Sound is muffled inside the Audain Art Museum, almost as if a blanket of snow is swallowing noise not merely outside, in the Canadian winter, but here inside as well, in a brand new art museum in the middle of Whistler, BC. Step only a few yards to the north or south of the $44 million building, and day-use parking lots buzz with activity—ski bums jostle open roof-top racks and SUVs spill out kids in puffy snow bibs. Inside the Audain it’s as serene as a Buddhist monastery, every footstep muffled by the slatted hemlock ceiling.
Whistler Blackcomb is the western hemisphere’s biggest and, according to many, best ski resort, topping Ski magazine’s annual rankings more often than it falls to number two. The mountain’s 37 chairlifts have a capacity to haul almost 70,000 people per hour—that’s half the population of Bellevue. And by 4pm on a winter weekend, it feels like an equal number are elbowing for apres cocktails at party haven Garibaldi Lift Company, down in the village base.
Despite being already as celebrated as it gets in the snow-sliding world, Whistler opens its doors even wider: Acquired by Vail Resorts last year for more than $1 billion, it joins mega mountains in Vail, Park City, and Stowe. The deal closed too late to make much of a dent last winter, but this year marks Whistler’s inclusion on a shared Epic Pass ticket meant to draw regulars from the partner resorts. (The Epic is in, and the Edge Card, which gave discounts to Washington residents, is basically out; the almost-a-local perk shrank to only multiday tickets purchased before mid-November.) Welcome to the Vail Resorts big league.
But right there between parking lots three and four in Whistler Village, the new Audain makes a case for Whistler’s quieter, more contemplative side. Built on risers that stabilize it over a floodplain—there’s a reason this central land parcel wasn’t already a Four Seasons or rental shop—it seems to levitate even higher above the fray. Benefactor Michael Audain donated an entire collection of British Columbian art, from carved Tlingit masks to the vivid nature scenes of BC art superstar Emily Carr. Before ground was even broken, the billionaire decided to double the museum’s square footage; by the time it opened in 2016, it cost 45 percent more than planned.
A long hallway links the galleries. Glass windows consume one entire side facing a stand of trees—it could be the boundless Canadian forest for all you can tell from here, but try not to dwell on the fact that it’s a thin green belt masking ski bus stops and condos. It barely matters what’s on the walls; the building itself is enough to demand a culture detour to a powder pilgrimage.
Whistler only gets bigger. Since it opened in the 1960s, it’s swelled to a second mountain (Blackcomb), year-round attractions, and Olympic venues from the 2010 Games. About the only thing that’s receding is the Hortsman Glacier, a gentle slope on the upper mountain, topped with a T-bar lift; for the last two years the resort has attempted to fix that with high-volume snow guns. Take that, global warming.
So how does one carve out calm in a destination dedicated to movement, where lift lines grow to a gridlocked mass on winter weekends—the Mercer Mess on ice?
Easy: spas. Especially one with guaranteed peace and quiet, the no-talking Scandinave Spa. The series of outdoor hot and cold pools dot a wooded hillside, interspersed with a wood-burning sauna, a solarium, and an aerie of hammocks. The silence and no-phone rules mean there’s little sound but the churn of the cold-plunge waterfalls and the yelps of spa-goers ducking under them.
Across town, the Nita Lake Lodge spa indulges chatter in a eucalyptus steam room and in rooftop hot tubs. Nestled into a wooded basin across the highway from the ski lifts, the hotel fronts on the ski town with a near-private lake in back; these are the only accommodations in town that could convince you you’re in a remote mountain getaway.
Ticket prices aside, Whistler’s new ownership won’t likely change much at first, but plans are under way for a mountaintop suspension bridge (to open next summer), and Vail Resorts has murmured about an indoor waterpark someday. The conglomerate’s app could eventually help Whistler skiers avoid crowds by sharing real-time line info, but in light of the mountain’s reliable snow levels and easy access from Vancouver—and Seattle, when the border backups don’t suck—even booking it to the emptiest runs doesn’t provide an escape from Disneyland-length queues at the base of each lift.
It may be impossible to get true isolation on the slopes, but the best trick for carving out solo space is to take a ski lesson—even if you’re long past rote beginner moves like “pizza” and “french fries.” Blue-jacketed Snow School instructors know which mountain pockets hold untracked powder. An extra hundred bucks or so buys a teacher who qualified for the Olympics, and $1,300 upgrades you to a gold medalist—but even undecorated staff pass along the biggest prize, cutting lift lines. Now that’s zen.
What else is new on Northwest ski slopes.
Crystal Mountain: Late-summer wildfires choked the state’s biggest resort with smoke, but brand-new snowmaking facilities escaped damage. This year, Crystal finally reintroduces night skiing, illuminating the bunny hill until 8pm some weekends. crystalmountainresort.com
Whitefish Mountain Resort: Montana’s charming mountain town upgraded its adorable quotient with ski-in, ski-out tree houses called the Snow Bear Chalets, complete with shingle-sided turrets and hot tubs. snowbearchalets.com
Schweitzer Mountain Resort: The new day lodge at the North Idaho mountain’s pinnacle isn’t only for skiers; anyone can visit for 360-degree overlooks of the Selkirk Mountains and Lake Pend Oreille, and the subsequent Instagram likes. schweitzer.com