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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 17, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 38
From sea to sky, B.C. works its magic
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From sea to sky, B.C. works its magic

by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

British Columbia's magic can be a bit overwhelming. It's common knowledge that our immediate neighbor to the north has a lot to offer. From the old-world maritime charm of Victoria to the cosmopolitan urban sophistication of Vancouver, from the young wine country of the Okanagan to the rolling prairies of Dawson Creek, from the imposing glaciers of the northwest to the fair-weather islands of the Georgia Strait; B.C. has an astounding diversity of magical landscapes. The problem is, how do you decide between the rich array of offerings if you've only got four nights? One way to go from the sea to the sky is via the Sea to Sky Highway, spending two nights in the mountain luxury of Whistler and two nights in the easy sea breezes of the Sunshine Coast. You won't see everything B.C. has to offer, but you'll have two very different experiences in resort areas less than 100 miles - and one beautiful drive - apart.

Getting there from here
The Peace Arch is lovely and all, but it's no fun waiting in line for a couple of hours because everyone in Washington decides to visit Canada on the same day. And if you have plans to be someplace at a specific time, delays can be disastrous. There's an easy fix: take the train. Two round-trip tickets on the Amtrak Cascades will set you back a measly $75, and you can leave the driving to the conductor. Another benefit: Customs is a snap once you get to Vancouver (on the way home, the train stops at the border for U.S. customs). We were dropped off at Seattle's King Street station (thanks for the ride, KK) at 7:10 a.m. to catch the 7:40 a.m. train. That gave us plenty of time to get boarding passes, a surprisingly simple process. We settled in and kicked back for the four-hour ride with lovely views of Puget Sound and Skagit County farmland.

Canadian customs at Vancouver's Pacific Central Station is quick and easy (and their customs officers are actually pleasant). The Main Street Sky Train Station is conveniently located just across the street, providing easy access to downtown, the airport, and other communities around the city. If you're taking the Rocky Mountaineer Whistler Sea to Sky Climb train to Whistler, you'll have to use coach service or a taxi to get to that station in North Vancouver. The Sea to Sky Climb is one of the most acclaimed train rides on the planet, and features five-star service along with the beautiful landscapes and ubiquitous wildlife. Look for package deals that include accommodations and expect to pay between $200 and $500 for two days during summer and fall. You can also load your package with tours, passes, and access to various attractions.

We opted to rent a car in Vancouver since we were planning on spending a couple of days on the Sunshine Coast after we visited Whistler. Picking up a rental car in downtown Vancouver costs nearly twice as much as renting a car in the suburbs. We found an Enterprise office on Southwest Marine Drive (between downtown Vancouver and the airport) that was within walking distance of the Sky Train. We purchased two-zone Sky Train passes for $3.75 each and hopped on for a pleasant half-hour ride to pick up the rental car. Though we could have easily hoofed it from the Sky Train to the Enterprise Office, the good folks at Enterprise offered to pick us up. By 2:00 p.m., we were headed to Whistler on the gorgeous Sea to Sky Highway in our bright red Nissan Versa.

Whistler, B.C.
Alta Lake and Mt. London were the original names of Whistler and Whistler Mountain, but the settlers started calling the area "Whistler" because of the shrill whistle made by the western hoary marmots who live among the rocks (that's "hoary" - with an "a" but no "w" - referring to the silver-grey fur on the critter's shoulders).

Whistler is best known today as a tony ski resort and host of the skiing and sliding events for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Whistler is a world-class winter resort, that also offers a number of things to keep the summer and fall traveler busy including hiking, swimming, kayaking, canoeing, aerial sightseeing, ATV tours, wildlife viewing tours, golfing, horseback riding, zip-lining, bungee jumping, jeep tours, shopping, and dining with over 200 shops and 90 restaurants. Whew. And I forgot to mention the most popular summer/fall sport of all: downhill mountain biking.

Barefoot Bistro
The Barefoot Bistro (BB), located in the heart of Whistler Village, is my version of dining perfection. I love food elevated to art, but I'm not so crazy about establishments that make eating artsy food overly complicated (just because I know which fork to use doesn't mean I always feel like it). The BB somehow manages to be simple, elegant, avant-garde, and easy. I would be as comfortable in Alexander McQueen (RIP) as a nice pair of jeans and a simple pressed shirt. The earth tone decor is sleek with metal and rock accents that suggest the mountain setting without seeming cliché.

The BB show is produced by ringmaster André Saint-Jacques and executive chef Melissa Craig. They make the perfect duo. André is part raconteur and all showman. Think the P.T. Barnum of haute cuisine. Melissa, on the other hand, lets her food do the talking and, trust me, the food has something to say.

André, among other talents, holds the Guinness world record for most wines sabered in one minute (21), and he's happy to share that talent with guests (though you'll have to purchase the sparkler to be sabered).

