Clodagh Finn experiences some of Canada’s highlights, on a trip that takes in Vancouver for some city living, and Whistler for the great outdoors.
SOMEONE shouts “bears!” and we lurch to the front of the cable car to catch a glimpse of two black bears trundling through the snow-tinged undergrowth, hundreds of metres below at the foot of Whistler Mountain in British Columbia, Canada.
As we go higher into the pristine alpine vastness, you can see why it was chosen to host the Winter Olympics in 2010.
With more than 8,000 acres of skiable terrain, it is the largest — and the most popular ski resort — in North America.
You don’t have to be an Olympian, or even a ski enthusiast, to enjoy it.
In fact, you don’t even have to be fit. Whistler is open all year round and it offers any number of activities to adrenaline-seekers, from zip-lining and mountain biking to balloon trips and off-road buggy adventures.
But this majestic place with its bounty of waterfalls and creeks, lakes, and rivers can be a holiday destination for just about anyone.
The trend of the moment is the ‘adrenaline/zen’ holiday — nerve-jangling adventure (take your pick from the list above) followed by downtime and relaxation in the spa.
But there’s nothing stopping you going straight to ‘zen’, as this correspondent did, climbing into a hammock at the Scandinave Spa ( www.scandinave.com ) and staring up at the bluest sky through spruce and cedar trees.
The outdoor spa has a rule of silence, which I break only once with a loud, involuntary yelp after plunging into a glacial pool, post-sauna.
Hydrotherapy (cycles of hot, cold, then relaxation) is said to increase wellness and lead to intense relaxation. It does that — and then some.
Before you go completely horizontal, though, it’s worth taking a cable ride on the ‘Peak 2 Peak Gondola’, a singular feat of engineering that links the summits of Whistler (7,160ft) and Blackcomb (7,500ft) in the Coast mountain range.
The Gondola (to the uninitiated, a cable car with bells on) has the longest unsupported lift span in the world.
In plain English, that means you’ll find yourself sailing through the air for an impressive 1.88 miles with apparently nothing tethering you to the earth. The views of the mountains, lakes, glaciers and forests are breath-stopping.
On the way down, the mist sweeps in. Guide Chelsea describes it perfectly when she says it feels as if we’re inside a ping pong ball.
Back on terra firma, there’s lots to do in Whistler village. The calendar is dotted with year-round festivals showcasing the region’s food, culture, and music.
If you’re not booked into the magnificent Fairmount Chateau ( www.fairmont.com/whistler/ ), at least try to eat in its restaurant, the Grill Room, which prides itself on using the best of local produce. Order the tomato gin soup, made with local Schramm potato gin.
Whistler, apparently named after the sound a marmot makes, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, though its history goes back several thousand years to a time when the Squamish and Lil’wat peoples came together to trade here.
The language of those first nations is still spoken and their traditions are still very much alive as you’ll see at the award-winning Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre ( www.slcc.ca ). The only rules are to touch everything and sing along.
IT’S HARD to leave Whistler’s scenic paradise behind but the stunning views on the Sea-to-Sky Highway that runs all the way to Vancouver allow you to adjust gently to urban life.
If you’re feeling civic-minded, you can even adopt a piece of that highway in a scheme designed to clean up the area. Only in Canada.
But then Vancouver, the capital of British Columbia, is pretty easy on the eye too.
The city of glass has many nicknames, ‘No Fun City’ and ‘Raincouver’ among them.
The latter has the ring of truth about it, unfortunately: Vancouverites will talk about their soft and unpredictable weather in much the same way an Irish person does. Our climates are remarkably similar: no Canadian extremes here.
‘No Fun City’, however, is an absolute travesty. Vancouver is hopping with activity.
Its location near mountains and the Pacific Ocean make it a fantastic outdoor location, but it is also a city buzzing with great shops, restaurants and bars.
We decide to get our bearings and our sea legs in one fell swoop by taking a kayak trip down False Creek, a busy waterway in the heart of the city.
