Family Travel: Ski Whistler

Boots and All

Whistler Blackcomb elevates the family ski vacation.

Style for miles and (below) follow-the-leader fun.

By Justin Paul 

At the risk of rousing the Nutrition Police, I’d like to advocate for a steady diet of pizza and french fries. It’s a binge program – let’s call it the Peak Plan – one that’s best administered in multiday bursts. And when introduced at an early age, it results in increased coordination, enhanced confidence, and lifelong family fun.
Five out of five Whistler Blackcomb ski school instructors agree – or so I learned after dropping my daughter off for her first time on skis and hearing their code words to form snowplows (Pizza!) and parallel skis (French fries!). “See you at the end of the day,” one said, waving my wife and me off as a handful of puffballs weeble-wobbled around him. Though it was hard to picture the bunny-slope buffet ending in anything but an unsightly mash, who could argue? The previous night had brought a fresh dusting of snow, and skiers with more advanced palates were carving arcs like strands of angel-hair pasta high above.
Rising from the Coast Mountains about 75 miles north of Vancouver, Whistler sits directly in British Columbia’s winter storm track and averages 450-plus inches of snow per season – not the fluffiest powder, but nearly five feet more than the big Colorado resorts. Sizewise, the two-mountain behemoth bests its closest North American peer, Utah’s recently merged Park City/Canyons Resort, by almost 900 acres. Whistler earned fame with seasoned skiers and snowboarders drawn to its exposed faces, free-skiing terrain, and some of the more thrilling intermediate runs around. (Peel down big-mountain-style “Saddle,” and, once the butterflies settle, tell me you don’t agree.) But since hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, the resort has focused on its family appeal, with expanded beginner and family ski areas and terrain parks for skill levels ranging from “just learning to jump” to “now seeking sponsorships” – some lift etiquette signs even read “Please Don’t Curse in Line.”
“I haven’t wanted to ski at another resort in 20 years,” says Gary Johnson, a Seattle-based Virtuoso travel agency owner who started visiting Whistler in the 1980s and now spends one week a month in his second home there year-round. “And with the current exchange rates, U.S. skiers get one of the best values in more than a decade.”
When it comes to skiing, what family couldn’t use a break? Here’s how to cash in on the winter-sports feast.
Heaven Sent
Whistler Mountain’s Emerald Express services the ski area’s largest dedicated family zone, home to a terrain park and half a dozen gently rolling blue and green runs that feed into the Olympic Zone beginner’s area. One lift away, more-advanced skiers gravitate to the Harmony Express, which services a ridgeline of bowls and open, go-where-you-want terrain – a great tune-up for the more humbling steeps off Whistler’s peak.
Of all the terrain on both mountains, 7th Heaven’s permagrin-inducing runs on Blackcomb might rank as hardest to leave. Mostly above the tree line, the intermediates’ playground soaks up the sun on groomers and glades that make you feel like a better skier, with unmatched views of Whistler Mountain. Of course, this also attracts crowds, so get there before 11 am.
Fast Times
Little did I know that after skiing at more than 25 resorts, it’d be a tube run where I first felt truly out of control on snow. “Not my thing,” my wife said after releasing her white-knuckle grip and volunteering to take photos.
I’ll tell you whose thing Blackcomb’s Tube Park is: practically anyone under 40, and especially a certain 5-year-old who travels with me. To be clear, rocketing down the smooth “blue” and “black” (!) alleys is safe; it’s just that you have little say in how your inner tube rotates and bumps off the sides. No one I saw strained more than a vocal cord whooping down the runs – including those who asked for a dizzying spin with their push-off.
Join the Village People
Pedestrian-only Whistler Village enhances its lively bar and restaurant scene with all kinds of winter entertainment. December through March, Olympic Plaza converts to a complimentary outdoor ice-skating rink beside the Olympic Rings sculpture; on Monday and Wednesday evenings, its Family Après hours add live music, snacks, and activities, such as snowman-building and tobogganing, to the fun.
Sunday nights, it’s worth delaying dinner for the Fire & Ice show at Skiers Plaza, where local pro skiers and snowboarders launch big-air flips and spins through 12-foot-wide rings of fire, followed by a fireworks show. Viewing tip: While the festive Longhorn Saloon & Grill patio offers the best perspective for the drinking-age (19 and older) crowd, Garibaldi Lift Company’s deck overlooks the fire rings from up close and is open to minors until 8 pm.
