British Columbia’s Sea to Sky Highway ranks among Canada’s most scenic drives. As my home province slowly reopened to careful and considerate local travel, we were ready. We desired an outdoor getaway with inspiring scenery that also offered culture as well as some pampering. So we hit the road for Whistler, 75 miles north of Vancouver.
Officially we were on Highway 99 for the two-hour drive, but the Sea to Sky Highway nickname is a more apt fit. The road hugs dramatic Howe Sound fjords, passing towering waterfalls and forests as it heads deeper into the magnificent Coast Mountain range en route to Whistler. (cover photo credit: DestinationBC/Albert Normandin)
Whistler’s summer side
The Sea to Sky Highway was updated for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games to get spectators and athletes to the picturesque mountainside village and deep snows of Whistler Blackcomb resort, which draws recreational skiers and boarders from all over the world.
After snow lovers depart for the season, Whistler embraces summer tourism with vigour. We found a busy après vibe in the shops, bars and restaurants of pedestrian-only Whistler Village. It’s fun to sip a glass of wine on an outdoor patio facing the snow-capped peaks of Blackcomb and Whistler mountains and watch mountain biking enthusiasts fearlessly take the hills.
Honey, there’s a bear behind me
Hikers get a gondola lift to mountain ridge routes and flower-filled Alpine meadows.
The Blackcomb Ascent Trails comprise a trio of well-maintained interconnecting routes: Little Burn, Big Burn and the steepest, Heart Burn. It’s a continuous climb from the base of Blackcomb Mountain through a cool, coastal rainforest of massive hemlock, western red cedar and fragrant Douglas fir. Along the way, little bridges straddle mountain streams.
I wore sturdy hiking shoes and used trekking poles, and it was a tough go but a worthy challenge. I took my time and admired younger climbers unhindered by complaining knees as they cruised up the stairs and switchbacks. The route also traverses a couple of grassy ski hills, including one where I glanced back and spotted a grazing black bear. We remembered a bear safety sign that said to walk away slowly and talk loudly. We did both as we continued our push up the mountain. The bored-looking bruin went back to its lunch.
Peak to peak aboard a gondola
No Heart Burn for us. Big Burn ends at the mid-mountain Blackcomb Gondola station, and we took it to the summit. En route, we enjoyed panoramic views of Whistler Village below and the ring of Coast Mountain peaks, lakes and glaciers around us.
The 360 Experience Pass includes gondolas up and down and a ride on the Peak 2 Peak Gondola. The world’s highest lift of its kind, this gondola travels the record-breaking distance of nearly two miles between Blackcomb Mountain and Whistler Mountain. Once across, we descended on the Whistler Village Gondola, enjoying the breathtaking views.
A funky hike in Whistler
A train wreck is the last thing you expect to find in the middle of a forest.
Nevertheless, several mangled freight cars are an ever-evolving art gallery of colourful spray-paint tags and motifs. It’s an easy walk from the Sea to Sky Trail and across a new suspension bridge over the rushing Cheakamus River to see what remains of a 1956 derailment.
The hike, popular with families, is close to Whistler’s reclaimed industrial area, now the Function Junction retail strip. A hefty slice of buttery lemon drizzle cake from PureBread Bakery made the perfect post-hike reward.
Audain Art Museum a trip highlight
Located across the street from Whistler Village, the Audain Art Museum was among the highlights of our trip. A glass, metal and wooden structure houses 180 works of British Columbia art from the private collection of homebuilder and philanthropist Michael Audain and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa.
“Only one tree was cut down in the building of this 56,000-square-foot museum because Patkau Architects wanted it to be like a lantern in the woods at night,” says Tania Sear of Tourism Whistler.
First Nations masks, some dating to the 19th century, and numerous works by legendary west-coast artist Emily Carr highlight the collection. However, I spent a lot of time examining “The Dance Screen (The Scream Too),” a massive red cedar screen by master carver and hereditary Haida Chief James Hart. Hart’s carving skill wowed us. The piece, inlaid with flashes of abalone and mica, tells a conservation story.
Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre honours First Nations heritage
Whistler is on the traditional lands of the Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh (Squamish) and Lil̓wat7úl (Lil’wat) First Nations people, and the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre honours their culture and history.
Our small-group tours led by an Indigenous ambassador begin with a traditional song and drumming and included vivid storytelling. Our guide shared Whistler’s origin story and told us all about magnificent canoes and carved masks. Boarder X, a visiting exhibit from the Winnipeg Art Gallery, captivated me. It featured colourful and energetic contemporary works by Canadian Indigenous artists linked to their passions for surfing, skating and snowboarding.
Whistler’s Scandinave Spa offers Nordic-style relaxation
I wished I was spending a winter day in Whistler as I slid into one of the outdoor hot baths at Nordic-inspired Scandinave Spa, if only to avoid the cold plunge pools. The spa greeter said to get the full health benefits, I should do the traditional route: hot spa, then a cold plunge and repeat. I’m a chicken. Instead, between rounds along outdoor pathways to eucalyptus steam rooms, Finnish wood-burning sauna and relaxation spaces, I found a hammock in a quiet garden overlooking the forest to cool down
Masks and distancing were mandatory. Limited numbers made me feel safer. I also appreciated the no-noise and no-phone rules, which added to the luxurious experience
Insider tip: Don’t miss Squamish along the Sea to Sky Highway
About an hour south of Whistler, Squamish, with its beautiful lakes, snow-capped mountains, plentiful hiking trails and rafting excursions, is worth a stop and a night or two. It earns fame for the huge numbers of bald eagles drawn by the salmon spawn during fall and winter.
The Sea to Sky Gondola reopened in June after recovering from two acts of cable-cutting vandalism that shut the attraction for months in 2018 and 2020. The vistas from the top across Howe Sound and the Coast Mountains are incredible, especially from along the suspension bridge.
Sunwolf Lodge has cozy riverside cabins with kitchens. On-site Fergie’s Café has earned kudos for its innovative design and serves excellent meals. My favourite was the Dubliner Eggs Benedict with truffle hollandaise and house-cured bacon.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- The Fairmont Chateau Whistler is a luxury property located at the base of Blackcomb Mountain. New Fairmont Gold floors have a private reception area, concierge and access to the Fairmont Gold Lounge for breakfast, all-day coffee and tea service, afternoon canapés, honour bar and sweet treats, all included in the room rate.
- Whistler offers plenty to do besides outdoor activities, including the outstanding Audain Art Museum and The Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre.
- Multi-generational travelers will appreciate Whistler’s wide range of activities for all ages.
- Face masks must be worn inside any Whistler Blackcomb establishment, in queues and on chairlifts and gondolas.
- All mountain transactions are cashless.
- It’s best to purchase sightseeing and hiking tickets ahead of time.
- Canada-wide recreational travel opened July 1, and the U.S.-Canada border is set to open to vaccinated US citizens on Aug. 9. For updated information on travel to Canada, see the government website.
- Whistler’s Doors Open Directory lists the latest on what’s open, capacity and safety protocols.
Disclosure: Parts of Linda Barnard’s travel were supported by Tourism Whistler, which did not approve this story. The Fairmont Chateau Whistler provided a media rate.
IF YOU GO
Linda Barnard recently wrote about Canada’s only tea farm, found in British Columbia
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