As Vancouver enthusiastically prepares to usher in the 2010 Winter Olympics, the city -- and its mountain resort co-host, Whistler -- are effervescent. Vancouverites are so friendly and head-over-heels in love with their home that I couldn't help but develop a crush too.
Condé Nast Traveler readers already showed their devotion; in November 2005, the CN Traveler Reader's Choice Awards named Vancouver the #1 Top City in the Americas. Almost every ski and snowboard magazine has at some point rated Whistler the premier ski resort in North America, and as Frommer's British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies says, "According to Ski and Snow Country magazines, the Whistler/Blackcomb complex boasts more vertical, more lifts, and more ski terrain than any other ski resort in North America." Plus, skiing is just the beginning of winter activities available here. When I visited in November, a bobsled track was being constructed -- for the upcoming Olympics, of course, but I'd wager that, post-2010, someone will figure out a way for the public to give it a go. In the meantime, adrenaline junkies can try backcountry skiing, heli-skiing, and ziptrekking. Tamer options include snowboarding, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, sleigh riding, and, after all that exercise, extensive dining options and spa services.
If you're only spending two nights in Vancouver, splurge a bit on your accommodations and book a room at the Opus Hotel (322 Davie Street; tel. 866/642-6787 or 604/642/6787; www.opushotel.com) in trendy Yaletown. It was recently rated the #2 Top Hotel in Canada by Condé Nast Traveler readers for good reason. Even better, from November 2005 through April 2006, Opus is offering special deals: Standard room rates are as low as CDN $199 per night. For more details on discounts and packages, go to Opus's website.
"A regular guest once described [staying at] Opus like this," Opus's general manager, Daniel Craig, told me, "'It's like a cool friend who has a great sense of style and lives in a great neighborhood threw me the keys to his apartment for the weekend.' Our guests love the residential ambience at Opus, the personalized service, the stylish décor, and the lack of pretension."
It's true; I loved my stay for those exact reasons.
The boutique hotel's guestrooms were conceptualized with five fictionalized characters in mind, each with his or her own preferred interior design styles. I checked into a "yellow" room, which was painted in a warm golden shade so neutral that I didn't realize it was yellow until I made a point to take note. It turns out that my type of room was created for a hypothetical couple named Carol and Bob. Carol is a journalist (coincidence?) and although I wasn't traveling with my boyfriend "Bob" on this trip, I know he would have liked the room too. Other rooms -- such as the green room -- are slightly funkier and if you're especially sensitive to color, ask for details when you book so that you can specify what you desire -- or don't desire. Bathrooms, too, are innovative with their nearly floor-to-ceiling windows between the bathroom and the bedroom or, in certain cases, between the bathroom and a city street. Waking up to wash your face as you overlook Vancouver is invigorating. And when showering, leave your bashful side at home if you want to bare it all for the neighbors -- or pull your blinds down.
After checking into your distinctive room with its tempting, white, fluffy comforter-covered bed, try to delay your urge to nap. Instead, ease into your vacation by soothing your airplane-dried skin with the facial and massage combo called "Facialicious" ($90) at Skoah (1011 Hamilton St.; tel. 877/642-0200 or 604/642-0200; www.skoah.com). This spa that specializes in facials and its own line of skin care products is just a short walk from Opus. Owned and managed by a young husband-and-wife team, Skoah's motto is: "No whale music, no bubbling cherubs, no pretentious attitude. Just personal training for your skin." In fact, the music was so good I wanted to buy a copy of the CD, and I learned more about my skin and how to care for it than I ever have from a dermatologist -- all with no pressure to buy products. (Although now that I'm home, I plan to order some from the website -- I can't stop thinking about the cucumber-scented cleanser.)
When my treatment was finished, and I had finally regained the ability to speak -- it was that relaxing -- the first thing I said to co-owner Andrea Scott, was "When are you opening one of these in New York?" Sadly for me, Skoah-U.S. is still a few years off, but, lucky for Canadians, Skoah's planning to open two or three more outposts in their homeland sometime next year.
