Crossing the border in Surrey, British Columbia took a whopping 4 minutes in line. The Canadian Border Patrol had three questions: "How long do you plan to stay?", "Do you plan to leave anything behind?" and "Have you ever been to Canada before?"
I was eager for a full Canadian experience, “No, sir. This is my first time in Canada. You have a great mustache. Would it be alright if I take your picture?”
“Of course!" he said. "I am not camera shy."
I like it here already.
The Sea to Sky Highway is a slow climb from Vancouver to Whistler and oh so pretty. If you have an opportunity to make the trek, do it during the daylight to see the fjords. I wish I had taken the time to stop at the viewing areas, but with minimal light left and an unfamiliar winding road, it was best to keep going.
The Four Seasons Resort in Whistler is a nice place to retreat without feeling overly fancy. The accommodations were comfortable and quite large, I loved the sitting area. The bathrooms are downright elegant. Many resorts bump up prices based on the view from a room. I stayed in a standard room and liked everything about the view and space. Even with skis and poles on a shoulder, walking the couple blocks to the mountain base is easy. If that is not appealing to you, there are frequent hotel shuttles to get around town.
A Taste of Canada
The more ingredients and complications with food, the less interested I am in eating it, so the food was not my favorite part of the trip. The trend in using edibles from high-mountainous terrain, like root beer bitters and plum bitters and Chaga Tea (made from mushrooms said to have healing properties) seems very old and presented as new. The trend is interesting but the intensity and number of different flavors in a single dish does not appeal to my simple palate.
Shasaparilla Bark with bourbon? Major props for the smokey presentation.
Whistler Mountain stands next to Blackcomb Mountain and is considered the largest ski resort in North America yet there is a plethora of things to do beyond clicking into boards. It is as charming as I expected it would be with cobblestone streets and a friendliness about it. This was the first time I’ve traveled to a ski resort in winter and not gone skiing. The first day was trekking around Blackcomb Mountain - and honestly I was wistful looking at the skiers - but it was also fun to watch people, ride and take photos without rushing. Next time, skiing for sure though!
For me, Gondola Rides are a mix of tranquil swaying and listening to bits of conversation. I don’t talk much when there is that much stimulation around me. I think that I could simply take a nap on this thing dangling in air except the views marked by jagged rock formations and gigantic evergreens is not to be missed. There is nothing quite like gliding 1,427 feet above a valley.
The gondola operates from 7:30 am to 3:30pm. The lift is 20 minutes and when you exit you will see a small crowd gathered around 2010 Winter Game Olympic Rings. It is a kick to watch faces beam as they take their “Winner” poses. Be prepared for fun chaos with people wandering every direction. For breaks, if you go at non-peak times to eat and rest the crowds thin slightly. Try to score a reservation at Christine's On Blackcomb for the views.
Squamish Rafting Company began the Whistler, BC operation last summer, but they are not new to rafting or birding, between the owners and crew they have 70 years of experience. The driver and guide really made the experience great. I was impressed by their low-key way of sharing animal knowledge with regional information in a warm conversational manner. I would have enjoyed hanging out with them over a beer when we left the river. Cool experience with good competent folks.
A little background. Each January a group of trained bald eagle experts walk a dyke and float the river to make a formal tally of the eagles. Only the eagles in the trees are counted, none flying. The numbers have grown significantly since DDT was banned as a fertilizer, which ran into water supplies and the birds ate the contaminated fish. Bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in 2007. Listening to the guide describe the ways the chemicals affected the birds was startling. To have come close to losing this majestic part of the ecosystem seems unimaginable. On this stretch of the river, the count has shifted from a single mating pair to 927 eagles counted just one month ago.
Eagle Watching is Only A Winter Activity
During the months of November, December and January, few sightings occur with as little as one nesting pair on the tour. The eagles migrate south of Whistler when the salmon run hits so planning to incorporate this tour on vacation is tricky; there is no guarantee of actually seeing any eagles. The birds are active with feasting, flying and mating which makes them difficult to spot. To increase the likelihood of seeing ten or more eagles, float the river in February or early March. The day I toured was cloudy.
When the food supply is close to depleted, they return to Alaska, northern parts of British Columbia and the Yukon, on the most western edge of Canada. At this time of year, the food sources are getting minimal so it was fortunate to see ten Eagles. It was cold and drizzling, which is typical in Squamish. However, the low pressure brought on by cloud cover keeps the Eagles grounded and a little easier to spot. The crummy weather is worth the unique winter day on a river.
An evening of Snowmobiling and Fondue
The last couple days brought another foot of snow and no one should resist playing in fresh powder. When a planned helicopter ride was cancelled due to poor visibility and wind, the Four Seasons Concierge contacted Canadian Wilderness Adventures (CWA). There was a late afternoon reservation still open for snowmobiling up Blackcomb Mountain with Fondue in a warm charming cabin. Perfect!
There are two ways to get up to the Fondue Party: Ride in a SNOWCAT or drive a snowmobile. If you go the snowmobile route, you can drive alone or pair-up with a friend. The staff excelled at their roles, from transportation and ensuring the gear fit properly to the highly competent snowmobile guides. Not to sound overly boastful but I have made some really good Cheese and Chinoise Fondue dinners over the years. This was the best I've ever tasted; stellar flavors and the freshest meat and vegetables. And the fruit pie after dinner? Homemade.
The snowmobiling option is great for young adults and adults. The Concierge indicated the snowmobiling is for beginners and an easy run, not exactly how I would classify it though. From my perspective, the driving does not require intermediate-level skill, but I would recommend that the sled driver have some experience before tackling mountain terrain. Or ride the cool Snowcat.
Next time I am in Whistler (and I will be!) I would use CWA services in a heartbeat. They offer anything snow-related from dog sledding to guided ancient forest snowshoe. The snowmobile night ended up being a highlight of the trip. I have told several friends about riding switchbacks in the dark on a snowmobile and when you keep retelling a story you know it made a strong impression.
Recommendations for a river raft expedition: Kids can easily do this trip if they are comfortable sitting on a raft bench and have interest in a 5-hour activity. Contact the company about two weeks prior to your trip to get current information on potential sightings.
Recommendations for a snowmobile expedition: The company has everything you need so if you did not bring snow boots, snow pants, ski goggles and face masks do not let they deter you from going. There is a big difference in weather conditions at the base of a mountain and the mountain top, especially at night. Dress in layers and bring hand warmers.
Whistler may be cold, but the welcome and activities are so warm!
By Julie Oliver