After a snow-starved season, the king of Canadian ski resorts comes back with new terrain, hotels, dining and deals. Let's get the ugly facts out of the way: It did rain in Whistler last January. For eight torrential, unheard-of days. "It was an anomaly, says mountain manager Doug MacFarlane, who's been here for 17 years. (Last year was the second-worst season on the books, with 33 fewer feet of snow than during the record-breaking '98—'99 season.) To Whistler's credit, the lifts kept running, but little could save the season—not even the sun that shone through clear skies for the next six weeks straight.
The unfortunate side effect of the weather—aside from loss of revenue and morale—was that Whistler's real news was largely overlooked. In advance of the 2010 Olympics, Whistler is being remodeled and restyled. Announced in September, construction of a much-anticipated gondola linking the summits of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains could be completed by 2007. More tangible are several tony new hotels that effectively redefine the lodging landscape. On the mountain, 1,100 acres of new terrain were on track to open for 2004—05, though thanks to the weather, only the 700 acres of Flute Bowl debuted. This season, there are also new restaurants, $15 million in on-mountain improvements and a host of offerings off-slope, including an explosion of day spas, the family-friendly Village at Creekside, and a nighttime tubing park and superpipe on Blackcomb. In other words, since 2003, the destination experience at Whistler/Blackcomb has undergone nothing short of a complete face-lift.
What does that mean for visitors? Two seasons of improvements for the price of one. And deals. The weather—and the resulting plummet in Whistler's tourism—has produced a resort-wide eagerness to cut deals, something the strengthening Canadian dollar has made particularly crucial. Look for savings everywhere, when booking online, bundling vacation components, and during some 11 scattered weeks during which you can land a 50-percent discount on ski school lessons.
Needless to say, skiers are eager to get back on the slopes. New terrain includes four forested and roly-poly Peak to Creek runs that drop from the bottom of Bagel and West Bowls to the Creekside base. The Peak to Creek trail itself is groomed, but the other trails are left untouched. And Flute Bowl, though it opened last season, will be a new experience for most Whistler visitors. A classic high alpine bowl with a semicircular crest, Flute serves up backcountry powder on terrain that ranges from rolling to steep. Formerly the exclusive province of locals equipped with avy gear and insider knowledge, Flute's now open to anyone willing to hike for their turns: It's inbounds, patrolled and uncrowded. And wild.
Down in the village, however, things are getting ever more populated. The Four Seasons Resort Whistler, which opened in June 2004 on the former site of a day-skier parking lot in Blackcomb Village, is the resort's new face of luxury. Where potholes used to collect spring melt-off now sit 273 hotel rooms with Whistler's biggest walk-in closets, look-you-in-the-eye service and a terrific spa. At the adjacent Four Seasons Residences, 37 condo-homes are over-the-top plush, with silk and leather wallpaper, contemporary artwork, plasma TVs and gourmet kitchens. Neither property is slopeside, but at its private club room at Blackcomb's base, the Four Seasons ski concierge provides Prada skiwear with your warmed boots and tuned skis.
The Pan Pacific Whistler Village Centre (not to be confused with the Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside), in the heart of the village, also has risen over a former parking lot. Its 83 suites are roomy and elegant, with full yet compact kitchens. Vital Spirit, a mini-spa, offers everything from chocolate body wraps to foot reflexology that soothes boot-weary feet.
But Whistler's newest property is the one to watch. Boutique hotel Adara, opening this month in a formerly forgettable 1980s condo building in Whistler Village, was developed by the minds behind Opus, Vancouvver's hottest hotel-of-the-moment. Expect an emphasis on modern design with touches of urban-meets-alpine whimsy, notably the lobby's faux antler racks, made from pink resin. Half of Adara's 41 rooms are lofted and the lobby is intimate, with semicircular banquettes surrounding a fireside conversation pit. Around which, one hopes, there will be more to talk about than the weather.
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8,171 acres inbounds; 5,280 vertical feet; base elevation 2,214 feet; summit elevation 7,494 feet; 360 inches annual snowfall; 200-plus runs; 33 lifts. Tickets: adults $63; youth 13-18 and seniors over 65 $54; kids 7-12 $33; kids 6 and under free.
Lodging The Four Seasons Resort Whistler offers a fourth night free (non-holiday), and its Ultimate Ski Package includes lift tickets, rentals, breakfast and ski concierge, from $345 per night, non-holiday; $295—$4,700; 888-935-2460, fourseasons.com. The Pan Pacific Whistler Village Centre has a great location; $255—$2,300; 888-905-9995, panpacific.com. At Adara, ultra-modern is the operating motif; $399—$1,025; 866-502-3272, adarahotel.com. Worth noting: Full-scale renovations have been completed at Blackcomb Lodge, Crystal Lodge and the Hilton Whistler Village (formerly the Delta Whistler).
Dining New restaurants to try in the village include Après for fusion cuisine, 21 Steps and Elements for tapas, Joey Chan's for Chinese and Ric's Grill for contemporary continental.
Inside info These local tour operators know the ropes. Go with VIP Mountain Holidays for luxury vacations (888-246-7003; vipmountainholidays.com); Whistler Superior Properties for condo- and home-rental packages (877-535-8282; whistlersuperior.com); or Eagle Tours for competitive rates (888-793-9222; eagletour.com).
Getting there Fly to Vancouver International Airport. Whistler is 85 miles north on the scenic Sea to Sky Highway. All the major car-rental outfits are steps from baggage claim. The bus costs $56 one-way, (877-317-7788; perimeterbus.com), or hire a four-wheel-drive limo (from $55 an hour; Star Limousine, 800-803-9222; starlimousine.com).Information Whistler/Blackcomb, 866-218-9690; whistler-blackcomb.com.Tourism Whistler, 800-944-7853; tourismwhistler.com