Whistler, Canada, roughly two hours outside of Vancouver, has a reputation for being one of North America’s top ski towns. A pair of glacier-capped mountains draws skiers and snowboarders from around the world for incredibly long and – in some cases – incredibly challenging runs. Not surprisingly, Whistler is also incredibly expensive. The lift ticket alone is more than $100. Throw in accommodation and restaurants – generally geared toward well heeled international visitors – and a weekend on the slopes with the family can easily set you back a few thousand dollars. I tried to find a cheaper way to experience Whistler, leaning heavily on advice from the local ski and snowboard bums.
Whistler’s Slopes and Après-Ski Charms, the Cheap Way
By Remy Scalza for The New York Times
Published Feb. 25, 2015
(For the online version of the article on The New York Times website, click here)
Seven little words sure to warm any frugal heart: “Sir, you’ve been upgraded from your yurt.”
A few weeks back, in a bid to cut costs on a ski trip to Whistler, the ritzy Canadian resort town near Vancouver, I had booked one of the cheapest options I could find: a yurt. For the uninitiated, a yurt is kind of like a big tent, but with a wood floor and actual beds. This one, at a private campground and R.V. park outside town, was going for 99 Canadian dollars a night ($80 at 1.23 Canadian dollars to the U.S. dollar), not exactly dirt cheap but a relative steal considering hotel rooms were starting at twice as much. I’d bring a sleeping bag, I told myself. There was a little stove inside to keep warm. It would be just like camping — glamping even.
But as I stepped out of my car in Whistler to a light snow and chilly breeze, I was having second thoughts about spending a weekend of subzero nights sleeping, for all intents and purposes, in the great outdoors. So when the front desk at the Riverside Resort campground explained that my yurt wasn’t ready and I’d been upgraded at no cost to a mini cabin — a handsome little red-cedar number with a bathroom, queen bed, electricity and heat — I didn’t protest. There’s a point when frugality yields diminishing returns, and I was starting to think a yurt in winter might be past that point.
But, for travelers on a tight budget, Whistler does demand some extreme measures. Most ski towns are pricey. Whistler is in a league of its own, a likely consequence of being named North America’s top resort for most of the last 20 years by a bevy of glossy ski magazines, not to mention hosting an Olympics a few years back. (It was also the subject of a recent 36 Hours column by The Times, which highlighted some of its less frugal charms.) Yes, the skiing is extraordinary: two separate mountains (Whistler and Blackcomb); 8,000-odd acres of skiable terrain; a mile-long vertical drop on the longest of runs. But none of that comes cheap. (I should note, however, that the recent free fall of the Canadian loonie means international visitors do get substantial savings in the exchange.) An adult, full-day lift ticket, which just gets you on the slopes, is 119 Canadian dollars (15 dollars less if you buy in advance online). On my budget, that meant I’d be able to afford one day of skiing, at most, over the weekend, and I’d need to scrimp and save to manage even that.
Fortunately, while Whistler does attract its share of international high rollers, it’s also home to a sizable and decidedly different demographic: young, seasonal employees perpetually strapped for cash, many on work visas from Australia or Britain, who know how and where to find deals. To get the lowdown, I dropped my things at the cabin and headed back into town to meet a friend of a friend.
“When you’re making minimum wage, you make every dollar count,” explained my drinking companion, Jonny, a 19-year-old Justin Bieber look-alike who came to Whistler two years ago from England to teach skiing and snowboarding. His shirt read, “All I care about is snowboarding … and maybe 3 people and beer,” a claim confirmed by our conversation. In quick succession, I learned his views on where to find the cheapest pitchers of beer (Creekbread, a pizza joint outside the village), the cheapest shots (Three Below, a bar under a movie theater) and which clubs hosted discounted “locals’ nights” during the week.
Eventually, I pressed Jonny for a non-alcohol-related tip. “Well, there’s nature,” he said and gave me directions to the Whistler Interpretive Forest, a 7,500-acre spread with plenty of trails, just a short drive south of town. A few minutes later, I was hiking my way through a thick swath of towering Douglas fir and Western red cedar trees, boughs draped with hanging moss. A mile on, the trail opened to a wobbly suspension bridge strung above the Cheakamus River, a ribbon of bright turquoise — that luminous glacial hue you get only in mountain country — threading through a frosty white canyon. It was something straight out of an enchanted forest, and I had the scene all to myself.
Chilled from the walk, I set my sights on getting into a hot tub, one way or another. My little cabin backed onto a gorgeous outdoor spa – a complex of hot and cold pools, Finnish saunas and steam rooms set on manicured grounds. Unfortunately, the price of admission turned out to be 58 dollars. But across the street at the municipalMeadow Park Sports Center, run by the local park board, I discovered that access to a hot tub, sauna and steam room would cost me just 8.25 dollars. I happily shelled out an extra 3 dollars for a towel and a locker token.
Being a Canadian community center, Meadow Park was actually nicer than a lot of private clubs I’d been to. I made my way past the indoor hockey rink and the squash courts to the pool area, which, as promised, had a nice big hot tub in the corner. When it got a little too crowded with 12-year-olds, I retreated to the steam room, where I made friends with a young snowboarder convalescing for the season after suffering a broken leg. “Mind if I add a little eucalyptus?” he asked, then sprinkled a few drops of his own oil onto the steam vent — a frugal spa trick worth remembering.
