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Winter 2006 | Whistler's Wonderland

Winter 2006 | Whistler's Wonderland

Gay Ski Week is revived as WinterPride 2007, and the Canadian Rockies are as cool as ever.

Schussing down the slopes with hunky boys and designer-clad girls isn't the only reason to attend a gay and lesbian ski event this winter. You'll also take in breathtaking alpine scenery and crystal-clean mountain air, dine at world-class restaurants, and enjoy instant camaraderie with hundreds of gay and lesbian friends at après-ski social events and parties. The popularity of gay ski weeks around the world has mushroomed during the past decade, so newcomers to the scene may wonder which place offers the right variety of activities, the most diverse crowd, and the best bang for your ski buck. One word: Whistler.

Whistler, nestled two hours north of gay-popular Vancouver in British Columbia, fulfilled high-altitude expectations every February for 13 years, rolling out the fresh powder for thousands of gay and lesbian guests at its very popular Altitude Gay Ski Week. But because of organizational and financial chaos within a new management team, Altitude 2006 was officially canceled less than a month before the start of the event. Rushing into action, a team of longtime Whistler residents--gay and straight--banded together to mount a replacement gay ski week for the 2,000 guests who were already booked. Though scaled down compared with previous years, the event gave the new organizers, led by founder Sean Kearns and executive director Dean Nelson, the experience to plan a much larger and more ambitious Whistler event to celebrate its 15th year, dubbed WinterPride 2007, for February 4–11.

Calling it “the next evolution of Gay Ski Week,” Nelson says guests can look forward to the return of the top-notch après-ski mixers that were missing at last year's improvised event. Legendary parties like the Fashion Show, Mountain Top Tea Dance (held at the precariously perched Round House Lodge), and the big blowout Harmony Ball (formerly Snowball) will be back. In addition to these crowd-pleasers, WinterPride will include four different “Experience Tracks” (Sports, Culinary, Health and Wellness, and Education), each containing a menu of activities and classes designed to give each guest “a boutique experience,” according to Nelson. Classes will explore such topics as wine-making, yoga, the fine line between food and sex, and even continuing medical education courses for health care professionals. Each “experience” can be reserved in advance and purchased à la carte. Of course, most of the 2,500 expected guests will be quite content spending their vacation days skiing or boarding and attending the fabulous parties. “I hope it doesn't change too much,” says Doug, a loyal attendee. “I come to ski!”

Not to worry: The dual-mountain resort of Whistler/Blackcomb boasts the greatest vertical rise in North America, containing over 8,100 acres of terrain to keep skiers and boarders of every level challenged and surprised every time they lace up their boots.

Those more comfortable nursing a cocktail than a potential ski injury needn't worry about becoming as pathologically bored as The Shining's Jack Torrance. Charming, pedestrian-friendly Whistler Village, with its alpine architectural flourishes, connects the two mountains. The Village's plentiful gourmet restaurants (including the innovative Araxi and the elegant steak house Hy's) carry the renowned culinary reputation of Vancouver to this romantic mountain setting.

The most exclusive luxury hotel chains are also ensconced here (Westin, Pan Pacific, and a new Four Seasons), and the best private parties often take place in slopeside suites. Another inn worth noting is the Adara Whistler Hotel, delivering the resort's first true boutique hotel experience.

Step outside and hit the Village's stylish clothing outlets and cute coffee shops. After a few hours of highly caffeinated retail therapy (spurred by a slightly weaker Canadian dollar), your back will need a break from lifting all those heavy shopping bags. Last year I enjoyed a spa treatment at the gay-owned Solarice Wellness Centre + Spa (which offers everything from body wraps and paprika facials to tai chi classes and summer ecotours). My therapist insisted on adding some much-needed acupuncture for my sore back. This holistic approach to well-being is typical of Whistler's progressive vibe.

