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Why Whistler could actually be better in the summer

 (Four Seasons )
(Four Seasons )

You're finishing off the last dregs of mulled wine and looking ahead to 2024 for something — anything! — to look forward to when you realise that, once again, you’ve left it too late to book that ski trip you promised yourself.

Not to the Alps or the Pyrenees this time, but the snow-capped peaks of British Columbia, Canada, you’ve always dreamt of. Now don’t fret, why not make this the year to think off-piste and try all things summertime out in the town of Whistler, BC – after all, the mountain resort can now brag that it receives more visitors during the spectacular warm and sunny months than when the snow flies in winter.

For me, a Canadian Brit transplanted from the forests of North Vancouver to London over a dozen years ago, skiing was never something that required much thought or effort. Or money, for that matter, unlike in the UK. It’d been over seven years since I’d been back on the slopes at Whistler-Blackcomb, 2,000ft up in the glacier-clad Coast Mountains, and even longer since I’d popped over in summer, and never during the biggest mountain bike festival in the world, Crankworx.

I couldn’t believe the difference a few years has made in the transformation of this Winter Olympic host resort into a sun-drenched, al fresco nirvana packed with thousands of mountain bikers and over 300,000 visitors through the end of July.

In fact Whistler, around 90 minutes north through rugged scenery from Canada’s jewel on the Pacific, Vancouver, can pride itself on being what PRs love to call an all-seasons resort – and I was here to experience everything that summer had to offer, both on and off the mountains.

Summer holidays to Whistler are incresingly popular (Four Seasons)
Summer holidays to Whistler are incresingly popular (Four Seasons)

At the foot of two mile-high peaks both connected by a vast network of lifts (which as of this December includes western Canada’s first eight-passenger chairlift, the Fitzimmons Express), the pedestrianised, picture-postcard village is the hub of everything fun. All this shares space within the traditional territories of the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) Nation and Lil̓wat7úl (Lil’wat) Nation peoples, and Whistler-Blackcomb (as the mountain operations are named) is ranked as the number one mountain resort in North America year after year.

It's no secret that Whistler also shares space with bears when they wake from their winter slumber, and if you’re like me, you’ll be determined to see some for yourself.

So, polish off the stale mince pies and join me for a rethink of that ski trip – and consider joining the more than 1.5 million visitors who make Whistler their centre of adventure every summer.

What to do: on the mountain

Let’s start off with what brought us back here in the first place: Whistler’s status as a mountain-bike mecca. While the season runs roughly from May to October, it’s late July when things really hot up for the 10-day Crankworx festival, which has been celebrating all things mountain bike for 20 years in Whistler.

Imagine more than 1,000 top-level athletes hurtling down Whistler Mountain, launching off 30ft jumps, making it all look easy until the *bangs* of bursting inner tubes are a reminder that these riders aren’t as invincible as they look. I even heard it called the “Super Bowl of mountainbiking”.We had to give the Whistler Mountain Bike Park a go and had no second thoughts when asked to suit up in head-to-toe ‘armour’, complete with back and chest plate, before meeting our instructor for the day, who even came with a Devon accent.

All downhill from here: Matt Hryciw preparing for mountain biking (Matt Hryciw)
All downhill from here: Matt Hryciw preparing for mountain biking (Matt Hryciw)

After learning a few basics (gears, brakes… loading a full-size mountain bike up on its rear wheel into a moving eight-passenger gondola), we set off into alpine meadows and down to the entrance of the first, green, trail.  Now I’m sure most of you have ridden a bike, but with gravity constantly tugging you down around every hairpin corner, this is a whole other experience – and one that quickly matched the thrill of skiing for me. It’s cycling, but through unspoilt alpine forests on shock absorbers, all while hardly touching the pedals.

While I found my biking legs after my first shot down the trails and was pumped for a second round, my partner Fabio thought sampling Canadian craft beers on tap on a sun-drenched roof terrace overlooking the action at the Garibaldi Lift Co bar and grill was a better option. Let’s be honest here – this kind of biking’s not going to be for everyone. But in a place like this, you’re spoilt for choice for other outdoor pursuits: if après ski is half the fun, just imagine après in the summer sun.

Post bike and post beer, we headed back on foot through landscaped forest paths to the Four Seasons Resort, where we were lucky enough to spend two nights, to pick up our feast for a trip up Whistler Peak: an embarrassingly big box of goodies from local village deli Picnic Whistler packed with more than we could handle. Local cheeses, spicy deli meats, fresh berries, crackers and dips would more than keep us going. We even got asked where the party was on the way up.

