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|Resort: Whistler Blackcomb
Date: 25 Feb 2006 - 11 Mar 2006
Our holiday: a group of just 8 this time - 4 strong intermediate skiiers from the uk, one strong intermediate Australian snowboarder, one australian skiier (expert level), one strong intermediate uk snowboarder out for the season, one cautious skiier out for the season - the pair out for the season had their own apartment, the rest of us stayed at the same place
Website : The official website is http://www.whistlerblackcomb.com/index.htm. There are lots and lots of other places that pop up if you google, many offering accomodation
Basics : Whistler is the venue for the alpine events of the 2010 Olympic Games. It's on the west coast of Canada, abot 2 hours drive north of Vancouver. Transport is easy enough, there are regular scheduled bus services from Vancouver (both city and airport), or you could hire a car and drive - it's a good highway all the way which is being widened and improved in time for the Olympics.
Whistler mountain (originally called London mountain, fact fans) opened as a ski resort in 1966 in an unsuccesful bid for the 1968 Olympics. Blackcomb was opened as a ski resort 15 years later, and in the late 80s (I think) the two became available on a single lift pass.
Lift system : For a north american resorts, the lift system is huge! 3 gondolas, lots of detachable quads, a few fixed triples and a handful of t-bars. These latter are mostly in the very high alpine and can be avoided in most cases, although one provides the only access to the blue run down the Blackcomb Glacier. Lifts can be accessed from four separate points : Creekside give access to Whistler mountain, Blackcomb daylodge and the Excalibur Gondola midstation give access to Blackcomb, and from the main village you can access either mountain. Lifts open (and close) early by european standards - 8.30am til 4pm midseason, with earlier times early in the season and later opening towards the end. We found that lift queues to access the mountain were low at 8.30, and by 9am began to build until well after 10am, if you start at the main village and take either gondola - a quicker way to get up the mountain is often to use the chairs (Fitzsimmons and Garbanzo up Whistler, or go up to Blackcomb Daylodge and take Wizard Express and Solar Coaster up Blackcomb)
The terrain : The terrain is absolutely huge for a north american resort. Two full mountains to choose from, although you do have to ski right down to the bottom to swap - although there are plans to build a gondola at mid-mountain level connecting the two mountains. Not personally sure this is necessary, and this opinion seems to be shared by a lot of locals, but the plans are steaming ahead and the new gondola should be in place in a couple of seasons - but I digress
On both mountains there is plenty of variety, with open bowl skiing, gladed tree skiing, bumps and groomers. Whistler has the more "extreme" high alpine (above the tree line) with some quite nasty escarpments and the like, while Blackcomb has the better tree skiing for most people. Like most North American resorts, Whistler has a great advantage over more traditional european resorts in that anything within the ski area boundary is open for skiing (assuming you're good enough) unless specifically marked as closed - more on this later.
The piste skiing is quite extensive and in a very nice touch, each morning you can check out which pistes have been grooomed overnight using large maps at each access point, or checking online if you have interweb access. Normally, all the green runs and the majority of the blue runs will be groomed, along with a handful of the more popular black diamond trails. Sometimes the whole trail will be groomed, but accasionally only one half of the width will be flattened, leaving moguls to form for those who wish to try that kind of thing. The double black diamond runs are not, as a rule, ever groomed as far as I'm aware.
Some black diamond runs are groomed more frequently, e.g. the Dave Murray Downhill, which will host the Men's Downhill and Super G in the olympics.
The Dave Murray downhill, done top to bottom, is a real thigh killer, although it is not as hard as the proposed ladies course, the blue spite called "Franz's" - this features a few more twists and turns with rollers thrown in for good measure. These two pistes are on Whistler and can be a real challenge - Franz's was not groomed the last time we tried it so beware, they're not always pisted! Bear Paw and Tokum are also good rune for those who like to let rip.
Over on Blackcomb, Ridge Runner and Rock'n'Roll pistes are great if you like to let it fly, although the road out at the end can be flat, icy and congested - this is the trail which leads out of the Blackcomb Glacier, 4.8km long and if I guess rightly, a road in the wamrmer months. The pistes over in the 7th Heaven area are also great fun when the weather permits, although since this area is right in the path of most incoming weather it's not always the best place to ski as it's a wide open bowl - we only really skiied it one day!
The snow : We had fantastic snow! Whistler had something like 4 metres of snow in january, an all-tiome record for snowfall in a single month, so there was a good base which kasted well through february when little snow fell. The snow started falling the day we arrived and to our joy, it then snowed every single day - even if only a few flakes fell on a couple of days so we did get to see some sunshine (and the scenery) on a couple of occasions, thankfully. The snow was mostly light and fluffy up at the top of the mountain, but given the relatively low altitude, could become a little wetter and heavier towards the village ski-out. Still perfectly skiiable though, and the freezing level did reach above mid mountain on one day.
