Whistler: Nature Lover’s Paradise

Whistler is known for its skiing, but it’s also a nature lover’s paradise in spring, summer and fall, making it a resort for all seasons.

Just 75 miles north of Vancouver in Canada’s most western province of British Columbia sits Whistler. This idyllic ski resort transforms into a nature-lover’s paradise in spring, summer and fall, making it a resort for all seasons. “I almost like it better in summer than in winter,” a local woman tells me. And that is no small statement, as Whistler holds the key to some of the best skiing in North America, with vast skiable terrain—more than 8,000 acres and 200 runs—and the only skiable glaciers on the continent.

But visit in summer and these same mountains become a hiking and biking mecca with black bear viewing thrown in as a bonus and summer glacier skiing for those that can’t decide which season is best.

Whistler Winters

The best season for me is usually winter, as Whistler is one of my favorite ski resorts. (This coming from a person who’s shimmied down pistes everywhere from St. Moritz and Chamonix to Salt Lake City, Jackson Hole, Aspen, Vail and more.) Why, you ask? The village is charming, with pedestrian-friendly streets and no car needed; most resorts are slope-side or within quick walking distance; the skiing … well, it’s just downright fabulous, and there are no airs in Whistler, no attitude, and that goes a long way for me.

Whether you’re one of the tons of young Australians that work the resort in winter, a Brit on ski holiday who’s in search of great snow conditions, or one of the many families that visit from South America or Japan, Whistler is an accepting place. And, the resort area is only getting better in preparation for hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic downhill, cross-country and ski-jumping events, slated for Feb. 12 to 28, 2010.

But you don’t have to be a skier or snowboarder to like Whistler in winter. Non-ski activities include awesome zip-trek tours high above the icy forests, a tour that absolutely wowed my 8-year-old. And there’s snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and ice climbing for the adventuresome, and tubing for all ages. Those with more relaxing thoughts in mind can ride down the slopes snuggled in a passenger chair on skis, a “Sno-Limo” invented in Whistler and navigated by a personal chauffeur. It’s especially a treat for the non-skier who wants to partake in their family’s ski adventure. “My biggest problem was trying to stop laughing,” said one woman after enjoying the ride. (Our Family Fun in Whistler article covers even more activities.)

For easier undertakings, there are several fine spas in Whistler. The spa at the Four Seasons Whistler offers an après-ski massage. Its hot-stone therapy made me dreamily forget more strenuous adventures. The renowned Fairmont Chateau Whistler—a ski-in, ski-out resort rising like a castle from the bottom of the mountain slopes—also features an elegant spa. (Read more about Whistler’s Luxury Resorts.)

Whistler Summers

When the snow of winter thaws, Whistler transforms into an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. The resort’s mountain bike park is considered among the best in the world, with more than 45 trails serviced via lifts. Trails range from gentle banked cruisers through the forest to tight and twisty tracks to steep rock faces for those willing to challenge gravity. But fear not, the scenic valley trails are just as enjoyable for family rides.

Options for hiking are nearly as limitless, but a good way to start is by taking a complimentary guided hiking tour, departing daily from the top of Whistler Mountain at 11:30 a.m. Once you get acclimated to the altitude (about 7,500 feet at the top), try tackling the High Note Trail, which leads to a brilliant blue glacial-fed lake and spectacular views. Kayaking the local lakes, whitewater rafting and fishing are also popular in the warmer seasons, and the area’s signature golf courses include ones designed by Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Trent Jones. And for kids of all ages, the bottom of Blackcomb Mountain holds an Adventure Zone offering mini-golf, a rock climbing wall, a flying trapeze and more.

Not sure if Whistler is better suited to you in winter or summer? Mix things up a bit by skiing or hiking the glacier in summer to get the best of both worlds. The glacier’s such a draw, in fact, that a concierge at the Four Seasons Resort Whistler told me she had to ship a block of the glacier back to North Carolina. Seems a guest planning a party thought it would make for captivating conversation to sprinkle specialty cocktails with glacier ice. Talk about moving heaven and mountain to please a guest!

Bountiful Bears

One of my all-time favorite activities when visiting Canada is bear watching. If you’ve never done it, it’s a can’t-miss. Watch black bears cavorting for food, showing off their dominance, scuttling up trees to hide—the antics can be enthralling, the real wild side of Canada. During the guided tours at Whistler, you’ll learn about conservation measures to help sustain healthy populations and visit feeding sites and areas with bear dens. More than 50 black bears call these mountains home.

Wining and Dining

Outdoors and glacier adventures aside, Whistler Village is fun for just strolling and perusing; the cobblestone streets are full of boutiques and offer a wide array of restaurants (about 90 in the area at last count). The dining options are wide, from lively après ski lounges and casual pubs flowing with B.C. beer to acclaimed gourmet dining and a sushi restaurant featuring sake margaritas.

Favorite spots include the outside patio at Citta’ Bistro, a great pub for people-watching, and Garibaldi Lift Co. Bar & Grill at the base of Whistler Mountain, an après-slope spot with ski and snowboard videos aired to music. The Fairmont’s fireside lounge is a more elegant après option.

For fine wining and dining, most agree that Rimrock Café in Whistler ranks among the best with regional favorites like succulent black cod (also known as butterfish for its rich buttery flavor) and flavorful arctic caribou. I’m not a big meat-eater, but I quite enjoy caribou. Araxi is another regional favorite, with excellent Pacific Northwest dishes made from local organic ingredients.

On the family side, the Old Spaghetti Factory, a Canadian institution, is a good choice, and for an off-the-wall dining adventure, enroll the kids in “climbing & dining” at the Core. Kids ages 4 and up can be dropped off for an evening of pizza and supervised rock climbing complete with a new Yeti Cave, tunnels, slides and cool boulder areas.

The only problem having fun in Whistler is that whether skiing or tubing, hiking or biking, zip-trekking or wildlife viewing, time always runs out before the options for adventure do. The resort area is overflowing with opportunities for new experiences, each seeming to be more fun than the next. So pack your bags, and tell your friends you’re going to see some bears, hike a glacier and maybe even bring a chunk home. And if the glacier souvenir doesn’t last long, at least you’ll be left with plenty of lasting memories of fun experiences in Whistler.

Destinations: Whistler

Themes: Family Travel, Mountain Vacations, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Mountain Biking, Skiing, Snowboarding