by Ron Bernthal
In February, when the 2010 Winter Olympic games begin in Vancouver (www.vancouver2010.com), hundreds of thousands of visitors, along with millions, possibly billions, of TV viewers will witness the spectacular beauty of Canada’s third largest city, as well the mountain town of Whistler, North America’s largest ski resort, located two hours north of Vancouver.
Whistler is where many of the skiing events will take place, and where natural snowfall averages 33 feet per year. Seven-thousand foot Whistler Mountain was developed as a ski destination in the 1960’s by a Norwegian ex-pat named Franz Wilhelmsen, several former Canadian Olympic ski champions, including Nancy Greene and Al Raine, and lots of hardy Canadian ski bums, who moved to the area after experiencing its majestic peaks and alpine bowls.
For fifty years this undiscovered region north of Vancouver offered simple accommodations at a few fishing lodges on Alta Lake, and lots of virgin forest for commercial logging operations. There were no other services for visitors, or road access to anywhere else. But it did have spectacular mountains and lakes, and from October to June the Pacific storms rolling in off the ocean dumped deep thick snow over the huge terrain. The glaciers just beneath the mountain peaks would remain snow covered all year, providing intrepid skiers who hiked up the slopes the best summer skiing in North America.
When the ski resort officially opened in 1966 the developers could only hope and dream that the world, and of course the Olympic selection committee, would one day find this perfect mountain. After years of struggle, often coming close to folding, Whistler grew into a world class Alps-style ski mountain, and Whistler village turned into a faux-European ski town, with cobblestone, pedestrian-only streets, upscale shops and restaurants, deluxe hotels, and residential, trailside condo’s with spectacular views. In 1997, when Intrawest, the giant ski and real estate firm which owned neighboring Blackcomb Mountain, purchased Whistler as well, the combined terrain totaled over 8,000 acres, and became the largest ski area in North America (www.whistlerblackcomb.com). It has been ranked North America’s #1 ski area by major ski magazines for the past decade. The 2008-constructed, two-mile long, Peak-to-Peak gondola, connecting Whistler and Blackcomb mountains is one of the most advanced ski lifts in the world, enabling skiers to travel 1,400-feet above Fitzsimmons Creek to reach the numerous trails and lifts on each mountain.
“From a global standpoint, having the Olympics here will mean that Whistler will not only be known as a major ski area, but we have an opportunity to show the world what else is here, the quality of our hotels and restaurants, the incredible hiking and fishing, and that we are a true four-seasons destination,” said Jim Douglas, general manager of the two Pan Pacific hotel properties that sit at the base of Whistler Mountain. The resort had submitted four bids to host the winter Olympics before finally being selected by the Olympic selection committee six years ago and life in this 9,500-year-round resident town will certainly not be the same during the month-long 2010 Olympics and Paralympic games.
The highway from Vancouver will be closed to everyone except media, athletes, and visitors with hotel reservations or event tickets. Local schools will close, and several restaurants will be taken over by national teams or corporate sponsors. “The French are leasing our restaurant for the duration of the Olympics,” said Teri Kydd-Wade of 21 Steps Kitchen & Bar (www.21steps.ca), a cozy restaurant in the center of Whistler village. “We will be sending our wait staff to other restaurants, and French-speaking workers will come in to serve and cook for French government ministers, VIP’s, French competitors and their families. We get a lot of foreign visitors here during the year, but to be the official House of France is really going to be exciting for us.”
Although some Whistler residents are afraid of the crowds that will soon descend on their town, most locals are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to live out their own Olympic dreams, by selling merchandise to spectators, earning extra money doing Olympic-related jobs, or skiing on the same slalom or downhill runs that the Olympians will use as soon as the events end. Actually, the terrain is so huge that 90 percent of the trails will remain open during the Olympics, and skiers will be able to view some of the runs from other trails and non-event lifts.
Snow covered mountains are visible from downtown Vancouver, and sea planes regularly take off from Vancouver harbor for short hops to the small and pristine Gulf Islands, and to the much larger Vancouver Island, which fronts the Pacific Ocean. Victoria, Vancouver Island’s biggest city, is also the capital of British Columbia, and a lovely place to visit on a day-trip from Vancouver.
