One of the downsides of being an expat is finding something to do when it comes to the holidays. It was often too difficult for us to get back to the UK and it felt awkward crashing the celebrations of people we didn't know all that well. So we started a family tradition of going to Whistler, about an hour and a half out of Vancouver B.C., for the holidays - and now we wouldn't go anywhere else.
We chose Whistler, nestled at the foot of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains and site of the 2010 Winter Olympics, because it offers the perfect combination of a supremely festive atmosphere; superb skiing for my husband; excellent ski schools for my daughter and plenty of fun-filled activities throughout the resort so a non-skier like me doesn't feel the slightest bit left out.
The drive - about five hours with stops - from Seattle to Whistler is often a rainy and dreary one, but as the road starts to climb and the rain turns to sleet and then proper snow, the excitement in the car becomes palpable, and arriving at the resort itself is magical. Whistler does an amazing job with its lights and decorations and there's something about the effect of colored lights on snow and fir trees that makes you feel like you've somehow gone through a portal into another world.
Last year we stayed at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler which is a little like saying we stayed in Santa's actual house, if he owned a French-style chateau in Canada. If Whistler Village pulls out all the stops when it comes to decorations, then Chateau Whistler pulls out all the stops and then explodes the entire organ. We couldn't count the number of decorated trees in the lobby and public spaces; the restaurants feature huge, charmingly decorated gingerbread houses, and Santa and his wife make frequent appearances at special events throughout the week. The pièce de résistance though was the full-sized, fully-edible gingerbread house in the lobby, which stopped even my jaded, cynical nine-year old daughter firmly in her tracks. To find it just follow the entrancing aroma.
While my husband was making the most of Chateau Whistler's excellent ski in/ski out facilities, and my daughter was having a whale of a time at the wonderful Whistler Kids ski school, it was tempting to spend the day curled up with a good book and a steaming mug of hot chocolate by a roaring open fire in the hotel lounge or perhaps hanging out in the heated outdoor pool and hot tub. However, the village and its surroundings are extremely pretty and buzzing with life, with lots for the non-skier to do.
A visit to the Scandinave Spa is a must. In this oasis of calm, set outside on a beautiful snowy hillside, you can chillax to the max in series of Scandinavian-style hot saunas, sunrooms, steam rooms and pools, which you're supposed to alternate if you dare with cold plunge pools, to leave you refreshed and reinvigorated.
The Whistler Valley Trail comprises over 40 km of paved trails connecting all of Whistler's neighborhoods. In the winter the trails are snowy, and sometimes used by cross-country skiers, but are still eminently walkable and extraordinarily beautiful, as they wind their way through the trees and alongside the golf courses, with astonishing views up to the mountains.
As a family we have, over the years, been zip-lining, ice-skating, on a sleigh ride, snowshoeing, tubing at the Whistler Blackcomb Tube Park, snowmobiling and on the Peak to Peak gondola, all of which I can recommend (I can't in all conscience recommend the dog-sledding after recent animal cruelty revelations) and which are easy to book online or at the tourist office in the middle of the village. These activities are sometimes a little pricey but all are expertly run, and are great way for skiers and non-skiers alike to see the mountains from a different perspective.
Back in the village, the Lift Coffee Company and Mogul's Coffee House serve the sort of coffee to make a Seattleite feel right at home (there's also a Starbucks obviously), and mouthwateringly fresh sushi is available at Sushi Village near the Whistler and Blackcomb gondolas. It doesn't take reservations, so go at lunchtime when everyone else is on the mountain. Make sure you book ahead to get a table at Araxi, consistently voted the Best Restaurant in Whistler and an early pioneer of farm-to-table cooking, using the best of British Columbia's considerable bounty. The cocktails here are exceptional too and their après-ski fondue is great way to enjoy the restaurant with kids. Kids also adore the cozy and welcoming, Crêpe Montagne, an authentic French crêperie, which serves fondue and raclette alongside melt-in-the-mouth sweet and savory crêpes. Speaking of kids, my daughter delights in the Mongolie Grill, where you choose the ingredients for your dish from a huge buffet of options and watch them being grilled in spectacular fashion on a giant hotplate. The food is somewhat pricey and the line is often ridiculous, but as a way of getting kids involved in a restaurant experience it can't be beaten (and if the food doesn't taste good, you have only yourself to blame).
Make sure your visit takes in a Sunday and you can see the stunning Fire and Ice Show, featuring Whistler's finest skiers and snowboarders hurling themselves through a ring of fire, accompanied by fire eaters and fireworks. And if you're in Whistler for Christmas itself, the various hotels offer lots of special festive activities - last year we enjoyed a rousing non-denominational service of lessons and carols at the Westin on Christmas Eve and the Christmas dinner-dance at Chateau Whistler on Christmas evening.
All in all Whistler during the holidays is a land of enchantments and we're always a little sad to leave and get back to the real world. And, if all else fails, there just happen to be a couple of world-class skiing mountains there too.
Book your accommodation, lift passes and experiences before November 15th 2014 to enjoy substantial discounts and savings.