Value for Money 60%
Whistler is a leviathan of the North American ski scene – a big, dynamic and buzzing resort that attracts skiers from all over the globe. Some will find its size and popularity overwhelming. But for most the only drawback is the occasional bout of iffy weather
Essential Advice for the Perfect Trip
Ski Whistler midweek, after fresh snow, and you’ll think it’s the best resort on the planet. Made up of two big mountains, it offers top-to-bottom skiing on both, and a dazzling variety of terrain. High Alpine bowls, open powder fields, wide groomers, and balls-to-the-wall terrain parks: you can ski them all in a single, 1500m descent. What’s more, you can pretty much see all that’s on offer in a one sweeping panorama of peaks, trees and trails. It’s a sight to make even the most jaded skier’s blood fizz.
But hit it when the weekend crowds are in town, and it’s raining and slushy on the lower slopes, and you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about. Whistler’s maritime climate, which brings sudden thaws as well as mighty snowstorms, is a mixed blessing. So too its proximity to the booming city of Vancouver. Sometimes, the negatives combine to produce a depressing double whammy – especially if you’ve flown across eight time zones to get there.
So the question is – does it deserve its glittering reputation? On balance, yes. The town at the base of the slopes may be sprawling, but it also provides a great choice of bars, restaurants, and accommodation. The lift system is fast and efficient, and the addition of the Peak to Peak Gondola a few years back transformed the way you can ski the two mountains. The ski school is also one of the best we know. Yes, we’d always advise coming here in the middle of winter to maximise the chances of getting good snow conditions. And even so you must always be ready for a sudden thaw. But you could say the same of many of the resorts in the Alps. The fact remains that whenever someone tells us they’re off to ski Whistler, our eyes turn bright green with envy.
Guide to the Mountain
If you want to know why Whistler is regularly voted North America’s number one ski resort, check out the picture above.
It shows both of its mountains – Whistler on the right, Blackcomb on the left – in their full, top-to-bottom glory. But if anything, this photo doesn’t quite do them justice, because it fails to give you any sense of scale. Although Whistler’s ski area is only one third of the size of the Espace Killy in France, it still feels enormous – partly because so much of it in visible in one sweeping panorama when you stand on top of either mountain.
Here’s how the skiing works.
Up high, open Alpine-style terrain awaits
At the top of both mountains, you can see the terrain that gets the locals so fired up – open bowls, chutes, couloirs and even glaciers. Admittedly, the avalanche risk regularly shuts the lifts up here during and after heavy snowstorms. But a lot of this high Alpine-style terrain lies within the ski area boundary. So once avalanche blasting is complete, the general rule of North American ski resorts applies (with a couple of clearly-marked exceptions): if you can see it, you can ski it – without a guide or avalanche safety gear. You just have to be very, very quick off the mark if you want to beat the locals to the powder.
Lower down, variety is the name of the game
Lower down, you’ll find gladed trees, knee-mashing bump runs, terrain parks, and lots and lots, of wide, confidence-boosting groomers. The sweetest of the trails are to be found on Blackcomb – they follow the fall line straight down the mountain’s western slope, and seem to go on forever.
However, the news down here is not always good. Whistler itself is set at just 675m – which is pretty low even for Canada. Combined with the mood swings of its maritime climate, it can make for some iffy conditions. That’s not always the case of course. We’ve skied the lower slopes on sublime days of perfect snow. But we’ve also skied an ocean of slush. Sometimes it’s better to use the Peak to Peak gondola to ski the top half of both mountains and avoid the bottom trails altogether.
Advanced skiers and freestylers will like Whistler best
Two types of skier should have an ball here. First up are the freestylers, who are served by some of the finest terrain parks in skiing. The resort even has a half-pipe – in an era when many resorts have abandoned half-pipes altogether (they don’t even have one at the Vans Penken Park in Mayrhofen), they’re a testament to the resort’s commitment to its jumpers and jibbers.
Most advanced skiers will love Whistler too. The sheer variety of terrain on offer is one of its biggest draws. So too the possibility of encountering one of Whistler’s epic storm cycles – which can drop five metres of snow on the upper slopes in a single month (more than most Alpine resorts hope for in a winter). What’s more, the fact that so much of the skiing is through trees means that you don’t have to wait till the storms blow over to get stuck into the powder – which is a frequent problem in the Alps. Of course, the weather’s not always so cooperative: but you can shorten the odds considerably by booking your trip in a winter when a powerful La Niña event is brewing in the Pacific. More than any other A-list resort in North America, Whistler seems to benefit from this well-documented climate anomaly.
