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Salad at Araxi, Whistler


Going to Whistler on the Mountaineer


On the Whistler Mountaineer train


On the Whistler Mountaineer train

Winterless Whistler

(A Culinary Tour)

Sunlight breaks through the cloud cover and the muted grays of water and sky spring to life, startling in sudden color. We’ve left Lion’s Gate Bridge and the motley mix of condos, mansions and cottages and speed along the shoreline of Howe Sound. Islands appear and recede, seabirds and seals frolic and we watch the passing scenes in comfort, sipping mimosas.

I’m on the Whistler Mountaineer train heading from Vancouver B.C. to Whistler. In the single-story Glacier Dome, we fellow travelers are served breakfast on individual linen covered trays, airline-style, but first, a mimosa toast led by our three cheery attendants. Breakfast is ho-hum—fruit, fluffy scrambled eggs, wilted red potatoes and rubbery Canadian bacon, but who cares? The scenery! Part of our 73.7 mile, three-hour trip has unobstructed views of the Sunshine Coast across the sound with sea to our left and sheer basalt cliffs to our right so close we could reach out and touch the ferns and mosses sprouting on the vertical rock. After an hour and a half, we verge north into the stunning Cheakamus Gorge, where waterfalls, eagles and white water river rapids far below leave us breathless.

The train arrives at Whistler in the early afternoon, so after checking into my hotel and acquiring local tips on sites and restaurants from my hotel concierge/bellman, Brady, (who discusses the joys of local wild huckleberries and mushrooms besides suggesting places for lunch), I head out to explore this place simply called “the village.”

Blackcomb and Whistler mountains loom above this world-renowned ski resort yet began as a summer vacation resort in the 1900s. The Squamish and Lil'wat First Nations people occupied the area for thousands of years before Hudson’s Bay surveyors documented the valley in 1858. The area was dubbed “Whistler” for the local whistling western hoary marmots. Alex and Myrtle Philips, after visiting one of the first settlers, fur trapper John Millar, were so taken with the area and the excellent fishing in the nearby lakes that they bought a parcel on Alta Lake near Millar. By 1914 the Philips had constructed Rainbow Lodge, coinciding with the arrival of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway. Through the years, cabins and hotels were built, but it wasn’t until 1978 that Whistler Village was constructed.

Whistler without snow doesn’t register to most these days, but there are lakes and rivers to canoe and kayak, nearly 70 miles of trails to bike and hike, not counting the amazing Bike Park with 45 lift-serviced mountain trails from beginner routes to expert (or foolish) extreme careening-down-the-basalt mountainside runs. There are gondolas, Ziptrekking lines, eco-canopy tours, bungee jumping excursions and world-class golf courses like Nicklaus North or the Arnold Palmer designed Whistler Golf club.

Off-season, hotels have bargains and best of all, many spas and restaurants have collaborated on Dining in Whistler specials April through June where you can indulge in three-course bargain meals. If you’re thinking there can’t be that many exceptional restaurants in a ski resort, well, get thee hither!

I meander the wide brick passenger-only byways of the Village, checking out shops (over 200 and over 100 bars and restaurants in the combined original and Upper Villages). There are kitschy souvenir shops and a ton of sportswear shops packed with everything from familiar labels like Columbia, Nike, North Slope, Roots, etc. to European designers. (A $249CA fleece Prada vest anyone?) Several stores capture my attention like bookstores, cigar and chocolate shops, Amos & Andes knitwear, Hatley’s fun animal-inspired kid clothes and the Path Gallery featuring exquisite Northwest Coast Salish and First Nations Native artwork.

After getting lost a couple of times, I finally find Beet Root Café tucked away at a far end of the Village. The funky organic café is packed with locals. The vegetarian lasagna and burritos are recommended, but I opt for a curry soup and a Brie-turkey-cranberry toasted pannini sandwich. This is a favorite local breakfast and lunch spot as is Gone Bakery whose hearty soups and homemade breads keep everyone happy.

