For Families Visiting Whistler, New Joys Abound On And Off The Slopes
A gorgeous two-hour drive north of Vancouver, British Columbia, Whistler Blackcomb is the largest ski area in North America, and consistently ranked among the top mountain resorts in the world. Locals bristled when Vail Resorts purchased the property in 2016 but grumbles turned to mittened fist bumps with an unprecedented $66 million capital infusion that brought a new 10-person gondola, faster lifts, and a blizzard of new services and upgrades.
Families love Whistler because everything’s centered around a sprawling “little” ski village that’s free of cars, sparkling with fairy lights and loaded with opportunities for things like ice skating, hot cocoa breaks and snow-angel making. Also, Whistler Blackcomb’s snow school is regarded as the best in the industry, with group and private instruction for first-time skiers up to cornice-hopping experts.
I visited Whistler Blackcomb for the first time recently on what I jokingly dubbed a “father/son-but-mostly-father” ski trip, since I’m the powder hound in the family, and my 15-year-old is, well, a theater kid. We traveled over the frantic President’s Day weekend, which coincided for the first time this year with Canada’s national Family Day holiday. Crowds were epic, but the resort, on 8,100 acres, is so vast — 200 trails! Three glaciers! 37 lifts! 16 alpine bowls! — that many slopes and gladed areas were practically empty that first day we ventured out. It helps, too, that Vail made significant improvements to traffic flow on the mountain.
Day two? Not quite as stoke-worthy. My son had the brilliant idea to improve his own traffic flow to breakfast in Whistler Village by sliding down the railing in super slippery snowpants. Ssssssslooosh, flip, tumble, bang. Next thing I knew, we were in the emergency room getting his swollen knee and elbow looked at. Father/son-but-mostly-father ski trip indeed. The diagnosis: He likely wouldn’t be downhilling for the rest of the weekend.
Fortunately, Whistler Blackcomb works for skiers and non-skiers alike and we found a balance to make it amenable, albeit with one of us limping through the hallways a little bit. Here’s how we made the most of the four-day weekend.
Hilton Whistler Resort & Spa is situated at the base of Whistler Mountain in Whistler Village and is comfortable without being fussy. You can easily walk — or hobble, as it were — to key lifts and gondolas, shops, restaurants and attractions. It’s nice being stuck inside, too. All 287 rooms at the Hilton were renovated in 2018 and many feature wood-burning fireplaces, deep tubs, kitchenettes in the living areas, and private balconies looking out to mountain views. There’s a heated outdoor pool, indoor/outdoor soaking areas, and a sauna for those sitting out the slopes. My son is a piano player and wannabe lounge singer and couldn’t have been happier tickling the ivories while crooning “Make Someone Happy” to passersby in the lobby. Nobody even noticed the ice pack on his knee.
My son and I hatched a plan for me to hit the slopes while he watched YouTube and practiced lines for his upcoming role in Chicago. Let me just say I’ve never experienced a more European-feeling resort in the U.S. or Canada. Partly, it’s the wide open spaces on and around Blackcomb glacier and on Whistler mountain at Flute Bowl, Glacier Bowl, Whistler Bowl, West Bowl, and, a personal favorite, Bagel Bowl (I tried to skip the schmear). Vail money added a new suspension bridge at Whistler Peak with a stunning viewing platform; and nearby at the new 60-seat outdoor Roundhouse Umbrella Bar, the Gstaad-but-way-more-chill vibe comes alive during afternoon après hours.
At the end of our first bang-up day, my son was ready to explore, and we signed up for a snowmobile tour with Canadian Wilderness Adventures. There are lots of tons of options for family fun at Whistler that don’t involve skiing or boarding. You can go rock climbing, snowshoeing, tubing, snow biking, zip-lining and more. Those mostly require the use of “good” legs. But on the back of my snowmobile, my son could hold tight as our phenomenal guide, Nate, led us through old growth forest and up cat tracks at dusk with a stop at a yurt-like igloo for hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows. That golden brown char smelled like victory after a slightly traumatic first day.
In Whistler Village proper, it’s really a matter of picking your activity. There’s so much to do. Our third day, we stopped in at the impressive Audain Art Museum that opened in 2016. Founded by Vancouver home builder Michael Audain and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa, the 56,000-square-foot facility is surprisingly compelling, with a collection that extends from British Columbia’s First Peoples through to contemporary masters. One piece that really stands out is James Hart’s The Dance Screen (The Scream Too), a fifteen-foot tall carving of an eagle, bear, whales, birds and humans, bounded by leaping salmon.
Okay, to be fair, my son enjoyed Escape! Whistler even more. Karen Mizukami and Kori Klusmeier opened the escape room a few years ago in the lower level of the Hilton with four rooms ranging from beginner to expert. We did the entry-level Pirate Ship and I can honestly say, after having done dozens of escapes around the world, that this was one of the best designed and ingenious rooms I’ve experienced. It almost made my son forget his bum knee. Plus, we escaped with five minutes to spare.
Whistler has over 100 restaurants on mountain and off, in the village and beyond. Everything you want, from hot pockets to five-star cuisine, is within a short walk. Room service at the Hilton turned out to be a major plus with an injured kid (thank you, ham and pineapple pizza). But we did get out.
Hunter Gather is a bustling meat-centric spot that’s great for families and big groups. You order at the counter and heaping plates of 18-hour brisket and cornbread magically appear in five or size minutes. Craft beers are from local Coast Mountain Brewing and wines are from the Okanagan.
21 Steps Kitchen + Bar is, alas, 21 limp-able steps above Sundial Place in the heart of Whistler Village. The effort is worth it, for the views and the menu of Canadian comfort food such as lamb chops and fresh pastas.
If you need to go bigger, everyone in town will tell you the big splurge is dinner at The Four Seasons Resort & Residences Whistler. Sidecut is a modern steakhouse that serves Canadian prime steak that’s aged 40 days and cooked on an 1,800-degree infrared grill; plus regional specialties like Lily Creek Wild Boar Double Chop, Peace River Venison Strip Loin and Bone-in Braised ‘Kobe Style’ Short Ribs.
A friend told me about her transcendent day among the eucalyptus steam baths and Nordic showers at Scandinave Spa, but that visit will need to wait until my husband/wife-but-mostly-wife visit to Whistler next time.
It was restorative enough getting my son up at 6 am our final morning to get back on skis before the crowds. Fresh Tracks Mountain-Top Breakfast is another Vail addition that lets guests board the Whistler Village Gondola at 7:15 a.m. and head up to the Roundhouse Lodge for a breakfast buffet before getting first crack at the slopes before they open at 9 am. Access is limited to the first 650 people at the base on the morning of the breakfast. Even with a sore knee (or if you don’t ski or board), you can ride the 25-minute gondola and download to the base. But my son felt well enough that last morning to push into his boots and click on skis for a few final runs. The slopes were combed like corduroy under bluebird skies, and I caught him smiling almost the whole way from summit to village.
All’s well that ends well–for father and son on what I hope will be a new tradition, though hopefully without the tumble next step.