When I asked Andrea why her spa specializes in facials, she told me, "Having our own product line and the ability to teach people how to care for their skin using high performance products is an incredibly unique offering. We're a hybrid between traditional skin care shops and regular spas. Personal training for your skin is composed of three components, 1) skincare trainers who are experts in their field; 2) skin care "workouts" (facials and at-home facials); and 3) our high-performance products. We want to focus on one thing and do it the best!" As far as I can tell, mission accomplished.
Late afternoon is (finally) the time for a quick nap, but don't oversleep -- you don't want to miss Vancouver's nightlife. To jump right into the city's nightlife, allow time for a pre-dinner cocktail at Nu (1661 Granville Street; tel. 604/646-4668; www.whatisnu.com; Mon-Sat 11am to 1am; Sunday 11am to midnight). The restaurant and bar debuted in September 2005 to great acclaim with an eclectic menu and beautiful views over False Creek. The bar is an attraction itself, with a carousel that spins the liquor and wine bottles around in circles. And according to the rumor I heard from a Vancouverite in the know: the bar manager and mixologist, Jay Jones, always remembers your drink -- even if it's only your second time here. If you can't wait for dinner, whet your appetite with the crispy-fried oyster appetizer that's served with a shot of Granville Island lager (you squeeze it into your mouth after shooting the oyster) or the light and fresh scallop seviche tossed in a zest of lime and scallions.
Walk across the street and you'll be at C Restaurant (2-1600 Howe Street; tel. 604/681-1164; www.crestaurant.com), one of the Vancouver's pioneering seafood spots, for dinner. The food is fresh (scallops were steamed in front of me) and presented like masterpieces, all with stellar service from an educated and friendly staff. You can book your reservation in advance online at www.crestaurant.com/location.cfm.
One of the most exciting things about Vancouver is its proximity to natural wonders. A city by the sea, yes, but also close to both a temperate rainforest and the mountains. After enjoying breakfast in bed, in Opus's downstairs restaurant Elixir or in a local café, pile on the layers and take the 15-minute drive to Grouse Mountain (www.grousemountain.com). The temperature is significantly colder on top of the mountain than it is in Vancouver.
If you'd rather see the rainforest than the mountains, or if you have enough time to do both, check out the "Treetops Adventure" at Capilano Suspension Bridge & Park.
At Grouse, you'll ride a cable car (which, on clear days, offers breathtaking views of Vancouver) to the top of the mountain over snow-covered treetops. Heat up with a warm beverage at the café, watch the IMAX film for a beautiful overview of British Columbia, and then spend your morning skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, or on a sleigh ride.
Also noteworthy here is the Refuge for Endangered Wildlife, which provides grizzly bears and grey wolves with protected natural habitats (behind electric fences, of course, and in the coldest and snowiest months, at the base of the mountain). Before you arrive at Grouse, check for updates and live footage of the animals in their natural habitats at www.grousemountain.com/adv_wilref.cfm.
If you're spending more than a long weekend in the Vancouver area, you could easily spend the whole day here. Otherwise, enjoy the fresh air, and head back to the city.
A good choice for a late lunch is Feenie's (2563 W. Broadway; tel. 604/739-7115; www.feenies.com), where you can taste the delicious creations of the famous chef Rob Feenie for a fraction of what his tasting menus cost next door at the more high-end Lumiere. At Feenie's, you'll dine in a bright, high-ceiling room and choose from a Pacific-Northwest menu. I was chatting so enthusiastically to our waiter about how much I liked the homemade veggie burger that she asked the chef to come over and tell me what was in it (all fresh ingredients). Make sure you try the handmade fries, too.
Next, burn off the calories by browsing the markets on Granville Island (www.granville-island.net), strolling past the charming buildings while Gastown, or exploring the boutiques and galleries in Yaletown. Head back to your hotel, and whether or not you're staying at the Opus, have dinner at its renowned restaurant, Elixir (350 Davie Street; tel. 604/642-0557; www.elixirvancouver.ca). From homemade tomato soup topped with pine nuts to homemade gnocchi to a delicious filet of bass to the decadent deserts, everything is top notch and expertly served.