Once you figure out your right from your other right — always a challenge for amateur paddlers — it’s fascinating to glide (ok, splish-splash) by the sights.
You’ll see old mills (remnants of the city’s gravel and logging industrial past), the 2010 Olympic Village (the greenest building complex on the planet), public art installations, and pass by the spot where locals enjoy the ‘grass’, as it were.
(Another city nickname ‘Van groovy’ tells its own story of the relatively lax attitude to the recreational use of cannabis.)
The highlight of the paddle? It was definitely being able to get right up beside Sea Village, a colourful collection of beautiful floating houses that cost up to CAN$1m (€682,000) per property.
Residents go back and forth over the stretch of water on stand-up paddleboards in full office attire.
The cost of housing has spiralled in Vancouver, too, though you’ll still find a deal on a hotel to suit your budget.
We’re staying at the Sheraton Wall Centre in downtown Vancouver, the city’s third tallest building, so the views are spectacular ( www.sheratonvancouver.com/ )
The demand for property has an unexpected upside: the city and all it has to offer is pushing out into new areas.
In up-and-coming neighbourhood Kingsway, for instance, Savio Volpe (the savvy fox) opened its door just eight months ago. When we eat there, there isn’t a seat free in the house. It’s easy to see why.
The restaurant is styled on an Italian country tavern and its motto is “long live friendship, affection and hospitality”.
The food is served tapas-style so everyone eats from the same dishes. And what food. The chef believes in “simple but flavourful” and who would have thought that pasta with basil and tomato could taste so good.
The wood-fired grill turns out the most amazing meat dishes and the over-the-coals steak was the best I’ve ever tasted. Go easy on the wine, though. Because of import taxes, the cheapest bottle of Italian wine was CAN$45 (€31).
WE TAKE to bicycles the following morning to work off the feast. Greg of City Cycle Tours is a wonderful guide, telling the story of diverse and ecological Vancouver as we wend our way past some of the city’s famous landmarks.
Two stand out: the Lions Gate Bridge and the Marine Building, a world-famous Art Deco gem on Burrard Street.
The ‘Vancouver Sun’ described the latter as a “great marine rock rising from the sea, flashed with gold”, when it first opened in 1930.
The odd coincidence about those two structures is that both of them were once owned by the Guinness family. Yes, that Guinness family.
Our bicycle tour goes off-road into Stanley Park, one of the biggest and most visited parks in the world. Yet, it feels unspoilt as we wheel by its beaches, its colourful totem poles, through forest trails to the freshwater Beaver Lake.
We freewheel back along the seafront. Mental note to self: return to Bella Gelateria on Cordova Street. People are queueing for their ice cream for a reason.
Though the fig and ricotta ice cream we got at the market on Granville Island ( www.granvilleisland.com ) was also a revelation. Add Granville Island to your list of places to see.
No wonder Vancouver was chosen as the best place to live in North America in Mercer’s 2016 Quality of Living survey.
Though, with hand on heart, we can say that it’s a pretty amazing place to visit too.
Getting there: Air Transat offers return flights from Dublin to Toronto from €455pp and return flights from Dublin to Vancouver from €475pp.
It operates three flights a week from Dublin until the end of October. See www.airtransat.ie or call 00 800 872 672 83.
Travel documents: Visitors to Canada need electronic travel authorisation (eTA), see www.cic.gc.ca/english/
Where to stay
Whistler: The Examiner stayed at the five-star Fairmount Chateau in Whistler. From CAN$270 (€185) per night for two. See www.fairmont.com/whistler
Vancouver: In Vancouver, the Sheraton Wall Centre is an excellent base. Double rooms from €188 per night. See www.sheratonvancouver.com/
For tips on travelling in British Columbia, see www.hellobc.com
For water activities in Vancouver, see www.ecomarine.com
For cycling tours, www.cyclecitytours.com
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