By the way, anyone who fancies a crack at Whistler’s more testing terrain in the company of an instructor should sign up for one of the excellent Extremely Canadian steep skiing clinics.
Intermediates can have a ball too – if the weather’s good
Several of the groomed trails here are world class, especially the blues under the Solar Coaster and Excelerator Chairs on Blackcomb. But they can also get heavily congested at weekends and during peak holiday periods. To get the best of this place, you need to explore every nook and cranny of the mountains. Joining one of the free Mountain Orientation Tours which kick off from the top of both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains at 11.15am daily. Another great way to enjoy the mountain is to join one of the ski school classes.
We wouldn’t recommend it for beginners
In some respects, Whistler is a good destination for beginners – thanks to the painstaking efforts of its highly-rated ski school. But the busy trails, the generally high prices (thanks to the strength of the Canadian dollar) and the risk of iffy weather are important negatives. As a result, we wouldn’t recommend it. Resorts such as Breckenridge in the USA are much better bets for first-timers.
Experts should only see Whistler as a springboard into the backcountry
Whistler can’t compete with the likes of Chamonix, Verbier, St Anton or La Grave in the Alps for sustained big-mountain descents: and it that’s what you’re after, you should stick to the Alps. Instead, any experts planning to visit will need to spice things up by going heliskiing or cat skiing, or by hiring a back-country guide and doing some ski-touring. It’s an alluring prospect: one glance at a map will show you how much terrain lies beyond the resort boundaries.
Nevertheless, the possibility for adventure does have to be balanced against realism about the region’s maritime climate. Yes, it can serve up miraculous powder days but also long stormy spells and sudden thaws – both of can quickly rule out backcountry trips.
New for the 2018/19 season on Whistler Mountain is the new six-person Emerald Express chair to make life in the Family Ski Zone easier, while there’s also the new high-speed, four-person Catskinner chair. A 10-person gondola, from the Upper Village to the PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola connection, will open the first fully-sheltered route up Blackcomb year-round. The Cloudraker Skybridge is a new suspension bridge on Whistler Mountain. It a memorable experience walking across that is thought to be one of the highest bridges in North America, and the views down to the valley floor are awesome.
Where to Learn
As in most North American ski resorts, there’s only one ski school in Whistler. But don’t let that put you off. It’s staffed with some of the most fired-up and talented instructors we’ve met.
Small classes and lots of choice for adults
Two other things put Whistler’s ski school in our top five in North America. First is the recent decision to limit class sizes to just four for each instructor. Four! In high season in many Alpine schools you’ll find yourself in groups three times as big. Second is the variety of lessons and camps you can sign up for – including women-only clinics, extreme-skiing sessions and the Ski Esprit programme, which mixes exploration and instruction for almost all levels of skier.
There are small class sizes for kids too
Ski school for three to four year olds is in classes no bigger than five for each instructor, and for older children classes are no bigger than six for each instructor. Those are good ratios – in France it can be as many as 12 kids per instructor – although they still won’t convince some children under five that ski school is fun. However, we have received lots of favourable reports, including: “Our four-year-old daughter loved the ski school so much that she cried when we took her out of the class for the day to ski with her ourselves”.
At the other end of the spectrum, if your brood has been skiing for years, and think they’ve seen it all, you should treat them to a few days of the Park Freeride Groups aimed at teenagers. There are no more than three teens per instructor, and they’ll get a taste of the best that Whistler has to offer.
Anyone who wants to go ski-touring in Whistler’s backcountry will be glad to know there’s a plentiful stock of guides in the resort – courtesy of the Whistler Mountain Skills Academy. The organisation also offers avalanche safety, guide training, mountain safety and mountaineering among its many courses.
Where to Stay
The sprawling resort town of Whistler divides itself into four main areas – Whistler Village, Upper Village, Village North and Whistler Creekside – and there’s more on offer in the areas called Blueberry Hill and Niklaus North, as well as the towns of Squamish and Pemberton.
Sounds confusing? It isn’t really. The only two places you want to be are Whistler Village at the bottom of the Whistler Mountain lifts, or Upper Village at the bottom of the Blackcomb Mountain lifts. High prices reflect the super-convenient location of both, and if the budget’s tight, you may find your gaze falling on Village North, which is a long way from ski-in, ski-out (you’ll need to ride a shuttle bus to get to the slopes).
Check out the resort’s accommodation map to get your bearings.
Whistler Village is the place for nightlife and powderhounds
All the best bars and clubs are in this part of town – and from the Skiers’ Plaza at the bottom of the slopes you can catch three key lifts: two up Whistler mountain, and one over to Blackcomb. For anyone who wants the best choice of skiing and/or nightlife on their doorstep, this is the place to stay.