The next day dawned rainy, so I decided to defer hitting the slopes and explore instead. To get a sense of Whistler’s past — before the resort, before even the first trappers and prospectors set up shop in the late 1800s — I drove to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Center, a museum dedicated to the history of the region’s indigenous population, tucked among a cluster of five-star hotels on the village edge (at 18 dollars, a modest splurge but a worthwhile one). Heavy carved wooden doors opened to a big open room filled with full-size totem poles and cedar canoes.
On a guided tour, I learned that the Squamish and Lil’wat peoples had inhabited the areas around Whistler for thousands of years. We popped into full-scale models of an underground pit house and a huge cedar-timbered longhouse. Exhibits showed off traditional goat’s-wool blankets and nifty waterproof hats woven from cedar bark, essential accessories back in the day. My favorite piece was a giant, menacing mask of Kalkalalh, the wild witch woman of the woods, who ate children and had a serious case of bed head, wild hair splaying everywhere.
The rain hadn’t let up, so I decided to go for a drive. While Whistler is a slickly manufactured ski resort masquerading as a quaint mountain town, the nearby community of Pemberton really is a quaint mountain town, home to a few thousand back-to-the-land types, hard-core adventure seekers, farmers and retirees. After a harrowing ride — freezing rain had turned the winding Sea-to-Sky Highway into a bobsled run — I eased down to a grid of streets set in the shadow of some dizzying peaks. Just off the main drag, a line of cars was snaking its way up to the local high school. I pulled off to investigate.
Inside the gym — home of the Pemberton Red Devils — a craft fair was in progress, evidently the event of the season. I worked my way through the masses, past rows of folding tables packed with homemade preserves, church bake sale cookies, local alpaca blankets and cure-all salves sold by members of the nearby Mount Currie Indian Band. I ended up buying a few jars of homemade salsa for 4 dollars each from a local canning enthusiast, who upsold me on a wool cap with ear flaps that had been knit by her mother. “Perfect for wearing underneath a hardhat,” she said.
Farther up the road, in an unlikely spot in an industrial park, I found what just might be the country’s only certified-organic potato vodka distillery. “Pemberton’s known for potatoes, and we go through at least 100,000 pounds a year,” said Tyler Schramm, the distiller, pouring me a sample of his trademark spirit inside the tasting room, essentially a cinder-block and sheet-metal shack. Afterward, we poked into the distillery itself, where a batch of organic potato absinthe was being bottled, and sprigs of wormwood, the spirit’s key ingredient, were spread out to dry. With a long drive ahead of me, I decided against a taste, but I couldn’t resist picking up a handsome, hand-labeled bottle of potato gin on the way out (45 dollars, which is in no way frugal, but it was worth every penny).
Back in Whistler, the lifts had closed for the day, sending a flood of skiers onto the streets for après-ski sustenance. On a tip, I skipped the usual bars and pubs and headed to the kind of place budget travelers rarely dare to tread, a fine-dining fixture called Bearfoot Bistro. Inside, there’s a grand piano in the dining room, a walk-in 20,000-bottle wine cellar and prix fixe menu pushing 100 dollars a head. But from 3 to 7 p.m. daily, they also have one of the best après-ski deals in town: a half-dozen local Vancouver Island oysters, served with fresh horseradish and red wine mignonette, for 10 dollars. I felt a bit underdressed in my muddy boots and ski jacket, but I found a seat at the bar and started happily slurping away.
Alas, one cannot live on oysters alone. Whistler is sorely lacking the kind of homey hole-in-the-walls where budget travelers usually find their best meals. But back along the main pedestrian stroll, a sandwich board outside a place called El Furniture Warehouse caught my eye: “All Food — $4.95.” It was a risk, but I was hungry.
Inside, the Warehouse was much as advertised: dark and low-ceilinged with young ski and snowboard bums packed into every possible corner. But my “Works Burger” (Alberta beef, maple bacon and Cheddar for the promised price of 4.95 dollars) held its own against pub burgers that cost three times as much, and 5-dollar Kokanee drafts (British Columbia’s equivalent of Budweiser or Coors) made the pounding club mix inside easier to bear. To cap off the night, I stopped in at the Dubh Linn Gate, a nearby pub with a bit more atmosphere than the standard Irish knockoff. No cover charge and a foot-stomping fiddle band called Team Hewitt meant the place was packed. I squeezed onto the dance floor, a sea of swirling flannels, just in time for the start of a Celtic treatment of “Folsom Prison Blues.”
The next morning, the skies were still threatening rain, but it was now or never for skiing. I ponied up for the lift ticket, shuffled into the Village Gondola — the main route up Whistler Mountain — and hoped for the best. Inside, two snowboarders from Washington were literally fidgeting in their seats — “super stoked,” they said, for their first runs of the year.
Then, just as I was reconciling myself to a damp day on the slopes, the gondola broke through the low clouds, emerging on the other side to an unexpectedly gorgeous vista. Row after row of jagged, snowcapped mountains — hidden from sight all weekend — spiked upward against a backdrop of blue sky and puffy white clouds. Above it all glowered the fang of Blackcomb Mountain — 8,010 feet high and sheathed in glacier.
I got out of the gondola a half-hour later, the better part of a mile above Whistler. While the snow up top wasn’t exactly fresh powder (uncommonly warm temperatures this season have made for challenging skiing conditions), the sun was shining, and the uninterrupted panorama of peaks and bowls was enough to banish any buyer’s remorse over my ticket. Whistler isn’t a beginner’s mountain, which meant I spent most of the afternoon on the easiest, green runs. Still — in fear-induced adrenaline alone — I got my money’s worth. Next time I think I’d even make the sacrifice and stay in that yurt, if it meant an extra day on the mountain.