Monday, December 30, 2013

Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort - Peak to Peak

Dazzling, Drizzling, Daunting, Gigantic, Cloudy and Incredible and is how I would describe skiing the Whistler Blackcomb Mountains. Whistler Blackcomb is the largest ski resort of North America and it means valley drizzles, cloudy mountains, high alpine fresh snows and breathtaking views.
IIanaaq" (also Inuksuk), the mascot logo of the winter olympics at Whistler along Harmony Ridge
A clear blue sky at Blackcomb

Of the five days in December 2013 that we skied, we got three days of sunny blue skies, cold temperatures and the astounding glacial landscape views, the other two were cloudy and overcast. 


There seemed to be plenty of ski in/ski out options between Whistler and Blackcomb and plenty of upscale hotels. We were a group of 4 families and chose to rent a 5 bedroom home in the Pinnacle Ridge community on the Blackcomb Mountain. Pinnacle Ridge homes are considered ski in/ski out, but most of the homes in this area require a brief walk to the run. The yellow brick road run is right under the Magic chair and the Wizard Express lifts, an easy green run primarily for the beginners. The location is perfect for families and groups that have may have beginner skiers. If you are not used to skiing down at all, you can even walk down to the ski school (it might get icy or slushy but it is a short walk). We used to start our day by skiing down the Yellow brick run. The ski school is right at the bottom of this run. If you are in snowboarding or advanced ski school lessons, chances are you will need to go to the ski school on the whistler side. From the base of Blackcomb Mountain there are a couple of choices. If you are not a skier, you can walk to the Whistler base (a short walk). If you are a skier/boarder and need to get to whistler ski school, then you can also take the magic chair and ski down to the whistler side. A short and easy run, but again, it can get icy and slushy. If you are not in ski school, then I recommend you take the Wizard express followed by Solar Coaster Express right to the top to the Rendezvous lodge to get to the alpine area. From Rendezvous lodge you can take Peak 2 Peak gondola to get to the whistler side (an 11 min ride with gorgeous views), or ski on the Blackcomb side. We found that it was nicer to ski the whistler side in the mornings and to ski the Blackcomb side in the afternoons. It is faster and more convenient to take the Peak to Peak gondola from Blackcomb to Whistler Mountain.

Whistler Mountain
Ego bowl is a good family ski area with mostly intermediate and beginner runs. This area was wide and groomed. There were a lot of people in this area but it did not feel crowded. Off to the west (left) of the mountain, is the Harmony area with a brand new express chairlift. This is an incredibly beautiful scenic area with several intermediate and advanced runs. One of my favorites was the Harmony ridge, a very scenic intermediate run, that in places became fairly steep, narrow and bumpy due to heavy traffic. In our case, by the time we got to Harmony Ridge, most of the fresh snow was gone (and since natural snow was not abundant), the heavy traffic exposed the underlying stones and pebbles making the run quite treacherous (One of my family members suffered a major injury here). The advanced runs in the Harmony area are beautiful and not heavily trafficked. This area has one beginner run. Off to the north east is the whistler summit with several advanced runs and bowls. While we were there, several sections of this area were closed. My son did the glacier and whistler bowls that were open and really loved it (he did almost all the bowls in this area but his favorite were the sun bowl, back bowl). A bit to the south is the Franz's and Big Red express area. The greens along Franz's area are learner areas with a lot of ski school folks and kids. If you are not learning how to ski, it is best to avoid the greens here. The blues were fine but relatively narrower. The day we skied this area, it was very cloudy and we never saw anything beyond five feet in front of us.
An overcast day at Blackcomb

Blackcomb Mountain
Between the two mountains, I think, I liked Blackcomb a bit more. The two sides of the Blackcomb Mountain were drastically different from each other. On the east side of the mountain, the 7th Heaven area was dazzling. We happened to ski here when it was sunny with clear blue skies, fresh blanket of snow and completely un-groomed. It was a love at first sight. Cloud Nine was one of my favorite runs and probably one of the few that I skied twice. To the west is the Glacier Express and Crystal Hut area. While the east was dazzling, the west was daunting. When they talk about glacial landscape, I guess it is this area they must be referring to. There were no trees, no greens, simply large rocks, cliffs and the glaciers. The landscape was stark and incredible. The advanced runs looked too daunting for me, so I stayed with the intermediates which were narrow in places with hardly a crowd. Road Runner and Twist and Shout seemed to be the favorite runs in this area. My son covered most of the advanced terrain in this area, and this area runs were his second favorite (after the Harmony runs). In the middle of the mountain, Springboard is a really long, nice and wide intermediate run that got bumpy in places as the day wore on. We found this area to be quite crowded. It got more icy and crowded as you get closer to the village, but up top, it was great. Easiest route (a green run) is a really nice long beginner run, but like all greens it gets pretty flat in some sections. I did not like Cruiser (an intermediate run) at all. Cruiser is great for people looking for large moguls, but I found it tough on my knees and for someone who is not very fond of moguls very difficult to navigate. The bumps were more like mini hills than moguls. Cruiser was not groomed while we were there. In the five days we skied Whistler Blackcomb, we covered a lot of the mountain but there was a lot left of the high alpine area still to be discovered for our next time.