The sabering happens in the wine cellar, and what a cellar it is. The dramatic entrance is located square in the middle of the dining room. When André leads you down the steps, it's like getting into the VIP room of a trendy club. The analogy isn't far from wrong. The cellar has a sound system and comfy couches, and I'm told it's been the site of considerable debauchery.

The wine collection is stunning. I didn't know where to look first. The cellar contains over 20,000 bottles, 2,100 labels, and some of the most impressive verticals in the world, including 20 years of Château Mouton-Rothschild. You can buy a bottle of 1964 Domaine De La Romanée-Conti for a cool $20,000 if you're in town for a special occasion. There are also numerous excellent wines from all over the world that are a bit more reasonably priced.

The superlative staff served up the seven-course menu with choreographed precision. The food was absolute perfection, and the wine pairings preternatural. Highlights included the fennel-crusted yellowfin tuna nicoise with olive tapenade, green beans, and quail egg, the Québec foie gras, and the nitro ice cream with sundae toppings. The nitro ice cream was whipped up dramatically at our table by the dreamy pastry chef Dominic Fortin using real-life liquid nitrogen that gives the concoction a lovely silky texture and sends fog bubbling out of the bowl (it's like dry ice in water, but with way more fog).

The Barefoot Bistro must be experienced when visiting Whistler.

Adara Hotel
The Adara Hotel is conveniently located across the street from the Barefoot Bistro and about 3,000 feet from the base of Whistler Mountain. The village stroll - a meandering pedestrian thoroughfare meant to resemble a mountain stream - is readily accessible via a breezeway between the shops.

The Adara's decor is a trendy take on the mountain lodge with faux wood grain, faux fur, and graphic pictures of logs throughout. Our suite was a two-story affair with a cozy loft for the bed which opened to a patio with views of Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Peak.

The boutique style hotel has 41 rooms, a swimming pool, a hot tub, valet parking, laundry service, ski lockers, currency exchange, and 24-hour reception. Pet rooms are available upon request. The rooms are convenient and comfy, and the guest service is excellent.

Everything is expensive in Whistler, but the Adara is a relative deal, as prices range from $120 to $400 depending on the season and the room.

Scandinave Spa
After a bruising day of downhill mountain biking (or shopping), the Scandinave Spa is the perfect place to soothe sore muscles and unsettled souls. The traditional Finnish style facility opened on February 6 of this year just a mile north of Whistler Village. The year round features, within 20,000 square feet of spruce and cedar forest, include a eucalyptus steam bath, a wood-burning Finnish sauna, a thermal waterfall, and outdoor hot baths. Refreshing cold-water features include a Nordic waterfall, a cold shower, and cold baths.

Plan to spend the afternoon as the spa staff suggests going slowly through the routine three to four times in order to get the maximum health benefits. Access to the baths is $55 and includes two towels (bring a bathing suit and flip flops). Packages start at $96 and can be customized with various types of massage, yoga, and lunch deals. Talking is a no-no and policed more by other patrons than Scandinave staff. Adults only, no one under 19 allowed.

Peak to Peak Gondola
The Peak to Peak Gondola is record-breaking and breathtaking. The 2.7-mile flight from the top of Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb Peak boasts the longest unsupported span of 1.9 miles, the highest lift of its kind at 1,430 feet above the valley floor, and it completes the longest continuous lift system when linked to the lifts from Blackcomb Base and Whistler Village. The entire structure is an engineering feat of unparalleled magnitude. The cables had to be flown across the valley via helicopter. The ride takes about 20 minutes, but give yourself at least three hours when starting from the bottom. Off-season tickets are about $40 and include the lifts. Winter passes vary according to the date and are markedly more expensive. It's not as scary as it looks from the bottom.

Sunshine Coast
The Sunshine Coast is British Columbia's best-kept secret. Nobody in the States knew what I meant when I told them where Steven and I were going. Here's the skinny: The Sunshine Coast stretches nearly 100 miles from Langdale to Powell River northwest of the city of Vancouver, B.C. and is an easy five-hour trip directly from Seattle. The drive down from Whistler to the ferry terminal at Horseshoe Bay takes about an hour and a half. A short 40-minute ferry ride later and we were cruising along Highway 101, one of the sweetest ocean drives around. Helpful tip: make reservations for the ferry, especially for busy weekends.

The Sunshine Coast is Whistler's antithesis. There are no mountain bikers careening down mountains, no power shoppers with smoking credit cards, and no tourists trying to cram too many activities into their day. The Sunshine Coast is set on slow, and was the perfect follow-up to a couple of days running and gunning in the mountains.

The Sunshine Coast offers numerous art and music festivals and museums along with hiking, boating, fishing, water skiing, windsurfing, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, camping, bicycling, golfing, and wildlife tours. Recreational opportunities are enhanced by the mildest climate in British Columbia (it's Canada's Florida). Annual rainfall is mitigated by the Vancouver Island rain shadow, and the area routinely gets 330+ frost-free days per year and about 230 days of sunshine per year. Fall is the perfect time to visit and the locals can be seen sporting shorts and tank tops during the day well into October.

