Ski, bike and sightsee in one of North America’s Top Resorts
Vaughan Real loves corn, not the kerneled kind that resides on ears but the chalky snow that graces ski runs across the Pacific Northwest every spring. For years, the Seattle native and his daughter have made the trip to Whistler, British Columbia, over spring break, eager to get the last turns on the uncrowded alpine behemoth. Spring may not be every skier’s favorite time, but no visitor here has ever complained about the lack of a freezing wind or the sun shining down while lounging on terraces. Oh, there is so much sun.
Spring in Whistler isn’t just about snow sports, however. Like huckleberry bushes to a newly “awoken” black bear, every day uncovers fresh options for the active. Cyclists swap out studded fat tires for gravel sets, the better to hit the Valley Trail for a ride out to Scandinave Spa. The still-cool temps are perfect for a soak in the terraced pools and a sauna sit. It takes a little longer, mid-to-late May usually, for the splendid fairways and greens of Whistler Golf Club to reemerge. The walkable Arnold Palmer design is surprisingly challenging, especially if you start spraying drives into the Douglas fir copses like I did.
A Resort for All Seasons
The snow may be melting, but springtime Whistler remains a perpetually fun destination thanks to outstanding restaurants, enlightening cultural centers and the best nightlife venues in B.C. Many of these establishments were once closed for much of the three “off-seasons,” but that is not so much the case anymore. The pedestrian-only village has a ubiquitous party scene during weekends in the spring. The skier and snowboarder exodus does translate into some benefits, however, such as significantly reduced rates at most accommodations. It is a rare period when Whistler enters, or at least nears, “budget” territory.
And a trip to Whistler in spring can be part of a larger adventure to B.C. Don’t forget to explore the many sights of Vancouver, B.C., the smaller cities of the Fraser Valley, or unique North Vancouver across the water from Vancouver proper. But Whistler is a can’t-miss destination.
Once derided as the muddy season, spring brings avid mountain bikers who can’t wait to slip and slide down North America’s largest lift-accessed bike park, which opens in early June. In many ways the growing Whistler Bike Park is as impressive as Whistler-Blackcomb ski terrain, boasting four distrinct areas with some 80 named trails that are rated by difficulty. There’s no need to wait for the lifts to start rolling again, however, as I discovered when I rented a hardtail mountain bike from Whistler Eco Tours on the ground floor of where I was staying at the Delta Hotels by Marriott.
I’m off to the Lost Lake Mountain Bike Trails. The intricate trail system is one of those often overlooked jewels in Whistler. It is an impressive array of five dozen routes that provides fantastic roly-poly-flowy options for newbies and enthusiasts alike. Mellow cyclists and walkers will also find accessible gravel trails that demand little more than a straight-line pedal or stroll through the mixed conifer forest.
Spring is the perfect season to enjoy the outdoor cultural sites of Whistler. I took a self-guided walking tour of Indigenous art and paused to appreciate the outdoor displays, such as “Timeless Circle.” Musqueam artist Susan Point carved a series of faces in cedar and then cast them in bronze. This dazzling yet subtle piece is among a dozen Indigenous artworks in the village.
The luminous presence of Indigenous culture is also celebrated at the Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre (SLCC), the most dynamic exhibition of Coast Salish populations south of the Haida Gwaii archipelago. The SLCC permanent exhibits detail two local communities, the seafaring Squamish and alpine Lil’Wat, neighboring societies who have bordered each other in the Whistler region for thousands of years.
The Audain Art Museum is the latest addition to the Whistler Cultural Connector, a walking tour that reveals six cultural institutions. The 56,000-square-foot private museum is best known for its Indigenous mask collection and an impressive selection of moody canvasses by Emily Carr. Born in Victoria, Carr spent her life painting coastal B.C. landscapes and its Indigenous people in sumptuous earth tones that flow as effortlessly as the myriad rivers and creeks that spill into the Salish Sea.
It isn’t only outdoor sculptures and gallery exhibits that appear if you know where to look. I spend plenty of time looking for wolves, moose and, especially, grizzlies in Western Canada, but I’ve always treated black bears like second-class ursine citizens. A four-hour tour with Whistler Photo Safaris quickly corrects my bias. Founder Jason Coleman relates fascinating life histories drawn from years of black bear observation in the Callaghan Valley, site of Whistler Olympic Park.
Close to 60 bears inhabit this environment, including many mother and cub combos. Coleman and his crew hold the keys to this kingdom, including closed gates to remote forest roads and a padlocked door at the apex of the 2010 Winter Olympics 90-meter ski jump. (If you’ve ever wondered whether flying off this jump is as scary as it looks, definitely book this tour!)
Like Whistler’s culture and wildlife, the mountain town’s culinary cache demands discovery. The Bearfoot Bistro, Alta Bistro and Il Caminetto can stand up against any urban kitchen in the Pacific Northwest. At Il Caminetto, I selected a burrata with winter squash, followed by eggplant parmigiana and tiramisu for dessert. Dinner is followed by a requisite visit to the Bearfoot, where I raise my expertly prepared Boulevardier cocktail to Simon Kelley, my longtime Whistler and Bearfoot companion, who passed away in 2021.
Living just a few hours south, it’s easy to malign Whistler as a bloated resort that has outgrown or perhaps “out-glitzed” its provincial charms, a destination more revered in Tokyo and London than Vancouver or Seattle. For this frequent winter denizen, a springtime visit feels like a renewal of vows, a reminder that, for all its rarefied air as one of North America’s preeminent winter resorts, Whistler remains rooted in Salish heritage and the majestic Coast Mountains wilderness.
–Written by Crai S. Bower, last updated in October 2022.
–Top photo is from Whistler Blackcomb Tourism/Mike Crane
–This article appears in the spring 2022 edition of AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.