Living in an almost too-perfect slice of alpine nirvana, the laid-back locals are upbeat and welcoming to thousands of winter visitors from around the world (you'll practically trip over the cute young Aussies and Brits who flock here to work every season).

More visitors are on their way--excitement is building for the 2010 Winter Olympics (the Alpine and Nordic events will take place on the local slopes). Of course, this season--before the Olympic flag is raised--a new set of WinterPride banners will line the streets, signaling the start of what organizers ultimately want to turn into a full-fledged gay pride celebration. Just think of it as gay pride with snow, fur boots, and, according to Kearns and Nelson, “lots of cool surprises.”

WINTER PRIDE
Whistler Village goes gay February 4–11 for WinterPride; call 866-612-6150 to make reservations for accommodations, activities, airfare, transfers, and party passes. A seven-day festival pass (including seven nights of accommodations and access to all of the parties) starts at $957. Buy three ski passes and get a free ski lesson on your first day of skiing. Party passes can be purchased separately only at GayWhistler.com.

ACCOMMODATIONS
The Four Seasons Resort Whistler (604-935-3400) upped the luxury and glamour quotient for Whistler's five-star hotel scene when it opened two years ago. Besides glorious mountain views and expansive suites, the elegant Four Seasons offers top-notch service to all of its pampered guests. Pan Pacific has two separate luxury properties in Whistler: the older Mountainside (604-905-2999) and brand-new Village Centre (604-966-5500), both of which are contemporary intimate retreats with fantastic village locations. The Pan Pacific Mountainside was listed as Best Whistler Ski Resort by Condé Nast Traveler. Bringing a dose of Vancouver design and style to the mountains, the Hotel Adara (866-50-ADARA) opened in 2006 as the first designer boutique hotel in Whistler. With only 41 rooms, the hip ambience and trendy clientele sets the Adara apart from the larger hotels in town. The Westin Resort and Spa (604-905-5000) is a gorgeous slopeside property offering all guests full suites with high-end designer kitchens as well as a one of the best spas in Whistler.

RESTAURANTS
Whistler has the well-deserved reputation of being a culinary destination in its own right, with several world-class establishments that far exceed expectations for a ski town. With over 90 restaurants in the village alone with cuisine from all over the world, there's endless variety to satisfy any palate. The top restaurant in town (by popular and critical acclaim) is Araxi (4222 Village Square, 604-932-4548), with innovative contemporary regional cuisine in an elegant setting. Araxi has been awarded Best Whistler Restaurant by Vancouver magazine for seven years straight. Another top dining option is Hy's Steakhouse (4308 Main St., 604-905-5555), with delectable cuts of steak and an expansive wine list. Of course, there's a full range of more casual eateries and cafés in the village to suit different tastes and price points.

NIGHTLIFE
There are no exclusively gay clubs in this small resort town, but that refreshing Canadian live-and-let-live attitude (hello--gay marriage) means that gays and lesbians rarely encounter hostility if they're out partying or showing affection in one of the lively local watering holes full of hunky skiers and boarders of all stripes. Of course, during WinterPride 2007, there will no shortage of nightlife to keep visitors warm and cozy, including the Brokeback Mountain Country Western Party, the Mountaintop Tea Dance, and the fabulous Snowball blowout. Check www.gaywhistler.com for updates on the full range of the après-ski mixers, parties, and dances.

ATTRACTIONS
Besides the endless skiing and boarding possibilities on two of the premier mountains in North America (Whistler and Blackcomb), there are many other activities for snow bunnies, including snowmobiling, zip-line tours, cross-country skiing, and, of course, numerous spas (try the gay-owned and operated Solarice Spa) and cafés in the pedestrian-friendly Whistler Village. The official Tourism Whistler Web site features a full list of available activities in this action-packed town.

GETTING THERE
Numerous airlines (including Air Canada and United) fly to Vancouver, Canada. It's a short and scenic two-hour drive to Whistler on the Sea-to-Sky highway by rental car or the frequently scheduled Perimeter Bus.

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