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A four-season delight

by Michael McCarthy 

Resort best known for skiing has other attractions too

Snowflakes fell like tiny wounded birds out of a pale blue sky, hissing as they kissed the steaming waters of the outdoor pool. Mist rose and drifted off into the woods. A warm fire crackled in a nearby grate, constantly tended by eager staff. The door to the Finnish sauna opened with a blast of hot air and a bather emerged to tiptoe through the snow bank and plunge into an icy cold pool. Ah, after a hard day’s play in the Whistler hills there’s nothing better than a relaxing sojourn in a European-style spa.


The concept for our trip to Whistler, the world’s largest four-season resort, was fairly simple. Go to Whistler for a relaxing, romantic vacation and don’t downhill ski at all. Everyone goes to Whistler to ski and there is a reason for that. 

The Whistler/Blackcomb region has more ski runs than any other resort on the world. But what if you don’t ski very well and just want to enjoy the snow and ambience? What about summer as well? It’s great to know there are lots of wonderful non-ski alternatives to be found at Whistler if you just know where to look.

Whistler is an easy two-hour cruise from Vancouver up the dazzling Sea-to-Sky Highway, formally a death-defying perambulation along steep cliffs with black ice turning the roads into Russian roulette and the ocean looming far below. But in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games the B.C. government poured $600 million into widening the highway and building safety structures to stop large rocks from falling on top of people’s cars. The money was worth it. In summer Whistler is just as nice now to visit as winter, with golf, tennis, hiking, ziplining, cycling, canoeing, river rafting – and yes, summer skiing on the glaciers. And in summer you can take the Rocky Mountaineer instead, certainly one of the world’s most scenic train rides.


We started our vacation by getting some healthy exercise at Cross Country Connection’s outfitter’s hut near Lost Lake, found just outside the town centre and an easy walk from our hotel. They’ll rent you cross-country skis if you want, but we opted for strapping on snowshoes and ambling off for an easy walk in the woods. It appears the hardest aspect of snowshoeing is putting on the equipment; traipsing through the trees following a well-marked path proved no bother at all. Hardy cross-country skiers swooshed by on nearby groomed trails, but the only sounds heard underneath the snow-laden pines on the many snowshoe trails were the occasional tweet of a jay and the burble of a tiny creek. The red trail turned out to an easy 2.8 kilometres wander to the lake and back, a lazy hour lost in a pristine winter wonderland.


Those in the know (and carrying a good map, found at the Info Centre in the heart of the village) can arrange to emerge from the woods outside Le Scandinave, 20,000-square feet of Scandinavian baths artfully concealed in the forest, “hydrotherapy in the heart of nature” as their brochure calls it. First you heat the body for 2-3 minutes in the Eucalyptus steam bath to the point of boiling, then you plunge into the Nordic waterfall outside the door for a few seconds “to close the pores and strengthen the immune system.” Then it’s a long wallow in the outdoor heated pools.

That is what their guidelines say to do, but I found it quite possible to bypass the outdoor Nordic waterfall or cold pools entirely; just walking around in a wet bathing suit in below freezing temperatures work wonders in lowering body heat in a jiffy. You are supposed to alternate between the hot and cold baths and repeat as often as necessary, but I didn’t find the cold baths alluring at all. Finally, for those so enamoured, there are deep tissue, Swedish, hot stone or Thai-yoga massages available for skiers or non-skiers alike. Bring a good book too, and plan to spend several hours enjoying all the many options.


Refreshed and relaxed and purring like kittens, my wife and I ambled slowly up the Village Stroll towards the ultimate in Whistler romance, an evening at the bistro. That would be the Bearfoot Bistro, of course, what might be the finest cuisine in all of Whistler, where fine French food is matched only by the exquisite ambience and polished service. Those so inclined can learn the art of “sabre cutting” in the Bearfoot’s million dollar basement wine cellar, whacking open one’s bottle of champagne with a quick flick of a sword under the maitre d’s expert instruction. It’s really quite easy, and as an added bonus you get to drink the champagne!

The Bearfoot’s five-course tasting menu with matching wines was to die for. One starts with an amuse bouche of butternut squash role with bacon vinaigrette and crispy squash, prepared under the watchful eye of master chef Melissa Craig in the open kitchen. Each course in the tasting menu is matched with an appropriate wine. Why, the Martin Lane Reisling brought the Yellowfin tuna alive, darling! Thinly sliced black Perigord truffle adorned the bucatini pasta with champagne cream, artfully paired with a Meyer Family Chardonnay. The entrée of bacon-wrapped striploin with braised shortrib ravioli led nicely into a dessert of pear mousse cider jelly and goat cheese sorbet, washed down with ice-cold apple cider from Quebec. Ah yes, the life of royalty….

Soft jazz on the piano wafted through the room like French perfume, luring us on towards the “blue room” where ice cold vodka can be sampled at an ice bar in an ice room cooled to minus 28 centigrade, apparently one of only three such ice bars in the world and – according to the Bistro staff – the coldest. Here dozens of different vodkas from around the world can be sipped while warmly wrapped in a deep down parka with matching fur hat and gloves.


No romantic vacation in Whistler is complete without a majestic view of the village from above, best accomplished from a suite high atop the magnificent Fairmont Chateau. Here was the chance to finish off that mystery novel started earlier at Le Scandinave spa. Then, next morning, why not a leisurely dip in the hotel’s own heated indoor/outdoor pool? This vantage point allows you to observe all the downhill skiers frantically scurrying by to get to the lifts when they could be simply relaxing over a hot pot of tea and a comfort breakfast of eggs Benedict in the warmth of the hotel’s swank dining room.

However, those not familiar with Whistler and determined to get in some serious downhill skiing will discover to their amazement that you could ski a different run very day of the year on the twin mountains of Whistler and accompanying Blackcomb Mountain and never experience the same run twice. Then there are also the backcountry glaciers, open much of the summer for the truly dedicated skier. Finally, those who have just won the lottery or inherited the family fortune can rent a helicopter and ski on the backcountry glaciers surrounding the valley.


Then there is the final crowning touch of your visit, a an eye-opening ride on the Peak-to-Peak gondola that hangs like a diamond necklace high between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. The 4.4-kilometre ride departs every 49 seconds and takes just 11 minutes to cross, dangling 1,427 feet in the air with Fitzsimmons Creek far below, where you will enjoy views of the entire Whistler valley to the west and the glaciers to the east.

So, yes, you could go to Whistler and live the life of a king or queen and never ski at all. But remember, if you do hit the slopes, those double diamond warning signs at the top of many runs mean exactly what they say: Experts Only. Good thing there are all those beginner and intermediate trails for the rest of us.

Le Scandinave Spa www.scandinave.com

Bearfoot Bistro www.bearfootbistro.com

Chateau Fairmont Hotel www.fairmont.com/whistler

Photo credits: Michael McCarthy except for Fairmont Hotel (supplied) and Peak to Peak (Matt Walker)