This is the second part in our series on southwestern Canada. Go here to read our first installment.
July 23, 2003 -- If you're a skier, Whistler needs no introduction-it's the place to ski in North America, a designation that was merely affirmed by the IOC when it selected the Vancouver/Whistler bid for the 2010 Winter Games. But don't overlook this part of Canada for summertime fun as well. Summer may be low season here, but that only means you'll pay less than you would elsewhere for world-class hiking and other recreational activities in a breathtaking setting. Just remember to bring layers of clothing with you-even in summer, the nighttime temps here can get a bit chilly.
A Breathtaking Drive
Getting there is indeed some of the fun when you're traveling to Whistler. The two-hour drive to Whistler out of Vancouver along the Sea-to-Sky Highway (aka Highway 99) is justifiably famous as one of the most scenic in the world. You'll travel a long and winding road-currently being widened to accommodate the expected rise in traffic during the 2010 Games-skimming the edges of Brittania Beach and Howe Sound before climbing into the glorious Southwestern mountains and passing through the eagle-viewing hotspots of Squamish and Brackendale. All along the route are stop-off points offering one marvelous view after another. Though you can get to Whistler by bus if you don't have a car, this is one drive that's well worth the effort.
Note: That aforementioned highway project will result in summer lane closures over the next couple of years. Before you depart, check www.mywhistler.com for updates on lane and road closures so you don't get stuck.
The Harder They Fall...
Several magnificent waterfalls are located just off the Sea-to-Sky highway, and are a great place to stop off and stretch your legs. Two that are easily accessible are Shannon Falls and Brandywine Falls. The magnificent Shannon Falls was recommended to me by a bunch of Vancouver locals as a must-see-and it is. Crashing over the walls of Howe Sound, the dramatic 1,100-foot falls are an easy 10-minute hike from the parking lot of Shannon Falls Provincial Park, just two miles south of Squamish, on your right as you head towards Whistler.
Even more picturesque are the glacier-driven Brandywine Falls, which are among the most famous in British Columbia. They are located in Brandywine Falls Provincial Park, on your left as you head toward Whistler, about 26 miles north of Squamish. The 216-foot falls aren't all that high, but their precipitous drop off the top of a cliff makes them picture-perfect. Bring a picnic lunch and eat it at the tables provided.
Clean as a Whistle Hotels
Most visitors to the area opt to stay in Whistler Village, nestled at the base of both the Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, which offers numerous hotels and condominium/townhouse options. The summer off-season usually brings with it fabulous vacation package offerings, so check out Whistler's Central Reservations at www.mywhistler.com, which can book you into a wide variety of accommodations in the area.
The undisputed king of the hill in the accommodations game in Whistler is the luxurious Chateau Fairmont Whistler (www.fairmont.com) at the bottom of Blackcomb Mountain. Have a drink inside the marvelous wood-beamed lobby or soak in the outdoor heated pool and Jacuzzi after a day on the resort's award-winning Robert Trent Jones golf course. A brand new golf educational center opened in 2003 to help guests shave a few strokes off their average. If you need a massage after your lesson, there's a full-service spa.
Other great hotel options are the Westin Hotel Resort & Spa (www.westin.com), the Summit Lodge (www.summitlodge.com), the Delta Whistler Resort (www.delta-whistler.com), and the Pan Pacific Lodge Whistler (www.panpacific.com). All four of these hotels feature accommodations offer either kitchenettes or full kitchens and have the usual array of luxury amenities. And all five of the above hotels made the last Conde Nast Traveler's Top 50 Ski Resorts list.
If you're on a budget, are traveling with a large group, or want a little more privacy and quiet, a great option in Whistler is to rent a private townhouse or condominium for the duration of your stay. Quality obviously varies according to the owner, but generally speaking, most lodgings are renovated often and kept in good shape. I highly recommend an online booking service, Allura Direct (www.alluradirect.com), that showcases numerous available properties in Whistler and offers photos, details, and instant reservations capability. For less than the price of a night at most of Whistler's luxury hotels, I booked 2 nights in June in a one-bedroom condo (3 The Gables; ID #182 on the Allura site) that was spotless, a 5-minute walk from the heart of the village but incredibly private, and came with a washer/dryer, sunken living room with fireplace, dining room, jetted tub, full kitchen, and a private porch. In pricey Whistler, it was a genuine steal.
There are numerous casual dining spots in Whistler, but for a special night out, head for the Rimrock Caf?nd Oyster Bar (www.rimrockwhistler.com) where the area's best seafood is served in an atmospheric wood-beamed dining hall, complete with stone fireplace. The wine list is extensive.
Another good choice is Araxi (www.araxi.com), just named the Best Restaurant in Whistler for the fourth year in a row by Vancouver Magazine. The West Coast menu is extensive, there's 12,000-bottle wine cellar, and in summer, you can dine on a patio right in the heart of the village square (it's conveniently heated just in case it gets cold at night).