Rockwater Secret Cove Resort
The Rockwater Secret Cove Resort is a 45-minute drive along Highway 101 from the Langdale ferry terminal. You'll pass through a number of small communities with eateries and produce stands along the way. Feel free to stop and chat up the locals; Canadians are decidedly nice folks and Sunshine Coasters seem to be the friendliest of all.

Rockwater occupies seven and a half acres of waterfront property and sports three types of accommodations. The main lodge has 14 ocean-view rooms with easy pool access. There are 11 cabins featuring ocean or woodland views and ranging from one to three bedrooms. Finally, there are 13 luxury tent-house suites hanging off the cliffs overlooking the water. Each tent-house suite features a fully appointed bathroom, hydrotherapy tub, gas fireplace, and a private deck with striking views of the inland sea. A 1,500-foot wooden catwalk connects each tent-house suite with the main lodge.

The effect is enchanting, like a romantic tree house for adults with all the amenities and a terrific view. The tent-house suites are all about romance and atmosphere so no kids allowed (kids under 14 do stay free in the cabins and lodge rooms). The tents are the perfect place to celebrate an anniversary, to get engaged, or to spend a honeymoon.

In fact, the Rockwater is famous for weddings and offers a number of wedding packages (and Queer couples can actually get married up there). The most intriguing is the Elopement Package, designed for two. The package includes a personalized consultation with the Rockwater Elopement Coordinator along with many other amazing perks, from a professional photographer to a personalized wedding cake.

Prices range from $1,500 to $1,750, depending on the time of year.

The Rockwater Resort features a lounge, meeting room, wireless internet, spa treatment facilities, sauna, heated pool, lovely decks, and on-site kayak rentals. Pets are welcome in the cabins for only a flat rate of $35 per visit.

The resort also features West Coast dining by executive chef Patrick Sinclair. Known as one of the best restaurants on the Sunshine Coast and gaining a reputation beyond, the dinner menu features a creative roster of dishes with regional ties. I asked the server to choose my menu. Rihon, who is now my culinary hero, started me with the Fraser Valley duck confit with warm wild mushroom and spinach salad. For dinner, she picked the bacon-wrapped pork cheek terrine with confit belly, poached pears, and frisée salad. She paired it with the 2008 Ex Nihilo Vineyard Pinot Gris. The wine had bold and complex fruit with just a hint of nutmeg on the backside, and was the perfect foil to the rich pork.

West Coast Wilderness Lodge
When the owner of a first-class resort shows up covered in sawdust and drywall, you know you're meeting a hands-on sort of guy. That's exactly Paul Hansen's modus operandi. Paul is an outdoorsman with a bucolic but effective business acumen who has built the West Coast Wilderness Lodge (WCWL) from scratch with his own hands. When he talks about the place, imagining the rustic building being around long after he's gone while looking off the deck to the dazzling views of mountains, inlets, and forests, you can feel the passion pouring out along with the words.

Paul may be biased, but he's not wrong. The WCWL is a typical lodge with beautiful native wood used for floors, walls, and furnishings. However, instead of going kitschy with carved bears, moose, and eagles splattered everywhere, this lodge went to finishing school. There are a couple of tasteful Native American carvings, but nothing cheap. Large wooden structural beams are left to radiate their natural strength and beauty. With windows filled by views like these, cluttering your walls with cheap art would be a real sin.

The accommodations, too, are wilderness lodge done minimalist modern, with headboards and bathroom counters handmade by Paul from logs found fallen in the forest or floating in the waters just north of the Skookumchuck Narrows. Modern amenities include cliff-side hot tubs with towel service and a fireplace lounge with internet access.

WCWL, about 90 minutes from the Langdale ferry terminal, is perfectly located at the crossroads of four inlets with easy access to the Skookumchuck Rapids, Lone Tree Island, Princess Louisa Inlet, and many other beautiful destinations. Paul offers a formidable slate of adventure tours, trips, and rentals, including heli-hiking, kayaking, alpine mountain biking, fresh and saltwater fishing, float plane tours, and the exhilarating Zodiac boat excursions.

After a long day exploring the local wilds, you can settle in on the fabulous deck and enjoy a great dinner with the aforementioned dazzling views. The menu is Euro-minimalist with obvious local influences. I started with a hearty carrot dill soup perfectly pureed to a slightly rough consistency that was pleasant and gave the flavors a layered effect. For my main course, I tried the hemp-heart-crusted halibut served with basmati rice smothered in a caper berry remoulade. The halibut was crusty outside and juicy tender inside, allowing the rich flavors to come together like clockwork. Paul hauled out a bottle of the 2007 Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin, a big Okanagan red made from all five Bordeaux varietals.

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