Updated: Oct 15
I’ve spent my skiing life in the Alps, enjoying what Europe has to offer and I've only really touched the sides! For us in the UK the Alps is so easily accessible by plane, train and automobile, I’ve had the attitude of “why would I want to go to North America to ski? It’s the other side of the world, has less resorts and they don’t serve good fondue!”. But over the years my ski servicing customers have been raving about Whistler on the West Coast of Canada, telling me I had to go. Well earlier this year I’ve had the opportunity to see what all the fuss is about.
Getting there and the village
Vancouver is about a 9hr Flight from the UK and Whistler is circa 2hrs transfer from the airport. We used a company called 'Whistler connection' for the transfer; the coastline drive offers spectacular views of the ocean fjords. It's worth noting the 8hr time difference, so your body takes a bit of adjusting. We were there for 10 days and got over the jet lag in a couple of days.
There is a plethora of accommodation options in and around Whistler. In general the prices are higher than in Europe and can get very expensive around US and Canadian public holidays, so worth checking those before booking. The main locations to stay are Whilstler Village, Creekside Village, and Blackcombe, which are all connected by a bus service and walkable to the lifts. We stayed at the Aava Whistler Hotel a 5 min walk to the main gondola and restaurants in the village. It had everything we needed.
The skiing, lift passes & queues
Whistler village sits at 670m above sea level, with altitude peaks of around 2300m; significantly lower than the majority of resorts in the Alps. Despite this the resort has temperatures of around -5 to -12 degrees for most of the winter. As the resort is so close to the Pacific ocean, it receives a huge amount of snowfall, typically 10-12 metres per season; making it one of the snowiest mountain ranges in the world.
Compared to Europe, the price of lift passes might be a shock with day passes costing $130-150. We found the best bang for your buck was to book an Epic Pass if you are resort for 7 days+. We aware however to check the T&Cs as it may not cover skiing on some US/Canadian public holidays.
Another thing to be prepared for is the lift queues. Whistler is so accessible for residents in Vancouver and Washington state so attracts big volumes of skiers and snowboarders and subsequently big lift queues at weekends and public holidays. It was normal for us to queue for 30-40mins for the main gondolas in the village or Creekside so be prepared for that, I struggled to keep calm! I felt the queues were longer than even the peak school holiday weeks in the Alps.
From the village you have access to both Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, which is now connected by one of the world's longest gondolas, named Peak to Peak. Both mountains offer great skiing for all abilities, but here are some of my recommendations;
On a clear, calm day a trip to the top of the Peak Express chair on Whistler mountain is a must. By making the peak you are rewarded with unbelievable views of the Fitzsimmonds Mountain range, and the 'Black Tusk', a volcanic rock pinnacle.
If you're looking for a challenge, Spanky's ladder is a real test for confident skiers. Accessible from the Glacier Express chair, you'll need to take a short hike uphill to enter the bowl. From this point, there are a number of options to ski the various steep chutes before hitting the Glacier Road back to the Excelerator Chair. The run offers around 1,600 veritcal feet of decent and great views on powder days.
Off Piste Adventures
There are lots of spots to enjoy some great off-piste powder without being too far from a piste or having to hike big distances. A favourite spot to head to after a fresh dumping is the 7th Heaven chair on Blackcombe. This is a popular spot to lap with easy access to off piste from the top of the chair without needing to hike at the bottom.
There are plenty of options if you are looking to explore unconventional areas of the mountain, from heli-skiing to touring trips. One company I would recommend is Extremely Canadian who offer 'introductions to off piste', heli-skiing and avalanche safety courses. I spent a day with them on an intro to backcountry skiing and had one of the best ski days ever!
Course Costs - $299 (£190)
Ski, skins, poles, backpack and avalanche kit rental - $100 (£60)
Eating on the mountain
Both mountains are well equipped with places to stop for a coffee, lunch or have a place to keep out of the cold. Both mountains have huge canteen style buildings with various food stands which are reasonably priced and fast serving times. However there are a couple of more hidden gems which are worth trying for something different.
The best waffles on the mountain! A great spot for a coffee or hot chocolate spot and a waffle topped with whatever you like. This small mountain restaurant is located on Blackcomb mountain at the top of the Crystal Ridge chairlift. It also has a cracking playlist pumping throughout day.
Located on the Whistler mountain half way down Whiskey Jack run. This small hut serves up a decent pizza, but their piece de resistance is their Cinnamon Buns baked fresh everyday.
Eating & Drinking in the village
There's tons of options to eat out in and around Whistler village. I would recommend booking a couple of days ahead as the village can get busy and restaurants are booked up early. Here were some of our favourite options for different price points.
A Fancy Meal? Arraxi
The restaurant describes itself as Pacific North West cuisine, which is Canadian for deliciously fresh seafood, sushi and lovely wine. It often ranks as one of the top restaurants in Whistler and even BC. For us Europeans, oysters wouldn't usually be a delicacy at a ski resort, but Whistler is on the doorstep of the Pacific and so these are extremely fresh. I was fortunate enough to spend my birthday here with my wife and a great group of friends.
Something relaxed? The Mexican Corner
The Mexican Corner restaurant in Whistler is a vibrant and popular dining establishment that offers a delightful taste of Mexican cuisine. Located in the centre of Whistler village, it brings a unique and authentic Mexican culinary experience to locals and tourists alike. The flavors are robust and the portions generous, providing a satisfying dining experience. To complement the meal, the restaurant offers a selection of Mexican beverages, including tequilas, margaritas, and Mexican beers.
The best coffee you will have in the village! We stopped off here most mornings on the way to the main gondola. They also have an awesome selection of irresistible baked goods too. Located close to the ice rink a the bottom of the village.
Whistler Village Brewhouse
Located at the bottom of Whilster Village, next to the famous Olympic rings; the Brewhouse is a great spot for some well deserved beers after tearing up the
slopes. Ready to welcome large or small groups, this large pub offers a great spot to try some local beers in a slightly more relaxed environment than the bars/pubs directly at the bottom of the slopes. The pub is well known for its model train which navigates itself around the top of the pub day and night.
So am I a Whistler convert? Off the mountain the great selection and variety of restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs was a real highlight and so convenient; A real differentiator over European resort offerings. The mountain had all the skiing challenges one could want, no matter what your level and very easy to navigatel. The backcountry tour was one I will never forget and remains the single best ski day ever! These attractions comes at cost however, long lift queues with a higher price point than even the most expensive Swiss resorts. Based on that I would recommend the resort to stronger skiers or snowboarders who love to hit the mountain hard to make the investment worth it.
Will I be back? Absolutely! The beauty of the mountain, snow conditions and food are too good to resist, but its a treat to savour for every few years.