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Archive for April, 2019


In 1999, after a decade skiing in Austria, Italy and France, my wife and I decided to switch from Europe to the United States for our winter sports “fix”. We chose the beautiful resort of Heavenly on the south shore of Lake Tahoe – and had skied there ever since.

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Aside from the size of the skiing area (it is the fifth largest on the North American continent), it had the added bonus of being only a three hour drive to San Francisco. Our skiing holidays therefore became a twin break affair – up to a week in Tahoe, followed by a week or more in the City by the Bay.  On some occasions we even threw in Las Vegas, San Diego or Los Angeles.

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Over the course of those two decades we had discussed the possibility of skiing elsewhere. We had always wanted to visit Vancouver in British Columbia, which again could be combined with a trip to San Francisco, so Banff and Whistler became strong candidates. We also researched Vail and Breckenridge in Colorado.

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But every time it came to the final decision, we stuck with Heavenly for a number of reasons – the scenic beauty, snowfall records, size and accessibility of skiing area and the proximity to the Californian coast. We usually stayed on or very close to Stateline, the physical border between California and Nevada, where playing in the casinos (admittedly only the penny slots) became an integral part of our apres-ski experience.

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But this year we finally took the plunge and abandoned Heavenly for Whistler, not least because it had become prohibitive to stay for any length of time in San Francisco (which we would still visit in the autumn). The decision had been made easier by the recent relocation of English friends, who had originally emigrated from North Kent in 2007, from Ontario to British Columbia. If we were to visit them, which we were keen to do, it made sense to find a ski resort in the “neighbourhood”.

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We didn’t make this decision lightly. We knew virtually every inch of the Heavenly ski area and were very comfortable with the environment, whereas Whistler, the largest resort on the continent by some margin, was an unknown quantity. Both the village and terrain were completely unfamiliar to us. Furthermore, the weather forecast for our week’s stay was discouraging, including a fair amount of rain, our least favourite skiing conditions.

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So it was with a degree of trepidation that we stepped off the Skylinx shuttle bus after an overnight stop in Vancouver on the third day of April and settled in our Airbnb on the edge of the village centre.  We had already determined that we would use the first day to acclimatise ourselves with the place, collect our pre-ordered lift passes, skis and boots and stock our apartment with provisions from the local grocery.

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We had purchased a four day lift pass to span the six days we were staying in the resort. So it was the second of those days before we queued up at the base of the Whistler Village Gondola shortly before 10 o’clock on Friday morning.

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Unfortunately, the weather lived up to the forecast – cloudy and misty with alternate rain and snow showers. As a result, we did not venture too far from the area at the top of the mountain on that first day. Poor visibility, unfamiliarity with the terrain and first day nerves contributed to my falling twice on the first run, though after an early morning tantrum, things improved before the persistent wet snow drove us back down the mountain.

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The day took a turn for the better when we wandered into the araxi restaurant for ten Reid Island oysters, prepared by Nigel, and a cool glass of Okanagan Pinos Gris. Technically, this was a happy Hour deal, though the resulting bill argued otherwise.

As much as we loved eating out, the cost of doing so had increasingly forced us to eat in our apartment on recent trips. But on this occasion, we had an excellent meal at the Beacon Pub and Eatery in the village square.

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With three days left on our lift pass, we had to make a decision as to which days to ski. Our final two days in Whistler had consistently promised the best weather, so we were committed to those. The forecast for both Saturday and Sunday was horrible, with the latter day marginally better. Our original plan of two days on, one off and then two days on needed revision, leaving us skiing for the final three days straight.

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Our judgement was vindicated as, even in the village, it rained all day. It did not, however,  deter us strolling around all afternoon, hopping in and out of the attractive coffee houses and gift shops.

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Although, in part due to the inclement weather, we had been unadventurous on our first two days on the mountain, we did not want to leave Whistler without taking the awesome and, some might claim, frightening, PEAK 2 PEAK gondola, which had been invisible on our first few days, over to the Blackcomb skiing area.

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After a few runs around the top of Whistler, we took the tram on our outward journey between the two largest lift terminals in the world. Although we were not deterred by the prospect of travelling in one of the glass-bottomed cabins, we eschewed the wait and took the first available one.

