If you want to ski or snowboard some of the world’s finest, it’s going to be Whistler. In wild British Columbia, Canada’s Coast Mountain Range, just two hours north of Vancouver, this place is fabled.
You’ve read the stats: North America’s largest ski resort—and best (SKI Magazine). A 5,020-foot vertical rise. Three summit glaciers. Twin behemoth mountains connected by Peak2Peak, the world’s longest gondola. Host of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Some of the most reliable snow conditions, with an average annual snowfall of 39 feet. In all: 8,171 acres. What you’ve heard is true: in times like May, you can ski Whistler Blackcomb in the morning, then golf in Vancouver that afternoon. And that’s just the facts, m’am.
You’ll take the family, though, because of the youthful, energetic, party-town vibe and fun-loving attitude. At its core, Whistler is fresh and outdoorsy, with its own distinct sense of style and self. And you are welcome. Of course, the scenery is breathtaking with the hemlock, fir and spruce-dotted mountains all around you and bustling Euro-style village, all lit up for the holidays. That’s a given. That the place is casual and down-to-earth makes it easy for kids to fit right in.
At the foot of Blackcomb mountain, Four Seasons Resort Whistler, consistently ranked as one of the world’s best, is just minutes from the slopes—and the après-ski heated pool beckons.
*Nature’s playground. Winter or summer, an ideal place for families to be active and play together outside.
*Epic. The scale of this place is monumental and dazzles with its vast acreage. Huge amounts of snowfall. Champagne powder.
*Well-rounded: While the skiing/boarding is legendary, it’s not just about that. Take the biking, hiking, sliding, art, First Nations culture, Whistler’s foodie scene…
*Big. North America’s largest ski resort, ranked No. 1.
*Heli-skiing. Once you try it, it opens up a completely different world. A la carte options for small groups to the northern backcountry with Coast Range Heliskiing or Whistler Helisking out of Whistler.
*Euro-style village. Walkable, pedestrian-only means it’s easy with kids. Plus, golf in warm weather, boutiques galore, galleries and museums, including the wonderful First Nations Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre just across from Four Seasons.
*The drive. Even the trip up from Vancouver, along the fjords of the Sea to Sky Highway—with boats on Howe Sound, forested islands in the mist, waterfalls, thousand-foot high granites walls—is memorable.
*Outside fun. Building a snowman, making snow caves, snowball fights, sliding/tubing, skiing/boarding, outdoor concerts in the village. A favorite, says Four Seasons Resort Whistler Chef Concierge Hana Lynn, is al fresco skating. Just opened last winter, Olympic Plaza turns into a Winter Wonderland ice rink where you and the family can skate under the stars.
*Mushing a dog sled (details, below).
*The pool. Heated ‘n steamy, the 75-foot, free-form outdoor pool has views of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains; snowy, twinkle-lit trees; a bar and three hot springs-style whirlpools. Happening, busy and fun. Meet other families or just soak your sore muscles while the kids goof off. Staff hand out goodies such as chocolate-dipped marshmallows. Our two—Sabrina, 10, and Duncan, nine—spent hours here. (Just surrender.)
*Santa’s Village. During the Christmas holidays, the resort hosts an evening Kidding Around program for children from 5 to 9 pm. While mom and dad get some alone time, kids get a buffet dinner, then play games, ping-pong, Wii, do crafts, decorate ornaments, build a snowman and play in the huge gingerbread house. ($25 per child.)
*Toasting marshmallows for S’mores at the resort’s outside fire pit. Magic! In the lobby, hot chocolate plus fixins in winter; lemonade in summer. (All complimentary.)
*Cookie decorating with Executive Sous Chef Tory Martindale (seasonal, ask the concierge).
*The Ski Concierge. This service saves the day. Maybe not your marriage, but it will save meltdowns, equipment hassles and harried spouse quarrels. (Ski Concierge Manager/Miracle Worker Fiona Stewart turned trauma to sunshine after I accidentally zipped up Sabrina’s lip in her parka. Bless you!) Essentially, as Concierge Hana says, “it brings the mountain to you.”
Here’s how it works: The Ski Concierge whisks your skis/boots/poles from the hotel to Four Seasons’ building next to the Blackcomb lifts. You show up to find your boots warm and dry. Inside and cozy, seated on leather banquettes, you get geared up and store your items. You can rent equipment here, buy tickets, meet up with your ski instructor, get info, insider recos and news. When you return, bushed and hungry, you change back into your snow boots while noshing on a warm cookie and steaming cocoa. Just leave your gear there for the next day. (While we were off skiing, staff cleaned our girl’s used snow boots so nicely, we initially thought we had mistakenly grabbed someone else’s!) A three-minute (free) shuttle ride or five-minute walk from the resort.
