Whistler: a playground for all seasons

  • Written by Deborah Stone

The Sea to Sky Highway makes a dramatic backdrop and scenic corridor to Whistler, B.C., Canada’s renowned ski resort.

With its winding curves, drop-dead ocean views and panoramic Coast Mountain range, this road is a treat for sore eyes after several hours of monotonous freeway driving along the I-5 corridor.

At each bend, my family saw something to ooh and ah at, whether it was a thunderous waterfall or a black bear hiding in the bushes (yes, we actually spied one and then watched as it crossed the highway right in front of our car). As the road began to climb in earnest and we got closer to our destination, we got our first glimpse of Whistler’s fairy tale-like village, set between two craggy peaks.

We had come to this resort, not to ski as so many others do, but to find out what else there was to do in the off-season at this popular destination.

And although there were plenty of people still making their way up the mountain to the remaining few runs open for skiing and snowboarding, there were also lots of folks like us, bent on discovering Whistler’s other allures.

After settling in at our well-appointed accommodations, (an ample Montebello townhouse minutes from the main village area), we headed to our first activity for the weekend, a zipline ride with Ziptrek Ecotour.

Riding the eco zipline 150 feet off the ground gives thrill seekers a breathtaking view of the picturesque forest valley below. Photo by Deborah Stone.
I had first become enamored with this Tarzan treetop ride when I traveled to Costa Rica several months ago and was thrilled to learn that a similar adventure exists here in North America, only hours away from my home.

Although the experience was not new to me, it was a novel one for the rest of my family, and I delighted in watching their expressions and hearing their exhilarating comments as they flew through the trees.

Ziptrek’s tour area is between Blackcomb and Whistler mountains, just minutes above Whistler Village, and participants are taken through the area’s rare ancient rainforest on a network of five adrenaline-rushing zipline cables spanning over a half a mile.

Guides, who also serve as naturalists, provide facts about Whistler’s environment along the way and explain how one of the earth’s most productive forest ecosystems supports the life within it.

The course is a feat of engineering and takes riders up in the canopy of 1,000-year- old trees, over rugged mountainous terrain and across the rushing waters of Fitzsimmons Creek. The longest cable spans 1,100 feet and the highest is 150 feet off the ground, giving thrill seekers a breathtaking view of the picturesque forest valley below.

Unlike the zipline ride I took in Costa Rica, this one has built in safety brake mechanisms in the cable, which help to slow riders down at the end of the line. Holding on is unnecessary, although most folks instinctively do, at least initially. By the final cable however, most folks feel comfortable and guides encourage them to ride backwards or even upside down, for the truly adventurous!

For another view of the area, we decided to ride the Whistler Gondola up to the top of Whistler Mountain (6,000 feet above sea level). This is a 20-minute ride each way and as we ascended, we took note of the mountain bikers descending through the Mountain Bike Park. The park offers over 125 miles of lift-serviced, gravity-fed trails, ranging from gentle banked curved tracks for beginners to tight, twisty tracks and steep drop offs for expert riders.

Although our bird’s eye position above gave us a unique perspective of these hard-core, body-armored trail warriors, the best place to view them is from the base of the bike park where you can watch them come screaming down the lower part of the mountain, mud-drenched and pumped up with adrenaline.

About three-quarters of the way on our ride up the mountain, we began seeing the first patches of snow, and by the time we got to the top, a spring blizzard was in process.

We stayed long enough to check out the skiers and snowboarders and throw a few snowballs before hustling back on the next gondola for our return journey.

The ride back down the mountain was equally as interesting as we watched the changes occur from one ecosystem to another and experienced the varying weather conditions at the different altitudes.

My family was inspired after seeing the mountain bikers in action and although tempting as it might have been to join them, we decided on a more tame approach to cycling.

Whistler has a Valley Trail system that is perfect for cyclists who prefer not to careen at breakneck speeds down the obstacle courses of the Mountain Bike Park. With bikes rented from Backroads Whistler, we set out for an afternoon to explore the area at a leisurely pace.

The Valley Trail system extends through the Whistler Valley, past golf courses, lakes, rivers, residential areas and hotels. Pick up a map at any bike shop in the Village and it’s easy to choose a trail to follow, based on your ability level.

We chose to head out toward the Lost Lake trails, opting for natural scenery, as opposed to buildings and golf courses.

Because the weather was very changeable that day, there weren’t too many folks out on the trails, but that was just fine with us, as we enjoyed having the place mostly to ourselves. The lake was peaceful and quiet as we circled it, stopping once or twice to take in the view, before continuing on to discover another scenic vista point.

We found the trail system to be very clearly marked and even if you made a wrong turn, you could always find your way back easily.

After a few hours and a downpour or two later, we returned the bikes to the shop and headed into the movie theatre to get dry for awhile.

In addition to all the outdoor activities that Whistler offers, it also has its share of indoor pursuits for those times when the weather just isn’t cooperating.

With over 200 shops, ranging from art galleries to sporting equipment stores, two movie theatres, more than 90 restaurants, several indoor sports centers and a museum, there are numerous places to seek shelter when inhospitable elements force you inside.

Walking around the pedestrian-only Whistler Village is a treat in itself. Its cobblestone streets, alpine style architecture and open-air cafes make you feel like you’ve stepped into a small European town.

There’s a real international flavor about the place and it’s not only the various cuisines (serving everything from spicy Thai to sushi and traditional North American fare) that give it this feeling, but the cultural diversity of the employees and visitors that come from all parts of the world to this popular resort.

The key words at Whistler are “options” and “variety,” as it’s a destination that has something to please everyone, from choice of accommodations to activities and dining.

Skiers, snowboarders and bikers all share the terrain, along with hikers, fishermen, boaters, golfers and rock climbers.

It’s a playground for all seasons within a spectacular alpine natural setting.

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