There’s also a decent choice of accommodation types – and by Alpine standards all rooms are spacious. Just don’t expect bargain-basement pricing or anything approaching rough-hewn mountain character. If you’re dreaming of backwoods simplicity you’re looking at the wrong resort.
Most of the accommodation is in self-catering condos/apartments and full-service resort hotels. There’s the occasional ‘boutique hotel’ too – though it’s difficult for European eyes to distinguish between one of the these and a block of self-catering apartments, as they don’t offer much in the way of facilities. But then again, with so many restaurants and coffee shops on the doorstep that’s not really a problem.
Sundial Boutique Hotel
For the self-sufficient, the best place to stay is the Sundial Boutique Hotel – which offers neat self-catering condos a few paces from both snow and lifts. Get a room on one of the upper floors so you can stay above the noise of the bars and clubs.
Westin Resort & Spa
If you want proper hotel facilities in the same location, try the Westin Resort & Spa The Westin has the better rooms, as well as a better spa and pool than the neighbouring Pan Pacific. Its restaurant, the Grill & Vine, serves food made from locally sourced, fresh ingredients and the breakfast buffet is known as being one of the best in Whistler. There’s also the Kaze Sushi Restaurant and, for an after dinner drink, you can relax in the Firerock Lounge.
The Pan Pacific Mountainside
The Pan Pacific Mountainside is closer to the Blackcomb lift and feels more central, generally, than the Westin. The Dubh Linn Gate pub is in the hotel. Sister hotel, the Pan Pacific Whistler Village is popular with families hotel, so you can expect to find the pool full of children during holiday times.
Just a little further back from the lifts but also recommended is Crystal Lodge. The Crystal Lodge is home to decent-sized, mid-priced hotel rooms and self-catering “suites”. Given the location, this is probably some of the best-value accommodation in town.
The Listel Hotel
Listel Hotel is another contender for the title of best-value accommodation. It’s a friendly, mid-priced hotel just behind the Crystal with its own restaurant and free continental breakfasts. As it’s set back from the main pedestrian walkway through the village it’s quieter than most accommodation in Whistler Village.
Pangea Pod Hotel
For something completely different – and a whole lot cheaper – there’s Pangea Pod, a capsule hotel set in the heart of the pedestrian village. The pods are grouped in suites, with all suites having with private bathrooms. Pods have are natural wood finishes and, for food and drink, The Living Room and The Rooftop Patio are open until 1am.
Upper Village is the place for luxury
Upper Village is where you’ll find the swankiest resort hotels. There’s a fast lift from here up Blackcomb mountain, but if attacking Whistler mountain’s high Alpine bowls is a priority, this isn’t the base for you – getting up Whistler mountain is too fiddly from here.
Still, that doesn’t seem to bother most of the guests in this part of town – who come to be enveloped in the five-star luxury on offer in the likes of the Four Seasons of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler.
Fairmont Chateau Whistler
The Fairmont Chateau Whistler was the original hotel at Blackcomb and has the better location (it’s ski-in ski-out) – as well as much grander public rooms. The Vida Spa and a health club feature four hot tubs, an indoor/outdoor pool, sauna and steam rooms, as well as a fitness centre.
Four Seasons Resort
The Four Seasons has better bedrooms than the Fairmont. Its guest rooms, suites and townhouses all have cosy wood interiors, while many have balconies and fireplaces too. The resort is set back from the slopes and it’s under ten minutes’ walk to the ski lifts but the hotel’s ski concierge will transport everything for you.
Glacier Lodge by Westwind Properties
Glacier Lodge is an attractive accommodation choice at the base of the base of Wizard Express chair-lift. The property offers ski-in ski-out accommodation, a year-round outdoor pool and hot tub, and a fitness centre. Rooms have wooden and stone floors, animal skin rugs, and the furniture is a mix of distressed paint and leather.
Village North for lower rates and low-key experience
Families and groups looking for larger, condo-style accommodation at lower rates and a low-key village experience will find plenty to choose from here, with a great selection of apartments. Its a free shuttle bus ride from the main village.
Delta Hotels by Marriott
Delta Hotels by Marriott are smart studios in the middle of Whistler Village North, eight minutes’ walk from the base of Whistler Mountain. There’s an outdoor swimming-pool and three hot tubs, a fitness centre and sauna.
Summit Lodge Boutique Hotel
Summit Lodge Boutique Hotel is ten minutes’ walk from Blackcomb Excalibur Gondola, and has an outdoor pool and a hot tub, and the Taman Sari Royal Heritage Spa. Also on-site are Elements Urban Tapas Parlour has tapas, fresh seafood and cocktails, and Sachi Sushi for fresh sushi at lunch and dinner.