*Whistler’s buzzing night scene. Book a resort sitter for date night out.
*Nature, art, locals’ focus. Whistler is genuinely eco-friendly and a bona fide community. You’ll find lots of wood and low-hewn buildings designed to blend. Even the kids’ playground is made of driftwood. There’s an emphasis on combining physical wellness with art. And instead of the usual Hermes and Gucci, the focus is more on local and art, and local art. Kids might have fun carving their own artwork out of stone at Fathom Stone Art Gallery & Studio for a special keepsake. (The concierge has a nice brochure with details on all the artwork featured at the resort.)
*The spacious suites at Four Seasons. Handsome and understated elegance in dark woods, slate and marble. You’ll feel set up at your well-appointed home-away-from-home: gas fireplaces; equipped kitchen, living room and dining room; flat-screen TVs; plush bathrooms; balconies for a.m. coffee with a view. Beds are extremely comfortable. The concierge has a list of complimentary family DVDs to borrow.
*Daily wine tastings at the resort’s Fifty Two 80 Bar (complimentary), yoga classes in the gym, couple’s massages at the spa.
*Knowing where your kids skied. All children in the Whistler Blackcomb ski school get a GPS tracker. So instructors know exactly where they are at all times and you can review where they skied, how many runs they got in, etc.
*Pooches welcome. We met several friendly canines at the resort. There’s even a jar of dog biscuits waiting at the valet check-in.
*Eagles. If you visit between December and February, look for bald eagles. For a peaceful day away, book an eagle raft float down the Cheakamus River in Squamish. “Eagles dot trees here like Christmas ornaments,” says Concierge Hana. “It’s mind-boggling how many there are!”
(Incidentally, you probably won’t see one when you visit, but Whistler is named after the hoary marmot. This cute little furry guy is North America’s largest ground squirrel, known as “The Whistler” for his shrill call alerting his pals of danger lurking.)
Dine in—(For families) Sidecut takes the traditional steakhouse concept and turns it on its head—playfully and adeptly. If you like beef, do not miss it here: velvety, flavorful, aged Canadian Prime sizzled over an 1,800-degree F infrared grill. (If you don’t eat meat, there’s plenty on offer: oysters, seafood and vegetarian options.) Steak-lover Duncan’s assessment of my 12-ounce rib eye: “Wow!”
The contemporary dining room is fun and flirty (open mosaic-tile fireplace, bold colors and patterns), and bustling enough that no one will notice your boy slipping under the table into a heap after a long day on the mountain. Bonus: Anything off the children’s menu is free for kids five and younger.
In the hands of Sous Chef Edison Mays, the whole thing becomes an experiment: you select a cut; then a rub—we love the Moroccan-spice signature “Edison’s Medicine” (cumin, chili, clove); then a few sides (go for the “Asparagus & 64-degree egg”; crispy-browned Brussel sprouts with smoky pancetta; and sweet Double ‘D’ Onion Rings with zing). Steaks arrive with a slate of eight old-fashioned, little medicine bottles. We sampled them all, but are particularly addicted to the tangy “Green Jimmy” (a rendition on Argentine chimichurri) and slow-fire “Red Herron” (chili and paprika). Wash down with the Argentine Malbec from Salta. Other stand-outs: Warm Green Bean and (buttery Quebec) Fois Gras salad; elk Carpaccio over delicate striped sea bass. 100 wines by the glass to pair with.
Sabrina and Duncan loved the kids’ menu chicken noodle soup, PB&J, creamy mac ‘n cheese and gooey grilled American cheese on thick-cut, fluffy sourdough. We loved that the there were plenty of healthy options and that our effervescent server Joanne brought out crudité veggies with house-made Ranch dip automatically first thing.
Sidecut serves everything family style: “It’s meant to bring people together and evoke conversation,” the engaging Chef Edison says. “It’s interactive, fun and festive—just like Whistler.”
For breakfast, the Sidecut dining room melds with Fifty Two 80 Bar, with an opulent buffet in the middle, including a special kids’ one at child-height. Highlights: French toast with dulce de leche sauce, oatmeal with berries, Mountain Waffles; for mom and dad, the Corned Beef Haystack Hash with a fluffy poached egg and Bernaise, delivered in a cast iron pot.
(Holidays) If you’re visiting for the holidays and want to celebrate in, the resort will prepare a “Turkey on the Fly” complete feast to-go.
