As the world descends on Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics, it is Whistler--75 miles to the north--that could perhaps provide the signature images of these Winter Games. Nestled in the Canadian Rockies and just over 90-minutes on wonderfully scenic Sea-to-Sky highway, the resort town will play host to the events in Alpine Skiing, sliding sports (bobsleigh, luge, skeleton) and Nordic skiing (made up of cross-country, Nordic combined and ski jumping).
It's an Olympic model that has been followed for the past three Winter Games in Nagano, Salt Lake and Torino: Build a base of venues, accommodations and facilities around the infrastructure of a big city, and host the sports traditionally held in mountains in the nearest quintessential ski town. In 2002, it was Park City; in 2006, Italian resort Sestriere was the hub for the mountain events.
A true ski town is precisely what Whistler is. The town was originally built more than 50 years ago with a vision of one day hosting the Olympics. Whistler Mountain opened in 1966, in what was then known as Alta Lake. Blackcomb Mountain opened in 1980 and the two rivaled each other for skiing supremacy in the Canadian Rockies for almost two decades. The two were joined under one Whistler Blackcomb umbrella in 1997 and just this past year were truly united with the innovative PEAK 2 PEAK gondola that takes passengers from one mountain across the valley to the other without the need to descend back into town.
The PEAK 2 PEAK gondola travels almost three miles from Rendezvous Lodge (6,105 ft.) on Blackcomb to Roundhouse Lodge (6,069 ft.) on Whistler in just 11 minutes. There's nothing like it in North America, or the world for that matter. The views are stunning. Look east and it's the beautifully dense pine forests, rising all the way to Overlord Glacier. Look west and you see across the entire Whistler valley. Or if you are lucky, board one of the gondola cars with the glass floor and gaze down at Fitzsimmons Creek below meandering between the two massive mountains.
The PEAK 2 PEAK gondola is just one of the many additions and upgrades put in place for the 2010 Olympics. Over 90 percent of the mountain will remain open through the month of February and those visiting, who want to throw on a pair of skis won't need an event ticket to watch the races: the mountain has created six public viewing areas for skiers along the Men's Downhill, Super G and Giant Slalom course and four public viewing areas along Franz's Run, where the Women's Downhill and Super G can be seen.
In town, the city has bolstered an already impressive bus network for the Olympics. There's no need to rent a car, no matter what time of year you intend to travel here. Busses run through all the major neighborhoods, funneling into downtown Whistler, and even directly to the Whistler and Blackcomb gondolas.
Above all, Whistler provides the feel of a European ski resort easily accessible from most of North America: above-tree line skiing, a small, intimate village, big open bowls and endless runs that go on for miles. With the Games set to open this weekend, Whistler Blackcomb's biggest criticism has certainly made headlines: its weather can be fickle--often ranging from fog to wet snow to rain--and it's already disrupted the downhill training runs. As one Canadian Olympic skier put it: "That's what happens when you have a huge mountain range right next to the ocean, set in a rain forest."
But don't let that deter you, Whistler Blackcomb's massive vertical 5,280 feet allow for much different snow conditions at higher elevations, where light and fluffy powder contrasts with the frequent wet, spring-like snow at the base. And in the end, a true outdoors person wouldn't want it any other way: the beauty of Whistler Blackcomb is very much defined by its unique geography and topography. May the Games begin!