48 Hours in Whistler: A Summer Guide to British Columbia’s Outdoor Playground
The Whistler-Blackcomb resort area is routinely voted among the best of its kind in North America and with good reason. It’s a vibrant community that boasts world class skiing in the winter and a host of summertime activities, including endless hiking, cycling, nature watching and an après-ski scene that continues long after ski season.
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For visitors to southern British Columbia, it’s the perfect 48-hour diversion (although I’d recommend three or four days if you have the time) from the awesome, big-city hustle of downtown Vancouver.
Since the 2010 Winter Olympics, British Columbia completely revamped the Sea to Sky highway. This vital north-south artery interconnects the Greater Vancouver area and provides travelers with a quick route from city center to the town of Whistler. Simply hop the SkyLynx bus (via Pacific Coach) around 10:30 a.m. from downtown Vancouver.
10:30a / Depart Vancouver
Strap in for the two-hour ride to Whistler which boasts some of the most breathtaking natural scenery in North America. If you’re a fan of scenic drives (i.e. a breathing human), the Sea to Sky climb runs parallel to the Pacific for much of the ride and ticks all the pleasure checkboxes: rugged evergreen forests, waterfalls, bike trails running on and parallel to the highway, endless snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and plenty of scenic turnarounds for the occasional break from … all the amazing scenery.
It’s like a 120-minute live brochure for every reason why you should visit BC. Beautiful British Columbia indeed.
Arrive in Whistler around 12:30p and head to Amsterdam Café Pub for a laid-back, al fresco lunch on the patio overlooking the center of town. They fancy themselves as “Whistler’s Rowdiest, Sexiest Pub … THE Whistler Pub“. With a steady stream of alt-rock, tattooed waitresses and a no-nonsense punk vibe, we think they’re right. For a heartier mid-day meal, opt for the Canadian Beef sandwich with au jus and fries. A tasty, but lighter option is the Mediterranean pizza.
3p / Grab a Gelato + Find Your Bearings
Summer means it’s always time for ice cream. Or even better: gelato. There’s a myriad of choices throughout Whistler but our money was on Lucia Gelato. Owner, Kathryn, notes:
Learning from the Italian masters has enabled me to make gelato and sorbetto in the “old fashioned artisan” manner using the freshest, most natural ingredients possible with little or no compromises. Hopefully you can taste the difference!
Indeed we can. Grab a cone of Two Tony’s Espresso and take a stroll around town to get your bearings. Whistler’s “Lower Village” is the heart of the resort area and features hundreds of restaurants, galleries and retail shops along an always bustling pedestrian stroll.
Visit the Blake Jorgenson Gallery @ Westin Hotel Whistler
Round out your leisurely afternoon with a stop at the Blake Jorgenson Gallery. This stunning photography studio/retail store came highly recommended by several locals who all assured us that if we visited only one gallery in Whistler, make it this one.
The work is nothing short of spectacular. Whereas similar local photographers often capture the surrounding natural landscape on a purely technical level, Jorgenson succinctly captures the environment and the culture of Whistler in each and every shot. His photography reveals a raw, real respect and appreciation for nature, the mountains, and the people of British Columbia.
5p / Ride the Famous Peak2Peak Gondola
PEAK2PEAK Gondola from Whistler Summit
The Peak2Peak Gondola is the world’s longest unsupported gondola and connects the summits of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. The stats alone are impressive — world record breaking no less:
Speed: 7.5 meters per second
Ride Time: approximately 11 minutes
Frequency: one cabin departs every 49 seconds
Total Distance: 4.4km (straight line)
Length of Unsupported Span: 3.024km (straight line between the two towers that are furthest apart)
Highest Point: above the ground is 435m/1,427 feet over Fitzsimmons Creek
Number of Cabins: 28
Capacity of Cabins: 22 seated, 6 standing
Capacity: 2050 people per hour each way
Number of Towers: 4 (2 on Blackcomb and 2 on Whistler)
Height of Towers: 35-65 meters
The view from inside the cars is truly awe-inspiring. To feel as though you’re floating 1,500 feet above the canyon floor is at once humbling, amazing, and unique.
For the more adventurous traveler, note the silver gondola cars which feature a large viewing window built into the floor. They’re not “glass-bottomed” per se, but the window is large enough to provide quite a thrilling experience.
