Travel - Whistler: a playground for all seasons

The Sea to Sky Highway makes a dramatic backdrop and scenic corridor to Whistler, B.C., Canada's renowned ski resort. With its winding curves, drop-dead ocean views and panoramic Coast Mountain range, this road is a treat for sore eyes after several hours of monotonous freeway driving along I-5. At each bend, my family saw something to ooh and aah at, whether it was a thunderous waterfall or a black bear hiding in the bushes. (Yes, we actually spied one and then watched as it crossed the highway right in front of our car.)

As the road began to climb in earnest and we got closer to our destination, we had our first glimpse of Whistler's fairy tale-like village, set between two craggy peaks. We had come to this popular destination not to ski, as so many others do, but to find out what else there was to do in the off-season. Although plenty of people were still making their way up the mountain to the remaining few runs open for skiing and snowboarding, there were also lots of folks like us, bent on discovering Whistler's other allures.

After settling in at our well-appointed accommodations (an ample Montebello townhouse minutes from the main village area), we hustled off to our first activity for the weekend, a zipline ride with Ziptrek Ecotour. I had first become enamored of this Tarzan treetop ride when I traveled to Costa Rica several months ago (News, April 14) and was thrilled to learn that a similar adventure is to be had here in North America, only hours away from my home. Although the experience wasn't new to me, it was for the rest of my family, and I delighted in watching their expressions and hearing their exhilarating comments as they flew through the trees.

Ziptrek's tour area is between Blackcomb and Whistler mountains, just minutes above Whistler Village. Participants are taken through the area's rare ancient rain-forest on a network of five adrenaline-jagging zipline cables spanning more than half a mile. Guides, who also serve as naturalists, provide facts along the way about Whistler's environment and explain how one of Earth's most productive forest ecosystems supports the life within it.

The course is a feat of engineering and takes riders up in the canopy of 1,000-year-old trees, over rugged, mountainous terrain and across the rushing waters of Fitzsimmons Creek. The longest cable spans 1,100 feet, and the highest is 150 feet off the ground, giving thrillseekers a breathtaking view of the picturesque forest valley below.

Unlike the zipline ride I took in Costa Rica, this one has built-in safety brake mechanisms in the cable, which help to slow riders down at the end of the line. Holding on is unnecessary, although most folks instinctively do, at least initially. By the final cable, however, people tend to feel comfortable, and guides encourage them to ride backwards or, for the truly adventurous, upside down!

For another view of the area, we decided to ride the Whistler Gondola up to the top of Whistler Mountain, 7,000 feet above sea level. This is a 20-minute ride each way. Ascending we took note of the mountain bikers headed down through the Mountain Bike Park. The park offers upwards of 125 miles of lift-serviced, gravity-fed trails, ranging from gently banked, curved tracks for beginners to tight, twisty tracks and steep dropoffs for expert riders. Although our bird's-eye position gave us a unique perspective on these hard-core, body-armored trail warriors, the best place to view them is from the base of the bike park, where you can watch them come screaming down the lower part of the mountain, mud-drenched and pumped with adren-aline.

About three-quarters of the way up the mountain we began seeing the first patches of snow. By the time we got to the top, a spring blizzard was in process. We stayed long enough to check out the skiers and snowboarders and throw a few snowballs before hustling back on the next gondola for our return journey. The ride back down the mountain was equally as interesting, enabling us to watch the changes occur from one ecosystem to another and experience the varying weather conditions at different altitudes.

My family was inspired after seeing the mountain bikers in action. However, tempting as it might have been to join them, we decided on a more tame approach to cycling. Whistler has a Valley Trail system that is perfect for cyclists who prefer not to careen at breakneck speeds down the obstacle courses of the Mountain Bike Park. With bikes rented from Backroads Whistler, we set out to explore the area over a leisurely afternoon.

The Valley Trail system extends through the Whistler Valley, past golf courses, lakes, rivers, residential areas and hotels. Pick up a map at any bike shop in the Village and choose a trail to follow based on your ability level. We opted for the Lost Lake trails, preferring natural scenery to buildings and golf courses. Because the weather was very changeable that day, there weren't too many folks out on the trails. We enjoyed having the place mostly to ourselves.

The lake was peaceful and quiet as we circled it, stopping once or twice to take in the view before continuing on to discover another scenic vista point. The trail system is very clearly marked; even if you made a wrong turn, you could always find your way back easily. A few hours and a downpour or two later, we returned the bikes to the shop and made for the movie theater to get dry for awhile.

In addition to all the outdoor activities Whistler offers, it has plenty of indoor pursuits for those times when the weather just isn't cooperating. There are more than 200 shops, ranging from art galleries to sporting-equipment stores; two cinema multiplexes; 90-plus restaurants; several indoor sports centers and a museum.

Walking around the pedestrian-only Whistler Village is a treat in it- self. Its cobblestone streets, alpine-style architecture and open-air caf├ęs make you feel you've stepped into a small European town.

The place boasts real international flavor, and it's not only a matter of cuisines (everything from spicy Thai and sushi to traditional North American fare); there's also the cultural diversity of the employees and visitors from all parts of the world.

The key words at Whistler are "options" and "variety." It's a destination with something to please everyone, from choice of accommodations to activities and dining. Skiers, snowboarders and bikers all share the terrain, along with hikers, fishermen, boaters, golfers and rock climbers.

Whistler is a playground for all seasons within a spectacular natural setting.

[[In-content Ad]]