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At this point, I could bore you with lengthy statistics about the PEAK  2 PEAK Gondola, but I will confine it to a few:

  • the “longest unsupported span between two cable car towers” 3.024 kilometres (1.88 miles);
  • the “highest cable car above ground” 436 metres (1430.45 feet); and
  • completes the longest continuous lift system in the world.

Inspired by the ski lifts in Switzerland, at its highest point, it soars 5,280 vertical feet from the valley bottom.

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After lunch in the Roundhouse Lodge at the top of the Whistler Village Gondola on the first two days, we ate at the Rendezvous restaurant alongside the top of the Blackcomb Gondola on the last two, whilst exploring several trails around the peak.

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Once more, the weather forecast had lived up to expectations, and the conditions on Monday and Tuesday, especially Tuesday, were benign with sunshine replacing the periodic precipitation that had blighted our first couple of days. My skiing improved proportionately, though I still wasn’t wholly comfortable with the unfamiliar surroundings.

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Skiing is an expensive pursuit, and I think it is not unreasonable to claim that we might not have had the full value for our outlay, certainly during the first two days when we were still acclimatising ourselves to the vast terrain under wet, gloomy skies. But by Tuesday afternoon, with a deep blue sky and warm sun beaming down upon us, life was good.

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So what was our overall verdict? We liked the village of Whistler – it had a lively, friendly atmosphere and boasted some good bars and restaurants. It was likely to be even more boisterous over the coming weekend as preparations were underway for the hosting of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival. We were a little disappointed, however, that its relatively low elevation meant that it rarely saw snow on the ground.

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It was clear too that the village was extremely proud of its performance as host to the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics Games, with impressive monuments dotted around town and on the mountain.

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And we would certainly ski there again – there are still large parts of the terrain we have still to explore – provided the weather plays ball!

But we missed Heavenly – the lake views, the familiar trails, the mountain restaurants, even the casino bars and the drive up from San Francisco.

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The major lesson we learnt, however, from this adventure was that we had to get fit before skiing in future – irrespective of whether we were in Heavenly, Whistler or Avoriaz or La Thuile in Europe. Although we never caught our breath as we had often done in the much higher resort of Heavenly, we ached more each morning and found it generally more tiring than it had been before. Age may have been a factor, but weight was a greater one. In the past, we had always spent the first couple of months of a new year aiming to lose weight and get relatively fit. We hadn’t this year – and it showed.

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Ageing and aching are an unavoidable fact of life, but at least we can do our best to minimise their impact if we shed a stone or two and exercise more in those crucial months before we set foot on the slopes again.

 

 

 

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For all the people, the noise and the heat,
And some might claim, the smell,
La Serenissima never fails to enchant
In all her fading, crumbling majesty.

At dawn’s emerging light, vaporetti and traghetti
Compete for space on crowded Canal Grande,
Past the bustling barges of bass and bream
Destined for slabs on Mercato di Rialto.

After a lukewarm doppio espresso
And fistful of olive e uovo tramezzini,
Most fragile and delicate of sandwiches,
I resolve to lose myself and escape the
Oppressive throng slouching towards me.

Narrow, dark calli and sotoportegi
Open into vast, vivacious campi
Where scruffy children chase footballs,
Dreaming they are Messi or Ronaldo,
Or if their fathers coached them well,
Paolo Rossi or Roberto Baggio.

Intervals of sweet, intense silence,
Splintered only by hurried footsteps,
Or the plash of a gondolieri’s oar,
Pervade the squares and alleyways
Of Castello and Canareggio.

Down a deserted, soundless rio,
Far from the countless, careless hordes
Spewed from colossal cruise ships
Docked at Baciano Della Stazione Marritima,
A charming pizzeria calls to me from
Beneath a washing line of “smalls” hung high.

At midnight the bands at Florian and Quadri
Are muffled by the mighty, mournful toll
Of the Campanile di San Marco;
And English tourists recluctantly drink up
Their gin and tonics and squint
Incredulously at the final bill.

Mia cara Venezia, tu sei troppo bella
Ti amero sempre.

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