Whistler is not just a first class ski resort and home to this year’s winter Olympics, it’s also a fantastic summer playground. If skiing is not your thing, wait until the snow, the silly hats and the grungy looking snowboarders have departed, and then head up the mountain.
You can try downhill mountain biking – as exhilarating as skiing, but warmer and with more to see. It’s best to start with a lesson as it’s actually not as easy, or as obvious, as it looks. The trick is to stay standing up on the pedals and never actually sit on the seat, you also need to be sure that both your feet are level and your legs are more or less straight. Once you are in that position, with your hands loosely gripping the handle bars and poised over the brakes – you’re ready to go! And whoa – do you go! And remember, as you go into a corner, lean the bike into the corner but to keep your body straight, its a slightly odd way of doing things, but it does work. And finally just don’t get too cocky. I speak from experience. There I was convinced I had got the hang of it, took a corner very fast, and lost control. I hit the ground hard, very hard. Never have I been so thankful for padding and a helmet.
If you prefer something with less effort (and arguably with less personal risk) then a hummer tour is one way to get off the usual tourist trail. You get to see some amazing scenery and the driver will probably have fun showing off just how versatile and solid a hummer is by backing it up a slope at almost 180 degrees and tipping it on its side as you go along a bank at the edge of the track. There’s no doubt its fun, but it’s not for the eco-conscious. It’s big, it’s thirsty and it trundles over anything in its path.
For the more environmentally sensitive then there’s always horse riding or hiking. And look out for black bears – there are over 50 living in the woods and spotting one is a great treat. I spied three during my short stay; once while mountain biking and twice from the gondola taking us up the mountain.
Once at the top of Whistler mountain the views are spectacular and the “must have” photo is one with you in front of the Inukshuk . These were built by the First Nations Peoples as directional beacons to help travellers find their way. This inukshuk is also the symbol of the 2010 winter Olympics.
From there be sure to take the peak-to-peak It’s the longest free span gondola in the world with over 3km of wire with no additional support. It offers stunning panoramic views, without all those pylons. If you can grab a place in one of the glass bottomed gondolas then you can watch the world fall away below you as you cross the valley between the mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb. This valley is also home to a huge hydro-electric project. It will produce 33.5 gigawatt hours of hydro electricity per year – the equivalent of powering the ski resort’s winter and summer operations including 38 lifts, 17 restaurants, 269 snowguns and countless other buildings and services. Its a big step towards the resort’s aim of a zero operating footprint.
Whistler and Blackcomb are on lands that used to be a trading route for some of the first nations peoples of Canada. These communities have had an important role to play in the preparation for this year’s Olympics and their culture can be experienced by visitors to the resort at any time of year. A trip to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre is an opportunity to see native arts and crafts, taste traditional foods, and perhaps even take part in some signing and drumming. Speaking to both Wily Lewis from the cultural centre and Tewanee Joseph from the Four Host First Nations for the Winter Olympics, it’s clear that they are proud of their traditions and keen to ensure that visitors understand that their culture is very much alive today, and not consigned to the musty pages of history books.
So if the Olympics give you a yearning for the mountains and next winter seems too far away, then take the Rocky Mountaineer train up from Vancouver and spend a few days enjoying this winter playground while it has its summer clothes on.
About the Author: Chantal Cooke is a professional journalist, travel writer, broadcaster and co-founder of PASSION for the PLANET