AS THE PERIMETER Whistler Express shuttle pulled out of Vancouver, BC, and headed north toward Whistler on the Sea to Sky Highway, I gave up trying to control my excitement and succumbed to rubbernecking. To the west, views of coastal rain forests, glacier-cut bays, and hulking mountains whizzed by like some kind of National Geographic slide show—and this was just the warm-up.
My fellow passengers—a mix of Canadian, German, and Swedish powder hounds—and I were en route to Whistler Blackcomb, North America’s largest ski resort, which is home to not one but two mammoth mountains (Whistler to the south and Blackcomb to the north) and 8,171 acres of carvable terrain. All this is anchored by the town of Whistler itself, a thriving village full of nightclubs, upscale boutiques, and world-class restaurants stashed away at the base of the snowbound Coast Mountains in westernmost Canada.
Slope-side fantasies aside, I also wanted to see a ski town in transition: Come February 2010, Whistler, along with Vancouver, will co-host the 21st Olympic Winter Games. In preparation for the cities’ appearance on the world stage, some $1.4 billion (Canadian) has been spent in the area, including $600 million to improve the safety of the precipitously narrow and cliff-skirting Sea to Sky Highway—almost the only way to get into town. Whistler Blackcomb even has paid some $52 million to erect the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, slated to open this month. With nary a supporting span, the engineering marvel will whisk skiers and snowboarders between the two mountains (a distance of three miles) in less than 12 minutes.
Plus, I’d actually be able to tackle the same course that 2008 US slalom champion Jimmy Cochran will carve, a rollicking black-diamond run, christened the Dave Murray Downhill, that plummets 3,300 feet over 1.5 miles. On Blackcomb Mountain, I could visit the newly minted Whistler Sliding Centre, where members of the Canadian bobsled team were already clocking speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour—about 10 mph faster than the speeds reached at Torino’s 2006 Winter Games.