Sneak Away, Quietly
Hidden among spruce trees a five-minute drive from the village, adults-only Scandinave Spa claims a long list of health benefits with its steam-room/cold plunge/solarium circuit. I’ll attest to at least two: soothing ski muscles and providing endorphin rushes. The crisp air, babbling water, and no-talking policy made for a peaceful morning off the slopes – save an unexpected shriek on my first cold plunge. (You quietly swap a 180-degree sauna for a 60-degree waterfall and we’ll talk.)
Higher Calling
“Those trees are tiny,” my daughter said as we stared down at old-growth forest from more than 1,400 feet above the ground. The Peak 2 Peak gondola’s 11-minute transfer between Whistler and Blackcomb changed the way people ski the two mountains, but its connecting lift service to both bases makes the world’s highest cable car a year-round attraction. If you’re with the “do look down” crowd, wait for one of the two silver glass-bottomed cars.
Riding it was a much-anticipated finale to our stay, and although my daughter was just a bunny-slope master, when we stepped off the gondola she insisted on one mountain-long run as a family. Halfway down, her legs shot but her heart still game, we hopped a lift for the final stretch to the base. No shame: After three days on the Peak Plan diet, kids’ eyes are often bigger than their bellies, but there’s only so much pizza and french fries a body can take.
Top Tables: From “dig in” to “mind your manners,” here’s where to feed the crowd.
Midmountain on Blackcomb, Christine’s fulfills “late lunch and call it a day” ambitions with wine flights, braised short ribs, and Vancouver Aquarium-approved seafood ranging from delicate hamachi crudo to rich crab risotto and Kerala fish curry. Blackcomb Mountain.
Dusty’s Bar & BBQ long ago outgrew its original ramshackle building at the base of Whistler’s Creekside Gondola, but its huge patio, drink specials, and ribs and burgers are still the stuff of ski-bum legend – right down to the Led Zeppelin and Steve Miller that play through its speakers. 2040 London Lane.
With or without kids, save a night for travel advisor Gary Johnson’s favorite wood-fired pizza at Creekbread. They don’t take reservations, but you can put your name on the list by calling up to
20 minutes before arriving. 2021 Karen Crescent.
Don’t let The Mexican Corner’s kitsch turn you off: Its chicken tinga, Veracruz-style fish, and street tacos make it one of the village’s liveliest draws – socially and flavorwise. 12-4340 Sundial Crescent.
Stonesedge is the mountain-town secret every resort needs: a great vibe and value for upscale comfort food such as roast-duck mac and cheese, bowls (chicken meatballs on rice noodles with coconut curry), and a kids’ menu with not a chicken finger in sight. 13-4122 Village Green.
Slip Off to Whistler: A trail map to North America’s king of the mountains.
GETTING THERE All major North American airlines offer service to Vancouver. From there, it’s a roughly 2.5-hour drive north, depending on conditions, or 30 minutes by helicopter.
SKI SCHOOL Group lessons start at age 3, with a 1:4 instructor-to-kid ratio (1:6 for ages 5 and older), and include hot lunch and snacks.
STAY Located in Blackcomb’s Upper Village, ski-in/ski-out Fairmont Chateau Whistler maintains a complimentary hot-chocolate stand at the foot of the slopes. My daughter’s second favorite thing about the 539-room hotel was swimming between the indoor and outdoor pools; I loved that Mallard Lounge’s head bartender makes his own version of Lillet, infuses booze for spicier winter warmers, and barrel-ages cocktails. 
Less than five minutes’ walk from the slopes, the 291-room Four Seasons Resort Whistler sees the Fairmont’s slopeside stand with a hot-cocoa bar in the lobby and raises it with complimentary après-ski s’mores by the outdoor fire pit. Its Sidecut restaurant is the town’s top steak house (start with the Dungeness crab cake and the octopus carpaccio), and one of the most kid-friendly steak houses you’ll find anywhere. Ask for a table by the large circular fireplace with the mosaic hearth.
GO Alpine Adventures plans ski trips for groups of any size. As an example, a getaway for a family of four in Whistler might include five nights in a 1,100-square-foot suite at the Four Seasons, with four days of lift tickets and ski rentals, and round-trip transfers from Vancouver Airport. “We don’t recommend car rentals,” says Alpine president Rick Reichsfeld. “The airport companies don’t provide snow tires, and you don’t need a car in the village.”   

Originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Virtuoso Life.

Photo Credits: (Christine's deck, Dusty's BBQ, and female skiier) Kamil Bialous.