A Tale of Two Mountains
Once upon a time (that'd be the early '70s), Whistler and Blackcomb were two competing ski resorts. Thank heavens for the free markets! In their haste to out-do each other, the two resorts kept adding bigger, better, and higher lifts and lodges until finally Blackcomb peaked at 5,280 ft and Whistler hit its ceiling at 5,020 ft. That's the first- and second-longest vertical drops in North America, respectively! In 1997 the two owner companies merged, making it possible to ski both of these glorious snowy peaks with one lift ticket.
Meanwhile down in the village, city planners had been busy masterminding a cunning plan to build Whistler Village, a pre-planned community at the base of the mountain, which would eventually provide a staggering 40,000 hotel rooms – each within comfortable walking distance of restaurants, shops, and of course the lifts. As the reputation of the resort has spread from British Columbia to the rest of the world, Blackcomb Village and Creekside Village were created to accommodate the growing throngs of visitors, as were the inevitable rashes of condos that speckle the surrounding foothills. The land of fresh powder, icewine, and the almighty loonie attracts a vastly international young staff, hailing mostly from the other side of the world where there is no snow during Canada's winter. We met countless twenty-somethings from Australia, New Zealand, Cape Town, and on and on.
The village is a fun place. Most restaurants spill out onto the street, and parka-wearing skiers park their gear against a wall and eat outside, hats and scarves still on. One afternoon a live band had set up shop under a tent on a terrace overlooking the lift line and was enthusiastically belting out mediocre covers of pop songs. (I don't know who those obnoxious people shouting "Play Freebird!!!" over and over were, honest!) We happened to be visiting during the Winter Olympics – I kept thinking we were in Salt Lake City because of the signs, posters, parties, and constant TV coverage. It was a bit disorienting getting off a gondola in Canada to the sound of people chanting "Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi oi oi!" on the day Australia won their first gold medal.
Wondering where to rent your skis?
Well don't go to Affinity. They may have the best marketing staff in town but the professionalism ends there. We could barely get in the door for all the people lined up brandishing their 10% off coupons. Once inside, we waited some more, then filled out some forms, then waited some more. Finally a harried-looking young woman whose nametag read "Dave" asked us what size feet we had. She was wandering off to the ski boot rack when I reminded her that she hadn't even asked whether we wanted skis or snowboards. That got her attention. She paused long enough for me to ask whether they carried step-in bindings for snowboards – which they did not – giving us the perfect excuse to turn tail and run.
I'm so glad we did, because it was then that we discovered Freeriderz. I'll take the friendly family-run shop over the big impersonal conglomerate any day of the week. Freeriderz is run by a lovely couple in their '60s, both avid skiiers. They, too, have a 10% off coupon, which we found out about only when they offered it to us in the store. Talk about honest! Their rental rates for a ski/boot/pole combination are about $3 a day cheaper than Affinity and that includes the tax. Even better, they told us that if we wanted to try a different size or style of skis or boards, that we could come back and exchange our rental gear at any time, at no additional cost. Now that's what I call customer service! It took some digging to find them on the web (surprising, as they have a little internet access side business going in the shop) but they do indeed have a website at http://www.freeriderz.iwarp.com. I accidentally found an awesome movie of a boarder doing an aerial across a road and over a SUV at http://www.freeriderz.com if you're into that sort of thing.
4433 Sundial Place
St. Andrews House Building
I mentioned that there are condos outside the village ... that's where we stayed. A condo generally requires a car. Most are strategically built near the free shuttle bus stops, but they are often at the bottom of a steep hill, which is more exercise than most people over 30 want at the end of a long day of skiing. Our condo, booked through Resort Quest International, was built in 1999 and had been very lightly used, to the point where the foam padding under the rugs still squished underfoot. It had a fireplace, three bedrooms (one master and two with two twin beds each), and mountain views. There was a garage, but no remote control provided. We could ski in/out by hiking down a short trail. It was clean, cozy, and decorated in a sort of "antique sports" theme, with wood-and-leather skis and boots figuring prominently in the décor.
Maid service was provided once every three days – ours left something to be desired. They got the place clean, but left the front door unlocked and neglected to replace our depleted soap and shampoo supplies. It was hard to mind though when I discovered a switch in the bathroom that turned on the HEATED FLOOR. Fantastic! There was a hot tub outside, but we couldn't get motivated to brush the snow off the cover to fire it up. On the last day, we inadvertently discovered the top secret hiding place where the owners keep their keys to the closet where their personal belongings are stored. We left a note suggesting that they find a better spot to keep them!
A quick scan of ResortQuest's website turned up some very reasonable prices, like 290-580 CAD per night for a three bedroom condo that sleeps eight, with a fireplace and hot tub. There were studios for as little as 105 CAD per night in the village, also with hot tub and fireplace. Parking in the village was fairly painless, but not free – there was a $6 charge every time we left the car in a lot.
The obvious advantage to staying in a hotel, of course, is your proximity to the village. You can drink yourself silly on Maudite and Fin du Monde, then stumble home without violating any DUI laws. You can have lunch in your room and get right back on the slopes if you're so inclined. The decision is up to you!