From the chairlift, we saw a black bear grazing in the grass. Our group of ski buddies is used to leaving for Whistler in the midst of a drab March, jealously breathing Vancouver's floral-spiced spring air while winding though the city toward the Sea to Sky Highway. On these prior trips, the bears were still in hibernation, and the tulips had yet to bloom in Toronto.
But this spring, we delayed the pilgrimage until May because, for the third consecutive year, the snow pack was still intact late in the season, allowing Blackcomb (Whistler is closed) to stay open until May 28.
Two hours north of Vancouver, the resort amassed 400 centimetres of snow in March, and nearly 150 cm in April and May for a total of about 1,400 cm on the year, not including the output from 220 snow guns. So we skied top to bottom in every sort of snow condition over three days, from hard pack to dry powder to slushy corn. We came back tanned and happy, with a smaller dent in the wallet than usual. (If it weren't for the après-ski at the Longhorn Bar and Grill, we'd have saved even more.)
Here, then, are five reasons to haul the skis out of storage:
The locals bemoan May as the “shoulder season,” that time when it's too late for “true” skiing and too early for mountain biking. And the majority of tourists have no idea one can ski in May. Someone in the hot tub said everyone's in Hawaii. Therefore, it's left to discounted pricing to lure visitors up the mountain. Lift tickets are $168 for three days, plus taxes – a reduction of about 40 per cent from regular prices. Near-empty condos and hotels are available for bargain-basement prices – our two-bedroom-plus loft at the Glacier Lodge, five minutes' walk from the lifts, slept eight and went for $190 a night (that's $23.75 each a night!) over a three-day weekend. Go to whistlerblackcomb.com or whistler.com for last-minute packages.
The sprawling village's variety of fine restaurants and pubs sets it apart from some other ski areas. Sweetening the deal is the fact May is Dine in Whistler month: Prix fixe menus are available for $19 to $49. Ric's Grill is offering roast beef and Comice pear salad, B.C. Arctic char and molten lava cake for $39. We went to Quattro's, where my nephew works as a chef, for the $29 three-course dinner of endive, ricotta and prosciutto salad, with eggplant-wrapped Pacific halibut, and fruit sorbet. Other establishments are offering other inducements: all-you-can-eat in 90 minutes for $30 at Nagomi Sushi, and 50 per cent off food and wine Monday to Thursday at the Mongolie Grill.
During this past week, a high-pressure ridge settled over the area, promising to drench Whistler in sunshine. That will likely kill the ski-out, but if that happens, you can hop on a chairlift or gondola mid-mountain and be spared the fatiguing ride through the slop at the bottom. On one chair ride, we had rain, fog, snow and, finally, obscured sunshine. One day, we skied in dry ankle-deep powder and blissful sunshine. Later, we skied out of Seventh Heaven through a sideways precipitation that felt like tacks drilling into our faces. We spent much of another day in a visibility-reducing cloud, only to be rewarded the next with a bluebird day so warm some showboats skied in their jockstraps. Warning: Bring sun block and lip balm. Three days later, I was still peeling.
Don't want to ski? Sunbathe at the Residence Inn's outdoor pool. Rent mountain bikes for $10 an hour. Swing the clubs at the Whistler Golf Club (opening May 18) or the breathtaking Nicklaus North, which opened May 10 with green fees of $65 (book at golfbc.com). For a discounted fee of $89, travel the zipline through the forest and over the river. Visit the excellent Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre and its Indigenous Café. Or hey, why not enter the Whistler Adult Sprint Triathlon scheduled for May 26. Do not feed the bears, though.
Before the trip began, we were looking forward to the Longhorn, the famed bar at the base of Whistler. Jamie, one of the guys in the group, said there's nothing quite like working up a sweat to go from top to bottom for the last run of the day, legs screaming, body thirsting, knowing that your friends are sitting there with a pitcher of beer at the ready. (To truly appreciate it, you have to earn it.) Even the weather seems to know it's legendary: Clouds can be shrouding the mountain, yet often the Longhorn is bathed in sunshine, enticing skiers to strip off their gear to luxuriate in the warmth. The beer is overpriced at $20 a pitcher but no one cares. The fun-loving Aussie staff, the beautiful people from Vancouver, the classic rock tunes, the din of laughter and the beauty of Whistler … it all adds up.