HALFWAY THROUGH THE TREK to Harmony Lake on Whistler Mountain I became lost in the view—a celestial scene of snowy cathedral-like peaks rising above a lush forested valley to kiss the cloud bank. But my reverie was cut short when a hiking companion whispered, “Don’t move. Look to your right.” Fully expecting to see some type of creepy crawler, I followed his gaze to a boulder less than an arm’s length away. There sat a furry, sandy-colored marmot munching on bright blue arctic lupine. Little did I know at the time that the flower-snacking critter was wildlife royalty in Whistler.
Back at the gondola station a guide filled us in. The hoary marmot was nicknamed “the whistler” by British settlers in the early 1900s because of the shrill noise it makes when alerting pals to danger. In the 1960s, four Vancouver entrepreneurs began development of Canada’s premier ski destination and successfully petitioned government officials to change the name of London Mountain to Whistler Mountain, in honor of its cuddliest inhabitants.
If you’ve only experienced Whistler during the winter, then you’ve likely never met a marmot. The creatures don’t emerge from their burrows until mid-May, as the snow begins to melt, at which point they gorge on grasses and flowers. If you ask me, they have the right idea: Whistler is at its best when the weather warms up.
Besides the usual off-season perks—minimal crowds, hotel discounts, and negligible waits for attractions—there are more things to see and do in summer than in winter. There’s boating and kayaking on azure waterways, zip-lining through coastal rain forest, mountain biking on an adrenaline-inducing jumps course, alpine hiking, gondola riding, golfing and, yes, high-altitude skiing and snowboarding. You can now also hit the Whistler Sliding Centre, site of the bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton events for the 2010 Olympic Games.
A five-hour trip north of Seattle on I-5—assuming the line at the Canadian border is mercifully short—the drive to Whistler is made more tolerable via the less-trafficked Pacific Highway border crossing via State Route 543. We stopped for a bite and a latte in Vancouver, then pushed north on the Sea to Sky Highway, which curves around the hypnotizing turquoise waters of Howe Sound and climbs into the jagged Coast Mountains.
The Four Seasons Resort Whistler, located in the upper village, served as our base. Surrounded by a dense evergreen wall, the posh timber-and-stone lodge features spacious wood-trimmed rooms with snowbank-size beds and cozy fireplaces. We tossed the keys to the valet, stashed the bags in our rooms, and dashed off to the Whistler Village Gondola.
Gliding up the side of the mountain, we watched mountain bikers descending 4,900 vertical feet of lift-serviced trails at the Whistler Mountain Bike Park. Dusty, helmeted, and clad in hard plastic protective gear as if dressed for a match in the Thunderdome, the riders raced down the more than 200 trails ranging from gentle banked cruisers to twisted single track to steep rock faces. One guy wiped out and slid briefly on the rough terrain before standing up to reveal his freshly skinned leg. I vowed to stay clear of the park. One of my daredevil travel companions, on the other hand, rented a bike and gear and abandoned our group to spend the rest of the trip on the course.
The gondola ride ends at the mountain’s 6,069-foot peak, the starting point for numerous hiking excursions. Blackcomb and Whistler combined have over 30 miles of well-groomed trails, including the one-and-a-half-mile path to Harmony Lake where we met our marmot friend. Traveling between the two mountains is effortless on the Peak 2 Peak Gondola. An impressive feat of engineering, the nearly three-mile gondola holds the world records for being the longest free-span lift and the highest detachable lift. The 11-minute trip between peaks offers nonstop jaw-dropping views.
While the Peak 2 Peak is undeniably the crown jewel of the resort’s lift system, the 7th Heaven chairlift on Blackcomb is the diamond in the rough. The lift transports summertime skiers, snowboarders, and anyone craving a killer lookout point 7,494 feet up the mountain to Hortsman Glacier. If you take a spin on the lift, be sure to bring a thermal jacket, gloves, and perhaps a scarf. The climate on the glacier is considerably cooler than in the village, where the average high temperature is in the 70s.
When the gondolas shut down at night, crowds descend on the village’s 90 restaurants, pubs, and cafes to savor the day’s adventures. We slid into a high-backed white leather booth at the Mountain Club, a rustic log-hewn lounge. On the waitress’s recommendation, we ordered a round of Goggle Tan cocktails—Grey Goose vodka, ginger liqueur, cilantro, aloe juice, and fresh lime, rimmed with cayenne pepper—followed by porcini-dusted scallops and other delectable Pacific Northwest–inspired dishes.
By 11 the following morning, powered by the legendary cinnamon buns from Hot Buns Bakery, I stood harnessed and helmeted on a wooden platform 200 feet above Fitzsimmons Creek. A guide with the eco-tour company Ziptrek stood near the platform’s edge waving me forward. Another tourist, a kinsman from my native Texas, said in passing, “Kick your legs up, lock them around the rope and go upside down.” Following his directions, I stepped off the platform and flew, upside down, across a 1,100-foot cable at a speed I can only describe as really, really fast.
The rush from the three-hour zip-line tour still lingered that evening as I surveyed the flurry of activity at the elegant Bearfoot Bistro. A jovial bunch sipped bubbly at the pewter bar in the Champagne Lounge. Another group outfitted in parkas ventured into the ice room, an arctic cavern serving 50 different vodkas. Around the dining room, patrons washed down bites of wild caribou loin and gnocchi swimming in crab bisque with vintages from the 23,000-bottle cellar. As I took in the scene, I couldn’t help but think that when it comes to summertime gorging done right, those marmots have nothing on us.