The next stop of our road trip through British Columbia was up into the mountains: Whistler.
The drive from and to Vancouver is absolutely stunning. The Sea to Sky Highway is aptly named as the first part to Squamish is right along the coast of the Howe Sound with panoramic views of the various islands with rugged mountain ranges as a backdrop and then steadily climbing through the mountains, provincial parks, along meandering rivers and vast lakes. There are not too many viewpoints on the northbound part, so I also included some pictures of stops near Cheakamus and Lions Bay that we took when heading back.
With the car full of all of our luggage, we didn’t feel all that comfortable to go hiking near Shannon Falls or to take the Sea to Sky Gondola and taking in the 360-degree vistas at 885m / 2900ft over the Stawamus Chief Provincial Park. The Sea To Sky Gondola was sabotaged just a couple of weeks later as its cables were cut in the middle of the night, causing the gondolas to crash to the ground. It is expected to reopen in Spring 2020.
Therefore, we initially decided to a quick stop in Squamish and have a stroll over the Farmers Market. As the market was super crowded that day, it almost was impossible to get a nearby parking spot. Therefore we opted to have a late lunch at Howe Sound Brewing (37801 Cleveland Ave).
I had the Brewpub burger which besides the regular toppings had caramelized onions and smoked cheddar on it, and the kids had the Garibaldi Burger with bacon and Swiss cheese. Chantal had the massive tuna poke bowl filled with quinoa, greens, carrots, cucumber, macadamia nuts & chips. Of course, we also took some samples of their beers. The Sky Pilot Northwest Pale Ale and the Hazy Daze Northeast IPA were our favorites but were also blown away by the intense flavors of their fruit-infused beers, like their You’re My Boy Blue Blueberry Wheat Ale and Super Jupiter Mango ISA. A characteristic we found out that many BC brewers have mastered.
To us, Whistler and neighboring Blackcomb are renowned ski resorts, but we were not entirely sure what to expect during summer. It proved to be as vibrant as it must be in winter, but skiers and snowboarders in the gondolas having been replaced by mountain bikers and hikers.
That evening, after walking through the village center, we had dinner at Il Caminetto (4242 Village Stroll). It is an upscale Italian restaurant headed by James Walt, one of Canada’s leading chefs and a “farm-to-table” pioneer who was inducted into the British Columbia Restaurant Hall of Fame in 2011. The Toptable group, of which Il Caminetto is part, has 5 restaurants and patisseries in Vancouver and is well represented in Whistler as well, with Walt also overseeing the kitchens of Araxi, The Cellar by Araxi, and Bar Oso.
Having been the Executive Chef to the Canadian Embassy in Rome, it should not come as a surprise that the pasta and the risotto we had were absolutely stellar, as were their signature cocktails. Clockwise:
- Barrel-aged Red Hook (Rittenhouse straight Rye, Punt e Mes, Maraschino liqueur, aged for 1 month in oak)
- Il Caminetto G&T (their house-produced gin with Fevertree Tonic, seasonal botanicals, and garnishes)
- Local beet Tortolloni, Taleggio & Goat Cheese filled roasted beets and toasted walnuts
- Wild mushroom Risotto, Acquerello rice with white wine, Parmigiano Reggiano and truffle essence
- Fusili al Pomodoro, fresh Tomatoes, olive oil, and basil
- Some sweet nibbles that came with the bill.
The next day we did some more exploring of the village after having brunch at Crêpe Montagne (4368 Main St #116). This is an ideal breakfast and brunch place (although open through dinner) with proper savory and sweet French buckwheat style crêpes. Salads and more standard breakfast options like bennies, omelets, french toast, and American pancakes are available. We had the Montagne (2 eggs, Canadian Bacon, Cheese) and the Nordique (1 egg, cheese, tomatoes and a side of spinach) and kids went for the sweet Strawberry and Nutella crêpes. Freshly pressed apple juice with ginger: the best way to kickstart your day.
Late afternoon workout at Forged Axe Throwing (1208 Alpha Lake Rd Unit 1). After receiving our instructions, we started throwing ourselves. First with both hands, then with one hand, some competitions (the kids beat “Team Old” big time…), finishing with trick shots with the hand axe and having a final go with a much larger lumber axe. It took some time to get the hang of it, but it was an entertaining 1-hour family event. You will remember it for the next couple of days as you are using some different muscles than you usually do. Afterward, we had some Mexican-style snacks and refreshing beers at Whistler Brewing Company (1045 Millar Creek Rd) pretty much across the road from Forged.
The reason for the late afternoon snacking was that we had booked a 2½ hour bear tour with Whistler Photo Safari and would be picked up from our hotel at 5.30pm. In the winter the Whistler Olympic Park offers over 180km of cross country skiing tracks, but in the summer about 80 black bears count the park as part of their territory. We had booked the evening session (sunrise and 2 daytime tours are also available) as a private tour in a Jeep 4×4. With regular price CAD 149 per person (CAD 99 for 12 and under), the CAD 596 for the private tour was only slightly more expensive for us. However, as they are the only company that has Whistler Olympic park after hours and off-season access, it was well worth it as we had the Jeep to ourselves and 2 other WPS vehicles in the Park.