During the games many world leaders, celebrities, corporate executives, and athletes will visit the city and, like most visitors before them, will be seduced by Vancouver’s combination of urban sophistication and small town charm. Only 24 miles from the U.S. border, the city’s 1,100 square miles are filled with British-looking suburbs, towering glass apartment buildings, universities that sprawl over hillsides and along the coast, and dozens of lively Asian food markets and neighborhoods. Fishing trawlers bring fresh catch into Fisherman’s Wharf each morning, and BC ferries, cruise and cargo ships, and personal sailboats keep Vancouver’s waterways busy with leisure and commercial craft year-round.
The Olympics have also helped the city’s infrastructure, creating the impetus for the new Canada subway line, a below- and above-ground train that now zips from the airport to downtown in just over 20 minutes. The games also spurred the province into improving the Sea to Sky Highway, a twisting mountain road that links Vancouver to Whistler, about two hours north. Once considered one of the most dangerous roads in Canada, Route 99 has been widened and fully paved all the way to the ski resort.
Incorporated in 1886, metropolitan Vancouver, now with just over two million residents, has matured to become the jewel of the Pacific Northwest. Straddling Burrard Inlet, with one foot in the mountains and the other in the sea, metro Vancouver can be rough and edgy, with pockets of poverty in its eastern districts, and beautiful and sassy, with coastal curves and an ethnic diversity that gives new meaning to the term multicultural.
Since many streets within Vancouver will be closed to auto traffic during the winter games, the best way to explore the city will be, as always, by bicycle. Even during the winter months, when the city skyline reveals white capped mountains, downtown Vancouver is usually snow-free, and temperatures can be in the 50’s and 60’s. Numerous bike lanes parallel main city streets, and bike paths along the seawall and through Stanley Park are popular routes for both locals and visitors.
Vancouver will be hosting several Olympic events, including the opening and closing ceremonies in BC Place, figure skating at the Pacific Coliseum, hockey at Canada Hockey Place, and speed skating at the new Olympic Oval in the nearby suburb of Richmond. Several free style skiing and snowboarding events will take place on Cypress Mountain in West Vancouver, and the athletes who are competing in Vancouver will stay the new Athletes Village, a complex of waterside condominium accommodations overlooking False Creek and the Vancouver skyline. After the Olympics these choice-location units will be sold to residents.
The Olympic spirit in Vancouver has affected everyone in the city, including bartenders, who expect to be pretty busy throughout the event dates. John Robertson pours drinks at the Jetside Bar at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel, located right in the terminal building. “We have created a special, non-alcoholic smoothie for our Olympic guests and athletes,” said Mr. Robertson, also known as Jetside Johnny. “The drink is actually quite healthy, and includes green tea, marionberry, locally sourced organic bee pollen, and is infused with B6 and B12. We mix in some strawberries, raspberries, bananas, and a specially branded Olympic yogurt. You really can’t beat that quick boost of energy.”
Whistler Travel Information:
Vancouver Travel Information:
British Columbia Travel Information:
Pan Pacific Hotel, Whistler Village:
Shangri-La Hotel, Vancouver:
Fairmont Hotel Vancouver Airport:
Air Canada: www.aircanada.ca
Passport: All American citizens traveling to Canada by car, train, plane, or boat must have a current U.S. Passport.
Map: Get the Vancouver City map sold by Borch Publishers. Soft-laminated, water repellent, and easy to re-fold, this German-produced map provides street names, landmarks, Sky Train stations, and other city features. Available at Barnes & Noble stores, Amazon.com, or direct at www.borch.com.
Guide Book: Vancouver City Guide, 4th Edition (2008), published by Lonely Planet. An excellent guide to affordable restaurant, hotel, local transportation and attractions choices. www.lonelyplanet.com
© Ron Bernthal – No editorial content, portions of articles, or photographs from this site may be used in any print, broadcast, or Web-based format without written permission from the author or Web site developer.