Creekside makes an alternative base
A relative newcomer to the accommodation bases is Creekside, but it’s growing all the time, with a gondola accessing the mountain from here.
Nita Lake Lodge
Nita Lake Lodge is luxury accommodation by the lake and close to the gondola. Boasting an on-site spa, there’s also a gas fireplace, soaker bath tub and rain shower in all units and a free shuttle service runs to and from Whistler Village.
Evolution is for self-catering. It has an outdoor heated pool and two hot tubs, a eucalyptus steam room, gym and games room. A media room with two daily movie viewings is also available on site. Right next door is sister hotel, Legends which offers similar facilities.
Where to Eat
There’s only one rule for restaurants in Whistler. Save your time and your money for dinner. Lunch should only be treated as a means of refueling.
How to survive the lunch-crunch
Whistler has 17 mountain restaurants. The two main eating-sheds – Roundhouse on Whistler and Rendezvous on Blackcomb – are both enormous: but they still get overcrowded at lunchtime.
Both restaurants are primarily self-service, and are big on soups, wraps, and burgers. They also have table-service sections – Steeps at the Roundhouse and Christine’s at the Rendezvous. Christine’s is the better of the two. But if you’ve ever encountered the flair and authenticity of mountain restaurants in Italy, or the gastronomic precision of La Bouitte or l’Oxalys in Val Thorens, you won’t be especially impressed. And remember, there are much, much better restaurants in the town of Whistler. Save your money for them.
Instead, we suggest the following strategy. Stop early (no later than 11am), at the tiny Crystal Hut log cabin (top of the Crystal Ridge chair on Blackcomb) – and scoff one of their delicious cream-and-berry-loaded waffles. Then keep going till 2pm for a quick snack break at whatever eatery you encounter. That way you can ski right through the lunch hour, enjoying empty slopes while everyone else is waiting in line for burritos.
Dinner is what Whistler is all about
In sharp contrast to the lunch scene, dinner in Whistler can be superb. The only drawback is that one of the best restaurants in town is not really in town at all, but on the road out to the Creekside annexe of the resort. Called the Rimrock Cafe, it serves familiar food (seared scallops, steaks, lobster, venison with foie gras) cooked with uncommon skill – and is well worth the taxi fare. Actually, you might want to take your taxi driver’s number – because nearby is another highly-rated restaurant, new to the Whistler scene: Aura, which is based in the Nita Lake Lodge and is pioneering a more experimental style in Whistler (lemongrass braised beef, lime-roasted scallops, etc).
Meanwhile, in the main hub of Whistler Village/Village North, Araxi is our favourite restaurant (lamb, duck, steaks, oysters, scallops, and great wine). Also recommended are the Bearfoot Bistro, which has its own champagne bar, and the Elements urban tapas parlour.
Where to Party
It may make for crowded trails at the weekend, but Whistler’s popularity does have its advantages – especially when it comes to generating after-hours electricity. Whether you’re a looking for a full-on nightclub freak-out, or just up for a few beers with your mates, you’ll find somewhere to slake your thirst.
As the lifts begin to close – the base area in Whistler Village is the place to go for apres-ski. There are bars at the bottom of the lift as Creekside (Dusty’s) and at Blackcomb (Merlin’s), but they don’t get the same volume of traffic or generate the same buzz. At Whistler Village you can take your pick from four pubs right on Skiers’ Plaza, as you click out of your skis – the Garibaldi Lift Company (+1 604 905 2220), the Longhorn, the Dubh Linn Gate, and Blacks; or wander into the village itself to go to Tapleys Neighbourhood Pub. If you want a drink in a more low-key/upscale atmosphere, then the hotel bars are your answer: the Firerock Lounge at the Westin in Whistler Village, or the Mallard Lounge and Terrace in the Chateau Whistler, at the base of Blackcomb.
It’s party town, especially at the weekends
By North American standards, the apres-ski scene is good. But it’s the nightclubs that really single the place out as a party town. At the weekend, it’s hard to know where to start – take your pick from Tommy Africa’s, Maxx Fish, MoeJoe’s, and Buffalo Bill’s. However, most clubs run special nights on one night of the week and are careful not to vie for the same custom on the same night – which makes choosing where to go easier. Tommy Africa’s runs an 80s night on Mondays, Buffalo Bill’s Industry Night is big on Wednesdays, and so on.
By the way, many of the clubs operate a back-door policy, meaning if you can find the back door you can usually get in it faster, so ask a local for a guided escort. Sometimes whistler.com also offers ‘Club Crawl’ tickets – offering discounted door fees and priority entrance.