Whistle While You (Don't) Work
The good old outdoors rules in Whistler. For starters, take the must-do gondola ride up either Whistler or Blackcomb Mountain. The views are spectacular and you might spot many of the animals (black bears and deer to name a few) that call Whistler home. Once you've come back down from the peak, take a ride on Blackcomb's 1.4 kilometer Westcoaster Luge adventure ride or play a game of miniature golf at Little Mountain Golf Center. Combination and family tickets are available for all of these attractions. For ticket information and current operating hours, see www.whistlerblackcomb.com.
Numerous tour companies offer recreational and wildlife tours of the area, from guided hikes of the mountain and horseback riding to guided fishing trips and kayaking adventures. If you're a fan of the outdoors, you'll find something to do in town-and probably more than just one thing. The Whistler Activity & Information Centre can give you the lowdown on tours that will suit your specific needs. You can check out their offerings (and book them online) at www.mywhistler.com.
If you like to hike, but prefer something a bit less structured, ask for a map of the Lost Lake Trail at the Whistler Activity & Information Centre and then head for the trailhead off of Lorimer Road. The Lost Lake Loop section (3.5km) is popular with both hikers and bikers and you're efforts will be reworded with some lovely and tranquil lakeside scenery. Just make sure to heed all of the posted regulations.
Finally, if you prefer to tee things up on your vacation, you'll be happy to know that Whistler was rated "Canada's number one golf destination" by Golf Digest. You can shoot for the greens at four world-class golf courses: The Whistler Golf Club (www.whistlergolf.com); Chateau Whistler Golf Club (www.fairmont.com); Nicklaus North Golf Course (www.nicklausnorth.com); and Big Sky Golf and Country Club (www.bigskygolf.com).
Victoria locals like to joke the city is home to "newlyweds, flowerbeds and nearly-deads," the first two a tribute to the romantic nature of the city and its beautiful flora, the latter a half-hearted laugh at the city's popularity with aging retirees. I saw plenty of all three in early June, but though the city does move at a relatively sedate pace, it's hardly a snoozer (though, admittedly, this is not the most happening town once that sun finally does set).
Ranked one of the Top 10 urban destinations in the World by Conde Nast Traveler, Victoria is my own personal favorite. It's a charming and compact walker's paradise, where you'll find parks and gardens seemingly around every corner, and where most of the major attractions are a stroll away from the major hotels. This is one of the few places in North America that still proudly sticks to its British roots: take afternoon tea, ride a red double-decker bus, and browse the antiques and tea shops on Government Street. For a relaxing and romantic trip, few places are its equal.
Rooms With A View
Victoria has a decent range of hotels, though most do trend toward the mid- to upper-level price range. The good news is that thanks to the favorable exchange rate, you'll likely get a much nicer hotel room for your buck than you would in the States.
One piece of advice: On a recent trip to the area, city insiders told me that spending extra for a room with a view in Victoria is a waste of money when beautiful views abound everywhere. I have to agree. Of course, if you want to spend extra bucks to soak in the scenery from a top-story balcony or watch the sunset over the harbor, well, I'm not going to blame you a bit.
Without question, the Inner Harbor is the place to settle in for your time in Victoria. The Grande Dame of all Victoria hotels, and a must-see in its own right, is the Edwardian-style Fairmont Empress (www.fairmont.com). Open since 1908, the landmark hotel has been restored and renovated from top to bottom, and its location right off the harbor can't be beat. Tourists can walk through the hotel's side entrance to gawk at the magnificent woodwork and exquisite decor. For a quintessential Victoria experience, take tea in the hotel's Empress Room (make sure to leave the sneakers at home, and to put on a jacket and tie-it doesn't get much more Victorian than that!).
If your budget won't cover the Empress and you want a hint of grandeur with a prime location, head for the Hotel Grand Pacific (www.hotelgrandpacific.com). Last renovated in 2001, the upscale hotel's medium-sized guest rooms are colonial in d?r and well appointed if a tad business bland; they incorporate Feng Shui principles in their design (and are definitely restful). Upgrade to a high-floor executive suite if you want both extra room and an exceptional panorama of the harbor and surrounding mountains. Amenities are excellent-including free high-speed internet access and free parking (a rarity)-the staff is very professional, and the spa offers a nice array of well-priced packages. And you can't beat the location: on the harbor, right across the street from the Royal London Wax Museum and next to the Parliament Buildings.
If you prefer more character or higher levels of personal service in your lodgings, Victoria abounds in historic Bed-and-Breakfasts. These establishments often aren't in the heart of the city, but usually offer their own personal charms. The following sites offer information and links to some of the area's best B&Bs.
Best Bed and Breakfasts of Victoria (www.bestbnbvictoria.com).
Victoria Bed & Breakfast (www.bedbreakfastvictoria.ca)
Victoria's Finest Bed-and-Breakfasts (http://victoriafinest.bc.ca)
- Bed & Breakfast Inns Online: British Columbia (www.bbonline.com/bc)
Dining Victorian Style
When it comes to dining, Victoria is hardly the cuisine capital of the universe, but it still has its fair share of good restaurants. Seafood rules in this harbor town though you'll find restaurants serving just about every cuisine you can think of, from Mexican to vegan to French to Asian.
