Whistler and Blackcomb mountains are world-class ski and snowboard destinations. People travel from distant continents to experience their legendary powder. But Whistler is equally memorable for what surrounds the mountains. I recently spent 24 hours in Whistler and had ridiculous amounts of fun without ever strapping on skis. Here’s my guide to Whistler for non-mountain sportsters.
Drive the Sea to Sky Highway
Half the fun of a trip to Whistler is getting there from Vancouver. I won’t claim the Sea to Sky is the best highway in the world, but I will say it never disappoints. You’ve got turquoise ocean on your left, a deep glacial fiord opening up ahead, coastal rainforest and glacier-topped mountains, a few cute towns, and at least one beach that’s warm enough to swim as early as February (if you’re just a little brave). It’s curvaceous and hilly and well worth the drive. There are plenty of car-share and rental options available in the city, or a convenient shuttle if you'd rather leave the driving to someone else and just enjoy the views. Note to drivers: snow tires are required from October to March as conditions can change quickly at higher elevations.
On the way:
I recommend a quick stop at Porteau Cove, a small provincial park popular for camping and year-round scuba diving. Stretch your legs and say goodbye to the ocean before passing into the coastal mountain range.
If you have an extra hour or so, the Britannia Mine Museum offers a tour inside an old decommissioned mine, which I found fascinating. Don your hard hat and head lamp and take a ride on the mine train beneath the mountain.
Stop in Squamish and stock up on snacks for the trip
Plan to stay at least one night
Day trips are great, but to get the most out of your Whistler experience, you won't want to have to think about driving home, if you catch my drift. On my most recent trip, I stayed at The Crystal Lodge; this luxury hotel is conveniently located in the middle of the village, within walking distance of the gondolas, and is connected to a series of coffee shops and restaurants. The comfortable rooms and suites boast mountain and village views, and the outdoor heated pool and hot tub are open 365 days a year.
Treat yourself to dinner
New among the Crystal Lodge's range of dining options is Basalt Wine + Salumeria. They’re known for their charcuterie boards, which boast unique curated selections of locally and internationally-sourced cheeses, cured meats, and pâtés to satisfy your salt tooth. The main courses — many of them B.C. delicacies — each come with a recommended wine pairing, but it's Basalt's cocktails that steal the show. My favourite was the Burlesque, a sour cherry twist on an Old
Fashioned with a nip of local Skaha Cabernet Merlot. Basalt's menu changes with the seasons, so it bears repeated visits. Reservations aren’t always needed, but Whistler's fine dining restaurants can get busy, so it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead.
Hit the town
Whistler's nightlife scene is strong, even if (or perhaps because) there are few options. There’s no night skiing on Whistler or Blackcomb mountains, so in dark December and January, everyone is corralled into the village by 5:00. After dinner, it's time to dance, and the hot spot changes daily. On Sundays, it’s MoeJoe’s for their weekly Glow Party. At 10:45 on the dot, the place is packed with neon-painted faces and dancers with glow sticks. Any other day of the week, just ask around for that night's go-to. If dancing to Top 40 hits isn’t your style, Dubh Linn Gate has live music every night of the week and a nice long line of rotating beer taps to choose from.
Wake up with the sun
Does this sound cruel considering your previous night's adventures? Not to worry. Mountain sunrise is so luxuriously late, you still get a sleep-in. I just left the curtains open and used the light as an old-fashioned alarm clock. When you’re ready, Whistler has any number of great coffee and breakfast places within wandering distance from your hotel. I like to get a coffee and meander around until the smell of maple-glazed bacon finds me.
Ride the gondola as a sightseer
Even if you aren’t skiing or snowboarding, a trip up the mountain is worth it for the views alone. Sightseeing tickets are less than half the price of a regular lift ticket, and you get the full circuit. Ride to the top of Whistler Mountain, wait for the glass-bottomed Peak 2 Peak gondola and swing out across the valley to the Blackcomb Peak. (Non-glass floors are available for the squeamish.) On a sunny day, mountains extend as far as you can see.
Also not to be missed is the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. It’s run as a cooperative by both the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations, who have lived in the region since time immemorial. The museum details the history of both peoples and connects visitors to the significance of the natural landscape through artworks. Hourly tours are available. A café features some traditional foods like salmon, venison and bannock.
Fill up for the drive home
After a busy morning of sightseeing and fresh air, you'll need good food to fuel your trip home. Beacon Pub & Eatery offers a winning combination of lovingly-made comfort food and spot-on cocktails. Who doesn't want a perfectly-shaken rhubarb sour cocktail with a carb-filled pub lunch? And I dare you to find a more packed Caesar than this (below). Plus, the people-watching from their second-floor, all-window dining room is top-notch.