Winter fun

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With big discounts already available, this is the time to head to Whistler and get an Olympic preview

It's Whistler's winter. Voted the No. 1 ski resort for the 13th year in a row by Skiing magazine, the twin mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb will be welcoming the world's best winter athletes this February for the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.
With Olympians crowding the slopes, you'd think there would be no room for the average Joe and Jill to slap on the boards and head downhill. Well, you'd think wrong. Ninety per cent of the resort's 200-plus trails, and three of the four base areas will be open for business during the Games. And with the new Peak 2 Peak Gondola (at 3.3 kilometres, it's the world's longest unsupported span), skiers can travel from mountain to mountain in just 11 minutes, making it easy to bypass the spectators at the mountain base.
Historically, skier traffic is down at Olympic host venues during the Games, according to Casey Vanden Heuvel, director of communications for Whistler. But that may be the only place you can count on the crowds being smaller than usual. The hotels already are close to capacity, and Whistler Village itself will be filled with Olympic junkies drinking in the excitement of the event.
Vanden Heuvel warns potential ski tourists they'll be paying a premium for accommodations during the Olympics, with the average room rate at $600 per bedroom a night. And if you don't have parking at your hotel, consider yourself out of luck if you plan on bringing a car on site.
If your pockets are deep enough to afford being a part of the Olympic buzz, skiing and staying at Whistler during the Games is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But for those of more modest means, there is plenty of Olympic buzz before and after the Games. Whistler is offering great deals in January and March. And for those who can get away sooner, a surprise dump of snow has allowed the resort to open 12 days early, with the lifts up and running and the deals kicked off. Check www.whistler.com/packges and www.whistler.com/getaway or call 800-944-7853 for information on any last-minute deals.
For example, a five-night, four-day package that includes accommodations and lift tickets starts at $397 per person, provided you book before Jan. 31 and arrive between Nov. 26 and April 18 (excluding the Feb. 12-28 period of the Games).
"As of right now, January is much quieter than you would expect, and we will be offering very aggressive pricing in March," said Vanden Heuvel.
With Olympic-sized discounts available outside February, this winter is the time to ski Whistler. Not only is the price right, you'll be able to enjoy the same venues as the Olympic athletes, including the spectacular downhill runs at Whistler Creekside, and the first-class cross-country trails at the Olympic Park.
In fact, Whistler is almost as excited about the legacy of the Games as it is about the Games themselves. And, unlike in many previous Olympics, the VANOC team had its ski venues completed well in advance of competition, which means plenty of people can enjoy the facilities long before the first Olympic athletes arrive. But remember, these are mountains, and fewer than one-fifth of the trails are rated for beginners. Half are intermediate and the rest advanced.
Already top-notch, Whistler's downhill runs needed very few modifications for the Games. Located on Whistler mountain, the Dave Murray downhill course for men and Franz's Run for women have been tweaked to accommodate the world's best, and an underpass was created to ease recreational ski traffic. Blackcomb is hosting the slalom events, and, by all accounts, spectators won't be disappointed with the courses' sight lines and big air potential.
The Whistler Sliding Centre, home to the luge, skeleton and bobsled events, is located on the southeast slope of Blackcomb. The 1,450-metre track is one of only 15 competitive tracks in the world, and already has hosted three world cup events.
The track is closed leading up to the Olympics and Paralympics, and will be run by the Whistler Track Club after the Games. Training programs for elite athletes and opportunities for recreational use are part of the legacy program and will begin in the fall of 2010.
Whistler Olympic Park is home to biathlon, cross-country skiing, combined Nordic and ski jumping. Located in the Callaghan Valley, 20 kilometres south of Whistler Village, one square kilometre of the Park is allocated to Olympic events, with plenty of access available during the Games for recreational cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Nordic ski lovers will revel in the beauty of this venue, along with its abundant snow conditions and moderate temperatures. There are 30 kilometres of groomed skating and classic ski trails, including four kilometres of lighted night skiing. Snowshoe lovers can enjoy the peaceful surroundings and spectacular scenery of the valley as they trek along 11 kilometres of trails over three loops of varying difficulty.
There's no doubt that skiers and boarders will experience some of the best skiing of their lives at Whistler. But for snow lovers who look forward to trying something else during their stay, there's tubing, sleigh rides, ziplines, bungee jumping, snowmobiling and dogsledding, all within the resort.
But let's face it:Snow alone isn't enough to make a ski holiday memorable. Skiers are known for their love of good food and a good time; and Whistler scores high in both areas.
The apres-ski scene is alive with activity. More than 30 bars, pubs, lounges and nightclubs will let you kick back and blow off a little steam.
For those who like to party, consider Merlin's on the Blackcomb side of the resort. If you've got legs left at the end of a day on the slopes, the live music and bar-top dancing will keep you on your feet all night.
And for those who prefer sharing an intimate drink beside a roaring fire, there's the Mallard Lounge and Terrace. Located in the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, let the leather sofas, live entertainment, martinis and decadent chocolate fondue do their thing.
Speaking of food, the resort's 90-plus restaurants cover an eclectic mix of menus and accommodate a variety of budgets, from the swank Fifty-two 80 Bistro in the Four Seasons Resort to the old standbys: The Keg and The Spaghetti Factory.
The final piece of your vacation package is accommodation. If you're springing for Whistler, it pays to be close to all the action, so staying within the resort is worth the extra coin. Five-star chains such as the Hilton, Fairmont, Four Seasons, Westin and Pan Pacific are all there. So are the more economical choices, such as Best Western and Holiday Inn. Then there are condos, chalets, lodges, inns and bed-and-breakfasts. They bring the total to about 10,000 rooms within the resort, making it easy to find something within your budget.
So there you have it:Not only does Whistler have some of the best ski terrain in the world, it's also playing host to the world, which makes it prime time to get in on the action. Keep your eye out for last-minute deals offered all season long outside the Olympic and Paralympic Games. This year, more than any other, Whistler is affordable.