Overall, Whistler Blackcomb ski resort had everything my family wanted, however the snow conditions were less than stellar. At the alpine level we got postcard worthy breathtaking views, endless stretches of ski runs and great snow. At the mid-mountain and village level, we got the clouds, the mild temperatures, the lack of natural snow, drizzly rain, periodically slushy snow that turned icy when the temperature dropped below freezing. Comparing Whistler vs Aspen vs Snowmass, I would pick Whistler for its incredible terrain and Snowmass for its convenience and all roundedness.

Recommended Areas of Improvement: First, the resort needs to mark their trails better. The mountain is enormous and it is easy for visitors to get lost. We had to stop quite often while skiing to get our bearings where multiple trails intersected because we had no idea where the trail we were on went. This is especially critical in the high-alpine areas where intermediate and advanced trails interspersed. This is also important as the resort allows backcountry skiing (which is awesome), but it was often confusing where the trail ended and backcountry started. If you are comfortable skiing all terrains, then unmarked trails is not a big issue, but if you are a beginner or intermediate skier then having well marked trails and easy access to grooming report makes a huge difference. The grooming report was available only online. The boards next to chair lifts mostly indicated the lifts that were open or closed, but not indicate which trails were open or which trails were groomed. Second, the resort can improve the quality of its mountain dining. There was sufficient variety in the menu but the food preparation could definitely use improvements. The restaurant scene and the cultural vibe was fantastic in the Whistler village. Third, making ski school changes more flexible. We had seven kids enrolled in ski school months in advance and one of the kids wanted to extend his enrollment in the program. It was quite a headache making the necessary changes. The ski school staff had to get a manager approval to switch lessons, but it seems there were not enough managers who had the authority to approve exchanges and refunds. We lost several hours and money because the manager was not available and took too long to call back. The manager is only located at the Whistler location, however the ski school is located at both Whistler and Backcomb. So if you need to make changes, better to make them at Whistler even though Blackcomb may be more convenient. We were trying to exchange a 2 day lift ticket pass into two additional days of ski school and were willing to pay the additional balance for the lessons. The ski school made us return our two day lift ticket for a 50% refund and buy 2 days of lessons at full price. This left a bad taste, instead of giving us 100% credit towards the lessons, they gave us only a 50% refund and made us buy lessons for non-discounted cost (other ski-lessons were discounted as we had bought the lessons months earlier).  

1. Village/Town Feel:  Whistler village has a great resort town vibe. It had a range of upscale hotels, a great selection of restaurants, diversity of shops and a great après ski vibe.
2. Ski School for Kids:  The ski school was great.  We had 7 kids in ski school and all the kids had fun. The two advanced skier kids skied mostly the alpine bowls and the glacier areas with an experienced instructor. We had three kids in the snowboarding lessons and they advanced through their lessons fairly well even though the conditions at village level were icy. On rainy and cloudy days, the ski school took the kids higher up to the mid mountain level. The youngest kid (aged six) got to learn mogul skiing, jumping of 6 foot cliffs, ski through the enchanted forest and raved about her daily excursions. Because of our dates, we had to enroll our kids in ski school from Sunday to Thursday, but if you are able to enroll from Monday to Friday, the ski school offers better discounted rates.
3. Number of Beginner Runs: The resort has 200 runs. Approx 30% were marked as greens. Since Dec of 2013 was not a good snow month at Whistler, a lot of these runs had the manmade snow. Almost all the beginner runs were groomed daily but the snow got slushy and icy towards the end of the day the closer you got to the village.
4. Non Skiing Activities: Like all big ski resorts, Whistler had the usual tubing, snowshoeing, x-country skiing, snow mobile tours, and many other activities.
5. Crowds: Even in the middle of peak holiday season, the resort did not feel crowded, especially since we stayed on the Blackcomb Mountain. We saw the Gondola lines on Whistler side were long, but never had line issues on the Blackcomb base. Generally they say, if you are west of the Continental Divide.  Don't worry about it.
6. Airport Access: Whistler is about 3 hours drive from Vancouver. Unlike Colorado, the drive along the Sea to Sky Highway is pretty flat and easy.
7. Groceries: The best place to shop for groceries is in Squamish, a town approximately 45 mins south of Whistler. There is a grocery store and a convenience store in Whistler, but it is much smaller and more expensive. We did our primary grocery shopping in Vancouver (but it would have been just as convenient to stop in Squamish which is on the way to Whistler).