Off-piste : As mentioned above, all terrain within the ski area is available unless explicitly marked as closed. We had a great time skiing plenty of trees and chutes wherever we could see tracks, as well as all the open bowl skiing. We had the advantage that one of our group had not only skiied whistler several times before but was out for the season and had seven weeks before our arrival to check out the best skiing, including runs not shown on the official map, some of which were graded triple black diamond! There's plenty of off piste for those with less experience though, if the weather opens up I'd suggest a short hike into the newly-opened Flute Bowl (off the top of Harmony Chair) to ski Boundary Bowl (turn left as soon as you pass through the marker gate), or even all the way round if you fancy yourself - that's what we did and my 30 minute hike up was rewarded by my descent of Flute Nose, which is the best snow I've ever skiied. Mid-thigh all the way down, soft and fulffy, and not a sign of anything solid under my feet until the pitch shallowed - heaven! Easier to access are the bowls and chutes (couloirs in european terms) in Harmony Bowl (I'd recommend the Gunbarrel to skiier's right as you descend Harmony Ridge, most people drop in number 1 or number 2), like Low roll and McConkeys, or those off Peak Chair such as Whistler Bowl or Mrs NBT's favourite, Cockalorum (like we did you can traverse skiier's left along the "cliff" signs to find the traverse into the bowl avoiding the cornice jump).
In short, terrific!
The resort : The resort is owned by Intrawest and to a certain extent has a kind of "disney" feel to it, and it also means that the same food and shops are dotted all over the place. It's all well signposted though and eceryone is really friendly. If you;re not in the village itself, there are several outlying "suburbs" or estates, al of which are well served by the local bus routes which run frequently and fairly promptly
On mountain we tended to eat at either the Roundhouse (on whistler, I'd recommend the pasta from the "quick food") and Galcier Creek over on Blackcomb. I've heard that on Whistler, the Chic Pea (top of Garbanzo chair) is a really nice venue, while on Blackcomb, if you can get into the Crystal Hut the food is superb - they have oven roasted steak sandwiches with vegetables, and great waffles - it's very popular and very small though so there are often queues for tables.
Mostly, the same food is served in all the restaurants with the odd variation. By european standards the food is passable but no great shakes, but by North American standards, it's pretty decent. ONe point I did note (in conversation with a local) is that since my last visit, although the choice has increased (e.g. burger, fish & chips, rice, nooodles, salad, bagels, chili, pasta etc), the quality has declined inversely. Shame.
In town, food is plentiful and cheap. We tried Earls (twice) which had great food (and nice eye-candy waiting staff), Arthur's restaurant in the Dubh Linn Gate pub (not bad at all) and the Old Spaghetti Factory (nice if you order from the menu, less if you try the "all you can eat" buffet). We also ate ate Merlins one night, at Blackcmob daylodge - nice burgers and good salads at excellent prices, we stayed there to watch the "king of the rails" contest held on the slopes just outside.
Sachi Sushi went down well with those who like sushi, I personally found my chicken teriyaki to be rathr overcooked and rubbery. The Brewhouse was also a disappointment as I found my pizza to be rather like eating cardboard, although to be fair the previously consumed beverages may have affected my judgement somewhat
Pick of the trip though had to be Val d'Isere, we were lucky enough to get the special price menu thanks to the Dave Murry Camp I attended (see review elsewhere) and the food was simply delicious. The tarte a l'oignon was light and fluffy, while the venison steak was like butter. Similar tales of good food were shared by all who ate there. *highly* recommended.
Best food of the holiday was cooked by Joern who runs the B&B we stayed in, but I'm not sure that he cooks for non-residents unless they're dining with residents, so I won't tell you how yummy it was. Oooops
For apres we tried several locations - Merlins and the GLC are both owned by the resort and really do have an "apres" vibe to it (Merlins has the best nachos in town too!), but also have very loud music meaning you have to shout to hear each other. Tapley's, at the far end of the village on Golfer's Approach was a great place as it was easy for us to get picked up, but the overall favourite was the crystal lounge which had both good beer, low volume on the music and easy access from the pistes.
Accommodation : We stayed at the Cedar Springs Gourmet B&B ( http://whistlerbb.com ). It cost a fortune but it was worth it. Rooms were spacious, beds were huge, breakfasts were bigger... Joern and Jackie pride themselves on pampering you and feeding you great food and they lived up to that while we were there. After a hearty breakfast (cereal and toast if you want it, freshly squeezed fruit jiuce, fruit salad, freshly backed pastry and a hot plate of omelette, waffles or the like - all bread home made too), we would be ferried to the lift of our choice, and collected again at the end of the day - providing we didn;t decide to stay in town following the apres and eat in our ski gear. we found ourselves doing this on more than one occasion, as having returned to the chalet and luxuriated in the oht tub on the verandah with a cold beer, getting ready to go back out can seem less than appealing
Costs: We kind of blew the budget on this one I normally count on ¬£100 per person per day once I've paidfor everything (including lift passes, beers, food, transfers, accomodation, flights, etc). This one was over ¬£130 each, but the higher cost was anticipated and very much worth it. You can do it a *lot* cheaper, especially if you shop around
Conclusion: Whsitler is just fantastic. It's the first resort I've ever revisited, and with the joys of all the snow that fell and the comfort of our accomodation I've had a great time. Since I love trying new places I doubt I'll be going back soon, but I will 100% return at some point, and I would very much recommend that you visit too if you haven;t already done so....
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