I am in culinary heaven here with most restaurants offering small plates, tasting menus and tapas for sampling a wide variety. It’s exciting, too, to have a variety of Canadian wines that are not readily available in the states. Ric’s Mix in the center of the village has heated outdoor dining, perfect for people-watching, and features inventive tapas and a long list of faux martinis—the kind with juices and chocolate and other ingredients that should not be in a martini but that are fun to drink. Breakfast at Elements is a delight with benedicts and honey ham and brie or banana stuffed French toast, but it’s the frittatas that really appeal. I forego the asparagus, spinach and Portobello mushroom and the pancetta, roasted red peppers with goat’s cheese and choose the Dungeness crab and smoked salmon. I’m sorry I don’t have time to return for lunch or dinner. Neighboring diners tell me that I should try the chicken satays and the coconut green curry sautéed prawns with a nice Penticton (Okanagan) 2004 Pentage chardonnay.

You can indulge in multi-course fine cuisine in Bear Foot Bistro’s dining room or opt for a more casual atmosphere in the Champagne Bar where the effervescence of sparkling wines compliment fresh oysters. Chef Melissa Craig’s acclaimed Asian and French-inspired repertoire is always a treat and the 125-page wine and champagne list could keep you busy for days. The new cellar (with private dining room) now has over 1,500 labels. Araxi, Fifty-Two 80 Bistro and Rim Rock Café, all culinary joys with extensive wine lists, have joined the spring Dine Whistler specials offering three and four course meals at bargain prices.

Araxi’s executive chef, James Walt, has captured Vancouver Magazine’s Gold Best Whistler restaurant award for the 8th consecutive year. Taking advantage of fresh northwest ingredients, Walt’s creations may include Qualicum Beach scallops and fresh asparagus with arrugula pesto and hazelnut oil and Pemberton all natural beef slow-roasted strip loin with sautéed fiddleheads and leeks. Keeping BC wine selections, Araxi Restaurant Director, Steve Edwards, recommends a Fraser Valley Blackwood Lane 2006 Siegerrebe, a German varietal cross between Gewürztraminer and Madeleine to compliment the scallops and with the beef, an opulent, fruit forward Salt Spring Island Zweigelt red, Garry Oaks' 2004 Zeta.

At the Four Seasons Resort, Fifty-Two 80 Bistro (refers to the height of Blackcomb mountain at 5,280 feet) executive chef, Scott Thomas Dolbee creates sophisticated comfort food. “I don’t like to overcomplicate,” says Dolbee. “Let fresh, natural products remain distinctive.” Part of the tasting menu with wine suggestions may include Pacific halibut and calamari “a la plancha,” English peas and lemon oil roasted eggplant paired with a crisp Okanagan 2006 Mission Hill Pinot blanc, or grilled rack of lamb “provencal” with artichoke puree and black olive jus paired with a luscious premium blend of five Bordeaux varietals, Okanagan’s Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2004. Dolbee has worked with First Nations Chef Andrew George to create First Nations-inspired menu items for the new Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre and new menu items have been added to Fifty Two 80. Celebrated for fish and game, Rim Rock Café is worth a drive, taxi (or bike?) ride two miles out of the Village proper. Cozy and lodge-like (roaring fire in the fireplace) with an excellent staff and wine list, chef/co-owner, Rolf Gunter’s culinary expertise shines. Seafood starters offer a variety of fresh oyster preparations including the decadent “Rim Rock,” braised with smoked salmon, béchamel sauce & Gruyere cheese. A second course may include the prawn and papaya salad with sweet and spicy citrus dressing and wonton bowties. For meat lovers there’s the Rim Rock Mixed Grill of roasted rack of lamb, beef tenderloin & caribou.

Alas, it’s time to depart and I haven’t tried other recommended restaurants for sushi or Italian, especially Trattori di Umberto with its private outdoor patio. I do, however, have incentive to board my train: on the afternoon trip back, it’s teatime. That means lovely Fairmont Hotel catered fresh scones with Devonshire cream and preserves, cucumber, salmon, watercress and ham and cream cheese sandwiches (with seconds), dessert cookies and chocolates, and excellent tea (coffee for spoilsports). And of course, that spectacular scenic trip back.

Updated 2009 from NW Palate Magazine 2008.

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