Expert guide to Whistler
Canada’s leading ski resort
Boasting dramatic mountain scenery and a lively après scene, Whistler, on the west coast of Canada in British Columbia, is much more European in flavour than most North American resorts. Twenty years ago, it was more of a locals’ mountain than the top international resort it is now.
These days, even though it has grown, it still has many of the things that made it so special at the beginning – sniffle stations, Belgian waffles on the mountain, pitchers of margaritas in resort and the sort of snow that inspires powderhounds to sing with joy.
The Peak 2 Peak gondola links the two mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb, and the resort’s 8,171-acre ski area is one of the largest in the world. It also has long top-to-bottom slopes, with 1,610m of vertical on Blackcomb and 1,530m on Whistler. Running from mid-November until May, the season here is long and snow-sure, with an average snowfall of around 12m.
Inside the resort . . .
At the base, Whistler is a big place, divided into several sectors. The main hub is Whistler Village, which is car free so it’s pleasant to stroll around, break for a cappuccino, or window-shop at the ever-increasing number of boutiques and shops, offering everything from home furnishings to designer art. There is also accommodation and facilities outside this main area in the Marketplace and North Village sectors.
Upper Village is at the base of Blackcomb mountain, a pleasant 10-minute walk or a free bus ride from the car-free Village. Creekside, outside the main village to the southwest, makes a quieter base and also has direct access to the slopes of Whistler mountain.
As well as global recognition, the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games brought millions of dollars’ worth of expansion and improvements to both the town and the slopes. However, the resort can suffer from lift queues, especially at weekends and peak times. It’s especially busy around Christmas, New Year, public holidays and sunny weekends as it’s only a couple of hours’ drive from Vancouver and a four-hour drive from Seattle.
Vail Resorts, Whistler’s owner, has continued the investment to speed up travel around the area and reduce queues. A 10-passenger gondola on Blackcomb mountain makes travel from the base to mid-mountain much faster for people staying in the Upper Village area. It arrives close to the Peak 2 Peak Gondola.
There is a strong selection of spas, restaurants and family activities on offer, making Whistler a good all-round destination with appeal even for non-skiers. There are scenic helicopter rides around the area, and live music and concerts throughout the season. The Scandinave Spa is a luxurious retreat set in stunning wilderness and boasting hot tubs at different temperatures, massages and other treatment options.
There’s a range of activities to try at the Olympic Park just south of Whistler, including snowshoeing, tobogganing and tours of the Olympic ski jump and biathlon rifle range. The Whistler Sliding Centre on Blackcomb mountain offers a chance to try a four-man bobsleigh or skeleton.
For UK visitors, the exchange rate, fuel surcharges, lift passes and added taxes make Whistler an expensive destination. But with world-class terrain, lively nightlife and a packed programme of extra-curricular activities off the slopes, there is a lot on offer for the investment.
On the slopes . . .
Navigate Whistler’s ski area with our insider’s knowledge of the local slopes and beyond, on and off piste, ski schools and terrain parks.
Whistler’s two linked mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb, share a huge 8,171 acre ski area with a lift-served vertical drop of 1,610m, served by 37 lifts. There are over 200 runs that include interest for all levels – pistes are classed as 18 per cent beginner (greens), 55 per cent intermediate (blues) and 27 per cent expert (blacks).
Steeper pitches are marked as black diamonds or even gnarlier double black diamonds, and there’s extensive off-piste terrain too. The resort boasts 16 alpine bowls and three glaciers, and a large number of backcountry itineraries outside the ski area.
There are also good facilities for novices. Whistler mountain is very beginner-friendly, with a learning area with covered magic carpet lifts, and plenty of snowmaking and confidence-building green runs. After first turns, there are top-to-bottom of the mountain green runs to progress to.
The Peak 2 Peak gondola links Whistler and Blackcomb at mid mountain, meaning that access to both hills is equally convenient from Whistler’s three resort bases – Whistler Village, Upper Village and Creekside.
Whistler Mountain is a good place to start the day, as it’s generally sunnier in the morning, before riding the Peak 2 Peak to Blackcomb for the afternoon. A queue-avoiding tip for busy days at the Whistler Village gondola is to take the Fitzsimmons chair up Whistler Mountain – or to start from the Blackcomb base.
The ski area is regularly updated, meaning fast lifts make reasonably quick work of queues. A a two-stage 10-passenger gondola from the Upper Village to mid-mountain on Blackcomb, arriving close to the Peak 2 Peak gondola, is one of the most recent additions, as well as high-speed chairlifts installed on both Blackcomb and Whistler.
To help get to know the ski area, the resort runs free orientation tours for intermediates and experts every morning, with sessions for both Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. For those who prefer to go it alone, there are six Wonder Routes, marked colour-coded routes of discovery for various levels around the ski area, taking in different pistes and points of interest. One highlight of the ski area is the Dave Murray downhill run to Creekside, used for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Whistler also offers a ticketed Fresh Tracks service, giving early birds the chance to be first on the freshly groomed or powder slopes. It starts with a 7.15am gondola up Whistler mountain, and the price includes a hearty breakfast at the Roundhouse restaurant at the top. Backcountry opportunities include cat skiing and heliskiing.
Whistler and Blackcomb mountains have eight terrain parks between them, covering 99 acres and rated S, M, L and XL according to difficulty. They include a super-pipe (Olympic standard halfpipe with 7m high walls), a skicross course, and more than 150 features and 40 jumps. Smaller rails and rollers can be found in the Big Easy Terrain Garden on Blackcomb.
Who should go?
It’s not often you find a resort that caters for every level of skier and snowboarder like Whistler does. While beginners have dedicated areas to learn and chance to progress to top-of-the-mountain green runs quickly, intermediates have plenty of terrain to explore and experts endless challenges and off-piste options. The resort is lively and has one of the best apres scenes in North America. It’s not all about wild parties though, with hundreds of restaurants to choose from and an endless list of activities, from ziplining to spas, to keep the entire family happily.
Know before you go . . .
British Consulate-General in Vancouver : 001 604 683 4421
Ambulance, fire and police: 911
Tourist office: See whistler.com, the website for Whistler Tourism, or whistlerblackcomb.com the resort’s official website run by owners Vail Resorts, for weather reports, lift status, webcams, traffic details and local event listings. Pick up maps, leaflets and other information from Whistler Visitor Centre, adjacent to the bus and taxi rank, or from the major lift stations.
Currency: Canadian dollars
Telephone code: from abroad, dial 00 1, then leave off the zero at the start of the 10-figure number.
Time difference: -8 hours