Hopping back on Whistler Gondola, this time we rode all the way to the high alpine (picnic box in tow). This is where the mountain magic really kicks in: soaring peaks, thawing glaciers and gem-like turquoise lakes provided the backdrop for a day of mountain-top hikes and a few prime Insta posts from the top of the world. We carried on up the vertigo-inducing Peak Express chairlift, as it climbed sheer cliffs to the summit, jagged rocks exposed from underneath their winter blanket. Not so many years ago this was the preserve of skiers, snowboarders and a few hardy hikers, but with the opening of the Cloudraker suspension bridge a few years back it’s become a mountaintop must. If you passed on the adrenaline hit of the bike park down below, this will get your heart racing, dangling above a boulder-strewn glacier at almost 8,000ft.

A word of warning: any unattended picnic box will be quickly claimed by a wild animal, be that the hoary marmots that ran past us on Whistler Mountain’s alpine terrace, hungry chipmunks or ever-inquisitive blue jays, who visited our hotel balcony amid the treetops the next morning to make fast work of our leftovers while we refilled coffees inside.

Matt Hryciw looks down from the Cloudraker suspension bridge (Matt Hryciw)
Matt Hryciw looks down from the Cloudraker suspension bridge (Matt Hryciw)

What to do: off the mountains

The village centre, a humming replica of the prettiest of Alpine towns, has bustling pedestrianised streets – an inviting respite amid the North American penchant for driving, well, everywhere for everything. Nearly all hotels are in walking distance, so make the most of long summer evenings exploring the cafes, bars and restaurants.

Dining

There’s no shortage of options to suit every budget. To save a few ‘Loonies’ (that’s Canadian dollars, to you) be sure to stop by Tim Hortons in the village for a coffee and doughnut in its home and native land. But streetside in the village is where all the best people-watching happens. Mountain bikers might not win many awards for fashion, but Bar Oso is front and centre for the action, nevertheless. Pull up a stool along the windows and get your hands on the Spanish inspired small plates and house-made charcuterie, perfect for grazing with a glass or two of BC Pinot Noir.

For morning (or afternoon) brews, there’s the central stalwart Moguls Coffee House overlooking the main square, with some of the friendliest caffeine service in town. And you can’t go wrong perched on the terrace across the cobbled Village Square at the canary yellow La Bocca with a bottle of wine before the sun sets.

Matt Hryciw on his two-wheeled tour of Whistler (Matt Hryciw)
Matt Hryciw on his two-wheeled tour of Whistler (Matt Hryciw)

Cycling

Whistler Valley is connected by the 40km Valley Trail, a paved, car-free ribbon of recreation that weaves between the area’s five beautiful lakes. An e-bike is my top pick for getting to see the most the valley has to offer from two wheels, and Can-Ski Blackcomb in the Upper Village has everything you’ll need to get started (they even name their bikes after the ex-members of One Direction).

Pack a towel and take a surprisingly balmy dip at the Lost Lake beach or watch the float planes land on the glowing, glacial (read: not balmy) Green Lake further along the trail.

Deep sleep: the comfy beds at Four Seasons Whistler (Four Seasons)
Deep sleep: the comfy beds at Four Seasons Whistler (Four Seasons)

Where to stay

There’s no shortage of places to get your winks in Whistler – there’s room for something like 30,000 visitors every night around town, from five-star behemoths to boutiques and B&Bs. The Four Seasons Resort (from £250 per night) tucked into the woods at the base of Blackcomb Mountain, stands out from the rest – and that’s just the bedding.

If you’ve never sunk into Four Seasons line of pillows and sheets, you haven’t quite lived. We could barely pull ourselves out of the cloud-like cocoon, but once we did there was a gym, spa and curving outdoor pool and Scandi-style timber sauna to enjoy. Even if you’re not one of their overnight guests, it’s worth a visit to Sidecut Steakhouse for the Epicurean Seafood Tower alone, alongside what might be one of the most artfully presented cocktails you’ll have ever ordered, like the Sunda Punch.

So, what about those bears? On our last day, pulling up near the hotel on our e-bikes, came the icing on our mountain-sized cake: a big, brown bear minding his own business. Being warned by locals shouting from rolled-down car windows of the neighbourly visitor in the bushes, we kept our distance and followed the lumbering beast as he crossed a car park, hoisted himself over some logs and slipped back into the woods, completely unbothered.

A perfect ending to a fantastic few summer days in the Canadian mountains – and alongside the sun tan, something we never would have experienced on a winter ski trip.