Lastly, check the weather before you go. If rain or cloudy skies look almost certain, hold off a day if possible. The clouds can move in very quickly, reducing visibility at the summit(s) to near zero. On the day we went, the summit of Blackcomb was almost completely engulfed in cloud cover.
Head upstairs to request a window-side table for the perfect vantage point for people-watching at this intimate, yet casual dining spot in the town center. The waitstaff is professional, friendly and entirely laid back. It’s the perfect spot for a casual, perhaps even romantic night out. Every bite on their menu is created from scratch, from only the freshest ingredients.
I opted for the Wild BC Salmon Filet with grilled vegetables – one of the premier local specialties. The fish was extremely fresh, tender and perfectly cooked. For dessert, I splurged on two choices (or perhaps one and a half). I took a gamble on the Key Lime Pie. Given that we were 3,700 miles from the Florida Keys, it was surprisingly good – fresh, homemade, light, and most importantly not green.
I capped off the whole gluttonous affair with a sampling of British Columbian ice wine – Vidal from Inniskillin. It’s drier than their Riesling but still plenty sweet with a nice, big round finish.
A Hearty Breakfast @ Crepe Montagne
Breakfast at Crepe Montagne in Whistler
Before your upcoming bike ride, kickstart your metabolism with a hearty, carb-heavy breakfast at Crepe Montagne. This bustling Lower Village hotspot came highly recommended from the staff at Four Seasons. And, with one look at their menu, it’s clear why.
Any restaurant that recognizes that Nutella makes everything better is my kind of place. Crepes and waffles constitute a large portion of the menu – all available with varying combinations of Nutella, chocolate sauce, and fresh fruit. Everything we tasted was sweet, delicious, and chocolatey without the cloying, artificial richness of lesser pancake joints.
Perhaps the best part, aside from the Nutella-inspired menu of course, is the decor. It’s delightfully cozy and intimate, like your friend decided one day to convert her house into a cafe. The atmosphere is lively and noisy in a good way. French accents abound, as does extraordinarily friendly service. Be prepared for a long line, but a relatively short wait; both always good sign.
10a / Ride the Nearby Trails with a Half-day Bike Rental
Whistler is well-known for its massive network of walking/cycling trails just minutes from town. The best way to cover as much ground as possible is to snag a half-day bike rental from the Salomon Sports Store at Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside.
If you’re a bit pressed for time, Lost Lake Loop is a good, quick option to dip your toes into mountain biking the immediate area. You can get your bike from the hotel and do the entire loop in approximately two hours at a fairly leisurely pace.
It’s worth noting that the Whistler area is perhaps equally as famous for its black bears. We were casually advised by the tourism folks that bear encounters are not only likely but virtually guaranteed. The last winter brought near record breaking snow fall and the persistent snow pack high on the peaks is forcing the bears lower and lower in search of whatever food they can find. We were advised that dealing with them is simply a matter of giving them a wide berth.
1p / Lunch @ La Bocca
This sister location to Amsterdam Cafe Pub boasts a decidedly quirkier, yet sophisticated atmosphere. The friendly bar staff serves all manner of local microbrews from behind a funky, freeform, galvanized steel bar.
The small menu features a few experimental selections, along with the essentials, including pizza, burgers, wok plates, and vegetarian options. Check out their thin crust New York personal pizza with sausage, ham, capicola – it’s light, tasty and just filling enough for one.
3p / Relax @ Scandinave Spa
After a day on the pedals and a light, simple lunch in town, head to Scandinave Spa for an afternoon of complete relaxation.
This traditional Nordic spa and Finnish sauna is set back among a dense cedar forest not far from the edge of town. A long gravel path leads from the parking area through perfectly manicured woods to reception where you’ll find a modern, sophisticated interior that feels at once tranquil.
Upon checking in, the staff walks guests through the general flow of the spa. They also review the spa’s “quiet policy” – that is, they discourage talking, even whispering, at all times. In the modern age, the concept of being surrounded by other people – strangers and friends – without uttering a word to one another seems completely novel. We found that it added a great deal to our entire experience and we absolutely loved it.
Guests head down to their respective his/hers locker rooms which are very well-appointed with lockers (locks are provided), shower and changing areas, sinks, hair dryers, cotton swabs, and even disposable baggies for wet bathing suits. Once ready, head out into the actual spa area.
