WHISTLER, British Columbia -- I can’t believe the size of this place.
Standing next to the mountain-topping stone blocks of the inuksuk landmark made famous during the 2010 Winter Olympics, I’m a full mile higher than the folks sipping hot chocolate at the base of Whistler Blackcomb ski area far below.
In between stretch more than 200 trails, 38 ski lifts, 17 bowls, a glacier or two, and enough chutes, gladed runs and moguls to keep my muscles burning for far longer than the week I’ve allotted.
I love skiing the Rocky Mountains, but last year, early season conditions at Colorado ski resorts left me scrambling. My husband and I ditched plans to ski there and booked a room in Whistler, where snow was sifting out of the sky like powdered sugar on a plate of brownies.
This is a sprawling, tumbling, where-does-it-end whitewash of an outdoor playground. Take Vail, the biggest ski resort in the United States, tack on nearly 3,000 additional acres, and you’ve got Whistler Blackcomb, which drapes over the top of two neighboring mountains and covers 8,171 acres.
Yep, it’s Texas big.
To get here, we flew into Vancouver International Airport, then hopped a shuttle bus for the 2 1/2-hour ride to the resort. We checked in at the Blackcomb Lodge, in the middle of Whistler Village, and popped by the neighboring grocery store to pick up supplies for the week.
The snow here packs more moisture than other areas, because it’s close to the coast. That helps it stick to unusually steep terrain. The resort gets an average of 33 feet of snowfall a season, enough to keep mountain operations running from mid-November to April most years. Throw in a few frozen tongues of ice known as glaciers, and you can actually ski parts of the mountain through July.
The low elevation of the base, though, can wreak havoc on conditions. During a short visit a few years ago, I awoke to 18 inches of fresh snow on the ground. When I reached the lifts, all twitchy with excitement at the prospect of skiing powder, attendants told me it was raining higher on the mountain and advised me to turn back.
But when conditions are good, they’re spectacular. And today they’re great.
We swoosh down from the stone statue, gobbling up a couple of snow-spackled bowls on our way to the Peak2Peak gondola, a suspended bubble of a tram that whisks skiers from Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb Mountain in a speedy 11 minutes. At one point during the trip, it dangles 435 feet above an icy creek. For an extra thrill, wait for one of the special glass-bottomed cars.
As we emerge on the other side of the resort, we take a tip from some locals who suggest a place called Secret Bowl. We follow their instructions, hitching a ride on another lift and scooching over a shoulder, then sneak into a pocket of bliss we’d never have found otherwise.
We spend a lot of time debating the merits of Whistler vs. Blackcomb, and never quite settle the question of which is better. I think Whistler’s got better wide-open bowls, but I prefer the tree runs on Blackcomb.
Happily, you don’t have to pick one over the other. You do, however, need food to fuel your explorations. Brace yourself for on-mountain dining that goes beyond burgers. We stop at the Chic Pea for a naan veggie sandwich one day, the Crystal Hut for a crispy Belgian waffle doused in maple syrup and the Roundhouse Lodge for Vietnamese pho after that.
Food is a big deal all over Whistler. Last year, Paul Qui, executive chef at Uchiko in Austin, Texas, traveled here for part of the“Top Chef” competition he eventually won. A dinner at the swanky Alta Bistro, with its focus on local and naturally raised food, really fresh and affordable sushi at Sushi Village, and steaming, whipped cream-topped apres-ski drinks at the Garibaldi Lift Co. all rank highly on our list.
Between restaurants, we do plenty of wandering. When in Whistler, drop by Whistler Olympic Plaza, where athletes who competed in the 2010 Winter Games picked up their medals at nightly ceremonies. An oversized set of Olympic rings makes the perfect backdrop for a photo.
Also worth the trip? The Squamish Lilwat Cultural Centre, which explores the two Native cultures, the Squamish Aboriginal people and the Lil’wat Aboriginal people, whose traditional territories overlap in Whistler.
I also spend a few hours one afternoon at the Scandinave Spa Whistler, where I chill out in a wood-burning Finnish sauna, then wake myself up by alternately plunging into a cold outdoor pool, slipping into a hot bath and inhaling deeply in a minty fresh eucalyptus steam bath.
If you need more to do this winter, check out the WinterPride Festival, Feb. 3-10, or the grueling Jose Cuervo Peak to Valley Race, Feb. 1-2.