WHISTLER, B.C. – It’s a tale of two mountains when you visit Whistler Blackcomb, and I don’t mean the two peaks that make this resort famous.
You have the Whistler that’s about the skiing and snowboarding – on what is arguably the best terrain in North America. Then you have the other Whistler that’s about the fancy food, boutiques, spas, hotels, bars and all the other things that go into making a world-class village.
If you’re like me, your juices get flowing when you look at the amazing terrain: 5,280 feet of vertical spread over more than 8,000 acres. Think about that for a moment. Schweitzer Mountain, a very good, very big ski resort, is about one-third the size of Whistler Blackcomb and has less than half the vertical.
But some people’s juices get flowing when they think about food. And Whistler has some great restaurants that one of those people, my wife, was only too happy to explore while I hit the slopes in November.
All of that vertical at Whistler Blackcomb makes it a good choice for an early season visit. At the base of the resort (elevation 2,200 feet), it might be raining, but in “the alpine” as they call it – also known as the upper mountain – that precip is snow, and lots of it.
When I stepped onto the Whistler Village Gondola, it felt a lot like fall, with drizzle and temps in the 40s. When I stepped off at 6,000 feet, it was a blizzard, and the slopes were smooth and fast. Welcome to winter.
In the early season, some of the famous mountaintop lifts that take in cliffs, chutes and glaciers were still closed, but Whistler Blackcomb is so big that it didn’t matter. Most of the midmountain terrain was open, with seven high-speed lifts ferrying skiers around. It was plenty for the first days of the season.
You would think coverage would be sketchy during November. On the lower slopes at Whistler Blackcomb this was certainly true, but our La Nina winter has done a number on everything above 4,000 feet. Several feet of snow had already fallen and the skiing was very good.
I hopped back and forth between Whistler and Blackcomb on the Peak 2 Peak Gondola – an adventure in itself. The 11-minute ride travels 2.7 miles between the mountains, high above the valley below.
Then I made the most of the powder that was falling at midmountain. Some of the best runs were on the Blackcomb side amid dramatic rock faces in the alpine zone.
Meanwhile, back at the village my wife was busy hitting the spa. Later, we explored the village and ate some of the best food you’ll find anywhere in Canada (see sidebar).
Of course, nothing comes cheap at Whistler Blackcomb, now owned by Vail Resorts. But if you travel in early or late season, you can find some bargains.
On the Tourism Whistler website, last-minute deals for hotel rooms are available. In late November, lodging deals were as low $69 USD per night. And lift tickets are discounted if you buy them in advance online. Two-day tickets for adults are as low as $155 USD if you’re going before Dec. 15.
Once you’re on the mountain, make the most of your ski day. Whistler Blackcomb can get busy, but if you make a few strategic moves, you can save some valuable time.
For starters, hit it early. The lifts officially open at 8:30 a.m., but often open much earlier. Be ready to go at the village gondola by 8 a.m.
Or, for $20 CAD, you can go up even earlier at 7:15 a.m. for a “Fresh Tracks Mountain Top Breakfast.” You have to eat anyway, so why not do it on the mountain while the village is still waking up.
Another time-saver is to stay high and avoid going all the way to the village of either mountain by taking the Peak-2-Peak Gondola. That will save you time and avoid lift lines on the lower slopes as skiers come and go.
If you start early, take an early lunch break before it gets busy at one of Whistler’s 12 on-mountain lodges and restaurants. That will put you in prime position for turns when everyone else is eating.
If you do find yourself in a lift line, consider riding single. I found the singles lines to be a few minutes at most even at the busiest times of day, and you get to meet some very nice Canadians in the process.
You’ll also get some great local tips. I talked with one skier who clued me in with insider knowledge about a deep powder pocket off the Jersey Cream Express lift at Blackcomb during my first day of skiing. I returned again and again to that secret stash during my stay at the resort.
The day on the slopes ends at 3 p.m., but the village life is just beginning. The apres ski scene is legendary and if you hit it right, you can eat happy-hour apps for dinner. Or just keep drinking, as some loud and entertaining Australians did at my hotel.
If you aren’t into the party scene, there’s every manner of non-skiing activity to explore, including ice climbing, skating, snowshoeing and fishing to name a few. And if you travel during the holidays, Whistler does Christmas and New Years with high style with a full menu of activities stretching well into January.
John Nelson is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Read his blog at SkiZer.org.
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