After dinner, head for the hot spot George (1137 Hamilton Street; tel. 604/628-5555; www.georgelounge.com). This newcomer -- a self-titled "ultra-lounge" -- provides a stunning space (complete with a hand-blown glass chandelier) where you can comfortably eat and/or drink (the "and/or" option is the ultra-lounge's main concept). The delicious and superbly presented food is meant for sharing (dishes are categorized on the menu by "Me, Us, and We" courses) and the long list of cocktails is hard to choose from: when in doubt, ask the bartender, as I did. The unlikely combination of vanilla-infused vodka, black pepper, pineapple, and basil, turned out to be absolutely scrumptious. The whole experience is served up in a modern, sophisticated setting with a long bar and plenty of seating. In short, this is a fun and popular place to people watch and linger over long conversations.
Get up early and get going. The 2-1/2-hour drive to Whistler/Blackcomb is an attraction in of itself, with some of the most picturesque landscapes in Canada, including mountains, lakes, and countless large trees.
The place to stay in Whistler is the Four Seasons (4591 Blackcomb Way; tel. 604/935-3400; www.fourseasons.com/whistler). There's simply nothing bad to say about it. Nestled at the base of Blackcomb Mountain, this first-class resort offers ski valet service and is only a 10-minute walk or 2-minute shuttle ride away from Whistler village. As Alexandra Gill wrote in the Globe and Mail, "It's a ruggedly handsome five-star cut diamond that shimmers over and above a crowded village where the typical architectural style of faux-Tyrolean-kitsch mars the natural landscape."
So true. From its sophisticated ski-lodge-like exterior (but better, done in muted shades of grey, brown, and taupe) . . . to its striking panoramic backdrop -- the Canadian Rockies . . . to its cozy, contemporary interior design filled with local art . . . to its large, extravagant rooms, all with balconies -- everything here is exquisite and, refreshingly, offered up in an utterly unpretentious manner. Even the wake-up calls are over the top, but without airs -- mine went something like this: "Good morning, Ms. Anmuth. It's a chilly morning, but the sun is shining and fresh powder fell last night. Can I ring you again in 15 minutes?" Pure bliss.
Also noteworthy in Whistler is the new Adara Hotel (4122 Whistler Green; tel. 866/502-3272; www.adarahotel.com), which promises to raise the bar on the area's non-chain accommodations when it opens this month. Developed by the owners of Opus, this new boutique hotel is sure to quickly become the top choice for the trendy, urban-chic set. Check the website for opening details and rates.
After settling into your hotel, stop by Ciao Thyme Bistro & BBKs Pub (4573 Chateau Blvd.; tel. 604/932-7051; www.chefbernards.ca/restaurant; daily 7am-9pm) for one of the freshest and most delicious (not to mention relatively inexpensive) lunches in Whistler village. This month, former sous chef Ryan Liebrech will officially take the reins from the restaurant's former owner/chef Bernard Casavant, and -- judging from Liberech's cooking, which I enjoyed in excess -- he'll easily continue to fill the seats at this local favorite. Everything on the small menu is delicious and the restaurant's walls serve as an art gallery, showcasing various local artists with works for sale. If you can't make it in time for lunch on Saturday, stop by for breakfast the next morning. Just don't miss this place.
After lunch, what better way to relax after lunch into the resort mentality than with a massage? Try the Four Seasons spa for utter luxury. My thoroughly enjoyable massage turned my muscles to jelly and nearly put me to sleep. After your treatment, hang out in the steam room or in one of the outdoor heated Jacuzzis that surround a free-form heated pool. Guaranteed that after this amount of pampering, you'll want at least an hour or two to laze around and enjoy your room.
Come nightfall, try the Barefoot Bistro (4121 Village Green; tel. 604/932-3433; www.bearfootbistro.com) for a decadent meal and a wide variety of wines. Celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year, this is the place to go for a special occasion (such as toasting the fact that you're on vacation). Foodies will be wowed by 20-something-year-old head chef Melissa Craig's creative delights.
