What it's really like to ski in Canada this season

Whistler ski lift winter 2021

Gazing out from the GLC patio, one of the most popular après spots at the heart of Whistler village in British Columbia, the view was moist yet rosy.

“It’s definitely worth the journey to Canada, the people are lovely and there are no crowds,” declared Victoria Morum of Bournemouth. She and her new husband Samuel were basking in the warmth of an outdoor gas fire on an ultimate snowlovers’ honeymoon, having gotten engaged on a previous ski getaway in Bansko, Bulgaria.

They’d hurdled the mandatory pre-departure test (Britons now also face compulsory arrival testing and isolation while they await results) and despite the West Coast drizzle, husband Samuel seemed chuffed by the upgrade to Canada’s top resort: “Up at the mountain top, it was a real powder day,” he said.

Whistler Blackcomb, as it’s officially known, opened for the ski season on November 25 with a robust three-metre snowpack – though the past weeks have been no honeymoon for British Columbia. Pummelled by three “atmospheric rivers” – airborne rivers that drop water vapour by the bucketful – the southern part of the province suffered floods, mudslides, and extensive road and rail cut-offs. But at Blackcomb’s top elevation, just over 2,200m, precipitation that day was falling in the form of fresh, if slightly sticky, snow.

Whistler skiing

“If it’s raining below, it’s almost always snowing up top. So we’ll go high,” suggests Claire Hughes, my guide for the day. Among the steady stream of cheerful Britons who have made Canada’s largest resort their home, you’d be fortunate to spend time on the mountain with this one. A native of Strathmiglo, Scotland, Claire cut her teeth at Glenshee and later New Zealand. Now, in addition to offering private lessons, she runs freeride camps for children in Whistler.

Up we went, wearing masks that are obligatory in gondolas, on the high-speed eight-person Blackcomb Gondola, which opened in 2018-19 and was designed to increase out-of-base lift capacity by a third. With a pause at mid-station for the attendant to transfer our skis inside against the windy onslaught, we alighted to a proper winter storm. Capitalizing on resplendent forests of snow-coated fir, spruce and hemlock for reference, we lapped the blue and green runs around Jersey Cream – like so many runs in Whistler they provide a whole zone pleasing to cruisers of all levels. The snow coverage was excellent, the skiing was fabulous, and I felt sorry for anyone who felt deterred by weather down below.

Eventually we worked our way over to ride the spectacular Peak-to-Peak gondola, an engineering spectacle connecting the tops of Blackcomb and Whistler mountains. Luckily, the 4.4km (2.7 mile) trajectory dips low enough to move between weather systems – it was snowing at each end and sleeting in the middle.

The Fairmont Chateau Whistler

As the season starts, it’s game on in British Columbia’s Coast Mountains with some of last year’s Covid restrictions lightened. No more socially distanced lift lines: this winter, lifts are operating full capacity and both jabbed and unjabbed alike are welcome to ride. Throughout the province, all restaurants and bars require proof of full vaccination and photo ID. This is shown at the doors by displaying a QR code either on your phone or in print – visiting Britons will already have this in their ArriveCAN app from the flight over, but carrying a paper backup and passport as ID is recommended. Having lunch does requires some planning though: same-day 45-minute on-mountain dining reservations, even for cafeteria tables, are required. I tried unsuccessfully to complete this task and was informed it would be “several weeks” until the app would be working. Until then, phoning or showing up works too.

As with all indoor spaces, to reach my evening dinner at the much-anticipated new outpost of Joe Fortes Seafood and Chop House, a Vancouver culinary institution honouring a Liverpudlian sailor, a mask was required until seated. Seated and well tended to, all bets are off before the oysters arrive.

The food scene in Whistler gets better every year. There’s a cabin-quirky restaurant at the Four Seasons called Braidwood serving civilised Canadian comfort food and magical margaritas with a home-made shrub of celery, sliced jalapenos and cider vinegar; the newly refurbished Gold Floor at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler does tasty complimentary self-serve mini-plates in a boutique hotel-in-a-hotel setting; and the man behind the international gourmand’s favourite, Araxi, is set to open Wild Blue this spring, a reservation to put in the calendar.

Whistler street scene at dusk in winter – VisualCommunications/iStockphoto

At Joe’s, my fresh lobster in the half-shell made all the rigmarole of modern travel worth it. However, anyone worried about the status of Whistler’s other trademark attractions – sweaty, rigorous nightlife – must take note: dancing is still officially off the menu (and tables) and bars have to restrict unnecessary congregation and movement between tables. Still, for me, that meant more energy for the next day, when the sun was predicted to shine again and more of the area’s total 270 trails were set to open.

“The backcountry, the huts, the snowfall… Canada is really the dream destination,” said Nickie Mabey, founder of bespoke operator Mabey Ski. Relocated from Singapore to Whistler some four years ago, Nickie curates adventure-rich holidays that often feature helicopters, first descents and lashings of Champagne. “I just heard from another British friend who went to Garfinkel’s (one of Whistler’s main après haunts) on Monday night that it was packed with lots of people having a great time in their private booths.”

Rather like the old days but, similar to my Four Season’s rooibois-cognac-dolce-praline-infused hot chocolate, just slightly more exotic.

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