The scene is one of happy contradictions: Although it’s nearing 10 p.m., the sky is clear and bright, and although it’s mid-August, the temperature is a soothing 70 degrees. At one of the ritziest resorts in Whistler, British Columbia, guests are staying up late to be entertained by a singing duo of nouveau hippies.
I’m outside in the courtyard of the Four Seasons Resort in Whistler, an upscale ski destination about 75 miles north of Vancouver, nursing a delicious apple cider from the nearby Okanagan Valley. Although the town is famous for its skiing and considered a prime winter destination, the summer brings a whole raft of attractive features, including long days, mild temperatures, reasonable room rates and a host of outdoor activities.
“Mountain is the new beach,” said Danny Ng, the resort’s senior sales manager. “For Whistler as a destination, there are so many opportunities. It’s kind of a best-kept secret.”
I’ll be in town for three days exploring summertime activities for groups as a guest of the Four Seasons and Tourism British Columbia. During that time, I’ll travel on the world’s highest gondola, hear traditional First Nations songs, hike through snow packs on the mountain and learn culinary secrets from a Four Seasons chef.
Along the way, I’ll participate in some of the wild and wildly decadent experiences this town has to offer. And by the end of my visit, I’ll understand — spending a midsummer weekend in Whistler is no contradiction at all.
Inside the Four Seasons
My beautiful evening in the courtyard is part of Backyard Barbecue Thursday, a weekly summertime tradition at the Four Seasons. The hotel’s kitchen staff takes their operation outdoors, using large grills to prepare a first-class buffet of barbecued short ribs, lamb shanks, grilled salmon and seafood paella. Guests make unlimited trips through the line and dine al fresco in the pleasant evening air.
The Hairfarmers, a duo of musicians who have become local legends, provide musical accompaniment for dinner. From a floating stage in the middle of the courtyard, the pair play requests from their catalog of more than 3,500 songs. Among covers of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Michael Jackson and others, they make my night by performing one of my favorite U2 songs.
The next morning, I’m back in the courtyard, taking part in the resort’s Four Seasons University. This inventive program gives groups a chance to see inside the operations of an upscale hotel, from demonstrations in housekeeping to chef’s table experiences in the restaurant kitchen.
One of the most popular options for leisure groups is a spice-rub class with Edison Mays, a sous chef known as “the Spicemaster” at the hotel’s Sidecut steakhouse.
Mays and fellow chef, Rory, are conducting a session for my small group out in the courtyard this morning. The two have prepared a workstation for us with dozens of jars full of fresh spices, salts, sugars and other ingredients.
Before beginning, we take sample smells and tastes of some exotic ingredients, such as habañero powder and smoked salt, and begin to get a feel for what we would like in a rub. The chefs then work individually with each of us to create a recipe that would accompany our favorite meats.
I create a spicy rub with smoked chili pods, cloves, paprika and cayenne pepper. Rory suggests a Spanish name: carne diablo. We package it in a bottle to take home; later on, when I try it on a piece of steak, I’ll discover that this rub is devilishly spicy, indeed.
Mountain to mountain
People go to Whistler for the mountains — the town sits in a valley between twin peaks, Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain, both of which offer world-class skiing during winter. In the summer, they afford great opportunities for sightseeing, hiking and gorgeous views of the British Columbia wilderness.
Chairlifts operate from ski bases at the foot of the mountains during the summer, and I hop a lift for the milelong ride up Blackcomb. Wildflowers such as purple lupines and devil’s paintbrush dot the landscape beneath me, growing alongside the brook that runs underneath the lift.
At the top of Blackcomb, I switch to the Peak 2 Peak gondola, a state-of-the-art cable system that connects the two mountaintops. Constructed in 2007 and 2008, this system holds a number of records: The span between the second and third towers is the longest span of unsupported gondola cable in the world, and at 1,427 feet over the valley floor, it is also the world’s highest gondola point.
Best of all, the $52 million project was built in a sustainable way without crosscutting, so the forested valley floor is virtually unchanged by the system. The result is a fascinating and beautiful 15-minute ride between mountain peaks.
A number of ski runs and access roads on Whistler Mountain are converted to hiking paths in the summer. I decide to hike partway down along a path known as Pika’s Traverse, which wraps around the backside of the mountain, not visible from the village below. The trail is wide and relatively easy to walk, gently descending to the main mountain station.
On this isolated side of the mountain, the air is quiet, and the views are expansive — all I can hear is the trickle of water running off the melting snowcaps, accompanied by an occasional windy howl.
At the top of the mountain, several large glaciers are still covered with snow in August, and looking across the mountain range, I see that some of the other peaks are completely snowcapped as well.
Walking along Pika’s Traverse, I pass large pockets of snow in the mountainside, occasionally passing through large snowbanks that were carved by plows during the winter.
Tales of the First Nations
Whistler has not always been the home of ski bunnies and outdoor junkies. Long before it was a trendy tourist destination, this area was home to two tribes of the First Nations — the Canadian equivalent of Native Americans. Right across the street from the Four Seasons, the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre gives groups a look inside the art, architecture and traditions of these still-thriving groups.
I tour the museum with Gerald, a Squamish native from a nearby village, who begins by singing a number of traditional songs. We proceed to explore artwork and regalia produced by the two tribes.
“My passion has always been art,” he says. “So I have to learn all of my culture and history and put it all in a little masterpiece.”
Gerald points out traditional items, such as Squamish blankets made with mountain-goat fur. Using traditional methods, it would take six or seven years to make one of these blankets because the artisan would use hair from only one goat. Modern blankets are finished in six to 10 weeks.
“These come from family customs, family legends and family songs,” Gerald says.
After seeing hand-carved canoes and other art and tools in the main museum building, we head outside to where the native groups have built reproductions of their traditional dwellings. The Lil’wat Istken is a round earth pit dwelling with a fire built in the center and a small hole at the top for smoke to escape. The Squamish building is a traditional longhouse, a structure that dates back to early prehistoric times.
“In some of our territories, we have longhouses older than the pyramids of Egypt,” Gerald says. “They come from more than 10,000 years ago.”
Groups can have workshops in the longhouse, where they make drums and other native crafts.
Adventure in the treetops
It’s not the activity for everyone, but for travelers long on adrenaline and short on fear, the Monkido Aerial Adventure Course at Wild Play in Whistler makes for an exhilarating afternoon.
Wild Play is an elements park in the Whistler wilderness that offers an array of standard adventure activities such as bungee jumping and zip-line courses.
For outdoor veterans looking for a challenge, the new Monkido course combines zip lines, aerial puzzles, and balance and climbing challenges in a treetop obstacle course. More cautious travelers can choose to do only the early sections of the course or watch their companions attempt the challenges from the solid ground below.
Arriving at the course, I am grouped together with a half-dozen other adventurers, then fitted with a harness and helmet. Our guides demonstrate a number of safety and zip-line techniques, and then we proceed to the first of four sections of the course, which climb successively higher into the treetops and contain successively greater challenges.
The first two sections, which feature short zip lines, swinging bridges and tree climbs, feel fun and carefree. By the time I move into the later sections, however, I find myself undertaking challenges I never imagined, jumping between swinging platforms and climbing large cargo nets suspended up to 60 feet above the ground, all while clipped to a safety line.
Although there are a couple of terrifying moments, I finish all four sections of the course without falling from an obstacle and leave with a sweet, contented feeling of utter exhaustion.
My muscles are sore the next morning as I ride to the Vancouver airport. But the memories make my aching arms worth it. On a summertime trip to Whistler, bragging rights make the best souvenirs.