Shopping, art and a very special spa – Canada’s premier ski resort has much more going for it than simply winter sports. Estella Shardlow dives in…
I have a confession to make. My favourite part of any ski trip doesn’t happen on the piste. Instead, it’s that moment of submerging weary limbs into the Jacuzzi as the steam curls into cold mountain air, wearing the satisfied glow that much exercise has been done, and soon delicious things will justifiably be eaten. Or perhaps simply loosening of the bootstraps, sinking in a comfy seat and taking the afternoon’s first sip of chilled Sauvignon Blanc. In short, it’s all about the après.
Over on the west coast of Canada, Whistler Blackcomb provides plenty for fair-weather skiers like myself. This I discovered on my first afternoon in the village, when after a short coach ride from central Vancouver, I had a couple of hours to while away after collecting my lift pass and ski rental. The Audain Art Gallery manages to appear both cutting-edge and fairy tale, angular plans of dark metal and timber unfolding among the pine trees like a contemporary reimagining of Hansel & Gretel’s witch cottage – only rather than sweets, the Audain tempts you inside with art, including perhaps the world’s finest collections of First Nation masks and paintings by Emily Carr, who blended a post-impressionist style with indigenous B.C. culture. Opened in early 2016, the stilted building hovers improbably above the snowy ground, and when you walk along the silent glass-walled corridors it almost seems you are floating in the woodland canopy. It is a 56,000-square-foot Modernist tree house and a temple to the artists of British Columbia.
The following morning, heavy snow delays the opening of the lifts; half a metre of powder has dropped overnight. It is a good excuse to linger over a hearty breakfast bowl at Wildwood and peruse the large Lululemon store positioned on the Village Green (those patterned yoga pants really were an essential purchase, if only for lounging around the hotel and the overnight flight home).
By mid-morning the gondolas have re-opened and we launch ourselves onto the network of green and blue runs, deciding to keep it easy since flurries of snow continued to fall. Beneath the lifts, advanced snowboarders are in their element, whoops and shrieks slicing through the mountain-top quiet as they cruise through powder so deep that towering pines seem dwarfed, no more than bonsai trees poking their heads above the blanketing.
Whistler and Blackcomb mountains together offer 8,171 skiable acres, three glaciers and 16 alpine bowls, the most famous and longest run being the 6.8-mile Peak-to-Creek, spanning from the top of Whistler to the valley floor. Many of the runs carve through woodland, providing treelines to follow even during white-outs like today. The temperature is relatively mild, around -6°C, and chair lift queues are virtually non-existent despite this being peak season. This means you get a lot of bang for your buck in terms of activity time; by early afternoon my thighs are burning.
Welcome moments of sunshine transform the landscape as we descend Bear Cub and Pony Trail, and Whiskey Jacks (also known as Gray Jays) land on our hands during rest-stops, as if mistaking us for small, neon-clad trees.
Unlike European resorts, Canada doesn’t really do Folie Douce-style mountaintop partying, and instead everything takes place in the village. Longhorn, the Dub Linh Gate and Garibaldi Lift Company (GLC) are the prime après spots, all positioned right at the foot of the gondolas. Things are well underway by 3pm and we narrowly miss out on one of the coveted firepit spots on GLC’S mountain-facing patio. Hot chocolates spiked with Baileys are followed by poutine (the Canadian specialty of curd cheese and gravy on fries, for the uninitiated) and flatbreads.
When it comes to dining, the options in Whistler are diverse; you won’t get fondue fatigue here. For groups, the sunken, screen-off booths at Sushi Village are a great option, and this restaurant’s wonderfully fresh sashimi and maki rolls remind just how close you are to the rich Pacific waters.
As the week continued our culinary tour moves from Japan to Mexico. Blood orange margaritas accompany tuna tostaditas and spicy quesadillas at Mexican Corner, with a cheerful rustic backdrop of patterned tiles, exposed copper pipes and brick walls hung with rainbow-bright paintings. The final evening sees another a British Columbian seafood feast, in the form of oysters, scallops and salmon at Rimrock Cafe.
With its gabled alpine-style lodges and fairy lights, Whistler Village has a festive feel throughout the winter, even during my visit in bleakest mid-January. Activities such as tobogganing, dog-sledding and ice-skating only add to this effect, or for adrenalin junkies there’s Ziptrek’s high-flying ziplines over Fitzsimmons Creek, and the world’s fastest bobsleigh track, legacy of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
On the other end of the spectrum, Scandinave Spa is effectively Disneyland for weary grown-ups. A sprawling outdoor spa with various hydrotherapy pools and relaxation rooms, it unfolds across a peaceful forested setting. The idea is to follow a cycle of ‘hot-cold-relax’, repeating the process as many times as you like: 10 minutes in one of the bubbling pools, sauna or steam rooms, followed by a bracing 10-second dip in an icy plunge pool (I manage about three seconds) and finally 15 minutes in a solarium, outdoor firepit or chill-out lounge. Some guests nap on daybeds, others read books or practise a spot of yoga.
The formula is designed to both energize and rest the body, improve blood circulation, release of endorphins and activate the lymphatic system I can certainly see how the hot soak stage “induces a state of calmness and introspection” and reduces blood pressure, but need a little convincing to try the icy-cold part – apparently the skin’s pores close to shut in the heat from step one, encouraging the body to flush toxins and release tensions.
The whole blissful evening is topped off with a vigorous deep tissue massage, where the therapist had her work cut out undoing my stiff quads and calves. And since Scandinave is a silent spa, there is the added benefit of undergoing a digital detox – no smug Instagramming as you lounge in a hammock in your fluffy robe.
Amid a week of snapping all those breath-taking mountain panoramas, ski lift selfies and slightly blurred apres footage, I can gladly lock away my phone and savour the moment.
For more information visit www.whistlerblackcomb.com. Pacific Coach Lines offers regular direct coaches from Downtown Vancouver or YVR Airport.