Fine dining at discounts as steep as a double-black diamond, seasonal seafood that makes even that of Seattle look like a dead fish, and an infinite number of ways to unwind your body without unwinding your wallet. Whistler in the off-season is a dream weekend jaunt for the Seattle luxury lover on a budgetor any smart opportunist.
With ski season still more than a month away and mountain bike season in the rear-view mirror, the restaurants, spas, and hotels of the Canadian resort town are desperate to bring in enough money to keep them afloat and retain their top staff during the in-between seasons. Done right, it's a quick enough drive for an easy weekend trip, poising Seattleites to take advantage of lavish menus and luxurious spas.
Where to eat:
In order to keep up the quality of the food and retain staff through the slow season, the top restaurants in Whistler will, like the Rimrock Café, go from charging $45 for an entrée to charging $45 for a three-course meal. The Rimrock will close October 20 this year for some renovations during the off-season, so this year the deal is a short-term opportunity.
Aura, the main restaurant at Nita Lake Lodge, is also closing in mid-October for updates, but chef Paul Moran's discounted menu ($35 for four courses, Sunday-Thursday) will be served in Cure, the lodge's adjacent lounge. Unless you're up on a Wednesday, you'll miss out on his mushroom-foraging classes, but there is no reason to miss out on his menu of Dungeness crab, Nova Scotia lobster tail, or Pemberton potatoes.
Another culinary star of the valley with great off-season discounts, Alta Bistro, is also closed this fall, but keep it in mind if you're planning for spring off-season, or next year. The Michelin-star level service, wine list, and kitchen artistry produce elegant modern-style dishes such as wild BC salmon with egg yolk, warm asparagus pannacotta, broad bean, fermented kale and chia, wild rice, caraway crisp, and nasturtium leaves.
With all the remodels, take the opportunity to stop in for Quebec foie gras pheasant terrine with pickled chanterelles and ramps as one of your five courses at Bearfoot Bistro. The price for this summer menu tends to drop even further than the current $68 as the season moves on, but even now it compares favorably to the winter menu, which offers just three courses for $98.
Sushi Village, which offers some of the best sushi and freshest fish this side of the Pacific, doesn't do discounts (it's not a bank-breaker to start with), but the shoulder season offers another incentive: a chance to slurp the uni and sweet shrimp without an eternal wait for a table at the no-reservations hotspot.
Without a lift to hurry to catch, off-season is an opportunity to drive out to the edge of town, where Purebread's ovens are pumping out some of the best baked goods in the region. If French toast made with sour cherry loaf or lemon chèvre brownies aren't enough to tempt you, then I appeal to your Northwest nature by letting you in on a secret: they've got Stumptown coffee, and they do pour-over drip.
What to do:
Unlike ski season, off-season's best activity is free: walking or hiking in the damp fall woods. For the more adventurous, many of the cross-country trails in the valley are still open for mountain biking (bring your own or rent one in the Village). Either way, the deep, piny scent of fall is peaceful and calm and the paths are free from the summer crowds.
Most importantly, what makes fall the best season to spend time in the woods is the reward of warming up afterwards. With the off-season discount at Scandinave Spa ($38 for all-day use of the baths), an afternoon at the complex, nestled into the woods, becomes a screaming deal. Jump from the wood-burning Finnish sauna to the eucalyptus steam bath or alternate between thermal (hot) and Nordic (cold) waterfalls, or the hot tubs and cold plunges. In between, settle into the outdoor fireplace with a water bottle, a good magazine, and no plans to be anywhere any time soon.
Notes on Driving to Whistler:
Allow four-and-a-half hours of driving to get from Seattle to Whistler. Ideally, try to leave Seattle before 1pm, or, if don't mind driving in the evening, after 7pm. In between, you risk getting bogged down in Seattle traffic, Vancouver traffic, or border traffic.
Check the border waits online prior to Bellingham, and exit at Bellis Fair mall for the Lynden crossing (smells like cows; luckily you're not waiting long there) if the main (Peace Arch) or truck (Pacific) crossings have more than a 15-minute wait.
If you miscalculate on time and are approaching Vancouver at rush hour, don't panic: simply stop at one of the many excellent restaurants along the Burnaby/Vancouver boundary for dinner. Enjoy some of the best Chinese food in North America at the Hunan restaurant Alvin Garden, or rip pieces from a soft bread the size of your head to scoop up salads and grilled meats at the Turkish Anatolia's Gate. Neither will take you more than a few blocks off course, and the reasonably-priced meal won't take much longer than the half-hour or so needed for traffic to calm down.