The concept behind the spa is simple. It’s constructed of various stations: hot, cold, and rest. Guests “cycle” through these areas three at a time: one hot area for 10-15 minutes, then one cold for 1-2 minutes, then rest for 10-15 minutes. And repeat.
My personal favorite was the eucalyptus steam room, followed by the a Nordic plunge into a 72-degree (F) pool. As Anthony Bourdain was fond of saying when experiencing a similar Russian spa, “You can feel every pore of your body slam shut.” Indeed. It’s a unique, exhilarating feeling for sure.
Round out the experience with a visit to the lounge area that sits high above the property. Take in stunning views of the surrounding mountains from the provided hammocks and Adirondack chairs.
Allow at least two hours to fully experience the entire spa at a leisurely pace. Keep in mind that you’ll likely be extremely relaxed afterward – not quite sleepy, but not particularly energetic either. If you’re not feeling sufficiently relaxed after two hours (doubtful), the spa also offers an a la carte menu with a variety of massage services.
Tips: bring a book if you like (although an excellent selection of magazines is provided), robe (not necessary but nice to have), and your own pair of flip-flops.
Named after the groove cut into the side of snowboards and skis, Sidecut is the area’s premier steakhouse and a truly decadent dining experience.
Their signature preparation features an infrared grill which heats their steaks to a staggering 1800 degrees. This process quickly sears the outside, locking in the juices and flavor; contrary to traditional grilling which loses much of the juice on the charcoals. Our waiter assured us that, if we had not yet had steaks prepared in this way, we were in for a treat.
On the night we visited, the chef started us off with a few appetizers. The first of which was a playful take on traditional “bacon and eggs” with large chunks of smoked bacon, quail eggs sunny side up, and leeks. Next up was a beef tartare topped with foie gras and warm au jus. Both of these starters were “out of this world” good – some of the best meat I’ve ever tasted.
To be frank, we were nearly full before dinner arrived. However we’d already ordered our entrees and, considering the amazing appetizers, we were committed to seeing the entire meal through to the end.
Signature Steak Sauces at Sidecut, Whistler
The main course arrived: one order of braised short ribs Kobe style with rooftop carrots (so named because the restaurant actually cultivates a vegetable garden on the roof of the hotel) and mashed Yukon potatoes with smoked bacon. And one special entree, featuring two four-ounce steaks – one tenderloin and one filet. All steaks are served with ample helpings of their six signature sauces.
Our waiter was quite right: without an ounce of hyperbole, I can say that my meal was one of the top five meals I’ve ever experienced. The steak was unbelievably tender, juicy and every one of the sauces was insanely good.
Sadly, we were forced to decline dessert – we simply had no room for it! Which was quite a shame because we looked at one another in defeat, frowning at the thought of missing out on maple pecan pie with bourbon ice cream, candied bacon and caramel popcorn.
The Last Morning …
Morning Joe & Breakfast @ Lift Coffee
After sleeping in late, check out of your hotel and head to Lift Coffee for fresh coffee and a light breakfast. Whistler locals swear by this non-chain cafe for its rustic atmosphere, reasonable prices and daily fresh pastries, muffins and hot breakfast treats.
Hop the Rocky Mountaineer Train Back to Vancouver
… assuming you’re headed back to the city of course. Rocky Mountaineer is billed as “the only way to experience the Canadian Rockies and Whistler” and we have to agree.
Slow traveling via train through some of North America’s most amazing natural scenery is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience. On the three and a half hour route, you’ll pass through Howe Sound and the Cheakamus Canyon and past the snow-capped peaks of the Tantalus Mountains, before arriving back in Vancouver.
The best part of the entire journey is that the train slows down at many points along the way to provide for perfect photo opportunities. Knowledgeable staff provide interesting commentary on the many notable geographic and historical points along the way.
Although the rail service is available in two “service levels” – Classic Service and Dome Service – we strongly recommend the latter. It’s more costly for sure ($355 CAD roundtrip), but you’ll appreciate the panoramic view through large, expanded windows. It’s well worth the money and guests are given the option of stepping into the train’s Heritage Observation Car – an open air car with wide open views of the natural scenery.
Head back to your seat for afternoon tea, unlimited beverage service (including beer and wine) and fresh pastry. It all harkens back to the bygone days of luxurious, upper class train travel.