Dine out—(For families) If you’re on the mountain, try a nice sit-down lunch at Christine’s on Blackcomb: a great view and menu from the French chef. Crystal Hut serves to-die-for Belgian waffles with real whipped cream and fruit piled up high. On Whistler mountain, half way down an easy run, Chic Pea Hut bakes cinnamon buns on-site and serves ‘em hot from the oven, plus hearty stews and paninis (dine inside or out). You don’t even have to take your skis off if you grab a hot dog or waffle to-go from Euro Kiosk. Poked onto a stick, the wieners have the ketchup/mustard in the middle. Ditto for the waffles: syrup granules are melted inside.
If you just need a quick bite in Whistler Village and the kids are cranky, consider sandwiches from Lift Coffee Co. at Nesters Market or a stop at Ingrid’s Village Café.
About 15 minutes south of Whistler in Creekside is family-friendly Creekbread, known for its original pizzas (Potato Pie with bacon and white sauce) and salads. Pizzas are made at a huge round oven in the middle of the room. Ask the concierge to call and add you to the waiting list when you leave the resort. (Dinner only.)
Over-the-top Barefoot Bistro is about extravagance and theater. Celebrated chef Melissa Craig’s seasonal creations are as elaborate as they are surprising. The presentation is artful: buttery pan-seared scallop with white bean agnolotti and lobster froth; tender Cervena venison loin over crisp potato rösti with Madeira jus, roasted carrots, kale and carrot purée.
Splurge on the stand-out five-course sommelier wine pairing menu and sit at the bar for entertaining people and cocktail watching. The night we dined there, the couple next to us ordered ice cream whipped up tableside with steaming liquid nitrogen. You can get your champagne bottle opened Napoleon-style with a saber and sip in the ice Belvedere vodka tasting room. There are 20,000 wines in the cellar to choose from.
1. Dog sledding – This one will surely go down in our family’s Hall of Fame. If you are a dog lover, this quintessential Canadian adventure is a must. If you aren’t, there’s still something unexpectedly appealing that’s like nothing else. It’s like nostalgia for a time you’ve never lived in. We were all amazed at how exhilarated we felt speeding through the woods pulled by a team of yapping dogs.
In a picture-perfect snowy forest in the Callaghan Valley just south of Whistler, owner Jaime Haregreaves and manager Sara Bell of the dog sled operations for Canadian Wilderness Adventures lovingly care for 50 “super mutt” hybrids like their own kids. Some even wear booties to keep their paws warm, and each gets a message and chicken soup before and after running. It takes up to two years to train a dog and these ones run for the love of it, versus the reward-punishment approach. We spent lots of time petting the pooches and learning how they live.
Sabrina and Duncan got to know each dog on our team, his/her temperament and quirks, and the commands for mushing. James and Duncan had a first-timer “Sparky” learning the ropes; Sabrina and I had a mom-rookie duo (“Opal” and “Rocky”) in our line-up of six canines. “Evo” liked to eat and roll in snow to cool down. It was as interesting to see how they interact with their mushers as it was thrilling to zip along on the sled, winding through the trees, up and down hills and around bends. (Downhill speeds of up to 19 mph.) Highlight: the kids got to drive the sled around the “racetrack” in a clearing.
Image Courtesy of Canadian Wilderness Adventures
Canadian Wilderness Adventures also offers a family campfire dinner and snow shoe hike, “Callaghan Snowshoe Cookout,” that departs at 5 pm after ski school lets out; plus snowmobiling, ATVing, canoeing, jeep tours and other guided adventures.
Image Courtesy of Canadian Wilderness Adventures
2. Ski lessons – Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort has terrific ski/snowboarding lessons (private and group) and camps for kids. Our family spent the day in a private lesson with the unflappable Debra Hillary, a ski instructor/coach specializing in family and mom of five. She says if everyone has a similar ability level, sharing a private ski lesson with the family is the way to go.
Otherwise, have the kids go to ski school while the parents do a private lesson to hone their skills and really see the best of the mountain with a pro. Deb recommends Blackcomb for intermediate/advanced; Whistler for more beginner options. And consider visiting either right before Christmas (beginners) or after the March break: better deals, longer days when you can ski til 5 and sun, sun, sun.
Deb not only helped us all ski better and gain confidence, she made it playful and easygoing. We stopped at The Castle on Blackcomb, a play area for kids with slides (Whistler has the Tree Fort), and brought crackers to feed the Whiskey Jacks. We shared hot chocolate and took turns following the leader and investigated a hibernating bear den. She taught us how to do a scarf face wrap and even alleviated Duncan’s altitude headache with an impromptu Japanese Reiki healing session.
“The most important thing is to have a really positive attitude,” Deb says. “At the end of the day, if we have fun and learn something new, we’re good.”