Note: We used WhistlerWired to make all arrangements for our ski trip except the airline portion. They were the listing agent for the home we reserved, they helped arrange our ski school lessons, purchase lift tickets and equipment rentals. We found them to be pretty responsive were quite happy with their service. We still needed to do our own research to identify which ski-lesson/lift tickets options and discounts worked best for us. But once we told them what we wanted, they were able to make appropriate reservations. It would have been great, if their staff was better versed in the various discount packages available (though I am sure we would still have done independent research). 

First taste of liquid sunshine - Vancouver Dec 2013

How much can you say about a city when you are just transiting through it for a brief time? Surprisingly, a whole lot. On our way to Whistler Blackcomb for skiing in December 2013, we stopped at Vancouver for two days. Our transit turned out to be a great teaser. Vancouver is a beautiful and a very friendly city and often called the "best place to live in the world". The downtown has glassy high rise buildings and a very cosmopolitan population. We stayed at The Sutton Place Hotel on Burrard Street. Burrard Street runs through the middle of downtown, with easy access to the shopping areas, restaurants and tourist spots such as the waterfront. While walking along the Burrard street, we came across the Vancouver Visitor Center (across from the convention center). We decided to stop by and ask the folks at the visitor center about things to see and do in the short time we had available. That turned out to be one of the best things we did. The folks at the Visitor Center were really helpful. They suggested we buy a daily bus pass and use the public transportation as a hop on/hop off bus. The day pass cost approx $10 CAN per adult and $8 CAN for kids.

We started our day with a great breakfast at Leonidas, a cozy Belgian chocolate café located right on the waterfront opposite the convention center. Leonidas probably has the best hot chocolate that I have ever tasted. Their chocolates are made in Belgium out of 100% cocoa butter. You get to select whether you want white chocolate, 52%, 75%, 85% dark chocolate. I selected 52% but there were several in our group who selected 85% dark. We all loved our drinks. Leonidas is probably better known for its variety of chocolates, macaroons, cheesecakes and other confectionary.  In addition to awesome hot chocolates, they also had a good selection of coffee specials that was very different than what is found at Starbucks. If you are a chocolate and coffee lover and looking for a cozy cafe in downtown Vancouver to hang out with your friends, Leonidas is definitely the place to be. For breakfast, Leonidas recently introduced Belgium waffles and crepes to its menu. My favorite was the savory crepe, "Javier special" with cheese and ham. We went to Leonidas at least four times during our two day stay in Vancouver. Twice for breakfast and twice simply for hot chocolate and dessert.  We were a big group of 11 and we were loud. Javier (the proprietor) was very accommodating and did not mind us sitting around in his cafe talking and having a great family time. Not once did he made us feel rushed.
After breakfast, we took the local bus to see Gastown. Gastown is a quaint historic part of the town with a beautiful steam clock that cost $42000 and weight 2 tons. The town has lots of artisan galleries, gift shops, kiosks with trinkets. Granville Island is an eclectic mix of art galleries, restaurants, artisanal shops and a farmer's market. The farmer's market with fresh seafood and produce was huge. We also visited Stanley Park, and Yale town. Stanley Park is Vancouver's first, and largest urban park. It boasts scenic views of the water, the mountains, and the majestic trees along the famous Seawall. The Seawall is the most used facility and the totem poles are Stanley Park's most visited tourist attractions. Yale town was formerly a warehouse district but is now transformed into one of Vancouver's chic areas with plenty of sidewalk cafes, a thriving nightlife and trendy restaurants. We capped our first day with ice skating opposite Pacific Rim mall. For food, we tried Tony's Fish and Oyster in Granville Island for lunch and Lebanese food at Nuba in Gastown for dinner, and. Both excellent restaurants with good selection, fresh food well prepared and a friendly vibe.

On day two, we saw a lot of Vancouver's famous liquid sunshine (commonly known as rain). We had plans to go see the Suspension Bridge, but because of rain, we chose to walk around in downtown and try some of their famous Japadogs. Japadog is a chain of street food stands in Vancouver. They specialize in all kinds of hot dogs but especially variants of Japanese style foods (thus their name) such as Okonomiyaki, Teriyaki, Yakisoba etc. In downtown, we walked along Pender street, Burrard street, and Robson Street. We stopped at Joey's for an early Dinner (or late lunch). Joey's gets reserved for dinner months in advance, but since we got there between lunch and dinner, we were able to get seating for our large group. The food was incredibly fresh and really well prepared.

After seeing the Vancouver teaser, we are convinced to visit Vancouver as its own destination in the summer to truly spend time visiting not only the above places, but also to enjoy the great outdoors with whale watching, sea-kayaking and so forth.