone, on Blackcomb, has some fantastic natural snow skiing, and Ridge Runner and Rock’n’Roll are groomed most nights. On Whistler you can’t beat top to bottom on Franz’s, the Peak to Creek or Dave Murray Downhill. They’re the best runs in the valley.”

The following morning I decide to head straight for the top, a smooth 20-minute gondola ride from the village. I emerge to what can only be described as a picket fence of big-shouldered mountains, capped with thick blankets of snow, all glittering like ornaments in the morning sunshine. This must explain the perennially cheerful lift attendants. It’s a definite mood-boosting vista.

It has been snowing all night, and the grooming machines have left paths of corduroy to ski on all the way to the bottom. As we take off down Whiskey Jack – called after a local name for the whistling gray jay, after which the town is also said to be named – the blast of avalanche bombs resounds through the valley. A few hours later and we’ve covered an incredible number of kilometres, without injury, and are enjoying a pint of Guinness and a toe tap at the Dubh Linn Gate (yes, even Whistler has an Irish pub), at the base of the mountain.

My uncle, a Whistler local, urges us to make the most of the jet lag and “get up that mountain early for Fresh Tracks”, referring to a ticket that allows you to breakfast in the restaurant at the top of Whistler, then gives you early access to the mountain for 16 Canadian dollars (€10).

So at 7.45am the next day we’re watching the sun come up over jagged peaks as we march south while noshing on Canadian bacon. It can’t get much better than this.

Actually, it can. By 9.30am we’ve skied top to bottom six times and are soaring between the mountains on the Peak to Peak gondola.

Eleven minutes later we arrive on Blackcomb Mountain, at the top of an empty and groomed Ridgerunner trail. Hat on, jacket zipped, skis pointing forwards, goggles secured. With a firm push I’m over the edge and down through champagne powder, the only sound my breathing and the wind whipping past my muffled ears. A few thigh-burning kilometres later and I’m at the bottom. Veni, vidi, vici. And eating powder was averted. Hurrah.

I look back and notice the silhouette of a one-legged skier swaying from side to side like a hypnotic pendulum as he navigates the steep terrain and gnarly corners, hoofing by me in a cloud of snow. Time for a lesson? No bend-ze-knees- $50-pleeeze lessons of old in this town. Time and money are well spent. Perhaps Toulouse can help. If he’s good enough for royalty . . .

If you’re off the piste

Whistler Olympic Park. www.whistlerolympicpark.com. Join the Olympic hopefuls and try cross-country, biathlon and ski-jumping at the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Snowshoeing. www.whistler. com/snowshoeing. If you can walk you can snowshoe. And it’s cheap – two Canadian dollars (€1.20) for a trail pass.

Meadow Park Sports Centre. 001-604-935-7529. Swim, skate, work out or take a sauna – great for when the weather’s on the slide.

Zip Trekking. www.ziptrek. com. Whistler is one of the few places you can enjoy this high-wire adventure. Strap on a harness and zip from tree to tree. Remember to look down.

Tube Park. www.whistler. com/tube_park. Grab a tyre and slide to your heart’s content. Open daily until 8pm. Snowmobiling. www. blackcombsnowmobile.com. For a vroom with a view, go exploring with the kids.

If you’re not an adrenalin addict, Whistler is also geared for non-skiers, with plenty of shops, spas, galleries and other activities

Where to stay, where to eat and what else to do if you’re in Whistler

Where to stay

Golden Dreams. 6412 Easy Street, 00-1-604-9322667, www.goldendreamswhistler.com. An outdoor hot tub with mountain views and plenty of warm hospitality to boot makes it a real find, only a snowball’s throw from the village. Your hosts, Toulouse and Ann Spence, will ensure your stay is memorable and light on your wallet. They also own two condos in the village.

Fairmont Chateau Whistler. 4599 Chateau Boulevard, 00-1-604-9388000, www.fairmont.com/whistler. Deluxe rooms with deluxe views of Blackcomb Mountain from a trio of hot tubs on its patio and the floor-to-ceiling windows in the magnificent Mallard Lounge.

Adara Hotel. 4122 Village Green, 00-1-604-9054009, www.adarahotel.com. Whistler’s first boutique hotel is a nod to 1970s kitsch with cool, contemporary leanings. Very James Bond.

Hotel Vancouver. 900 West Georgia Street, Vancouver, 00-1-604-6843131, www.fairmont.com/ hotelvancouver. After a long flight it is well worth stopping off in Vancouver for a night before travelling on to Whistler. This hotel is a fantastic option, a landmark art-deco building in the heart of downtown, a hop from the main shopping drag. Settle into the famed bar for the Alberta prime rib before crashing in one of its generous rooms with views of the mountains and the sea.

Where to eat

Rimrock Cafe. 2117 Whistler Road, 00-1-604-9325565, www.rimrockwhistler.com. Consistently voted as the best place to eat in Whistler – and even better when someone else is paying – the Rimrock serves a five-star menu of fish and game in a cosy, unpretentious dining room with a roaring log fire for added atmosphere.

Caramba! 12-4314 Main Street, Town Plaza, 001-604-938-1879, www.caramba-restaurante.com. Casual dining with an emphasis on Mediterranean fare – the pizzas and pastas remain regular favourites.

Araxi. 4222 Village Square, 00-1-604-9324540, www.araxi.com. One of the oldest and most popular restaurants in town, Araxi is worth the splurge. Start with the foie-gras parfait, move on to the Arctic char and finish with the molten chocolate cake, washing it all down with a bottle of Church State. Delicious.

Wild Wood Bistro Bar. 4500 Northlands Boulevardd, Village North, 00-1-604- 9354077, www.wildwood restaurants.ca. Along with its sister restaurant, Elements, Wild Wood is a firm favourite with locals and visitors alike; they come for the tasty tapas and hearty breakfasts at affordable prices.

Citta Bistro. 4217 Village Stroll, 00-1-604-9324177, www.cittabistro.com. Something of an institution, Cittas is where it’s at for beer, pizza and a spot of people-watching from the restaurant’s patio.

Apres-ski

The Longhorn, Dubh Linn Gate and Black’s Pub – all at the foot of the mountain in Whistler Village – serve great tap, thumping sounds and views of the hill you’ve just carved up.

Whistler on a budget

Travelling in “value season” – mid-November to December 20th, plus April – when discounts go up and room rates go down, will shave a chunk off your bill. The more days you ski for, the more you save, so opt for a multiday lift pass. Book online at www.whistlerblack comb.com for more discounts.

Go there

British Airways (www.ba. com) and Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) fly from London Heathrow to Vancouver. Connect to Whistler from the airport with Pacific Coach (www.pacificcoach.com) or Greyhound Bus (www.greyhound.ca).

print_editionThis article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times