Whistler, Before the Olympics
In case you’ve been doing a Rip van Winkle for the past several years, here’s breaking news: Whistler, British Columbia, will be one of the sites (with Vancouver) of the 2010 Winter Olympics. For summer visitors (and for winter ones, after the Olympics crowds have left), that means a slew of new amenities, from brand-new condos to a sparkling museum of First Nation
s (what U.S. folks call Native American) culture to an astonishing gondola that carries people—and their skis, snow boards, bikes, or whatever–from one of Whistler’s two major peaks to the other. Those are some of the treats that my husband and I experienced during our one-week stay at the resort.
But our week started out rainy. So—what better way to stay dry and begin at the beginning—i.e., at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre? The Sqamish and Lil’wat nations have inhabited southwest British Columbia since ancient times, and their three-story, 30,000+ foot square complex celebrates their communities.
Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Center
Built of wood and glass to evoke both a Squamish longhouse and a Lil’wat pit house, the building is airy and spacious. The Great Hall features a new 40-foot long canoe hand-carved from a single cedar log, as well as older canoes. Other exhibits include wool weavings, costumes, carvings, and other arts. Young native people trained by the Aboriginal Youth Ambassador Program serve as helpful guides and hosts; one led us in a dance, but I don’t recall whether it was Squamish or Lil’wat. Special fun was checking the interactive language exhibit and trying our tongues at pronouncing Squamish and Lil’wat words.
The other major rainy-day activity is shopping. Whistler Village has 200-some shops—art galleries, boutiques (how about an alpaca sweater for $758, reduced from $850?), heaps of sports shops, and branches of the ubiquitous GAP and the Canadian chain Roots. Prices, despite many sales, are high, even with the relatively strong US dollar. (Local joke: Question—what does BC stand for? Answer—Bring Cash.) You’ll be hard put to find a shoemaker or stationery store, though there are two large supermarkets, a small bookstore, a hardware store, and countless hair salons and day spas. On Sundays, at a farmers’ market in the Upper Village, near the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, we bought gorgeous vegetables and fruits. The whole town center is a pedestrian area; free shuttle buses carry you close to wherever you want to be.
One day, with the weather clearing, we took the history walk sponsored by the Information Center. By then we had already learned several things: The town—official name Resort Municipality of Whistler—was conceived of as a resort. There’s no industry to be seen, apart, of course, from the tourist industry. The population is about 10,000, surging to many more during the winter season and the summer season. The designer of the village was asked to model it on Vail, with its tangle of little, non-geometrically laid out streets, not Banff, with its long avenue and intersecting straight side streets. As a result, nothing in Whistler Village is parallel or straight, and after a week I still couldn’t find my way around. There is a Main Street, but there’s also a Village Square and a Town Plaza and a Village Stroll.
But going back in time: the area was first surveyed by Europeans in the 1860s. By 1900, trappers and prospectors had come to settle, calling the area Alta Lake—the later name comes from the sharp sound made by the local Western Hoary Marmots, which inhabit the mountaintops.
In 1914, a resort, Rainbow Lodge, was built on the shores of Alta Lake, and the railway arrived. By mid-century, other lodges and hotels had opened, and Whistler became a summer resort noted for its fishing. Construction of a gravel road to Squamish made winter visits an option.
The 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics sparked the idea of proposing Whistler as an Olympic site. Though Banff was chosen for the 1968 games, construction of roads, lifts and gondolas took off. Further Olympic bids—six in all—followed, and finally, in 2003, Whistler was selected as the site (together with Vancouver) of the 2010 games. Meanwhile, in 1978, Whistler Village, built on the site of an old garbage dump, had begun construction, golf courses were put in, and the rest, as they say, is history. The history that we learned about in our excellent guided walk, at any rate.
Finally, one morning—ta-dah!—the sun came out to stay. It was the day for our outing up Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, via lifts and gondolas. One ticket takes you to either mountain from which you can take the Peak 2 Peak gondola, opened just last winter, to the other.
View from Blackcomb Mountain
The two mountains together form North America’s largest ski area. At the top of Blackcomb in the middle of July, people were skiing and snowboarding on the glacier, and mountain bikers, in their massive body armor and bikes costing thousands of dollars, whooshed their way down to the bottom along the carved-out dirt trails.
But we were there for the experience of standing on those two spectacular mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb, and for views of the Fitzsimmons Range. Our first gondola ride took us almost to the top of Blackcomb, 7,349 feet. Any hope we’d had of taking a hike up there soon evaporated as we felt the icy air. We’d come equipped, but not that equipped. We bought lunch and gawked at the skiers and snowboarders. Then we got on the Peak 2 Peak gondola, opened in 2008 (and yes, I could do without the cute name too) and rode 2.73 miles—in 11 minutes!—(almost) to the 7,156-foot top of Whistler Mountain. The gondola is the longest and highest of its type in the world, and even for people with a terror of heights—e.g., me—the trip was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. After we had checked out Whistler Mountain, sat in the sun and had some coffee, another gondola brought us back down to the village.
On the remaining days, we took some walks around the village, though it was difficult to find trails that didn’t parallel busy roads. And we pondered what the then-quiet town would look like come winter; and what the massive construction and carving up of mountains to build ski runs and mountain bike “parks” really does to the environment. There is much talk of “green” practices and sustainability; but how “green” can a $500-a-night hotel room really be?
The gateway to Whistler is Vancouver. We chose to spend a day there, checking out the Vancouver Art Gallery, which was featuring (through September 13th) Vermeer, Rembrandt, and the Golden Age of Dutch Art”(works from Amsterdam’s partly closed-for-renovation Rijksmuseum), and staying at the Pan Pacific Vancouver, right on the waterfront, watching the seaplanes and ferries shuttling across Vancouver Harbour.
Then we boarded the Whistler Mountaineer railroad on its spectacular two-and-a-half-hour trip up along the coast to Whistler. Though the weather wasn’t ideal, we got mystical, mist-shrouded views of the coastal islands, beaches, and dark forests. Returning to Vancouver, we rode the cheaper and less scenic but highly efficient Pacific Coach bus, which delivered us straight to the airport.
Ah yes—about Whistler accommodations. There’s no shortage of rooms, from hostels to luxury, and of course condos. As for us, we stayed at a condo (Wildwood Lodge, very pleasant though small). I’d won a week’s use of it in a raffle.
I’ll never get so lucky again.
Text and Images by Renata Polt