The white stuff: skiing in Canada

For some of us the festive season is joyful, not because of the presents and the food, but because it’s the time for skiing and boarding in Canada.

Skiing families sometimes make it a rite of passage to have their children work a season in Whistler-Blackcomb over winter, joining them for a week or two as an annual pilgrimage.

However, first-time visitors to Whistler will enjoy exploring a few features on the trip up from Vancouver. Firstly, you’ll be landing at Vancouver Airport that is largely regarded as the nicest in North America. Take a look around as you exit and see how well First Nation themes have been drawn into the airy design.

If you’re travelling by public transport, send a silent thanks to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics for the Skytrain into the city of Vancouver. Before it was built, the congested drive through the upmarket suburbs around trendy Kitsilano made Melbourne’s airport access seem reasonable.

Vancouver is a nice city but even if you are just passing through it’s worthwhile taking the time to explore Stanley Park, perhaps the best urban parkland in the world. And if you want an early ski fix, try night skiing at Grouse Mountain. It’s not challenging like Whistler, but the views over the lights of the city are brilliant.

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On your way to Whistler, take a stroll through the stunning Stanley Park

Highway 99, the Sea to Sky Highway, comes in two parts and was also greatly upgraded for the Winter Olympics. The first part is the drive up past Horseshoe Bay, the step off point for ferries to Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands then along the side of Howe Sound to Squamish. The scenery within this fiord is grand and there are places to stop and appreciate it.

About the only stop to see an attraction here is at Britannia Beach, where the old copper mine is now a museum. It only closed in 1974 so pioneering skiers still remember driving past it when it was operating.

Those same veterans recall the days when Squamish was a rough logging and mining town. Today it is billed as the adventure capital of North America. It’s dominated by the huge 701-metre granite dome of the Stawamus Chief, known locally as simply “The Chief” and claimed to be the second largest such monolith in the world. It provides an excellent rock-climbing venue.

Detour just before The Chief to see Shannon Falls, even more beautiful in winter when it can be partially or largely frozen. Just along the road is the quite-new Sea to Sky Gondola that would be worth the ride for the views from the top alone. However, it also opens up a network of mountain trails to explore.

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Take in the breathtaking views from the Sea to Sky Gondola deck
(Image: Facebook / Sea to Sky Gondola)

Squamish is a good place to stock up on supplies and equipment before arriving into the resort prices of Whistler-Blackcomb. There’s a craft brewery, too.

In winter Squamish and nearby Brackendale are the homes of North America’s largest colony of Bald Eagles when up to 3769 (in 1994) gather to feast on salmon in the local streams. The visitor centre can tell you where to find them. But there’s also a raft trip down the Cheakamus River that runs from December until February that can get you very close to these magnificent birds – and their prey.

The second part of the highway is the section between Squamish and Whistler. Here you are heading up into the mountains and the alpine scenery just gets better and better. This section used to include the Canyon, a narrow twisting two-lane corridor that was very dangerous when there was ice on the road. Now it’s a freeway but you still need to drive to suit the conditions. Keep and eye to the right (eastern) side of the road for glimpses of Black Tusk, an easily recognised peak along the route.

Soon after passing Daisy Lake and Brandywine falls you’ll come to Function Junction, best known for being the garbage drop-off point for Whistler.

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Fun festive lights on display at Whistler village 
(Image: Zhenwang Wang / Shutterstock.com)

When you see the Husky gas station you’ve arrived at what is now Whistler Creek but was once simply Whistler, the original resort. Drive further and you come to modern Whistler, a sprawling resort that is more like a town. Again, veterans will tell you that the town was built on what was the old rubbish tip where Australian visitors would be taken to see bears foraging for scraps. All the lifts up the mountains are to the east of the highway but the series of glacial lakes just beyond the rail line to the west are worth exploring, too.

One of the best recent features of Whistler-Blackcomb is the opening of the Peak2Peak gondola between the Roundhouse and Rendezvous facilities at the top of each mountain. First Whistler was all there was, then you had the choice of skiing Whistler Mountain or Blackcomb Mountain or taking the bus link between the two. Now you can ski one mountain in the morning, the other in the afternoon and still go back to finish where you started.

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The views from the gondola will amaze you

If you’re brave, take one of the glass-floored gondolas for views deep into the valley 436 metres below your feet. It’s impressive that the longest span between towers is over three kilometres, too.

Time to be king of the mountain – and leave the kids behind!

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