Of course, the British influence on this former colonial outpost is still evident: you'll still find plenty of places to take afternoon tea and "chippies" selling fish-and-chips. You should definitely indulge in afternoon tea at least once on a trip to Victoria. If not at the Empress Room (see above) then at one of the city's many tea shops. Murchie's (www.murchies.com) at 1110 Government Street has been serving tea since 1894 and mixes the blends served at the Empress-the surroundings may not be as posh, but as a bonus, you'll pay a whole lot less for your cuppa.
Though better known for its brewpub, Canoe (www.canoebrewpub.com), just acquired by new owners and situated in a renovated warehouse on Swift Street, offers great seafood and a waterfront location. Wash your wild salmon or seafood curry down with one of the restaurant's custom beers; for dessert, try the restaurant's fabulous cheese plate. If the weather's good, the tables on the sunny patio offer a great view of the harbor.
For well-priced vegetarian comfort food, locals look no further than Re-bar (www.rebarmodernfood.com), set in a casual basement dining room in Bastion Square. On my most recent visit here, the place was packed with families, couples, students, businessmen, tourists, you name it. The cuisine is hardly rabbit food-the food is hearty and fresh-and the service is cheerful. Try the Monk's Curry at dinner and just about anything at breakfast. And make sure to sample at least one of the 80 yummy blends featured on the extensive juice menu.
For an even cheaper but filling healthy meal, head over to the all-vegan Green Cuisine (www.greencuisine.com) in Market Square. The food's remarkably tasty, the juice bar has lots of offerings, the surroundings are tranquil, and it's a great spot for budget-minded travelers.
The Dollar Rules Victoria
Victoria's a great place for browsing. The city has dozens of specialty shops that are all within easy walking distance of the major hotels and attractions. You'll find the usual tourist souvenir joints (there are plenty of them near the Inner Harbor), a host of antiques stores, art galleries selling Native American pieces, some quaint bookshops, and some stores specializing in merchandise from the U.K. (If you can't make it to the Highlands or Merry Old England, then Victoria offers a lot of what you can get over there-for a whole heck of a lot less.)
One major standout is Victoria institution Rogers' Chocolates (http://rogerschocolates.com/), at 913 Government Street. In business since 1885, it bills itself as "Quite possibly the best chocolates in the world." A skeptical chocoholic, I naturally checked them out and am almost willing to concede them the point. In any case, you should definitely visit their delightful store, where, as a local bus driver told me, "you'll gain 8 pounds just standing in the doorway." (Thankfully, I can verify that this is a bit of an exaggeration, though I couldn't resist a few boxes' and bags' worth by the time I escaped.)
Another cool shopping opportunity can be found in the parks surrounding the Inner Harbor itself. Much like the markets found in many other cities, local artists often set up shop there, and you can occasionally get a really good piece, especially of the First Nation variety.
The Butchard Gardens (www.butchartgardens.com), a 25-minute drive from Victoria, is one of the world's most renowned botanical gardens. The 50-acre attraction will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2004 and a number of special events and improvements are planned, including the building of a new Conservatory. Even without the new features, this is a special place to visit and an absolute must-see, no matter what the season. Don't miss the Quarry and Rose gardens, and for an extra special treat, have afternoon tea in the Dining Room (make sure to reserve well in advance of your visit).
Also enjoying its 100th anniversary is Tally-Ho Sightseeing (www.tallyhotours.com). Carriage rides are a popular a
ctivity in Victoria, and the guides at this veteran company may not have lived in the city for a century, but all are well-informed locals who offer both entertaining and enlightening, if occasionally slightly goofy, one-hour horse-drawn tours of the area surrounding Inner Harbor and Beacon Hill Park. Pricier and more romantic individual carriage tours are also available.
For an entertaining and educational experience, head for vibrant Thunderbird Park. All over town, you can find cheap imitation totem poles sold in stores, but here you'll find the real thing, featuring many figures that appear frequently in native storytelling. In summer, you can poke your head into the carving shed at the edge of the park to watch the artistry and skill of the coastal craftsmen as they work. I found them to be very receptive to questions about their creations.
Visitors to Victoria this summer will also find a number of noteworthy special exhibits in town. The city's excellent Royal British Columbia Museum (http://rbcm1.rbcm.gov.bc.ca) is currently offering Dragon Bones: When Dinosaurs Ruled China through October 15th, which features a fascinating collection of Dinosaur fossils from 3 different eras and has a number of interactive activities for children. Meanwhile, over at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (http://aggv.bc.ca/). The Group of Seven in Western Canada exhibition features more than 200 rarely seen landscapes by Canada's most celebrated early 20th-century artists through September 14th.
Beer drinkers should be sure to hit town in time for the Great Canadian Beer Festival (www.gcbf.com), held this year on September 5 and 6 in Royal Athletic Park. Victoria is a haven for brewpubs and this 10-year-old event showcases only all-natural beers and samples sell for a mere CD$1. So toast the end of summer in style for a mere dollar; it'll be one of the best bucks you ever spent.
Have you traveled to Vancouver, Victoria or Whistler recently? We'd love to hear your tips and tales. Just visit our British Columbia Message Boards to get started. Your posting could be featured in an upcoming Frommers.com Newsletter.