After the first stop at nearby Alexander Falls, we entered the park and started to search for bears but first spotted a deer. Kyle Smith proved to be an excellent guide that evening. As a lead guide with the Commercial Bear Viewing Association, he is basically following the bears throughout British Columbia, Yukon, and Alaska with the seasons. Kyle is also a professional photographer specializing in wildlife photography and action sports (check his site and Instagram here). We apologized for that fact that we only had our iPhones with us as camera 😉
In his bio on the WPS site, it is mentioned that Kyle is a very passionate naturalist and forager who loves to share his knowledge on wild edibles. This proved to be spot on as we got amazing insights regarding bears as well as the (alarming) impact of climate change on the whole ecosystem in this area and besides the bears, we also did some wild mushroom spotting.
In recent years, salmons have not been coming so far upstream to spawn (smaller population, drought) so these “Olympic” black bears have turned about 95% vegetarian, which also shows that they are relatively small. In the evenings, the bears start foraging for their meals and we mainly found them grazing clover fields around the Olympic venues, like the biathlon shooting range and at the landing area of the ski jump. Pretty surreal.
We also spotted a mother bear and her cub scurrying over a pile of mulch, descending from the tree line and then crossing the road just in front of us. I would never have thought to be able to observe 6 different bears in the wild from such a short distance. The “Nice!” comment at the end of the clip was therefore rather understated!
Our last full day in Whistler was spent outdoors with the Peak 2 Peak 360 degree Experience.
First up we took the Whistler Village Gondola up to the Roundhouse Lodge followed by a 10-minute walk down the mountain (in the winter likely less than a minute on skis). There the Peak Express Chairlift brought us to the Top of the World, being the Whistler Mountain Peak at 2182m / 7160ft. After crossing the exhilarating Cloudraker Skybridge, a 130-meter suspension bridge that spans from Whistler Peak to the West Ridge over Whistler Bowl where you will find the Raven’s Eye Cliff Walk, a cantilever platform with 360-degree views from Whistler Peak.
After taking in the amazing views, you can take the chair lift back down after which you will inevitably have to walk back up to the Roundhouse Lodge. Doable, but with the thin air a bit more strenuous than we expected.
Therefore, we took the time to catch our breath on the Peak 2 Peak gondola that connects with Blackcomb Mountain’s Rendezvous Lodge. It was the first lift to join the two side-by-side mountains and held the world record for the longest free span between ropeway towers with a whopping 3 kilometers / 1.9 miles. A glass-bottomed gondola to experience on the fact that you are dangling up to 436m / 1430ft above the valley for 11 minutes? No thanks, that’s not for us!
After going back down to Upper Village, we had lunch and some beers at Merlins Bar & Grill, which is located at the gondola (4553 Blackcomb Way). As we missed out on them when we were in Vancouver, we chose the Stanley Park Brewing‘s Daytrip West Coast Lager and Windstorm Pale Ale and they did not disappoint.
Besides Caesar’s salad, we ordered Merlin’s Burgers (Aged white cheddar, crispy cured bacon & jalapeño aioli sauce) and the Vladimir Poutine with a pork barbacoa topping couldn’t even be finished despite joint efforts.
We walked off the late lunch with a visit to the very impressive Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (4584 Blackcomb Way) that was built in Whistler as it historically was considered a joint city of the Squamish (Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh Úxumixw) and Lil’wat (L̓il̓wat7úl) First Nations. The center gives tremendous insights into their respective art, history, and culture. The building has great acoustics too as you will experience during the traditional welcoming song that comes with the guided tours.
Both nations have separate languages, but they share many common words as a result of the extensive trading between the Nations throughout the centuries. Both cultures were grounded in an oral tradition and the Squamish and Lil’wat created written languages in the 1970s to help prevent their languages from becoming extinct. As you may have seen, both languages share a “7” in their language. It acts as a glottal stop and therefore are indicators to pause in pronouncing the word.
We concluded our stay in Whistler with Vallea Lumina, an immersive multimedia night forest walk, a 10-minute drive from Whistler with the complementary (and mandatory) shuttle busses.
The Lumina concept is a showcase creation of Moment Factory, an award-winning Canadian multimedia studio that does public space multimedia installations and light shows, marketing events and content, but also live stage design for artists such as Ed Sheeran, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Arcade Fire, Nine Inch Nails, and Madonna. I have seen a couple of their creations at different Muse concerts, so I know this would be pretty awesome. Here is a link to their demo reel, to get a sense of what they are capable of (that light show in the Cathedral is jawdropping!)
There are now 10 different themes Lumina Sites in the world, of which 6 in Canada, 3 in Japan and 1 in Singapore. The Vallea Lumina storyline is that in the shadow of Whistler mountains, legends say there’s a hidden valley where stardust falls from the sky, filling all living things with its pure light. You, as a deputy ranger, are tasked to search 2 missing hikers and get sucked into the wondrous adventure through the enchanted forest which takes you over 1.5 km / 1 mile of well-kept trails and stairs.
There are 15-minute time-slots when booking, but that is mainly meant to space out the different groups. As the various segments are on a loop, you can just take your time and fully immerse yourself in the experience. It took us just over an hour to finish and it is truly unforgettable, for kids and adults alike!