Welcome back to The 72 Hours Series.
Vancouver has exploded. With a property boom that placed its house price increase as the second highest in the world after Singapore, I was intrigued to know what the fuss was all about.
South Africans have slowly begun to wake up to the prospect of Canada as an emigration option, offering an alignment with some of the perks of South Africa – breathtaking mountains and coastline, and trending cities – but in Vancouver’s case, it is incredibly well run and socially responsible – with one rather gloomy downside, the weather.
However, truth be told, the weather also opens up the opportunity to ski, something Africans rarely get to enjoy.
Whistler is known as Canada’s big mountain ski destination, a haven for off-piste, freestyle-inspired skiing with a vast amount of terrain and few crowds. At 8171 acres, there is something for every skier with glaciers, bowls, glades, terrain parks and learning zones. Stationed in British Columbia’s Coast Mountain range, it is known for its consistency of snow and length of the season with skiers and boarders “getting the goods” from mid-November to the end of May. The mountain also offers summer skiing on Blackcomb Glacier from mid-June to July.
Having skied a fair bit since childhood in Austria, France and Italy, I’ve been admittedly biased toward European resorts but had heard so much about the neat formula of its North American competitors.
Whistler is undoubtedly beautiful. Owned by Vail Resorts, it is modern, spotlessly clean, and presents as contemporary, well-planned and balanced, blending bars, restaurants and coffee shops in equal measure. The main hub of the village’s action feels tidy and compact with various runs converging at the base of several key lifts, and meeting at the pumping and attention-grabbing ‘Longhorse Saloon’, where DJs turn the tables from the early afternoon. Think Ibiza – but in rather cumbersome ski gear.
The single imprint made during my time on the slopes was efficiency. North America is naturally service-orientated, but the notable lack of queuing is a huge win by comparison to The Alps. My dealings with Vail Resorts throughout were similar to my experience of the resort – slick, streamlined and generous. Furthermore, there isn’t the usual jostle at chairlifts that one can sometimes experience, certainly in France. On piste, the new wider design of skis is even more forgiving and has intermediates and advanced skiers “downhilling,” hence the increased use of helmets (recommended). The open highways of blue runs lend themselves nicely to learners and families, and are stunningly picturesque, lined with towering Canadian firs.
The mountaintop highlight is easily the Peak to Peak gondola which takes skiers to the neighbouring pistes and is the highest lift of its kind in the world at 1427 feet above the valley floor. As it drops and rises out again, it provides an almost giddy and breathtaking perspective of the twin summits of Whistler Blackcomb. On arrival at the other peak, I would always pop into the octagonal Roundhouse Umbrella Bar – a new 60-seater watering hole for a restful beer and a sublime view among the clouds, before the final run down into the village.
Negatives? I am not so sure I could call them criticisms, but I did miss the old-world architecture and heritage of a European resort, and definitely the higher status of a mountain restaurant as a meeting point for gluhwein or beer, and perhaps a little of the apres ski. But I think that may be because that forms a greater part of the experience and culture of Alpine skiing.
Two particular restaurants stand out. Earls has a superb menu, magnificent interior design, and a young, hip service staff. Chicken wings, fish tacos, burgers or ribs were arguably the best I had across my entire trip to North America. And there are 63 Earls restaurants in Canada and The States. Seek them out. Any South African restaurant would do well to match its food and quality of service – and the management was world-class, in my view.
And then I have to suggest Bar Oso, a sophisticated Spanish Tapas Bar, run by an excellent Alli Nowak for the Toptable Group. Cocktail bar staff offer and explain some potent and fun concoctions (try The Powder Day) and superb dishes such as Wagyu Ribs, Wild Scallop, and Lobster and Shrimp Roll, set in an ambient and intimate setting. Toptable is the premier fine dining ‘group’ on the mountain and would be a recommendation if you need a starting point for restaurants.
Despite its established credentials and award-winning status – frequently winning best resort in Canada – Whistler preserves its youthful edge, bordering on hipster, serviced by a large number of visiting Australians. The energy and modernity in abundance make complete sense given the explosion of Vancouver, in terms of both startups and the recent property boom which has now waned somewhat.
I travelled with my brother and his two daughters and the resort plays wonderful host to families. It offers some memorable experiences on offer – the Cloudraker Suspension Bridge – the highest of its kind in North America at the top of Whistler Mountain, some 7,160 feet above sea level. Or a lesson with an Olympian, so you can copy their technique or hear their stories. For the experts, the heli-skiing service providers have exclusive rights to 432,000 acres of big mountain terrain that includes 173 glaciers and 475 trails.
I loved the (human) mountain hosts who were roaming information providers about where to go and what slopes to try. Such is the nature of modern ski resorts, artificial intelligence has begun to play a role too these days. ‘Emma’ is an interactive mountain assistant who uses AI and natural language processing (NLP) to answer a wide range of guests’ questions about their ski vacation. Emma debuted throughout the 2018-19 winter season to great applause.
It may not be perfect in every way, there are a few longings for the more traditional components of skiing, but if you want the bells and the whistles, there will always have to be a compromise. Balance is essential when it comes to skiing.