3. Snowmobiling – Either try a snowmobiling adventure with the kids and Mother Nature, bookended with a Yukon breakfast and cabin fondue dinner; or go the mini-snowmobile route: children drive minis themselves around a track. If that’s too much for your kids, try ziplining—good in any weather, but especially captivating in winter. High up in a cathedral of frosted trees, you zip Tarzan-style harnessed onto a line between tree platforms wayyy up over the canyon.
4. Fire & Ice Show – Every Sunday at 6:30 pm in the village, Whistler Blackcomb builds up a track for snowboarders and skiers who somersault and fly through burning rings o’ fire, pulling off incredible stunts. It’s free! Little mouths will be hanging open.
5. Sleigh ride – It’s hard to get a more Winter Wonderland feeling than when you’re swaying along in a sleigh, pulled by giant, gentle black Percherons. Old Jim (17) and frisky Jerome pulled us up Blackcomb mountain in a large group sleigh, revealing fairy tale views of the village below blanketed in snow. We delighted in the tinkling jingle bells, the stars above and shadows of the prancing horses in the sparkling snow. There’s a 30-minute loop around the golf course for little ones; or for older kids, a 50-minute ride up to the top, with a warm-up stop in for hot chocolate in a shed. Ideal at sunset or after dinner; ask the concierge to arrange.
*Babies: Splashing around in the heated pool. A relaxing family sleigh ride (just try to keep that baby awake!). A snowshoe tour with baby in the carrier or Nordic ski session at Callaghan Valley pulling baby in a trailer. Strolling through Whistler Village. Book a sitter for date night out.
*Toddlers: The resort’s Santa’s Village (seasonal) and cookie decorating. Swimming in the resort’s heated pool. Whistler Blackcomb ski school (make time to watch at the beginning or end; it’s so much fun) or ski camp. Tobogganing. Building a snowman. The 30-minute sleigh ride loop around the golf course (see above). Borrow movies, games, coloring books and story books from the concierge.
Bounce Acrobatic Academy, opened in Aug. 2011, is the place to burn off extra energy when not playing in the snow (two years and older). It’s an indoor trampoline park, open 11 am to 9 pm daily, but call first to check availability (604-938-4567). Boarders train seriously here, but kids can just jump and leap and bounce and dive—for hours. Says owner John Dunbar: “Kids love the freedom. It’s social for parents, social for kids, and it’s exercise (but don’t tell anyone!).”
*When at Bounce, pause for incredible treats, breads, baked goodies and gifts (meringues, butterscotches, marshmallow snowmen) at Pure Bread (www.purebread.ca) bakery extraordinaire across the street. If the kids are starved, rub elbows with boarders at scruffy, hippie Café Wild Wood just down the street (soup ‘n sandwiches, breakfast all day).
*Kids 5-10: The resort’s Santa’s Village (seasonal) and cookie decorating. Ski school or camp. Mini snowmobiling (details above). Ziplining. A snowshoeing tour. Dog sledding (see above). The “Fire & Ice Show.” Ice skating. Bounce Acrobatic Academy (see above); BTW, kids can request music to bounce to and can practice their moves on foam snowboards and skis.
*Tweens & teens: A ski lesson with an Olympian (ask the concierge for details). Snowmobiling, ziplining. Nordic skiing at Lost Lake in Whistler or Callaghan Valley and Whistler Olympic Park. Snowshoeing. Backcountry Hummer/Snowcat tour. A trip along the 4.4-km Peak2Peak gondola. The Telus World Ski & Snowboard Festival (April). Bounce Acrobatic Academy (see above).
Bounce is adding an entire new complex for advanced training next door (slated to open January 2013), including a super trampoline built into the ground (one of seven worldwide), three Olympic trampolines and a cool mezzanine level.
Photos courtesy of James Glave
Read more about Whistler, BC, Canada in Four Seasons Magazine.
Read our “Top 5 Family Experiences in Summer” for Whistler in Four Seasons Magazine.
Michelle Pentz Glave is the Have Family Will Travel editor. Before diving into communications/PR, she was a journalist for 25 years in the US and Germany including stints with The Wall Street Journal Europe, Gruner+Jahr (Bertelsman) and the Albuquerque Journal. Her work has appeared in Outside, Wired, Travel + Leisure, Sunset and Fortune. She has a Bachelor's in English from Yale and a Master's in Journalism from Columbia University. Michelle is passionate about family, food, farmers, her garden and taekwondo. She lives on Bowen Island, near Vancouver, Canada, with her husband and two kids: Sabrina, 11, and Duncan, nine.
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