Getting there
By car: The Sea to Sky Highway runs from Vancouver to Whistler. Once considered one of the most dangerous routes in Canada, it has benefitted from $600 million in improvements that make the drive not only safer, but faster. It takes about 90 minutes to travel between Vancouver and Whistler, a 30-minute improvement over last year.
Public parking within the resort is limited in the weeks leading up the Games and is closed to the public during the Games. Checkpoints will be set up on the Sea to Sky Highway; car access will be limited to those who have a parking pass supplied by their hotel.
By bus: Three bus companies, Pacific Coach Lines, Greyhound and the Snowbus, depart daily from Vancouver to Whistler. The trip lasts about three hours.

Climate
Average winter temperatures range from -12 C to -5 C. The mercury rises in the spring to -8 C to 5 C.

The mountains
Top elevation: Whistler, 2,182 metres; Blackcomb, 2,284 metres.
Base elevation: Whistler, 652 metres, Blackcomb, 675 metres.
Vertical rise: Whistler, 1,530 metres, Blackcomb, 1,609 metres.
Skiable terrain: Whistler, 1,925 hectares, Blackcomb, 1,382 hectares.
Hourly capacity: Whistler, 34,345, Blackcomb, 29,112.
Longest run: 11 kilometres (both mountains)
Total park and pipe facilities: five parks, one superpipe, one snow cross track
Total number of trails: 200, plus marked runs.
Total number of lifts: 37 plus Peak 2 Peak Gondola, including three high-speed gondolas and 13 high-speed quads.

Prices
Alpine: A single day adult lift ticket ranges from $89 to $91. Discounts available early in the season, with the purchase of multiple-day tickets and when you stay in the Whistler/Blackcomb Resort.
Nordic: Single day rates are $20 adults, $12 youth, $10 child, $40 family.
Snowshoeing: Single day rates are $8 adults, $5 youth, $4 child, $16 family.
For more information: www.whistlerblackcomb.com, 800-944-7853.

Organizations: Peak 2 Peak Gondola, Skiing magazine, Nordic Whistler Sliding Centre Whistler Track Club Four Seasons Resort Pan Pacific Best Western and Holiday Inn Blackcomb Resort

Geographic location: Whistler, Whistler mountain, Vancouver Whistler Olympic Park Callaghan Valley Canada

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