Following this high-brow restaurant, mellow out and digest your meal at the cozy Dubh Lihn Gate Irish Pub, a great choice for after-dinner or aprÂ¿s-ski drinks and entertainment. The night I was there, the atmosphere was relaxed and quiet enough to chat. Plus, the excellent live Irish music more than adequately fills any lulls in conversation.
If you're a skier or snowboarder, today is your time to hit the slopes. For lift ticket information, visit www.whistlerblackcomb.com. But if you want to try something different, prepare to reach -- and soar over -- new heights with Ziptrek Ecotours (the ticket sales desk is located in the Carleton Lodge, next door to Longhorn Salon; tel. 604/935-0001; www.ziptrek.com; open 365 days a year, summer and winter, rain or shine; $98 adult ticket).
This 2-1/2-hour thrill ride begins by strapping on your harnesses (or, more accurately, standing still while your guides dress you in ropes, carabineers, and a helmet). After you're properly equipped, you'll head for the mid-level of the rainforest, where you'll walk on wooden suspension bridges from tree platform to tree platform, oohing and ahing over the natural magnificence. (If this sounds hair raising enough to you, ask about TreeTrek Ecotours -- a similar adventure to Ziptrek but minus the zipping across steel cables.)
As you explore, your guides provide a sort of eco-lecture 101, explaining the forest and the ecologically sustainable (and complicated) manner in which Ziptrek was expertly (and safely!) engineered and constructed. After about twenty minutes of this peaceful lesson, it's time to zip.
Being the fearful adventurer I am, getting me through this activity required a significant amount of encouragement from my excellent guides. (Thanks James and Monica!) But the experience was well worth every second of knee-shaking trepidation I endured. Whizzing between two mountains -- over rushing water in the valley below, surrounded by snow-covered enormous Douglas fir trees and Western red cedars -- is an absolutely magical and exhilarating experience. And it's completely safe -- zippers have ranged in age from 5- to 88-years-old. There are currently five zip lines in the expertly engineered course, and after you're done zipping, your guides will drive you back to Whistler Village.
But the big news is that sometime this month or early next year, two more zip lines are expected to open. The new lines will run down the valley between Blackcomb and Whistler mountains, taking zippers from the current course in the rainforest all the way back to Whistler Village.
The first of the two new lines is 2,000 feet long and about 200 feet above Fitzsimmons Creek. The last line -- "the 'lucky' seventh," as Ziptrek co-owner David Udow calls it -- is 1,000 feet long, joined between two 5-story wooden towers. According to David, "The best part is that this grand finale provides a birds-eye view of the restaurants and bars at the bottom of the mountain so everyone can watch as family and friends finish their tours."
If you're like me, the adrenaline involved in this activity will leave you famished. Back in Whistler Village, head to Trattoria di Umberto (4417 Sundial Place; tel. 604/932-5858; www.umberto.com) for a hearty Italian meal, but save some room for dinner at the Four Season's dining room, Fifty Two 80 Bistro.
It's casual but classy, complete with a fireplace and breathtaking views of the mountains. And the food, wow. Executive chef Jason McLeod presents a wonderfully simple and superb menu, skewed toward local resources, namely the sea. The sushi, sashimi, and assorted shellfish we sampled from his raw bar -- all Pacific and local freshwater -- were so good that they were gone (everything but the shells) in 10 minutes. From there, the food got better and better. Accurately named in honor of nearby Blackcomb Mountain, which rises 5,280 feet (one mile) above Whistler, Fifty Two 80 Bistro rises high, too. It's the perfect place to enjoy the final evening of your long-weekend escape.
I flew Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) from New York City's John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport direct to Vancouver International. In-flight service was friendly and accommodating, but don't expect much more than a smile and a complimentary beverage. Come prepared: Remember to pack your own snacks or have cash on hand to pay for a meal (Air Canada does not provide complimentary meal service to passengers in the main cabin). Also, and especially important for anyone with back problems, anyone who easily gets cold, or anyone flying with children, Air Canada is now BYOPandB (Bring Your Own Pillow and Blanket) or expect to pay $2 for the airplane version.
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